My wife audibly sighed as she sank into her pool chair on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. Winter in Calgary was only “officially” a few weeks old, but it had already felt months too long. We’ve been hit hard this year, and if you need a spring break to get away, Puerto Vallarta is the perfect place to take your kids.
Or maybe it’s Cancun. Calgary photographer Shannon Hilton escaped there in January with her family and didn’t give it a second thought despite the bad run of headlines Mexico seems to get in the news pages.
While my wife is fine staring at the ocean for hours on end, I like to roll up my sleeves and dig into the culture of a place. So while she sipped on a margarita, I took my son’s hand and walked to the other side of the port to visit El Salado, a wildlife refuge that features a meandering mangrove forest complete with exotic birds and crocodiles.
Shannon’s family took time to get off resort as well, by going to the mall for shopping via transit. Her husband even took their two daughters on a snorkeling excursion via transit and didn’t have a problem.
In Puerto Vallarta, the resorts are stretched along miles of soft beaches, but the original city is tucked up against the mountains and has rough cobblestone streets, a tree-lined market, and a beautiful malecon studded with intriguing sculptures.
It’s a wonderful walk for kids. Our sons had fun hunting for their desired souvenir of a flute, and then learned the fine art of bartering once they had picked their favorite.
A boat trip across Banderas Bay is a must when families visit Puerto Vallarta. You’d be advised to skip the booze cruises (although the pirate ship that leaves the port each night at sunset is a fun one for the kids to spot), and opt instead for a snorkel tour of Los Arcos, an exploration of the mysterious beach at Marietas, or an afternoon adventuring at Las Caletas.
All of the tours will also involve some whale watching if you are there between December and the end of March. Our trip to Las Caletas with Vallarta Adventures featured 6 humpbacks and countless bottle-nosed dolphins keeping us company.
Las Caletas was once the private home of director John Huston and is now a secluded refuge that feels like a resort away from your resort. The bay is calm and perfect for snorkeling. Kids will get a kick out of the adventure park that treats them as survivors with warpaint holding monkeys, riding donkeys, rock climbing, repelling, and zip lining through the canopy.
One evening, while staring at our boys playing beach soccer, my wife struck up a conversation with another mom – Carrie from Citadel. You may escape to the sun over spring break, but you won’t escape Canadians. It can be a chance to make new friends, or even enemies. My son and I wore our Flames hats and bore many tauntings from Oilers fans and even saw a few Riders tattoos. Still, flying our favorite team’s flag was a way to stand out as Calgarians to others at the resort.
We took one final excursion to Aquaventuras, a water park that also features a dolphin experience. This is your classic “swimming with dolphins” the kids will absolutely eat up. Our 4 year old dove right in and giggled the whole way running his hands along the dolphin’s fins.
He was the first to dog paddle out to the middle of the pool and grab the dorsal fins for a dolphin ride around the pool with a huge smile. Seeing how it was fine for a 4 year old, the rest of us took the plunge too. The rest of the afternoon was spent sliding around the park for a fun and wet distraction from the peddlers on our beach.
While we got out and did a lot of exploring, the Hiltons are fine just staying away from touristy places when they vacation and sticking to the resort. Still, Shannon is always prepared in case something goes sideways.
“I always make sure I have medical insurance and lots of room on my credit cards in case of emergency (in case the hospital makes us pay upfront),” she advises.
A visit to Mexico over spring break is the perfect blend of adventure, relaxation, and culture for Calgary families. Within minutes you are in the jungle, on the beach, or pondering architecture and sculpture. You can roll out a towel and spend everyday poolside and digging up the beach, or you can get off the resort and have some culture and adventure.
You should do both. Winter has been too long, and it’s not over yet.
An edited version of this piece was published in The Calgary Herald Neighbours, February 27, 2014