Use the suggestions from a long-time resident to visit historic sites and various artisan villages with the kids in culturally rich Oaxaca, in the southwestern part of Mexico.
With ruins, churches, museums and a tradition of fine art, Oaxaca is usually considered an adult destination. But my family has been visiting the region with our daughter since 1991 and now that we have lived here for a few years and toured many sites with friends and their children, I am confident families contemplating a visit should set aside any worries.
Parents might be concerned about visiting the vestiges of pre-Hispanic civilizations without the kids getting bored, or wonder if they can fit in a couple of quiet dinners. Some might even consider saving Oaxaca for another time without the family. However, both the state and city of Oaxaca have many sights that will hold the interest of children and plenty of activities geared toward youthful vacationers. Children will have lots of fun, and parents who want a romantic getaway will not be disappointed.
Children-Friendly Routes Through Oaxaca Villages and Historic Sites
Spanish-speaking families spending a week in the region will enjoy the following routes with a combination of public buses and local taxis. Others will prefer to arrange a car and driver/guide through their hotel—it is not expensive and will be much more comfortable.
The promise of Hierve el Agua, a natural hot spring, at the end of this route will keep children excited and engaged all day. Make a stop at El Ãrbol del Tule, a 2000-year-old Cyprus tree, on your way there. Find a child guide dressed in a Robin Hood suit to show you images in the trunk and have your children trade words in English and Spanish with these little Hoodettes. A key to holding the interest of young children is to let them interact with kids of similar ages—it will teach them cultural diversity.
At TeotitlÃ¡n del Valle, ask your guide to take you to a demonstration with rug weavers and their families. Your kids can touch and attempt to spin the raw wool and get their hands colored in large vats of natural dye. Kids can look for rugs with fanciful imagery to put in their bedrooms. Our daughter, Sarah, grew up shopping at Casa Santiago (52/951/524-4154).
If you are visiting on a Sunday, stop by the Tlacolula Market—kids will be surprised by all the goods on sale. With live music, sweets, animals and hawkers of all sorts, it will take at least an hour and a half to get through the entire market. That might be a bit long for the children, but a dishful of nieve, or Mexican sorbet, at the end of the excursion usually does the trick.
The main archaeological sites on this route are Yagul and Mitla. The latter is more grandiose, but both have burial caverns to intrigue young tomb raiders. It might be tough to get kids to visit two ruins in one day, so Yagul gets my vote. It has tombs that you can descend into; kids can run throughout a labyrinth, then climb a mountain pass leading up to a fortress. At the top is a hewn stone bathtub where you can marvel at the enchanting vista of the valley and the ruins.
En route to your final destination, Hierve el Agua, you will pass herds of cattle along the road. Stop and encourage the kids to get out with you. Ask if it is safe to hop on the back of one of the animals or at least stand alongside for a photo. Hierve el Agua consists of two pools fed by natural bubbling springs in a spectacular mountain setting that includes petrified mineral “waterfalls.” They are safe for kids and large and deep enough to satisfy adult aquatic yearnings.
Crafts Route Through Oaxaca’s Artisan Villages
Start at San Bartolo Coyotepec for another day of touring. Watch a demonstration of black pottery making without the use of a wheel or modern tools. Go to a studio such as DoÃ±a Rosa (52/955/551-0011), where the artisan permits children to go off and work with the black clay. Children will definitely get their hands dirty as they learn how to fashion a bowl out of freshly mined clay, water and heat. Meanwhile, parents can browse and choose between modern pieces or and traditional ones. Kids can also look for inexpensive ceramics of their favorite animals.
In nearby San MartÃn Tilcajete, you will find workshops that produce intricate wooden carvings. Some, like the workshop of woodcarver Vicente HernÃ¡ndez VÃ¡squez, let children select and then paint animals of their choice. There will also likely be an opportunity for the children (with your hosts’ permission, of course) to chase after and pet animals and play with kids of their own age.
Santo TomÃ¡s Jalieza is known for producing cotton table runners, placemats and purses using the primitive back strap loom. They also weave bedspreads and tablecloths using larger machinery. Visiting these shops will be a valuable cultural experience for the kids—they will notice their counterparts, starting from age 10, helping with the family trade.
In OcotlÃ¡n, drop by workshops of the Aguilar sisters. They make clay figures with scenes of marketplaces, religious imagery, comedic love depictions and colorful fiestas. At least one of the workshops generally has unpainted figures so children can express their creativity, too.
Continue on and see Ã„ngel Aguilar hand-forge knives and cutlery using recycled metals in a rudimentary hearth. The setting is fascinating, primitive, and safe. Within a few minutes, Ã„ngel can engrave your children’s names and their choice of figure on a souvenir knife with a dull blade and leather sheath.
On Friday, you can to wander through the OcotlÃ¡n Market, which is similar to the Sunday Tlacolula Market. There are plenty of other stops on these two routes, but this selection highlights sights that will keep children interested and give them a great educational experience.
Don’t Forget the City of Oaxaca
Colorful fiestas occur year-round in Oaxaca, many of which are designed for a young audience. Check out the Oaxaca Calendar for recurring events, including mariachi and state band performances, as well as for listings for museums and galleries. It details the times for specific celebrations and performances, like when the Guerreros baseball team will be playing—a treat for all sports enthusiasts—fireworks displays and other events.
Also consider the Saturday bilingual hour for children held at the Oaxaca Lending Library (52/951/518-7077). Many Spanish language schools, like Casa La Cultura, offer a kids’ curriculum. There are also a number of charitable organizations where youths can assist local disadvantaged children. Note the library is closed on Sundays and National Holidays.
Speak to your tour guide for more suggestions for children with particular passions. Visitors with an interest in fine arts might enjoy dropping by the workshops of local artists or visiting a paper factory and the Center for The Arts (55/4155-0000 ext. 1035), which is housed in an old mill.
For those interested in environmental issues or just like the great outdoors, consider a couple of days in the rustic mountain setting of Sierra Norte. Hiking, biking, riding, and learning how some local factories are becoming environmentally friendly can be arranged through Tierra Ventura (52/951/501-1363).
Oaxaca relies solely on tourism, so accommodations usually provide families with strollers, accessorized cribs, car seats and babysitting references for when parents are out for an evening. Hotel Casa San Felipe (52/951/514-8800) provided such services when our daughter was pre-teen. All lodgings should have an English-speaking doctor on call in the unlikely event of an emergency.
Many visitors prefer a quaint lodging environment, but do not want to spend a fortune at Camino Real (800/901-2300) or Los Laureles. Our friends usually enjoy the Holiday Inn Express (52/951/512-9200) in downtown Oaxaca.
While most small hotels and bed and breakfasts do not have pools, some have arrangements with nearby pooled hotels so their guests can also use it. The Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association has listings for establishments with pools.
If you cannot find a hotel with a pool, Oaxaca has many water parks. These facilities, along the highways approaching the city, have pools of varying sizes and depths and water slides to keep the kids happy for an entire day. The closest are Las Brisas and La Bamba.
You can also visit one of the balnearios, or public beaches, in Vista Hermosa, 40-minutes away from Oaxaca. During the summer, you will find families swimming, playing volleyball or sitting under palapas—grass huts—eating local fare from nearby vendors.
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