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Family Travel Bargains in the Yucatan

I’m currently on assignment in Playa del Carmen, which makes me feel like I’m in Florida. Restaurant prices are on par with what I would pay in my home town and the excursion costs for family activities are beyond ridiculous. They actually make Disney World look like a bargain.

That’s what happens when you land in Touristsville, however, no matter where on the globe that may be. Prices rise to the level the market will bear, which is why you should avoid these places if you are not in free-spending vacation mode.

Become a contrarian traveler, however, and you can spend what the locals are spending instead.

Exhibit A and B both come from Merida, the lovely city four hours west of Cancun that presents the other side of Mexico. This alternative and more authentic version of Mexico is easily found throughout the country. You just have to get out of the places where the hordes are heading on charter flights.

If you do go to Merida with a kid or two in tow, make sure you set aside time for the Merida Zoo. How much is the entrance fee? Zero dollars and zero pesos, that’s how much. And there’s a big free playground. How much do they sock you for other things once you enter? Well, unless a 30-cent empanada is your idea of a rip-off, then not much. OK, so there are a few rides inside that will set you back all of 15 pesos (around $1.15), but that’s the top of the scale. The fun little train that goes around the entire perimeter of the park is one peso. Yes, one peso. Did I mention that the current exchange rate is 13 pesos to the dollar? Give your kid a buck and let him/her ride around 13 times.

This is a pretty decent zoo too. Crazy monkeys, pumas, jaguars, toucans, flamingos, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, a bird aviary you can walk into, and the world’s biggest rodent. (I was pretty psyched about the last one myself actually–have never seen that before.)

That was cool, but my daughter really got psyched when we told her we were going to Rio Salvaje water park, on the road between Merida and Progreso. The entrance fee was a whopping 70 pesos each, so we paid a total of 16 dollars for the three of us to slide on every slide for the day.

Then we ordered a bunch of food and sodas (delivered to our lounge chair) for $8. The locker rental was less than a dollar for the day, parking was free. And it was a blast! It’s only open from roughly Easter week through August though, so don’t show up in the off-season.

We were the only foreigners in both these spots, but of course that made it even more interesting. Get away from your own kind and all kinds of good things will happen.