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Before my husband and I took our sons to an all-inclusive beach resort on Mexico’s Maya Riviera, several friends asked if this was going to be “just a fun trip.” It was a logical question. Normally we plan our travels based on the specific educational value of an area. Civil rights in Alabama. Pharaonic history in Egypt. The Great Migration of wildebeests in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

There is no apparent educational value in a luxurious resort like the Iberostar’s Paraiso Maya, which seems to exist mainly to lull guests’ brains into NOT thinking (except about how to have more fun). But I was determined to find something to make our trip about more than lolling on the baby-powder beach and bobbing in the spectacular wave pool. I saw this as my challenge.

Before you go One thing I’ve learned is that unless you’re going to the middle of the Mojave Desert, it’s highly likely that something significant in history happened close to your destination, or that there is a nearby example of some type of scientific principle or wonder. It’s just a matter of doing some good work on the Internet beforehand. (I value city and regional tourism sites to uncover the unexpected, such as a wonderful cotton museum in Memphis, which enhanced our studies of Civil Rights.) In the case of our Mexico trip, I concluded that this was a good time to study the Mayans. On Amazon, I searched for age-appropriate books and videos about the Mayan, and then added the movies to my Netflix queue and looked for used or library copies of the books.

Before you land in any place, you have a key advantage that you should exploit shamelessly—the trip can be held out as the reward for your kids’ participation in learning about the destination. Don’t feel bad if sentences like this come out of your mouth: “If you really want to go to [fill in blank], I need you to read this book….or watch this documentary.” It really works. That’s how I got my boys to read an abridged, illustrated version of the Popul Vuh, which explores the Mayan creation myth, and a book that talked about the Mayan calendar, architecture and sports. Convincing them to watch Mel Gibson’s action film Apocolypto wasn’t difficult (though I would never recommend the film for kids under 12), and I took advantage of their in-flight boredom on the way down, getting them to watch a documentary on my laptop about Mayan hieroglyphics.

When you arrive As much as I anticipated that an all-inclusive was the anti-thesis of educational travel, I soon found out that our resort played a very helpful role in my quest to expand my boys’ minds. It wasn’t the kitschy reproduction of the famed Mayan temple Chichen Itza, which served as the hotel bar. Rather, it was the balance the resort offered. You never want to overdo the educational element; fun must be had, and the learning worked in around it.

After a day of sheer pleasure, where they were free to roam on their own in and around pools and sea, the boys were game to do something off campus on Day Two. Many stunning Mayan ruins were near our hotel, and I would have liked to have visited all of them, but I opted for quality not quantity. Instead of going to Chichen Itza, which is large and heavily visited with many parts inaccessible to tourists, I chose the temple complex at Coba, where we could rent bikes and ride through the jungle to see the buildings. And unlike at Chichen Itza, the boys were allowed to climb the steep pyramid. Never underestimate how important physical, hands-on activity is to the success of such an expedition—which is why museum visits often fizzle. After lunch by the beach, we toured another ruin, Tulum, which was interesting to them because it was on a cliff overlooking the ocean. As they tired toward the end of our tour, I reminded them that we would make it back in time for the 4 p.m. round of breakers in the wave pool. The promise of more fun to come was an incredible incentive to push on through.

(Actually, the education-entertainment balance worked so well that I hit the learning button a bit more than I had planned. After spending Day Three and Four frolicking at the resort, we took the boys to an eco-tourism park on Day Five, where we learned about and explored cenotes, underground rivers that flow throughout the Yucatan Peninsulas.)

Back at home  As we all know, learning isn’t just about inputting information; it’s also about having kids roll the information around in their heads and make their own sense of it. We happen to have a website where the boys post their travel blogs. So, I had the boys write about our experiences for the site. One chose to talk about the Mayans; the other about the cenotes. If you don’t have a place for kids to blog, you could simply have them journal about what they’ve seen or use the trip as a topic for a writing assignment in an English class.

Make sure you also give kids opportunities to build on what they’ve learned. I discovered that there were good graphic novels about Hernan Cortes, who conquered the Mayans, and Francisco Pizarro, who did the same violent job on the Incas. When I showed them the books on Amazon, they were excited to get them (they are happy to read anything, it seems, in graphic novel form). I read them too and that has led to some interesting discussions about the power and brutality that shaped the New World.

I wish I could say that the Mayans are the first thing they bring up when asked about their trip. Actually, it’s the wave pool that really lights up their eyes. But that’s okay. I want to believe that somewhere in their cerebellums, the excitement of that simulated sea will spread to the details of the long-ago culture and spark recall. And that they will remember it as a fun trip, but not just a fun trip.

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