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Tim Leffel's Resourceful Traveler Columns

Traveling with a Child in Mexico

You’re a Foreign Parent, Not a Strange Foreigner

Hiking the Pyrenees: Refugi de Amitges

When you travel solo or as a couple, you can pretty much do what you want, when you want. But this all changes when a child enters your life. Most trips during the baby stage involve going to see relatives, and even that seems like a packing nightmare. One little 15-pound tyke seems to require 50 pounds of extra luggage. And even with accommodating grandparents, a jaunt off to Patagonia or Fiji is usually out of the question.

A family vacation in another country can be relatively stress-free and fulfilling, however, once the child hits toddler age. You just have to face the fact that the carefree style of travel is history for now. It has to be replaced with a different pace and a different outlook.

My wife and I spent over three years backpacking around the world, but we knew we had to do things differently when we took our 3-year-old daughter to Mexico for two weeks. We ponied up extra money to fly into one city and out of another in order to eliminate an extra bus trip. We got a hotel with a suite in our first city so we could put the little one to bed and still stay up. We rented a beach house for a week to have a home base with space and a kitchen. And I’ll admit that we spent the last three nights in the plastic atmosphere of Cancun. It went against my independent traveler sensibilities, but we could drop our daughter off at a kids’ club full of toys and she could find plenty of familiar food she would eat at the buffet table. (“I’m doing it for her,” I kept telling myself, as I sucked down the all-inclusive cocktails.)

The short attention span of a child creates all kinds of obstacles. If we were going to see a cathedral or other monument, a side trip to the main square’s playground had to be in the mix, or maybe a stop by the piñata store. Fortunately, Mexican towns and cities have plenty of both. We could forget a leisurely afternoon of checking out local bands playing in the parks, or slowly meandering through a museum. We could eat at street stalls, but only if the little one was already fed—she would never touch that stuff!

Some things worked out better than expected. She loved the Mayan ruins of Uxmal: so many steps to climb, and lizards everywhere! A trip to see the flamingos near our rented beach house was a big hit. She adored the funky little hotel we stayed at in Mérida. It had a swimming pool, a pet bird, a hammock, and a little living room where she could spread out her coloring books. What more could a kid want?

The Positive Side

It does take some sacrifices and adjustments to travel as a family. On the other hand, a child opens up lines of communication with strangers and you get plenty of chances to practice your chit-chat Spanish hanging out at a playground. You’re not a strange foreigner—you’re a foreign parent. With a little one in tow, doors open, service is quicker, and someone magically appears to help you decipher a bus schedule or map.

Many family tourists take the easy way out in Mexico. They spend all their time sequestered at a big resort, taking overpriced excursion tours from the hotel and eating Americanized buffet food. There’s something to be said for the resorts—kids love the places—but it’s not hard to get beyond this packaged experience for at least part of the trip. Traveling around Mexico independently is relatively easy, especially in the Yucatan. The roads are good and car rentals are affordable. However, since the bus system is very comfortable and will take you almost anywhere, it’s usually not necessary to have a vehicle. Once you get out of the resort areas, hotel prices are a bargain and renting a house or condo is even cheaper. You can easily spread out in a suite or a home without breaking the bank. If you look into areas on the Gulf coast (rather than the Caribbean), you can rent a huge beachfront house with a pool for less than $500 per week.

Six Tips for a Worry-Free Family Trip

1. Give Yourself some Space. For a family, suites and rental houses work great; typical hotel rooms do not. In Mexico, it doesn’t cost much more to get a suite room or to rent a house, even in the cities. For the sake of everyone’s sanity and sleep schedule, get a place with at least two rooms. On buses, a few extra dollars will get you on a nice express bus with a bathroom and extra leg room—plenty of space for the toys and coloring books.

2. Take it Easy. Going with the flow and taking things as they come works well with a child; trying to cram in everything you want to see does not. Plan on one or two key things to do a day and leave it at that. Even though you’re traveling, kids still need some semblance of a routine and their attention span doesn’t get any longer just because you’re somewhere new. Build lots of down time and flexibility into the schedule. While you may be happiest running around and seeing all the sights, children are often happiest just playing in the pool all day. If you have to, alternate the parenting duties to make it work for everyone.

3. Shop for the Right Food. Some parents are blessed with children who will eat anything. Most of us aren’t so lucky. We may think it would be great to have our kids sample all the choices in a typical Mexican restaurant, but with our little one this is limited to tortilla chips, black beans, fruit, and french fries. Fortunately, Mexican grocery stores have a good selection and you can find international chains in large cities. This is another reason to rent a house or get a suite with a kitchen: you can feed the little one there and pack things to carry with you.

4. Carry an Extra Day Bag. Most independent travelers travel light; they leave their hotel with a camera and maybe a guidebook. You’ll need much more than that once there’s a little one along. You need an extra water bottle or juice, diversions such as toys or books, and sunscreen for sensitive skin. Antiseptic wipes come in very handy for the ever-dirty hands and for wiping off fruit that can’t be peeled. And don’t forget some snacks; it’s hard to anticipate when a child will get hungry (and cranky) and there’s not a convenience store on every corner.

5. Loosen up the Purse Strings. With a family you need to put aside the frugal sensibilities now and then. Everyone will be happier when there’s space and privacy, and it’s worth it to open the wallet for saved time or convenience. Getting advance tickets for a nice bus trip works fine; standing beside the road in the hot sun waiting for something to flag down will be trouble. Taking three local bus connections to get across town is okay when you’re alone. When you’re a parent in a strange town, it’s far less stressful to just take a taxi. This doesn’t mean you can’t bargain and find the best deals, but don’t kill yourself going the cheapest route when five dollars more will keep everyone relaxed and in a good mood.

6. Learn the Language. When you are a childless backpacker, people don’t approach you all that much to talk unless they’re a student or they’re trying to sell you something. When you’re a parent, it’s a different story. Sometimes it seems every mother in town wants to ask you questions. At least learn the basics and carry around a phrase book or dictionary. It sets a good example for the little one as well.

TIM LEFFEL is a regular contributor to Transitions Abroad. He is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Dollars are Worth a Fortune. (www.WorldsCheapestDestinations.com).

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