This article is from the May, June 1998 The Mexico File
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Taking Kids to Mexico
by Karen Kressin
Karen Kressin is looking forward to visiting Mexico regularly again after ten years at home with young Mike and Rosemary and husband Jim. The family lives in Kansas. The author welcomes readers comments and experiences with kids in Mexico. Contact her throughThe Mexico File. Look for the second part of this article in the June 1998 issue.
Music, color, sunshine, pyramids, mummies, hot chocolate and sweet pastries for supper.... What's a kid not to like in Mexico? Many North Americans are acquainted with Mexico, perhaps from travel or study abroad during student days. My husband Jim and I have discovered that there is no reason to deny children the opportunity to travel in Mexico with their Mexicophile parents. For two weeks during the 1997-98 winter holidays, our children, Mike (9) and Rosemary (7) accompanied us on our best vacation ever.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Nobody likes to go through a museum at someone else's pace and kids are no exception. Kids want to have fun, and they would rather do things than look at things. Also, they are about 90% concerned that their friends back home will think what they did was cool. This makes something like the pyramids of Teotihuacan just about perfect. Our day there was greatcomplete with climbing to the top of both the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, buying souvenirs only vaguely connected with the site from the ever-present vendors, and eating lunch in the restaurant located in an enormous underground cavern outside the gates. We pushed the kids' envelope and took a look inside the museum there, and found a display that actually met with their approvalfor a few minutes, anywaya room-size scale model of Teotihuacan just below a glass floor. Visitors can walk right over top. Then to cap it off, one whole wall is a window that frames a spectacular view of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Our children really liked the Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara. The fresh fruit, candy, and flower stalls were beautiful, of course. We had fun taking photographs of each other in some of the more picturesque spots, and the ones with the most "cool" value back home were of Daddy in front of the pigs' heads in a pork stand and all of us next to some dressed out-goats. The proprietors of these businesses seemed flattered that tourists would find their shops interesting. The small containers of mercury, dried whole bats and deer feet in the folk medicine booths grabbed the kids' attention, too. Mike spotted Nintendo 64 for sale, and we asked the price (about one-and-a-half times the U.S. price).
We gave the children a few dollars of spending money and also let them choose a few items that we would pay for. We found colorful hand-embroidered dresses for Rosemary and her cousins. Mike got a soccer shirt-and-shorts set for the "C-A America" soccer team, and he still wears it to school whenever it is clean. A day or two later, Mike asked to go back to the market so he could buy a large mariachi hat. We pointed out to him that it wouldn't fit into any bag we had and he would have to carry it home on the plane himself. His determination finally won us over, though, and he did indeed carry it about half the time on the trip home. It was a challenge to stuff it into the overhead storage bin on the plane, though. The hat was a big hit at school, and it is now proudly displayed on his bedroom wall.
We took a horse-drawn carriage ride in Guadalajara. It was Christmas morning, and there were very few cars on the streets. It was a wonderful ride. Almost the only sound was from the horse's hooves. We made it a point to ask the name of the horse. It was "Lightning" ("Relámpago"). Anything involving horses is likely to appeal to children. Ours enjoyed the Sunday noon charreada (rodeo) in Guadalajara, complete with a brass band in the stands about five yards away from us. In a charreada, they throw steers by grabbing and twisting their tails from horseback. It doesn't seem to do much damage, because the same bored-looking steers were run through the chute over and over.
Sometimes getting there is half the fun. Guadalajara has electric trolley buses and once Mike saw them, they were on our must-do list. Buses sometimes hold special surprises. We encountered a man who sang and played the accordion on a city bus in Guadalajara. After entertaining the riders, he walked down the aisle collecting donations. Occasionally, a bus has an elaborate religious shrine or other unique decorations.
The Mexico City Metro was always a kid pleaserwith the colorful route maps, wordless symbols for the stops, escalators and tunnels, ticket-taking machines, and displays of interest in the stations. I offer a word of caution, however, about the Metro. If the car is crowded, do not take your children on. It is better to forget the fare already paid and leave. We thought we were boarding at a slow time, because the trains going the other way were nearly empty. When our train came, however, it was full and we almost didn't all squeeze on. We were crowded against people near the door and we had real concern that the children would not withstand the crush. I heard concerned comments by our Mexican fellow passengers about "los niños", but not all of the other travelers were so benign. When we got off, the children were fine, but our camera was gone. At very busy times, the first car of each train is reserved for women and children, and while those cars are a very good idea and should be used whenever possible, they aren't much help when Daddy is along.
Christmas offers special pleasures for children in Mexico. Guadalajara and Mexico City both have spectacular light displays suspended over the streets or attached to the sides of buildings. There are also life-size nativity scenes in plazas and parks. Sidewalk vendors offer many inexpensive items for childrenballoons, inflatable figures (our children selected Nintendo's Mario and Tweety Bird), pinwheels, gum, and candy. There were also booths where you could have your picture taken with the Three Kings or Santa Claus and his reindeer. The Alameda in Mexico City has carnival booths for children at night during the Christmas season. I would not recommend these, however, because they are crowded and very confusingsort of like the Metro.
We did not completely pass up museums in deference to the children. We just had to recognize that we weren't going to be allowed to study the exhibits and try to puzzle out the Spanish explanations. The most we could hope for was a quick walk-through to get the general drift. No one should travel to Mexico City without visiting the Museum of Anthropology. We wentand got an overview. There are enough spectacular large items to grab kids' attention periodically and make the afternoon bearable for them. The best items were the Aztec calendar, the huge Olmec "football player" heads, and the Maya temples outside. The museum at the site of the Templo Mayor on the zocalo (also in Mexico City) has an exhibit of stuffed specimens of the animals native to the area that were important to the pre-Columbian cultures. That exhibit got two thumbs up from Mike and Rosemary.
Obviously from our kids' tastes in the market, they are fans of the Goosebumps mystery/horror books and other gross and scary stuff. Not surprisingly, they liked Guanajuato's mummies. It seems the salts in the soil of Guanajuato preserve corpses nearly intact, and the cemetery digs them up after a few years. Those whose families couldn't afford the reclamation fee have been sold to the museum. Inside they are laid out in glass cases in brightly lit galleries. The guide told us that the jaw muscles contract as the body dehydrates, and that is the reason their mouths are open as if frozen in mid-scream. Very creepy. This place was packed with vacationing Mexican families and we edged around past the guide and let ourselves out after we had had enough. There is also a spook-house style "Sala del Culto de la Muerte" next door with shadowy, obviously fake exhibits which, we were disappointed to find, have absolutely nothing to do with the Day of the Dead. The vendors outside have postcards and souvenirs to satisfy any lingering hunger for the macabre not extinguished inside.
We didn't have time to try all the things that we thought the kids might enjoy. Rosemary was very disappointed that the Mexico City zoo was closed when we walked past. Guadalajara also has a zoo, and both cities have wax museums. Parks are always a possibility, and we enjoyed Parque Agua Azul in Guadalajara, which is an ecological preserve with an orchid greenhouse, a large domed butterfly habitat, and a pond with wild geese. The children also had fun climbing on some very ordinary playground equipment in a park near our hotel in Mexico City.
HEALTH AND SANITATION
An upset stomach is bad enough for anyone traveling, but it could mean disaster when traveling with children. We took pains to be extra careful for ourselves and for Mike and Rosemary during our two weeks, and we did not experience any problems at all. Our first concern was water, and we began to prepare the kids even before we left. We warned them that they should not open their mouths when showering, and told them that they would have to brush their teeth in bottled water from a cup. We could have practiced that technique before we left, but we just waited until our first night in Mexico. At restaurants, we religiously avoided any uncooked item on our plates. Unfortunately, this meant we had to pass up some mighty tasty-looking December tomatoes, but pushing the mounds of iceberg lettuce off to the side wasn't much of a sacrifice. We ate fresh fruit in restaurants, however, even though we had not peeled it ourselves. We did not eat or drink anything bought on the street except for soda pop straight from the bottle with a straw.
I was pleasantly surprised that restroom cleanliness had greatly improved since my last visit to Mexico. Rosemary and I did not encounter any truly "memorable" toilets. Even the one in the Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara was acceptable, although it did not have toilet seats. It cost one peso to enter, and we found that pay bathrooms were a pretty safe bet. So were restrooms in restaurants. Everyone had to try to remember to place used toilet paper in the wastebasket instead of flushing it down, even in the hotels. Mexican plumbing cannot handle the paper. We encountered a wide range of automatic faucets and flushers, and that was a point of interest for Rosemary. Occasionally we found one with colorful mosaics or wall paintings inside, and some had unique caballeros and damas designations, such as pre-Columbian god versus goddess statues.
If the worst happens and medical attention is needed, in the major cities excellent care is available. My husband developed a fever and a rash just as we arrived in Mexico City from Guanajuato. A little investigation by phone led us to the American-British Cowdray (ABC) Hospital where he was examined by an English-speaking doctor. It turned out that a sinus medication prescribed at home caused a reaction to the otherwise wonderful winter sunlight. The emergency room visit cost about $70, and they accepted our Mastercard.
Mexico requires notarized parental permission for children under 18 to travel in Mexico along or with another adult. This applies also if the child is traveling with the other parent. Check with a travel agent or a consulate for exact requirements.
TAKING KIDS TO MEXICOPART 2
by Karen Kressin
During the 1997-98 winter holidays, the Karen Kressin and her husband, Jim, took Mike (9) and Rosemary (7) on a successful two-week trip to Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and Mexico City. The first half of this article appeared in the May 1998 issue of Mexico File and addressed sightseeing with kids, as well as sanitation and health matters. The family is looking forward to visiting Mexico regularly after their last trip.
WHAT TO FEED KIDS IN MEXICO
Food is definitely one of the best reasons to travel in Mexico. When traveling with children, however, finicky eating is a concern, and we set out not knowing how well our kids would do. Obviously, what North Americans think of as Mexican food with everything swimming in spicy tomato sauce is not a sure thing for traveling children. Luckily the truth about food in Mexico is more like what my cousin years ago told her parents when they asked her how she liked the Mexican food in Mexico: "What Mexican food? We ate steak!"
Steak, chops, chicken, soups, and pasta dishes are common on menus in Mexico. Soup is always available, and most often takes the form of chicken broth with pieces of chicken and vegetables. Generally, such soups are not spicy at all, but one spicy one became a favorite of Mike's: sopa azteca or tortilla soup, which had strips of tortillas, hot chiles, and other miscellaneous items. (He picked the chiles out and ate the rest.) Another broth-based soup was sopa xochitl, which contained assorted vegetables. Pozole is made with corn that has been processed somewhat like hominy. We also had noodle soup, minestrone, French onion, and lentil soup. The waiters are always willing to tell you if a soup, or anything else for that matter, is picante. Cream soups are often available, and they are delicious.
Our kids' favorite non-soup dish was quesadillas, or queso fundido. These are essentially the same thing. Quesadillas come as warm corn tortillas rolled around melted white cheese, and queso fundido consists of the same cheese melted on a plate with a basket of warm tortillas for you to make your own roll-ups. One or the other was available on almost every menu, and the kids liked this so much that we had to resort to bribing them with spending money to get them to try anything else. When someone was in the mood for some spiciness, enchiladas (usually chicken) hit the spot, and a couple of times we found nachos on the menu. They were similar enough to the north-of-the-border kind to gain enthusiastic approval.
Mexican menus nearly always include at least one dish of chicken cooked in some sort of delicious sauce. The adults in our party liked the various moles we encountered, but children's no-thank-you bites resulted in less politely expressed refusals. They accepted various dishes cooked in non-picante tomato sauces or in butter and cream sauces. Chuletas, bistek, or carne asada (the "steak" my cousin referred to) were often available. The meat is commonly sliced very thin because it tends to be tough. (That made chicken a better choice for Rosemary, who has trouble with chewy meat.) These dishes are often served with a rice dish like the "Spanish rice" of my childhood and a serving of refried beans. My husband's favorite accompaniment to one of these dishes was plátano, or fried banana sweet and with the texture of fried potato.
Breakfast was not a problem. Huevos al gusto (eggs any style) can be fried, over easy, scrambled, hard or soft boiled, or best of all rancheros. Huevos rancheros consist of a corn tortilla topped with one or two fried eggs covered all over with red or green salsa. Beans on the side complete the plate. Concerned about contamination in undercooked eggs, I always asked for the eggs to be three-quarters cooked or turned over. This always resulted in perfect eggs, and our son Mike got hooked on huevos rancheros. Salsa can be had with scrambled eggs also. That dish is called huevos a la mexicana. Scrambled eggs can be ordered with ham or sausage, too.
Other breakfast offerings included hot cakes, French toast, chilaquiles (yesterday's corn tortillas sliced up and mixed with warm tomato and chili salsa, with cheese on top), bolillos (French rolls, which are delicious with sweet unsalted butter and strawberry jam), and molletes (toasted bolillos spread with butter or topped with refried beans and melted cheese). Fresh fruit in season in mid-winter included pineapple, papaya (be sure to have lime juice on it!), cantaloupe, and watermelon. Fresh-squeezed orange juice was also abundant.
Breakfast buffets were popular with the kids and grown-ups. Look for them at the bigger hotels. The two we found in Guadalajara offered traditional Mexican breakfast fare, as well as boxed dry cereals (my favorite Mexican cereal name is Zucosos"sugaries") and packaged yogurt. Both buffets had generous spreads of fresh fruit and cook-to-order omelet bars.
Most restaurant breakfasts also offered pan dulce lightly sweetened pastries such as muffins and sweet bread covered in granulated sugar toppings. Pan dulce made Mexico really special for our kids, and here's why. Mexican families traditionally eat their main meal of the day in the early afternoon. It's called comida, and that's also when restaurants offer their most complete, most economical, meal. We ate comida every day of our trip. In the evening, we usually followed Mexican custom and had pan dulce and milk for supper. Panificadora (bakery) shelves groan with a large variety of pastries in the early evening. Supermarkets also carry pan dulce. Milk is available at the panificadora or a supermarket. The combination made a light before-bed meal that the kids never complained about. I didn't worry much about unbalanced nutrition, because we ate lots of protein and fresh fruit at other meals. About half the time we bought enough pan dulce and milk for breakfast too and got an earlier start the next day by eating in the hotel. Our favorite items included a cake roll with shredded coconut, pastry triangles topped with baked custard, slices of pound cake, and muffins. There were also donuts and cookies. The last night we were in Mexico was the eve of Three Kings' Day, and the pan dulce area of the supermarket had almost nothing but boxed rosca de reyes. That is a large ring decorated with white, red, and green candies and icing. We didn't buy one because they were large enough for 10-12 people, and we had foolishly missed our chance to buy a smaller one earlier. We had to settle for the muffins that were on the back shelf and we missed our chance to taste this seasonal specialty and see who would find the baby Jesus figure inside. Maybe next trip!
A supermarket can go a long way to easing the challenges of traveling with children. The ones in large Mexican cities carry a variety of dry cereals, often the same ones we have in the U.S., and they can be eaten out of hand like snack food along with the morning milk and pan dulce. We found our favorite, Quaker Oat Bran, in a Guadalajara "Super G" market. It is called "Complete," but the box looks just the same as in the U.S. Some of the other cereals available were Kellogg's Variety Pak, Sugar Frosted Flakes, Fiber One, Instant Oatmeal, Cheerios, Basic 4, Pebbles, Golden Grahams, Froot Loops, Corn Flakes, Trix, and many Nestle brands we did not recognize. There were also granola bars. The supermarket was also our primary source of bottled water.
Our hotel in Guadalajara had tables in the courtyard and we ate our pan dulce there. On one occasion we ate it on a park bench, and in Mexico City, we spread bandanas on one of the beds to catch crumbs and ate in our room. Next time I would carry a light weight 4 by 4 foot cloth to make it easier to clean up. I wonder what the maid thought when she found all the crumbs in the shower!
The larger cities also have McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and the like. Besides being a potential source of cool Spanish-language brand name souvenirs, these restaurants are a safety net if traveling kids need a break from too much novel food. Guadalajara also has Dunkin' Donuts and a chain of ice cream parlors called Bing that is not a U.S. franchise, but you'd never know except for the nifty exotic flavors.
GETTING THE MOST FROM A MEXICO TRIP
We prepared the children with only a little more than our own eager anticipation of the trip. Experience eating in restaurants and traveling long hours is helpful, of course. We practiced a few Spanish words with the help of flashcards and last fall we checked out some books on Mexico from the library. Some of the books contained profiles of children living in Mexico, and they were of special interest. Elizabeth Borton de Trevino has written two especially appropriate and delightful books. El Guero is the true story of the author's father-in-law's boyhood in Baja California in the time of Porfirio Diaz. Leona tells about the heroine of the war for independence who married the patriot the state of Quintana Roo is named after.
Whenever we travel, I carry a "fun bag" that contains art supplies, a book to read out loud, and maybe some light weight games, like a deck of cards. We didn't need our fun bag much on this trip, but we enjoyed reading a children's adaptation of Don Quixote each evening. It came alive for Mike and Rosemary when they started finding statues and paintings of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the shops.
At home we have played a game of looking for license plates of the 50 states and coloring in a map when we find them. For this trip I copied an outline map of the states of Mexico onto a piece of stiff paper and wrote the names of the states under it. The game worked just as well in Mexico and gave Rosemary and Mike something to think about when they werent otherwise interested in the sights. We found almost all of the states, and were especially delighted when we ran across a Quintana Roo plate in Mexico City.
We took along a notebook for each child and some tape and glue. We collected candy wrappers, sugar packets, bus tickets, and the like, and the children stuck them into their books. Occasionally Rosemary was inspired to draw a poinsettia or an eagle perched on a cactus with our colored pencils. These scrapbooks are now treasured souvenirs of our trip.
When we got back to the U.S., we were faced with daily routines, gray winter skies, and our own lousy cooking. But the children took their souvenirs to school to share with their classmates and we have practically dog-eared our snapshots reliving our experiences with each other. It was a fantastic two weeks and we would take our children along again without hesitation. Our advice to other Mexicophiles: Pass the magic on to the next generation take your kids to Mexico!