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Family Vacations in Mexico

David Tsay

Photo: David Tsay

ASA IS NOT OLD ENOUGH TO RIDE A HORSE, ACCORDING TO THE WOMAN AT THE ACTIVITIES DESK. BUT I bring him along to the stables anyway and, this being Mexico, our wrangler, Don Pancho, thinks he'd do okay behind me on the saddle. And already I'm glad to be back in this country.

We are on the botánico ride, a tour of some of the local plant life, but Asa, six, and I, at the rear of the eight-horse file, can't hear a thing Don Pancho is saying. It doesn't matter. As we ride along the dry jungle floor, it takes only minutes for Asa to spot two large orange-and-black iguanas, high in the trees. Everything is new to him—fences made of thorny branches, donkeys bearing firewood, men working the fields with hoes (one, with a tank on his back, is spraying pesticides). Egrets surround a grazing bull. We cross a stream lined with bubbles from detergent: women are stooped over rocks just ahead, washing their laundry. Toddlers peer from behind their mothers' skirts, interested in Asa. "I like this so much, I might stop thinking about lizards," he declares as we ascend an exciting hill that puts us on the main street of sleepy San Pancho. That, if you know Asa, is earthshaking news.

The clip-clop of hooves on cobblestones accompanies this last, non-botánico part of the ride: a glimpse of the town school, fenced in behind high bars; an abandoned warehouse painted cobalt blue; the town soccer field; and, across from it, a traveling movie theater. Benches are lined up behind an ancient truck—at night the proprietors raise a screen and fabric walls, and show double features about cowboys, guns, and kissing, for $1.50. We pass the local police car, skinny dogs, a parrot, lime rinds in the street, small piles of burning leaves. These are the things we came to Mexico for.

Margot and I were married in Mexico in 1993, down in Puerto Escondido, on a surfing beach. Before that, I'd lived in a village in the mountains north of Mexico City, getting to know farmworkers who crossed illegally into the United States. That was for a book I wrote, Coyotes. This is for fun, our first trip back since the wedding, and already we're wondering: What took us so long?

Well, Mexico. It's a haul from New York, and the flights aren't cheap. We worried about the kids, Asa and Nell, four, getting sick. We didn't want the sanitized Mexico—an insular, gringo resort—but we wanted to stay somewhere comfy enough that the week would feel like a vacation.

Then we heard about the Costa Azul Adventure Resort, a sort of few-frills Club Med with a kids' program and lots of things to do. You fly to Puerto Vallarta, midway down the Pacific coast, then drive or catch a cab to San Francisco, a.k.a. San Pancho, a small town about 30 minutes north on a lightly developed stretch of shore. As a resort, it has an unusual outward focus: an emphasis on helping guests explore the real Mexico. Costa Azul's menu of "adventure" activities changes daily: kayak trips through a bird sanctuary, a boat tour of a huge mangrove swamp, evening sailing excursions, horseback rides on the resort's nature trails or beach (something we all loved, and Asa ultimately got to ride on his own horse, tethered to Don Pancho's), surfing school, Spanish classes, jungle walks, snorkel tours, a visit to an undeveloped island, or mountain bike rides any time at all.

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