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Austin Chronicle Akumal con Kids

By Marion Winik

JUNE 1, 1998:  My parents never took us anywhere. Their yearly vacation was an adults-only affair, usually conducted in Aruba, Puerto Rico, or some other island locale, while my sister and I were left at home with the maid. To be fair, we did actually go to the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, where my sister, then seven, promptly disappeared into the milling masses. It was six years before Mom and Dad recovered sufficiently to escort us to the newly opened Disney World. After that we were too old to want to go places with them anyway, and waited anxiously for their departure so we could throw the inevitable wild party. Ever since my travel-starved childhood, I have hardly gone two months without packing a suitcase. Once I became a parent myself, it was six suitcases, a car seat, a cooler, and an umbrella stroller. By the time he was four, my son Hayes was a veteran of destinations from Elba to Alcatraz; when his younger brother Vincent arrived to further complicate matters, we forged boldly on to the Adirondacks, the Oregon coast, British Columbia, and Costa Rica.

Kids, I'm telling you right now: Whatever you say about me, don't say I never took you anywhere.

When I had only one child and the sweet-tempered little guy lived on mother's milk and napped in a backpack, I didn't see any big difference between travel en famille and the voyages of the childless. Four days in the car, a couple hours in a restaurant, an afternoon at the museum - it was all fine with Hayes. I didn't get my first real lesson in family vacationing until he was 15 months old, and we took him down to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico.

Because I wanted my husband to see all the places I had come to love on earlier visits, I planned a busy though budget-minded itinerary. We would drive from our home in Austin to Nuevo Laredo, leave the car and fly to the city of Oaxaca the next morning. There we would spend three days before getting on a bus to the beaches of Puerto Angel and Puerto Escondido.

Well, the park-and-fly idea went a little less smoothly than planned. After lugging the baby and the bags around Nuevo Laredo at one in the morning, we stumbled in our exhaustion into what must have been the worst fleabag hotel in the town if not the country, then stumbled back out before dawn because the airport waiting room would certainly be cleaner and more comfortable.

Ultimately, we spent more than 24 grueling hours getting to Oaxaca, where we soon discovered a slight conflict between our interests and Hayes'. We wanted to visit ruins, cruise the market, drink a beer in the zocalo. He wanted to hang out in the courtyard of the hotel and play ball with little Mexican boys. Furthermore, every excursion required toddler transportation, either in a stroller or on a hip. But the streets were cobbled and the kid weighed a ton. And no matter where we went, his goal in life was to get down on the ground and put everything he could find in his mouth.

On the afternoon of the third day, he developed a fever, for which the Mexican doctor calmly prescribed penicillin injections and aspirin suppositories. We just about went home then and there, but by morning Hayes' temperature was back to normal and he seemed ready for action. We continued on to Puerto Angel, skipping the day-long bus ride by hopping a shuttle at the airport. As this trip went on, I was becoming increasingly willing to shell out the pesos to gain a little extra comfort and convenience.

At the beach, our idea of a good time and Hayes' matched up a little better, though the Pacific surf was somewhat daunting for a toddler. But despite the spring water and vegetarian food offered at our posada, it soon became clear that something had gone awry with Hayes' digestive system. Turista in Mexican disposable diapers - I'll say no more.

Though at first the situation seemed more of a problem for us than it was for the jolly Mr. Hayes, by the morning we headed up the coast to Puerto Enscondido, he had lost his bounce. He lay in my lap throughout the bus ride, listless and sweaty. We dropped all thoughts of a beachfront hammock joint and headed straight for an air conditioned hotel. The moment we arrived at the reception desk, Hayes threw up.

"Oh yes, we had another baby here once with thees same thing," the clerk told us after we explained the problem. "Really," said Tony, "what happened?"

"He dead," she said.

We left on the first flight out in the morning, and I thought I would never take a child to Mexico again.

Over the next few years, I came to realize that my problems in Mexico were not all Mexico's fault. My inexperience and poor planning were partly to blame. I decided to try it again and this time I would do it right. I would pick one destination, not four. This spot would have to be a place where spending time with children would entail less work and less stress than having them at home. Based on past experience, I knew that a beach would be an excellent choice. But this time I would get to the beach the fastest and easiest way possible. I would take no chances with food and water, and pack our own Made in the U.S.A. diapers. Finally, we would bring along a secret weapon, guaranteed to lighten the load of child care: my mother. It would be our first vacation together since Disney World.

To get to the resort of Akumal, we flew into the Cancun airport and rented a car. The Zona Hotelera was no more than a shadowy skyline in the distance as we pulled out onto the tropical two-lane highway and began our 60-mile drive south.

Akumal is a wide crescent of white sand about three-quarters of a mile long. The coral reef which follows the Yucatan coastline runs particularly close to shore there, making the aquamarine waters as calm and shallow as a baby pool. Scattered the length of the beach are two hotels and a number of buildings with palm-frond roofs: three restaurants, two dive shops, one pizza parlor, an ice cream stand, and a bar with a happy hour. And hidden under tropical shrubbery and flowering vines at one end are the Casitas Akumal, a row of two-bedroom houses with terraces on the beach.

Staying in one of these casitas instead of a hotel was probably the best decision we made. In a hotel room, there's always the feeling that you have to get yourself together and leave the room to start your day; the lovely casita invited a far more leisurely approach. There was plenty of space for indoor and outdoor play; we adults could read on the terrace or fix lunch in the kitchen and still keep an eye on the kids digging in the sand or coloring in the living room. With a five-gallon jug of purified water, magically refilled every day, I didn't even need the antibacterial tablets and portable filter I had brought along. And our friendly maid always seemed to show up just as I was thinking of picking up some toys or washing a dish.

With the energy devoted on past trips to consulting guidebooks and planning each day's itinerary, I focused on getting to know Akumal, on constructing my own small domestic rituals. I would wake up in the morning, throw on a muumuu, grab whichever youngster happened to be awake and walk over to the little Mexican village on the road connecting the beach to the highway. While purchasing a stack of corn tortillas and a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice, my young companion would watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles clobber each other on the video game machine outside the store. Back at the house, we'd rub the hot tortillas with a stick of butter and roll them up with jam or hot sauce and call it breakfast. The box of Fruit-ios I had brought along went practically untouched. At lunch time, we'd sit under the bougainvillea on the terrace, feasting on guacamole, queso fresco, black beans, and tostadas. It was a great treat (and a welcome economy) to be able to eat out only when we wanted to, instead of having to drag ourselves and the kids to a restaurant three times a day.

Eventually we would drift down to the water's edge, where we adults set up camp a few feet from the sand castle construction site, arranging our lounge chairs, our paperbacks, our Coronas. Playmates drifted over, vacation friendships were formed, ice cream and lotto parties were planned for after dinner.

And so the lazy days went by. Once in a while I would wonder if we shouldn't do something. After all, I had been drawn to Akumal partly because of its proximity to Things To Do. The national park at Xel-Ha was famous for its labyrinth of lagoons. Down the road at Xcaret, we had read, there was a 45-minute river float through an underground cave. There were Mayan ruins at Tulum, only 20 minutes away, and Coba and Chichen Itza farther on. I pictured us jumping in the rental car each afternoon to explore these possibilities.

Ha. After three days in Akumal, we had barely managed to struggle out of our lounge chairs to rent masks and fins from the dive shop and find out why the people coming back from the reef or the secret lagoon at the end of the beach had that dazzled expression on their faces. And then we found out: the weightlessness, the silence, the swiftness of swimming with fins; the waving seagrasses and patterned coral. The schools of fish in their fantastic colors and numbers, with exotic names we later learned from a card in the dive shop: the spotted damselfish, the bumpy-headed parrotfish, the leopard grouper. There was a velvety black one with electric purple and green markings which we never could find on the card; the discofish, perhaps. It really seemed unnecessary to fight the crowds at Xel-Ha when you could swim to the reef in a couple of strokes, and the waters of the lagoon were so clear that Hayes and Vince could see the fish from the banks.

We also made it to Tulum, the ruins of a walled city overlooking a turquoise stretch of ocean, surely the prime piece of real estate in the Mayan world. Unexpectedly, the place fascinated three-year-old Hayes: He climbed each lookout, explored each temple, and looked in vain for bows and arrows he thought the Indians might have left behind. On the way back from there, we shopped briefly in the Tulum market and lunched at Casa Cenote, an open-air restaurant on an isolated beach connected only by dirt roads through the jungle to the rest of the world.

This was really quite enough gadding about for us. "Save something for next time," said my mother, who was already planning our Thanksgiving at Akumal. As it turns out, my mother is a great person to take a trip with. She was helpful, of course - endlessly patient in refilling the glass for watercoloring, perfectly willing to take naptime duty at the casita - but more than that she was easygoing and fun. I loved going to happy hour with her, striking up conversations with different people, then later hearing her assessment of these characters. Madge, a gem dealer who was writing a historical novel, was telling me all about her book contract and her Oriental rugs when my mother joined us at the bar. "Who was that crackpot?" she later demanded. When told a certain gentleman was a Mayan archaeologist, she harrumphed disparagingly: "Mayan interior decorator is more like it."

One day we sat on the beach, and I asked her why she and my father never took us on any of their Caribbean vacations. She told me. I must admit, it sounded like fun. I might have to try it myself one of these days.

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