Forget your preconceptions — Mexico is a great place to take a youngster, says Nevin Martell.
It is 248 steep steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, but the views are worth the exertion.
From the pinnacle of the third-largest pyramid in the world, you can see the unearthed complex of Teotihuacan (the City of the Gods), 50km outside Mexico City. At one point, it covered 20 square kilometres and was home to 100,000 people, making it the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. Gazing down the Avenue of the Dead, lined with stone platforms and minor pyramids, the roadway ends at the smaller, no-less impressive Pyramid of the Moon. At the base below us we could see my waving wife, who looked as small as a Lego mini-figure.
My 4-year-old son, Zephyr, and I stared at the ancient ruins for several minutes, in part out of fascination — "It's like Indiana Jones," he remarked in awe — and in part to catch our breath. Not only was the climb arduous, but we were more than 2100m above sea level, so oxygen was in shorter supply than back home in Silver Spring, Maryland. During the first few days of our trip in late March, the intense elevation, along with the less-than-pristine air quality, had left me winded.
It was my only complaint. Mexico's capital has an unworthy reputation of being unsafe and unsanitary — not necessarily great for families. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mexico City is the perfect place to travel with little ones because it's brimming with great kid-centric activities that adults will love, it has a child-friendly culture and it's eminently affordable. To the latter point, the modest Hotel Milan in the funky Roma Norte neighbourhood where we stayed cost as much for a week as we could easily spend for a night at an American hotel, while it cost only a few dollars to take an Uber trip across town.
Picking up unique souvenirs was equally reasonable. We made two trips to the epic Ciudadela arts market, a sprawling grid of stands packed floor to ceiling with every kind of handmade trinket imaginable. We bought a number of alebrijes — fantastically formed and brightly painted wooden creatures that were popularised in Oaxaca — as well as small clay skulls exquisitely decorated with a rainbow of tiny beads, an artistic specialty of the country's Huichol people.
There was no shortage of things to do as a family. My son and I visited Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico, which is not so much an antique toy museum as a patchwork of a thousand disparate collections presented without labels or context in a dim and dusty building that seemed to stretch on forever. For a couple of hours, we happily wandered through haphazard displays of vintage luchadores (Mexican wrestlers) figures, bootleg Star Wars merchandise, beat up Matchbox cars, trains of every gauge and colour, outdated gaming systems, handmade steampunk accessories, a circus diorama and countless other bits of ephemera. By the end of it, I had no sense of the history of anything I had seen, but it was a thrilling visit worthy of the time in any parent's itinerary.
All three of us made a pilgrimage to La Casa Azul (the Blue House), the home of artist Frida Kahlo. There is always a long line to buy tickets, so getting them in advance is highly recommended. You can rent equipment for an audio tour or take a guided one, but we chose to wander the grounds, which were as surreal as they were magnificent. Vibrant azure walls enclosed a garden dotted with statuary and a panoply of greenery. Inside, there was an exhibit of Kahlo's iconic wardrobe, forged to hide her physical ailments (she suffered polio as a child and at 18 was injured in a bus accident, both of which left her with lasting infirmities) as much as it was to catch the eye.
Every day, we made sure to go out for a frozen treat to beat the heat. Our first stop was at Neveria Roxy, a butter-yellow corner shop with a fetching green-and-white awning in the Condesa neighbourhood that has been charming locals and tourists for more than 70 years. We zoned in on the nieves, which literally means "snows," but are actually closer to sorbets. They come in a variety of tropical flavours, including tart-and-sweet maracuya (passionfruit), creamy guanabana (soursop) and rich guayaba (guava).
Another memorable stop was at Glace Helado, a charming shop specialising in less conventional flavours, like green tea, Parmesan and churro. There were more mainstream offerings, such as sea-salted caramel, which was exceptional.
Rounding out our favourites was Bendita Paleta, inside Mercado Roma, a massive food hall showcasing a melange of cuisines and cultures. The small stall in the back corner specialises in paletas, or Mexican ice pops. They are fancier than the kind you might buy from most vendors. Zephyr chose a tantalisingly tart lemon, while I opted for strawberries and cream.
We sat outside so we could people-watch as we enjoyed our treats. Occasionally, we wouldn't work quickly enough, and their sweet juices would run down our fingers, but we didn't care.
Treat the kids to a classic ice cream at Neveria Roxy, an old-school ice cream shop that has been serving up sorbet-like nieves and rich ice creams for more than 70 years. Treats from $1 to $4.25.
Av. Fernando Montes de Oca 89, Cuauhtemoc, Condesa
American Airlines flies from Auckland to Mexico City, via LA with return Economy Class fares from $1636, on sale until December 22.
Leonel "Leo" Aguilar offers tours of Teotihuacan, trips to lucha libre matches and many other experiences. $40 per person in a group tour.