Independent Families: 'What can my sons do around Mexico City?'


Q. My husband is in Mexico City on business and my two sons – aged 10 and 15 – and I will be joining him and extending the stay with a beach holiday on the Pacific coast. Since we are flying into Mexico City we might stay there for a few days before moving on to the beach. However, I've heard that the city is fairly chaotic and wondered if it's a suitable place to visit with children? What would we see and do while we were there? D Holmes, via email

A. Mexico City is vast, crowded, frenetic and smog-choked and on first inspection can seem intimidating, which perhaps explains why most visitors who arrive there use it as a springboard to get to other parts of the country. But what fleeting visitors miss is its wealth of history, music, food, culture and little-known green areas.

Deciding where to start exploring this huge metropolis can be an overwhelming prospect, as can trying to get to know it in just a few days when you could easily spend a year unearthing all it has to offer.

Aside from its cultural attractions, ringing the city are volcanoes, mountains and one of Latin America's largest Aztec sites, giving plenty of scope for day trips.

The city's historical attractions are conveniently packed into the Historical Centre, a restored area fanning out from the Plaza Mayor, or main square. Here you'll find plenty to visit, from Latin America's oldest and largest cathedral to Aztec ruins, innumerable churches and museums.

Shade can be found beneath eucalyptus, palm and cypress trees in Alameda Park, a lovely space which is dotted with fountains. However, traipsing around museums at what is usually a humid time of year might prove hard work with two young boys. With this in mind, the Estadio Azteca (00 52 55 5325 9000; www.estadioazteca.com.mx) – the only stadium to host two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1986 – is a must-see if your sons are big on football.

A 20-peso (90p) guided visit (Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm) reveals the pitch where Maradona scored his infamous "hand of God" goal, the stands where Pele lifted the 1970 Cup, and the dressing rooms where Gary Lineker polished the shoes that once earned him the coveted Golden Boot.

Although summer is not the best time to catch a football match, there are two games scheduled this month between the home team, América, and Jaguares of Chiapas and Tecos of Guadalajara.

All sorts of other activities are available in and around the city. On a clear day, two snow-capped volcanoes should be visible to the south: Popocatépetl (5,452m), and the Iztaccíhuatl (5,286m). Straddling the two peaks is the Paso de Cortés, a vantage point where the Spanish Conquistadors first witnessed a city that was once riven with Venetian-like waterways. These are still partly in evidence in the district of Xochimilcho. The canals were later filled in to accommodate a bigger urban area, but the main avenues of today's southern Mexico City retain the names of the old channels.

Mountain Bike Mexico (00 52 42 7271 0953; www.mtbmexico.com) has one-day mountain bike descents on the slopes of Popocatépetl for US$120 (£60), which includes pick-up and drop-off at your hotel as well as bike hire. Bici y Montaña (00 52 72 8287 6100; www.biciymontana.com) offers other bicycle excursions to the outskirts of the city.

For even more adrenalin-pumping pursuits, head to the Feria de Chapultepec (00 52 55 5523 02121; www.cie-mexico. com.mx), a fairground that has one of the world's highest roller coasters. An all-inclusive day pass to the park costs 80 pesos (£3.75). The park is situated in the Bosque de Chapultepec (www.chapultepec.com.mx), a huge forested area in the centre of the city which was once used as a hunting ground by the Aztec nobility.

A local proverb insists that if you didn't play truant in the woods – twice the size of New York's Central Park – you didn't enjoy a happy childhood.

Whether skiving or not, a day's outing to Chapultepec is a welcome refuge from the city. Also in the park is the Papalote Children's Museum (00 52 55 5237 1773; www.papalote.org.mx; daily 9am-6pm; weekends 10am-7pm; admission 70 pesos/£3.20), which has hundreds of interactive exhibits including a planetarium and IMAX cinema.

Chapultepec is also home to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (00 52 55 53-6381; www.mna.inah.gob.mx; daily 9am-7pm; closed Mondays; tickets 45 pesos/£2.10) . Among the extensive collection – most of which pre-dates the Spanish Conquest – are sculptures, costumes and relics depicting each of Mexico's civilisations. The museum is an excellent way to get a grasp on the different ruins and archaeological sites around the city and further afield.

After all that activity you'll need to refuel and there's no shortage of eateries in the city, from new-wave haute cuisine to traditional. Near the Bosque de Chapultepec is an old taquería, El Fogoncito (00 52 55 316 497; www.fogoncito.com; Calle Leibinitz 54). A popular choice is tacos al pastor – pork, pineapple, onion and coriander on folded tortilla. Or go for the "gringa", which comes with cheese.

If you can stretch your visit by a few days, then the pyramids of Teotihuacan – around an hour's drive from the city centre – are staggering. At its zenith (500AD), this Aztec city had around 250,000 inhabitants and was one of the six largest urban areas in the world. The site is open daily except Mondays, 8am-5pm, and tickets cost 45 pesos (£2.10). The story of its beginnings, climax and decline remain somewhat of a mystery, adding to Teotihuacan's appeal.

The site is huge and deserves at least half a day's exploration. Don't be surprised if you find areas cordoned off, since excavations are ongoing – just buy the paper the following day to see what was unearthed. Two years ago, 12 skeletons were found at the core of the 41m-high Moon Pyramid.

My last word of advice is to avoid hailing taxis on the street. Illegal taxis are plentiful and can be difficult to identify. The best option is to hire a hotel taxi for the day – most of the drivers speak some English, and the cost is remarkably good value: as low as 300 pesos (£14) for the day.

Send your family travel queries to Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or e-mail crusoe@independent.co.uk

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