Before we left for a cruise, I shot over a question to the fabulous Galveston Carnival Cruisers Facebook group about authentic Mexico excursions with a toddler. I knew that we really loved to have authentic experiences, and that a Mayan excursion would be fun as long as we weren’t miserable with a toddler. “What are the best options for excursions with a toddler?” I asked them. What followed was an adventure into the world of modern-day Mayans that I wouldn’t have thought possible with a toddler in tow.
Of course, you read that in my last blog, Seven Tips for Cruising Internationally with a Toddler. If you haven’t, you should check it out!
The name and website of the toddler-friendly, private excursion group? Yucatan Cenote Eco-Adventuras.
We weren’t let down. We found ourselves immersed in authenticity: Mayan culture and Mayan food with an excursion that not only catered to our toddler, but embraced him. We were thrilled to be on an adventure with him, and even more thrilled to be able to teach him to travel at such a young age.
Do you want the details? Of course you do.
By the way, I could not have navigated Mexico with our toddler without a carrier. Here are a few links to my favorites down below through my Amazon account. I promise to never post something I don’t think is genuinely useful for my readers. I wear a KinderPack now that my son is older, and Tula is my second (practically equal) favorite, but I have loved on all of the following carriers (and have friends who swear by their Onya and their Boba) and I can’t imagine life without at least one of these!
We stepped off the cruise ship and zipped through customs on the way off the boat. It took us a moment to locate one of the buses that took us to meet our guide, “there are two locations,” our directions said, “we’ll have someone holding a sign with your name at each location just in case the bus takes you there.” The directions included photographs of where we needed to go, and we had little problem finding our guides.
We quickly walked through an open-air market, with men and women asking us to look at their wares right and left. Zipping through, we met a Canadian woman on the corner with a sign that said our names. We signed paperwork, and met our guide, Rene.
Rene is a young, handsome family man. He has a few kids himself, one of them almost the same age as our toddler.
Warmly, she wished us a fun journey and we were off on the first leg of our tour, a trip to Mayan ruins that Rene explained were still in use today by locals.
“I’ll try not to bore you with too much history,” Rene joked. He was more serious than I anticipated, with an obvious love and sincere respect for the culture of his home area. As we drove, he told us about the Mayan families, how they operated, that they still used the ruins we were going to see for rituals, and that they were hard workers who lived off the land.
“Every day,” he said, “they do these things. They work on the corn fields, hunt for food, and the women make corn tortillas. Every day.”
“Every day?” I asked. “Do they have hunting seasons?”
He explained that the villagers who grew up in the area didn’t need a permit to hunt. It was their right as natives, and since they were very poor, it was one often the only way they would have enough to eat.
We pulled up to the site of the ruins and were met with a beautiful pathway littered with the flowers of a tree called a flamboyant (a popular, towering shade tree with flowers were a stunning shade of scarlet). It made for a spectacular entryway to the Mayan ruins.
What met us outside of that pathway were towering, glorious ruins. I distinctly remember the feeling of awe as I faced things built by such an old civilization.
Humanity has always fascinated me, and this taste of an ancient culture was no less fascinating.
We had the opportunity to learn about how being a prisoner of war was seen as an honor, and how the tall, solid buildings were there so the ancient Mayan’s could study the sky. “Because of the way they could see the horizon,” said Rene, “they knew the earth was round, not flat.” He explained that the area we looked at functioned much like a college campus where the rulers lived. Every building had a purpose, mostly to study the heavens.
He told us many other tales of the Mayans, including where the majority lived, the names of a god or two, and a story about a statue of a man with four toes who’s later ancestor was a huge part of their current history as he fought against the Spaniards
We commenced the tour a bit early because the toddler was becoming hot and starting to act a bit wild, which was okay because we were headed to a cenote.
A centote, in case you’re wondering, is a cave full of sparkling, cool, spring-fed water and they’re found dotting the entire Yucatan. Thousands of them. These centotes were created by the very asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. And again, the history of this small area surprised me.
This particular cenote wasn’t a tourist trap, either. It was family owned and operated, and the family that had grown up diving into the deep, sparkling cave waters showed off by cliff diving into their cenote as soon as we showed up. A long jump that gave me chills and made my breath catch in my throat.
We had the option to jump in also, but with toddler in tow, neither of us were daring enough to do it. However, my brother was! He and my sister in law went with the same company, the same day, on a different private tour and were leaving the cenote as we were arriving. But you can watch that video here!
And you can watch my brother’s video of diving in the same cenote from a different vantage point here (videographer credit to my lovely sister-in-law, Samantha Moore).
The cenote was beautiful. A deep cave, with water so clear that the rays of sunshine sparkled all the way to the floor of the deep water. Rene pointed to us where a smaller internal cave connected all the cenotes in the area, it was too deep under the water to explore without scuba gear.
Scientists occasionally come to study the cenote. We pulled on snorkeling masks and watched as dark catfish swam just under the surface, and I watched hovering underwater as one of the men who had grown up swimming there dove down, he said he needed around four meters to reach the floor of the cave with nothing more than his own breath. An incredible feat in the 50 feet of water.
We swam for a few more minutes, and then climbed out to go eat.
Following that, Rene asked if we could give a woman and her toddler a ride back to the family’s home. The ride took us down a long dirt road, and we shared a toy truck with the youngster as he and my own toddler looked one another over, as toddlers do.
We stepped out of the car to a beautiful meal of pollo lime soup, pork carnitas, homemade corn tortillas, and a wonderful homemade habinero sauce.
Before we ate, Rene gave us a quick tour of the family house. The kids ran around barefoot, and various animals and plants were everywhere. Turkey, chickens, a big pig, and a baby wild pig ran around the home. And he showed us where they grew basically everything. It was incredible to see a family so self-sustainable.
I also saw where the women made corn tortillas, “every day,” Rene said. A woman in pink smiled and tossed a tortilla up to me straight from a small, open fire in an equally small, open hut, “Caliente!” she said. It was still puffed from being freshly cooked. I marveled at how the woman didn’t seem to be busting a sweat, despite the incredibly hot, mid-day temperatures and despite sitting next to an open fire. I felt spoiled by the oven and always-cool AC in my home. I had never considered my small family wealthy, but after that moment, I realized how spoiled we were.
But I equally realized how much we didn’t have. We don’t have, for instance, such family-treasured, culturally passed-down ability to be self-sustainable. I was in awe at the skills and talents that have long since been lost to most of us. Making corn tortillas from absolute scratch in such an environment is a beautiful thing.
As we ate, the same young woman with the toddler noticed my own toddler acting wild. She saw us struggle to entertain him and enjoy the meal. She tentatively walked up to us. She opened her arms and gestured to our son. We were nervous, for a moment, but I nodded and watched carefully as she swept our son into her arms and pointed at the animals.
“Perrito?” she asked him. He took to her warmly and they walked around the corner and looked at all the animals. I smiled and warmly thought about my own family, who would have done the very same.
It seems that toddlers and motherhood, and this warm idea of “I so get it, let me help,” is the same across cultures, across language barriers, and across poverty levels. And I found myself simply thankful for this young mom who understood the struggles of simply being a mom, even though her world looked vastly different than mine. It was a moment of genuine humanity. A moment I cherished.
If you ask H what a perrito is, he’ll say, “dog!” She returned within minutes and he was perfectly happy, telling me “Dog! Peppito! Dog!” We smiled and were thankful that he could have that small, cultural experience so young.
I asked to take a photo of the family, and the man said, “Yes, you may! Can she hold the toddler in the photograph?” And the sweet young woman with a toddler of her own proudly picked up my toddler and smiled for the camera.
We went home with new perspectives of how different parts of the world live. Quiet and introspective, I felt like it was a beautiful opportunity to see and learn a true taste of the Mayan culture of Mexico. If you’re someone who likes reality, and is open to experiences beyond tourist traps, this authentic tour of Mexico’s beautiful Yucatan is one of the very, very best. If you have a toddler, and you want to experience authenticity, this is the excursion to take.
Huge thank you to Rene, and to the team at Yucatan Cenote Eco-Adventuras for providing such a wonderful adventure for our whole family.
If you’re wondering about price, you can email them for a quote (because you can customize any tour to make it best fit your family) , but it was comparable to Carnival’s more expensive excursions, and not at all outrageous. We’re penny pincers, as are my brother and sister in law, and none of us found it too expensive. Further, because it’s an authentic, private experience (literally almost zero other tourists), we felt as if it was money very well spent.