From the pinnacle of the third largest pyramid in the world, you can see the unearthed complex of Teotihuacan (City of the Gods) 48km outside Mexico City. At one point, it covered 20km2 and was home to 100000 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 minifigure.
My four-year-old son, Zephyr, and I stared at the ancient ruins for several minutes, in part out of fascination and in part to catch our breath.
“It’s like Indiana Jones,” he remarked in awe. Not only was the climb arduous, but we were more than 2135m 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. The modest Hotel Milan in the funky Roma Norte neighbourhood where we stayed cost as much for a week as one could easily spend for a night at a Washington hotel, while it cost only a few dollars to take an Uber trip across town.
Picking up 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 hand-made 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 speciality 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 it is a patchwork of a thousand disparate collections presented without labels or contextualisation 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, hand-made 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 nonetheless 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 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 wardrobe, which was forged to hide and compensate for 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 of for some 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 means “snows”, but are closer to sorbets. They come in a variety of tropical flavours, including tart-and-sweet maracuyá (passion fruit), creamy guanábana (soursop) and rich guayaba (guava).
Another memorable stop was at Glace Helado, a charming little shop specialising in less conventional flavours, such as green tea, Parmesan and churro. There were more mainstream offerings, such as sea-salted caramel.
Rounding out our favourites was Bendita Paleta, inside Mercado Roma, a massive food hall showcasing a mélange 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 out on the street 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.