Traveling to Mexico with children

articles Travel & Destinations

Molly McHugh

Travel to Mexico with your children? Give yourself some kudos just for considering it! If the cost is daunting — Mexico may be inexpensive but air flight is not — think of skipping a few of those college-fund payments and taking a trip with the cash instead. With money that may or may not get used for its intended purpose, you can give your child or children a cultural experience of value and a jump-start on language acquisition.

From Tijuana to Morelia – Good Destinations for Kids

Anywhere in Mexico is a good place to travel with kids, in my personal opinion. The tourist meccas of Cancun, Cozumel, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta on the mainland, and Los Cabos in Baja, are more expensive and may have less serious crime due to the diligence of police and local officials, seeking to secure tourist dollars. There is plenty of petty theft, however, and you do need to watch your wallet wherever you go, as thieves often target tourists throughout Mexico.

Other locations are off the beaten track and more adventurous, such as the jungles of Chiapas or traveling by train through the Copper Canyon. With pre-vacation planning and a little determination, the whole country is open for exploration.

Recently my nine-year-old and I spent a day in Tijuana. Although the journey was based on necessity, not personal preference, and I found it to be surprisingly enjoyable. If you had asked me prior to our excursion if I would ever take my child to Tijuana, my immediate reply would have been, “No way!” I had visions of child abduction, men in black uniforms carrying machine guns, and dirty, filthy, car-congested streets dancing through my head.

What we encountered surprised me. A hip, main drag — Revolution Avenue — with the likes of the Hard Rock Cafe, the Tijuana Wax Museum, mega-discount pharmacy stores and leather goods and jewelry galore. You can’t miss the donkeys painted like zebras with carts attached and a ready-made Mexican sombrero. They’re ready for your requisite tourist photo.

New passport regulations seem to be keeping many away this year. Since there were few tourists, we were virtually bombarded with friendly catcalls and offers of two-for-one alcoholic drinks — take your pick. This was more than a little entertaining, but not something I’d want to experience daily. For an afternoon it was endearing, until the bill for my beer came… regular price, no discount. Innovative Mexican advertising, I guess. Lunch wasn’t a total loss. Thanks to the pub where we dined, my son can now say he has played pool at a bar in Tijuana, Mexico. How’s that for a childhood story to tell?

After two days in the U.S., it was time to continue our summer journey. Back to Rosarito Beach we went, and to the travel agent for best buys to the mainland. We had spent the past year living in central Baja. After last summer’s never-ending, excruciatingly-high heat and humidity, plus a tropical storm courtesy of Hurricane John that devastated our small town, I was anxious to be on our way. My only two non-negotiable trip requirements were heat that isn’t debilitating and fun, educational, activities for children.

We got lucky. Due to recent changes in the regulation of the Mexican airline industry, there has been an influx of new low-cost carriers such as Volaris. One-way tickets are available, and these are actually priced at half of a round-trip fare. We were able to fly from Tijuana to Morelia, in the state of Michoacan, for 999 pesos each, or approximately $182 U.S. dollars for both of us.

(Other destinations I had considered were Guadalajara, because of comfortable summer temperatures and a wide variety of activities for children, and the city of Guanajuato in the mountains of the Sierra de Guanajuato, for similar reasons.)

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Morelia is the capital of Michoacan, located approximately three hours by bus from Guadalajara and five hours from Mexico City.

Every country seems to have a bit of Paris in its soul and for Mexico, Morelia is it. Maybe there’s a Lou Vega song there. Morelia is home to more than a thousand historical buildings and these include the Conservatorio de las Rosas (the oldest music school in Mexico), the Museum of the Michoacan Region (built in 1772), and the twin-towered, baroque-style Morelia Cathedral, finished in 1744.

Across the street from the Cathedral is the Palacio de Gobierno, or the Governor’s Palace. Built over a period of ten years, it contains three enormous, life-sized murals by Michoacan artist Alfredo Zalce that depict different episodes of Mexican history.

Morelia's zócalo – Plaza de los Mártires
Morelia’s zócalo – Plaza de los Mártires

Add to this cultural mix a historic center complete with sidewalk cafes, parks lined with cobblestone sidewalks and magnificent architecture covered with rose colored sandstone, and you can see how the city of Morelia won this prestigious ‘Old Europe’ distinction for Mexico.

Just don’t get your hopes up about the river that runs through it, or more accurately, alongside the perimeter. The Rio Solidaridad, also called Rio Chiquito or “little river,” is a brown and muddy — not a pretty sight.

Morelia was high on my list of must-sees due to a travel article written by a family of four who had spent a summer there. They enrolled their two children in a soccer camp, art classes, and music program, at a cost of approximately $100 U.S. This is less than the cost for one child at most week-long day camps in the states. I was sold.

We arrived at 6 a.m. from our red-eye flight and spent the early-dawn at the 24 hour VIPS restaurant, the only establishment open. When daylight returned, we grabbed a cab and went to view the apartments I had found listed over the Internet.

The cab driver, who was inadvertently giving us a tour of the city during our search, kindly offered us a room in his mother’s home. I was flattered, but decided to settle on our second option, a boarding house with a rooftop apartment. It had great views, fresh breezes off the balcony (the city is fairly car-congested and polluted), and accepted our constant travel companion – a five-year-old rat terrier. At $160 U.S. a month, I could overlook the non-functioning kitchen.

The next day, we set out to find a summer camp and found an art/dance/music/theater program at Belles Artes, an ex-convent now converted into a professional arts and music school. The month-long courses were were held weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for the price of $75. Another summer program for children I found was Alterdans Escuela de Arte, located at Avenue Madero Ortega N. 63. It is similar to Belles Artes, just more low-key. Two of the children enrolled this summer spoke little to no Spanish prior to attending.

Located two blocks away from Alterdans is a swimming complex, Villa Longin, with an outdoor pool and heated kiddie pool. At Villa Longin, they offer two-hour swimming lessons for students from five years old and up, and private sessions are available. Most camps begin in July and end by early August.

Soccer ended up being a free neighborhood league three blocks away, with the addition of many nights of foot jockeying with local kids in the street outside our apartment.

At a soccer match between Morelia and Veracruz
At a soccer match between Morelia and Veracruz

The apartment and its location were not as quaint as I had envisioned, yet there were more than a few pleasant surprises. The city zoo, complete with lions, tigers and polar bears, was four blocks away. The city zoo offers a summer course called “Let’s save the Planet” for children from five to twelve years of age. A city park, with library, planetarium and a free, supervised play area for kids with indoor and outdoor activities was within walking distance as well.

In addition, there was a Domino’s Pizza shop up the street and around the corner, and numerous tiendas for snacks, beer, purified water and homemade tortillas. My son’s art school was located on the Plaza de Los Martires, the main city square, or zocalo. A combi – the converted VW buses used as collective transportation throughout Morelia — dropped us off near there for a dollar each way. A taxi ride cost three U.S. dollars.

Conjunto Residencial Valladolid, a nicer living option, is located in the same neighborhood at Tanganxhoan No. 384. The cross street is Calle Vicente Santa Maria. For under $300 a month, you can rent a lovely, two-bedroom apartment, with salon, kitchen and 24-hour security guard. They also had a unit up for sale.

 Conjunto Residencial Valladolid
Conjunto Residencial Valladolid

Bordering the park is the luxurious Fiesta Inn — complete with restaurant/bar, swimming pool and tennis courts. There, rooms start at $200 USD per night for two adults and two children. A block away, there is a small shopping mall complete with a kids gym, open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. For five dollars each, children can play as long as they want.

Daytrips include Lake Patzcuaro, located just forty miles away, or a fifty-minute bus ride. Hot springs are found at the Balneario Cointzio, a six-dollar taxi ride or ten-minute combi ride from Morelia. There is also horseback riding available in the outlying areas.

If you hear a loud ringing coming down the street, like a cow bell shaken with all the force the ringer can muster, don’t be alarmed. I heard this first on a Sunday and thought it was a call for everyone to head to church, this being Roman Catholic Mexico and all! The ringing is actually a notification for neighborhood residents to put out their garbage for the garbage truck heading their way. Residents give the driver five pesos, or approximately fifty cents U.S. per bag.

We found the July weather very comfortable. The summer rainstorms occurred primarily at night, clearing by morning and leading to afternoons filled with warm, clean air and sunshine. There were a few cloudy days as well, but I wasn’t complaining. Of course, the day after I wrote this, a torrential downpour hit the city and lasted for hours, drenching everything in sight. I had heard this could happen, but hadn’t experienced it. Bring an umbrella!

I’m definitely still not complaining. My son had a month of low-cost, high-quality art instruction, and a ton of fun. I was spoiled with daily espressos and hours of uninterrupted writing stints at local cafes, in a city that seems made for, and by, souls with a creative spirit. Our time in Morelia was a Mexico experience neither of us will forget.

Flexibility — the key to a successful trip

If you add a little flexibility to your travel plans, you will find yourself prepared to deal with most issues easily. Keep an open mind while researching and planning your trip, as well as during your stay.

You are traveling and are free to do what feels right. If you, or your family, does not like the hotel others raved about, leave. There may be a little casita off the beaten track with a family who would love to rent their apartment to you.

Next door or across the street, there may be kids near your children’s age, who participate in nightly pick-up soccer games in the street. This is common in most Mexican neighborhoods where I’ve visited or lived. For half the price — or less — of that fancy hotel, you’ll get a much more authentic Mexican experience. Just be sure an adult plays lookout for cars on the street, something Mexican children are adept at, but an acquired skill for most U.S. children.

The real danger in traveling with your family to Mexico is that you and/or your children may not want to leave. Go at your own risk!

Current passport requirements for travel to Mexico

If traveling by air, U.S. residents must have a valid passport to re-enter the United States. For those traveling by car or by boat, these new passport regulations are to be implemented sometime between January 2008 and June 2009.

For more information on passport requirements

Published or Updated on: October 1, 2007 by Molly McHugh © 2007


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