A Voice from Oaxaca
The options are innumerable. It’s simply a matter of doing a bit of homework – asking, and then committing yourself to a vacation dedicated in large part to your children.
Oaxaca has traditionally been known as an adult travel destination, steeped in ruins, colonial churches, museums and a tradition for fine art and handicrafts. But having been visiting the region regularly since 1991- always with our daughter – and now having been living here for a few years and regularly toured friends and family with young children around the city and outlying sites, without a doubt young families contemplating a visit should set aside any lingering trepidation regarding both the well-being of their young progeny, and their parents’ ability to have at least somewhat of a romantic getaway.
Concerns might include wondering if there will be enough sites to hold your child’s interest. If you’ll be able to visit the vestiges of pre-Hispanic civilizations without the kids being bored to death. If you’ll ever be able to sneak away for a dinner on your own. If you’ll have to pay a premium to find accommodations with a pool – the guarantee of an afternoon swim is always the best bribe – and the wisdom of perhaps just having a beach vacation and saving Oaxaca for another time when you can do it without the family.
Having pondered such considerations from time to time, I can now offer valuable suggestions regarding where to stay even without a pool, what tour routes will definitely hold the interests of children and teens, and what activities exist in and around the city on a regular basis, geared to youthful vacationers.
Where to stay, and swim
Suburban Hotel San Felipe is a welcome change from the downtown hustle and bustle… the outdoor pool is in a picturesque setting flecked with rural neighborhoods and rolling hills. Several friends have also enjoyed Holiday Inn Express, at the north end of the downtown sector. But many visitors to Oaxaca prefer a more quaint and traditional environment to the somewhat sterile Americanized accommodations, yet can’t rationalize the cost of hotels such as Camino Real or Los Laureles, impressive in their own right.
Most of the smaller family-owned and operated hotels, bed and breakfasts and guest houses do not have pools, but should not be discounted out-of-hand. Some have made arrangements with nearby pooled hotels for their guests to attend.
Each lodging should be able to point you to alternatives to an on-site pool, such as one of the water parks located along the highways entering the city. These facilities have pools of varying sizes and depths, large water slides, and other appurtenances to keep the kids there for the better part of a day. A short taxi ride from downtown are Las Brisas and La Bamba.
There are two additional alternatives. Consider attending one of several balnearios or swimming spas located about a half hour out of Oaxaca in the village of Vista Hermosa, catering to entire families rather than to predominantly children. During the hot season, you’ll find families and friends around the pools, playing volleyball, or sitting under palapas eating an array of local fare available from the small comedores.
Then there’s Hierve el Agua, at the end of one of the out-of-town touring routes. The site consists of two large pools fed by natural bubbling springs, in a spectacular mountain setting with a petrified mineral “waterfall.” They are safe for kids, and large and deep enough to satisfy the aquatic yearnings of any adult. Most tourists don’t get to Hierve el Agua, probably because of the distance. But in my book, it’s a must for families with children, in particular if it’s done in conjunction with a couple of other stops en route.
Oaxaca relies solely on tourism for its existence and, accordingly, accommodations that claim to welcome children should bend over to provide families with “the little things” such as a stroller, crib with accessories, car seat, highchair for use in their dining room, and a reference for a reliable babysitter who can come to the hotel while you’re out for an evening. At the time, Hotel San Felipe provided babysitting when our daughter was pre-teen. If you search in earnest, you should be able to find smaller hotels and guest houses that are similarly accommodating. If your child can read and the babysitter has only a limited grasp of English, give your child a series of phonetically prepared questions and suggestions [TEN go AM bray (I’m hungry); key Arrow na DAR (I want to go swimming)]. If your child is too young, the niñera should have the experience to determine any pressing issues. All lodgings should have an English-speaking doctor on call in the unlikely event of illness.
Two child-friendly tour routes
1) Hierve el Agua:
The promise of Hierve el Agua at the end of one of the two main tour routes is the best possible means by which to keep children in check during the first half of this day trip. On the return to Oaxaca from this, site they’ll be sleeping in the back of the car or van, no doubt having been exposed to too much sun and water activity.
Your morning begins with a stop at el Tule, the massive 2000-year-old cypress tree. Make sure you get a child tour guide dressed in a Robin Hood suit to show you the innumerable images in the trunk, with the aid of a mirror. Encourage your children to trade words in English and Spanish with the little Hoodettes. A key to holding the interest of young children is to give them the opportunity to interact with others of similar ages… and it provides a good lesson in cultural diversity.
At Teotitlán del Valle, the rug village, ask your guide to take you to where you can have a demonstration where the weavers’ children and grandchildren will be present. Your kids will be able to play, touch the raw wool, try spinning it, and even get their hands wet and dyed in large vats of natural vegetable material used in the process of coloring the spun wool. While you’re searching for a floor covering or wall hanging, let the kids look for a piece with fanciful imagery suitable for their bedroom, or a mini-rug (i.e. woolen coaster) with a fanciful design. They’ll spend as much time choosing as will you. Our daughter grew up with periodic visits to Casa Santiago. It seemed like as Sarah got older, there were always two or three Santiago children or grandchildren on hand to occupy her time and keep her in tow.
If you travel the route on a Sunday, there’s no better place to keep the kids in awe than at the Tlacolula market… the colors, array of sale items, sweets, live turkeys, music, hawkers, and the handicraft market. It takes at least an hour and a half to get through the market, so the promise of a dishful of ice cream (actually a healthier sorbet referred to as nieve) while in the marketplace does the trick. One area has several stationary parlors where you can sit and enjoy a cone or plate of one of several tropical fruit flavours.
The two main ruins along this route are Yagul and Mitla, the latter more grandiose and famous. Each has excavated burial chambers to intrigue the most youthful Tomb Raider. Since it’s unreasonable to expect children to go to two ruins in one day, regardless of the parenting tactics employed, I would opt for Yagul. It has two tombs that can be descended by all. There’s a labyrinth in which the kids can run around and get temporarily lost. Children tend to enjoy climbing the steep mountain pass leading to a fortress. At the top there’s what archaeologists claim is a bathtub hewn out of stone in which the kids will enjoy sitting. Finally, the site should be of interest to all adults, with its pre-Hispanic ball court and vista of the valley from the pinnacle of the fortress. It might be blasphemous to even suggest, but thinking of young children in particular, why not save Mitla for another trip? After all, you’re probably going to schlep them to Monte Albán, the granddaddy of the region’s ruins.
Unless you forego some of the sites already noted, you probably won’t have time to visit the zoo along this highway, nor should you feel compelled to do so. The kids can always go to the zoo back home.
Regardless of which of the two roadways you take to get to Hierve el Agua, your final destination, you’ll pass goats, sheep and/or cattle being herded either at the side the road or right in front of you, dictating that you yield to the flocks. Stop and encourage the kids to get out with you. Ask if it’s safe to hop on the back of one of the beasts or at least stand alongside for the photo op.
There are reliable restaurants both en route to Hierve el Agua (i.e. Doña Chica at Mitla, and roadside El Tigre at the cutoff to San Lorenzo Albarradas) as well as at the site, but if you tend to be extra cautious with the children, there are benches at the pools where you can eat your own picnic lunch. Alternatively, you can relax and munch away while sitting on the rock outcroppings.
The more you permit your kids to swim, the greater your assurance that the ride back to the city will be peaceful, relaxing and – above all – quiet.
2) Crafts and more crafts:
San Bartolo Coyotepec provides an extremely appealing beginning to another full day of touring. At one of the many workshops, watch a demonstration of the ancient craft of making fine black pottery without the use of a wheel or modern tools. This artistry should hold the attention of children of all ages. However, for further assurance, ask your guide to take you to a studio such as Doña Rosa, where Maestro Don Valente permits children to go off to a table close to the demonstration and work with the very same clay. While the children are dirtying their hands while molding, you’ll be learning how to fashion a bowl out of freshly mined clay, water, heat, and little more. Browse the showroom and select from a broad array of both sleek and modern, and traditional pieces, while the kids look for ceramic forms of their favorite animals.
In nearby San Martín Tilcajete, some of the workshops producing carved and brilliantly painted wooden animals permit you to make advance arrangements for your children to select and then paint the animal of their choice, with guidance from one of the facility owners. Once again there will likely be an opportunity for the children to chase after and pet animals and play with kids of their own age.
For lunch, try Azucena Zapoteca, on the highway at the entrance to San Martín Tilcajete. The food is good, traditional and safe, and the grounds are spacious and include a swing set to occupy your children, within your sight, while you dine.
The village of Santo Tomás Jalieza is known for production of cotton table runners, placemats, napkins, belts and purses using the primitive back strap loom, and bedspreads and tablecloths using much larger machinery. One of the cultural experiences for children in this setting will be noticing how their counterparts from about ten years of age help with the family trade and its financial sustenance.
At Ocotlán you’ll drop by the homes of the Aguilar sisters, who fashion clay painted figures with scenes representative of marketplaces, religious imagery, comedic love depictions and colorful fiestas. At least one of the workshops generally has a quantity of unpainted figures on which each child can express his own creativity.
Finally, a couple of minutes down the road, your family will have an opportunity to witness Ángel Aguilar hand-forge knives and cutlery using only recycled metals in a rudimentary hearth. The setting is fascinating, primitive, and safe for the kids. In only a few minutes, right before your eyes, Ángel can engrave your child’s name and a fanciful drawing on a souvenir knife with a 1 inch blade and leather sheath, and more importantly the inscription can be whatever your child selects.
If you follow this itinerary on Friday, you’ll have an opportunity to wander through the Ocotlán market, similar to the Sunday Tlacolula market, though smaller.
Each of these two routes has additional stops, but this particular selection highlights sites that maximize experiences which your children will recall for a lifetime.
And don’t forget the city
Throughout the year, there numerous local and international celebrations, with color and pageantry, song and dance, some specifically designed with a youthful audience in mind. The Oaxaca Calendar website should be consulted just before leaving for your trip. In addition to listing weekly events, such as where and when the mariachis and the state band of Oaxaca can be heard, as well as particulars of a number of museums and galleries, it details specific upcoming fiestas and performances, when the Guerreros baseball team will be playing (a treat for sports enthusiasts of all ages), fireworks displays and most major upcoming events.
A Saturday morning bilingual hour for children is held at the Oaxaca Lending Library. The library sometimes sponsors additional programs for children.
Many of the Spanish language schools have a specific curriculum for kids, so if you’re contemplating brushing up on your Spanish, there’s no need to worry about how the children’s morning time will be occupied. Casa de La Cultura also offers courses for children. Finally, there are a number of charitable organizations where foreign youth are given an opportunity to assist disadvantaged or struggling local children.
Speak to your tour guide or hotel manager for more specific suggestions geared to children of particular ages and passions. Youth with a strong interest in the fine arts might be thrilled to visit workshops of a couple of local artists, or perhaps go on an alternate tour out of the city, which takes in the studio of a sculptor, a hand-made artistic paper factory, and the Center for The Arts housed in a 19th century mill. For those who have been sensitized to environmental issues or who have been exposed to camping and the outdoors, the family can spend a couple of days in a rustic mountain setting in the Sierra Norte… hiking, biking, horseback riding, and learning about how particular industries in the state are making inroads in terms of environmentally friendly production.
The options are innumerable. It’s simply a matter of doing a bit of homework – asking, and then committing yourself to a vacation dedicated in large part to your children. The inevitable rewards will include your own memories of the region’s richness and cultural diversity, and a greater appreciation of the magic of Oaxaca.