A few months before Christmas we warned our children that we did not want presents to be the focus of the season. We were going to think about what we wanted to give. No lengthy lists of all the items they wanted for Christmas. This season was going to be about the Savior and what we could do to be more like him. Shocking us, one of our children actually said, “I think that will help us all be happier.” Wise little souls they can be.
What we didn’t tell them was that our family Christmas present was going to be a surprise trip to Mexico, leaving the day after Christmas. On Christmas morning, they unwrapped a few little gifts they had gotten for each other and opened their stockings with treats from Santa. Then they each got one gift bag from Mom and Dad. As they looked inside and found a swimming suit, flip flops, and snorkel set, they got a little suspicious and all looked our way, waiting. We sat there and just said “Merry Christmas!” They stared. We giggled and then said, “OK, we have one more thing.” Then we gave them each an envelope with a bow. Inside the envelope, each child found a copy of a plane ticket to Cancun and a few photographs of the white sand, turquoise beaches we’d be enjoying for the next week. They jumped and screamed and Ellie even said “I knew you were going to do something like that!!” She’s very perceptive. So we packed our bags that day and took off the next morning for the Yucatan.
We had lived in Mexico when our oldest was just a year and a half and spent a month enjoying one of the most beautiful, geologically diverse places I’d ever been. Underground rivers, cenotes, tropical forests, beautiful beaches, Mayan ruins…it’s an adventure paradise. So I couldn’t wait to bring the kids back to explore. We decided to do our lodging on the cheap through Air BNB, which worked out great. Nothing fancy (as in, our place was on the fourth floor and the elevator only worked about 1 out of every 5 trips and when it stormed one day we had water leaking through window onto the bedroom floor). Still, we had a great view of the ocean from our balcony window, an infinity pool pool to enjoy, and awesome boogie boarding waves just steps away. The kids were in heaven.
Because we felt great about the money we were saving on our accommodations, we decided to splurge a bit on a couple of day-long excursions. Our first big outing took us an hour and a half south to an eco-adventure park called Xel-ha. The first thing I loved after we walked in was knowing we could go to any restaurant and eat whatever we wanted–and not have to worry about dishes. (I’m a mom cooking and cleaning for 6 daily so you see the draw.) Now we were on vacation! Zach got the biggest kick out of the soda stations where he could just stop, get a drink of whatever he wanted, leave his cup, and carry on to whatever cool activity was next on the agenda.
The park is nestled on the edge of the ocean where a giant, clear lagoon works its way to the coast from a ways inland. We rode bikes to the top of the lagoon, then snorkeled down. We floated in tubes, we zip-lined, we cliff jumped, we rode a giant waterslide down from the top of a lighthouse, and we zip biked through a rainforest (basically riding a bike in the air attached to a cable above so you can soar over cenotes, through caves, beside waterfalls). The girls and Scott even got to do a dolphin interactive experience, which they loved. We kept all our stuff in lockers so we could just walk around in swimsuits, playing, swimming, and stopping in restaurants when we got hungry. The weather was lovely, and after a short afternoon shower we even looked up to find a rainbow arching over the place. Heavenly.
We left Xel-ha wet, happy, and full of delicious Mexican food then spent the next day relaxing back at our condo. Then we were ready for another adventure. We had heard about a tour company called Alma’s LDS Tours, which offered a specific Book of Mormon emphasis to some of the Mayan ruins. We decided that sounded just right for us. The tour bus picked us up at 7 a.m. and we headed back down south to explore the ruins of Tulum and Coba. Tulum was a gorgeous civilization built between the 13th and 15th centuries right on the Caribbean coast. Our wonderful tour guide Arnie shared the history of the area and then pointed out interesting LDS tidbits, like the many carvings of what has been dubbed the “descending God,” a figure that looks like it is coming down from heaven to live among the people. Book of Mormon scholars think that the Nephite civilization could have been just south of this area so the story of a God coming down from heaven sounds a lot like 3 Nephi, when Christ comes down to heal and teach the Nephites.
In the ruins of Coba, first settled around 100 A.D., we found more Book of Mormon similarities, such as a carving of a tree with two men that looked rather unhappy and turned away from the tree, and another two men walking toward it. Lehi’s Tree of Life perhaps? Our tour guide also asked Zach to read from the Book of Mormon where we learned about raised roads that paved the way between cities (see 3 Nephi 6:8).
We read this scripture standing in an area where there is evidence of an ancient road raised off the ground (or “cast up” as it reads in the Book of Mormon). How cool is that? The Book of Mormon is a record of an ancient civilization that would have been near the ancient people of the Yucatan. I loved thinking about these histories and the way the people lived and loved and worshiped many hundreds of years ago. Plus, it’s significant to remember that Joseph Smith hadn’t been on vacation recently to the Yucatan when he was translating the plates. He just wrote down what he saw. Coba wasn’t officially discovered in modern times until 1926, 82 years after Joseph Smith died.
Our last stop was at a beautiful cenote (or pool of water in a cave fed by the underground rivers that run through the Yucatan) where my kids completely peer pressured me into jumping off the highest platform I ever have into the water below. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Check. We drove home, first stopping to drop off another family at an all-inclusive place that we were told cost $800 per person per day. The kids asked if we could do that next time. We laughed. “Um, probably not.”
All in all, the trip was an incredible success. We got everything we were looking for: family time, warm weather, the beach, culture and history, and lots of adventure. It wasn’t easy getting on the plane and realizing that in four hours the temperature outside was going to go from 80 degrees to 20. Luckily, these sorts of experiences don’t completely get left behind with the weather. We keep them in our minds and hearts and remember them forever. I have a feeling that this December we might just give our children the same warning that we will not be honoring wish lists for toys and clothes. We want to give something more–something that last a lifetime.