Whether your ideal Mexican sojourn is sipping frosty margaritas under a beach palapa or backpacking between remote villages, having kids imposes some changes. Luckily, Mexico’s child-centric culture and kaleidoscope of colorful traditions easily win over youngsters. In 15 years of traveling with my daughter, from the Pacific coast to Europe, Mexico is the only place she was never shushed or even frowned at.
Keeping kids happy can be as easy as taking a pail and shovel to the beach. (Keep an eye on the weather: Hurricane season is from June to November.) But don’t overlook inland colonial cities. Some of Mexico’s best destinations deliver fun and local culture in equal measure.
Though a top tourist destination, this beach city located on sparkling Banderas Bay is full of Mexican soul. Chicago mom Liliana DeJulio, a native of Mexico, says joining the stream of locals strolling the Malecón at sunset is the best way to get a taste of Puerto Vallarta, especially on weekend nights.
“The kids buy ice cream cones one way, and for the return walk, we get corn on the cob Mexican-style,” DeJulio says. “We see street performances along the promenade, such as sand sculptors, stone builders, dancers, and our family’s favorite, the Papantla flyers.” In an ancient ritual, the voladores, tethered by one ankle, swing upside down around a 90-foot pole while slowly descending to the ground.
Families also enjoy the old downtown’s lively main square and the newish Splash water park next door in Nuevo Vallarta, with slides and pools scaled for little ones. For simple beach playtime, head south for secluded sands or north to the friendly, artsy beach towns of Riviera Nayarit.
Where to stay: Families planning to sample Puerto Vallarta’s excellent restaurants and spend days exploring can’t beat the advantages of the swanky CasaMagna Marriott Resort on Banderas Bay. You’ll have six varied restaurants, three outdoor pools— including one just for children—a stellar kids’ club (extra charge), and a seasonal sea-turtle-rescue program.
This beautiful colonial city is a parent’s dream: Enthralled by the colors and sounds, kids barely notice how much they are learning. In the lively zócalo, they flock to the balloon vendors but also play history games in the children’s activity room of the museum inside the Palacio de Gobierno.
The botanical garden next to the dazzling Templo de Santo Domingo holds children rapt. Los Angeles restaurateur Paulina Lopez says her daughter loved it even as a toddler: “She was amazed with all the different f lowers, trees, and cacti. Kids can run around, and since it’s right in the middle of the city, you can easily walk to the zócalo.”
Her kids also enjoyed the new children’s library, BS. Besides the standard features, at any given time, kids are listening to stories, swarming the garden playhouse, browsing the toy library, and scooting from one activity to another. The library was built around several trees in an S shape, a source of fascination in itself.
This sophisticated capital—nexus of Mexico’s art, history, cuisine, and design—also happens to be an endless playground. El Bosque de Chapultepec alone offers ponies, rowboats, bicycles, a large zoo, and a theme park. Kids can climb a hill to a real-life castle, now a museum. El Papalote Museo del Niño has hundreds of interactive science and art displays.
The city takes pains to make many of its 150-plus museums engaging for kids—even the unlikely suspects, such as the Museo Interactivo de Economía, where kids can print their own money and buy and sell stocks on a mock trading floor.
The Centro Histórico’s enormous bustling zócalo, with the Aztecs’ Templo Mayor and its adjacent museum, is tempting for young explorers. But it’s well worth an excursion to the edge of the city to see KidZania, which gives children ages 3 to 16 a lighthearted preview of adulthood in a scaleddown city where they “work” as, say, shopkeepers, dentists, and pilots, and shop with the money they earn.
Where to stay: Next to Chapultepec Park, the Camino Real Polanco is the rare Mexico City hotel with a kids’ club, though it’s open only on weekends. At the free Club Travesuras, kids 4 to 12 can ride tricycles; work at wood, ceramics, and other crafts, watch movies; and nosh on a small buffet. No charge for children up to age 12.
Mérida, cultural heart of the Yucatán, is a colonial city where Maya women in brightly embroidered dresses crisscross the main plaza while balancing baskets of produce and handicrafts on their head. Visiting kids will find lots of playmates as families come out to cool off and meet friends in the evening.
Meg Nesterov, of Durham, N.C., recently came with her 21/2-year-old daughter. “She enjoyed exploring the Maya pyramids,” she says. “At less crowded sites like Uxmal, you can actually climb the pyramids instead of just looking at them.”
Mérida’s greatest asset is its free nightly cultural events. It all culminates in a huge Sunday fair that closes streets around the main plaza. Families can walk or bike from end to end (bicycles, some with child seats, are for rent at the plaza), join pickup ball games, take a music or a dance lesson, paint on child-size easels, and browse the market.
Dzibilchaltún, 10 miles north of Mérida, is a small archeological site that’s easy for kids to digest, with two bonuses: an eco-trail with names of many common jungle plants, and a cenote—the peninsula is famous for these sinkholes filled with clear, crisp water—where the whole family can take a plunge. This one is unusual in having a shallow end.
Where to stay: Combining family comfort with traditional Yucatecan style just three blocks from Mérida’s Plaza Principal, Luz en Yucatán is a small hotel with a variety of large rooms, suites, studios, apartments, and a separate two-bedroom house. Some have a kitchen, a priceless perk for families; other guests can use the large kitchen in the main house. The unfailingly helpful owners and staff can get you a driver, a babysitter, tickets, anything you need, and they’ll even help you plan a kid-friendly itinerary.
This 70-mile stretch of Caribbean coast south of Cancún has become one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations, largely because of its wildlife. During sea-turtle nesting season, from June to November, resorts collect eggs for protection and incubation, and guests help usher the new hatchlings back to the sea.
Less dramatic but surefire kid-pleasers include holding baby crocodiles and feeding spider monkeys at Croco Cun Zoo, north of Puerto Morelos, and swimming among the fish in Akumal’s sheltered Yal-ku Lagoon. Tulum, at the very end of the Riviera Maya, is a good “starter” ruin for kids because it’s small and has a cove under the Castillo, where families can snorkel. It’s home to a large colony of iguanas and the occasional coatimundi scampering along the city walls.
Where to stay: Azul Beach Hotel, north of Puerto Morelos, dotes on kids, with everything from the Slime smoothie (ice cream and fruit) to their very own spa treatments. The new Nickelodeon Experience—which has themed activities and character breakfasts with Dora, SpongeBob, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles— joins the Azulitos Playhouse, with its water playground and supervised activities such as learning to cook burritos and ceviche, and watching evening shows and movies.
There’s Ixtapa, an upscale resort area that was built in the 1970s, and Zihuatanejo, a fishing village grown into a pretty town known for folk-art shops and palapa seafood restaurants. Both are more popular with vacationing Mexican families than rowdy spring breakers.
Zihuatanejo’s Playa la Ropa is ideal for Boogie boarding, while Playa las Gatas, a short walk or water-taxi ride away, has the best snorkeling, with gentle waves the youngest children can handle. Most resorts on Ixtapa’s pristine crescent beach specialize in family programs with varied activities.
Families also gravitate to the bike paths through a nature reserve lining the shore, boat trips to the sheltered beaches of Ixtapa Island, and Playa Linda’s crocodile farm and horseback riding. Kids as young as 4 can zoom through the treetops at Parque Aventura.
Where to stay: All-inclusive Club Med Ixtapa Pacific has an ethereally beautiful setting, calm surf, and nonstop action for everyone. The myriad sports and activities include Club Med’s unique circus school for ages 4 and older: Tots watch magic shows while older kids tackle high wires and flying trapezes. All activities except the Baby and Petit clubs (covering 4 months to 4 years) are included.