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.
We settled in slowly. Because we'd planned the trip late, in typical fashion, all that was available to us was the single nicest lodging in the place, a house called the Villa Mar, just uphill from the main resort. (Costa Azul has 28 hotel rooms, all with an ocean view, that are simple and okay but showing their age, as well as eight condos that big families would do well to look into. Large, surprisingly beautiful expat houses can also be rented in the hills and along the beach around the resort, a neighborhood known to locals as Gringolandia.) With two bedrooms, high ceilings, many couches, and a long porch overlooking the sea, our villa practically begged us to stay put. So we hung out a bit, sleeping in and discovering that the guest manual wasn't exaggerating when it warned about the little scorpions that sneak in from the adjoining woods. (We might never have noticed the one on the wall near Margot's side of the bed, except that Asa has an eye for arthropods. Trapped without incident, it survived in a Baggie for days and days. In case of stings, which we never heard of anyone suffering during our stay, a good hospital is right in town.)
There were many families with young children about, and all of us quickly met. None had chosen the pricey package that the resort tries to sell, with all meals and the children's program included, and none regretted it, with one caveat. It turned out that unless you bought the package, Costa Azul did not guarantee a kids' camp every day—the coordinators might be taking a day or two off. Fortunately, by the time our kids were ready to spend a few hours away from us, Costa Azul was ready, too. Their young counselor, Daly (short for "Dalila" and pronounced "dolly"), who had grown up right in town and dressed in surfer wear, delighted Nell with poolside crafts projects that involved a little Spanish—learning how to say "horse" (caballo), for example, and then making one out of clay. When the group got too hot (and covered with paint), it was time for a swim and then a hike along the resort's jungle trail; or, another day, a walk into San Pancho to see a monkey and sample the local lollipops. Margot and I rode mountain bikes, swam, napped, and read on the beach.
The whole family went on a daylong excursion to San Cristóbal estuary at San Blas, and from our small launch we saw owls, crocodiles, snakes, herons, anhingas, iguanas, a giant termite nest, and the furry mammal called a coatimundi. Lunch was at a backwoods restaurant on an astonishingly clear natural pool called La Tovara, where those of us awaiting our meals—cheese quesadillas, red-snapper tacos—could swing high over the water on a trapeze and plunge into the drink as other diners watched. Asa startled us by leaping off the six-foot platform and bobbing up thrilled.
With the kids happily returning to their program the next day, Margot headed to a Mexican market 40 minutes away in the untouristy town of La Peñita, and I was free to take a surfing lesson, my first. Our group climbed into vans en route to the nearby beach at Sayulita. (The beach at Costa Azul is lovely, but the waves are generally too rough for beginners, whether surfers or swimmers.) Most of the students taught by Aaron, our very freckled instructor from Quebec, were teenagers, part of a group of families from Laguna Beach, almost all with surfer-businessman fathers. The California parents looked on approvingly as we placed surfboards in the sand and, while lying on them, rehearsed the motions of paddling and making a fast turn for the shore when a wave approached, and the graceful, gradual standing-up.
The waves were small and sweet, and on my fifth or sixth try, I miraculously caught one. Crouched in fear and elation, I rode the wave in, a little too far, as it turned out; as Aaron had warned us, there were some sharp rocks on the bottom. I ended up with a slightly cut foot—but was so "stoked" that I barely felt it and immediately paddled back out.
Afterward we took over a restaurant on the beach, and Scott, one of the friendly Lagunans, bought a big dorado from the back of a fisherman's pickup for the restaurant to grill. As I opened my second bottle, it seemed a shame to me that anyone ever has to drink Corona beer anywhere besides a Mexican beach. Margot arrived with a new collection of striped market bags just as the fish was coming off the grill.
If only all of our meals had been that good. Costa Azul's restaurant opened onto the beach but its kitchen often seemed understaffed, its menu needlessly elaborate. One night, Enrique, the chef, staged a feast, with tiny sopes, chicken tamales, chiles rellenos, crisp flautas, and, for dessert, fried bananas wrapped in a tortilla and sprinkled with cinnamon. Three nights later, he somehow ran out of chicken, corn tortillas, and, apparently, help, as we waited more than an hour for food. Also, oddly, there was no kids' menu. However, nothing we tried—strawberries, lettuce, unpeeled tomatoes, ice (gingerly at first, but after a day or so, without concern)—made anyone sick, and much of the food was terrific, such as the pico de gallo salad, done with fresh orange, jicama, cucumber, chile powder, salt, and lime.
Perhaps the best thing about the restaurant was the fabulous menu of live music. Every other night it was different: mariachis, an ensemble of regional folk dancers, and, unexpectedly great, a local gypsy trio that included a German, a Swede, and a Mexican (Gitans Blonds was the name of their CD). We all loved every band, Nell in particular; she danced solo, or with the Laguna gang, stopping to eat only during their breaks.
When we heard that Daly and Jesús, our kayak guide, were planning to attend the rodeo in Sayulita, we had to go, too. Inside the low concrete arena we saw a little rodeo and a lot of pageantry: bull-riding contestants would explode into the ring, and, because in Mexico they're allowed to use both hands, hang on for a good long ride. For big intervals in between, we were entertained by a brass salsa band with an unbelievably large wall of speakers on a stage awash in artificial smoke. The Sunday-night affair was notable for the consumption of exotica—we ate elote (corn cut from the cob and mixed with sour cream and chile powder), pepino (cucumber spears, served in a plastic bag), and local oranges, and drank Modelo beer, watching as everyone else tossed their empty cans into the arena. The crowd included couples, a few families, and men out with their buddies. "That man is drunk," I found myself explaining to the children for the first time. As the sun set, colored lights illuminated the band, which seemed to conspire with the rodeo announcer to fill every available moment of silence. We ended the evening in Sayulita with a round of rides and chocolaty churros at a traveling carnival.
THOUGH WE THOUGHT OUR BIG HOUSE AND LAWN WERE PRETTY GREAT, Asa and Nell found the neighbor's bungalow to be superior: it was a staff residence, and its parched yard, shaded by a couple of palms and banana trees, was heaven for small lizards. Our housekeeper, we discovered, lived there with her children—Would we like to meet them? she asked. They were home on a school holiday, and just slightly older and younger than ours. It was a great match—her son, Ivan, showed our kids how they were being too gentle in their lizard pursuit; our kids delighted hers with the discovery of a particularly large blue-bellied reptile that appeared to be only recently dead. It was the kind of encounter you always hope for in a foreign place, a reminder that the best kind of kids' activity is hard to plan for, and utterly free.
The climax of our trip came on a day that started with a visit to the local kindergarten, where the Mexican children treated ours like honored guests, singing fervent choruses of "De Colores" and "Una Rata Vieja," about a grandma rat. (An attempt by Nell and me to reciprocate with "Twinkle, Twinkle" fell a bit short, but they were forgiving.) Just before dusk, a contingent of maybe 40 adults and children from the hotel trooped down the beach for one of the periodic releases of baby sea turtles hatched nearby. The turtles, explained local conservationist Frank Smith, a retiree from California standing beside his dune buggy, were endangered by shrimp fishing, poaching, and dogs and people who dig up the eggs for food. His group collects eggs as soon as possible after they're laid, hatches them in a special tent on the beach, and then returns the babies to the sea. We discovered that the kids had visited the tent with Daly; they already knew that Frank didn't mind if they handled the animals, as long they did it carefully.
Finally he emptied the laundry baskets of young turtles onto the sand, and the crowd parted. The tiny creatures, only 1 1/4 inches long, used their flippers to clamber down the beach to the crashing surf. Children picked up those that went astray and set them straight. With the pink sky on his face, Smith told us that the turtles would now begin a 6,000-mile sojourn, and somehow, nobody knew how, find their way back to this beach at the end of three years, to start the cycle all over again. I thought we might try to do the same.
Costa Azul Adventure Resort Hwy. 200, KM-118, Amapas y las Palmas, San Francisco, Nayarit; 800/365-7613 or 949/498-3223, fax 949/498-6300; www.costaazul.com; doubles from $120; packages from $308 a night for a family of four (including all activities, three meals, and unlimited drinks); children under three free; children under five $36 a night; children six to ten $62. Villa Mar is $300 a night, not including activities, meals, and drinks.
For privately owned rental houses, many with pools and near the resort, contact Brian Stine at International Shores Realty, 52-325/84020, fax 52-325/84021; email@example.com.
Ted Conover's latest book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (Random House), won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction.
Just Across the Border:
12 more Great Resorts for Families in Mexico
THE BEACH—BIG-TIME RESORTS
Westin Regina Golf & Beach Club San José del Cabo; 800/937-8461 or 52-11/429-000; www.westin.com; doubles from $169; children free. There's a white sandy beach—rare in these parts—seven pools, and a kids' program. Most astonishing, though, is the minimalist red granite structure itself, with 243 rooms, all overlooking the ocean.
Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita 800/332-3442 or 52-329/16000; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $560; children free. Mexico at your service—with golf and a state-of-the-art kids' program. Only a 45-minute drive north of Puerto Vallarta, but in a realm of its own.
Fiesta Americana Cancún; 800/343-7821 or 52-9/881-1400; www.fiestaamericana.com; doubles from $112; children under 12 free. A 281-room hotel with a poolside family scene (have no fear, no drunken college kids here) and its own marina. Close to great snorkeling and to the ruins of Tulum, Chichén Itzá, and Cobá.
Fairmont Acapulco Princess 800/866-5577 or 52-7/469-1000; www.fairmont.com; doubles from $139; children free. The ease—and the excess—of Acapulco, with 1,017 spacious rooms in Aztec-inspired towers. The big draw for families is the four pools, lagoon, and 12 miles of beach.
THE BEACH—SMALL(ISH) HIDEAWAYS
Majahuitas Puerto Vallarta; 52-3/221-5808; www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com; doubles from $255; $35 per child, including all meals and boat transfers. Gilligan's Island really does exist—and the food's amazing. This seven-casita, candlelit resort isn't actually on an island, but in an isolated cove 20 minutes by motorboat from Puerto Vallarta. More a hub for honeymooners than for families, but those who like beach and quiet are very much welcomed.
Hotel Catalina and Sotavento Zihuatanejo; 52-755/42032; doubles from $75; children under 12 free. Side-by-side sister hotels with simple rooms above the area's best beach (warning: steep stairs). Lots of equipment on hand for boating and fishing. Though minutes away from Ixtapa, Zihua is a refreshingly real town.
Hotel Santa Fé Puerto Escondido; 52-958/20170; www.hotelsantafe.com.mx; doubles from $66; children 10 and under free. Enchanting colonial-style enclave with 62 rooms and eight bungalows, palm-shaded pools, and a wonderful restaurant overlooking one of Mexico's best surfing beaches. Great for families with surfers or young kids happy to play in the sand. Take the lagoon excursion.
Ixtapa and Huatulco 800/258-2633; www.clubmed.com; doubles from $1,064 per week at Huatulco, $1,974 at Ixtapa; children free at Ixtapa; $56 per week (ages 23), $210 per week (ages 411) at Huatulco. Both are in lovely settings and have basic guest quarters, though Ixtapa has just been renovated and Huatulco is slated to be. The children's club in Ixtapa accepts kids as young as a year old (don't go if crying babies spoil your breakfast); the one in Huatulco starts at age four and has more of a scene for teens. Note: Ixtapa is closed until November 10; Huatulco until November 17.
La Puertecita San Miguel de Allende; 52-415/25011; www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com; doubles from $180; children $30. A country estate turned 33-room hotel, with its own learning center (language, art, and cooking classes), two pools (one heated), mountain bikes, and hot springs excursions.
Camino Real Oaxaca 800/722-6466 or 52-9/516-0611; www.caminoreal.com; doubles from $195; children 12 and under free. The city's grand hotel is a 16th-century convent with courtyards to run around in. Built on a human scale, Oaxaca has a wonderful central plaza; there are crafts centers and ruins nearby. Chef-restaurateur Rick Bayless, of Chicago's Frontera Grill, spends every Christmas here with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. His Christmas dinner restaurant: La Capella, in the town of Zaachila, 30 minutes southwest of Oaxaca, with its own swing sets, exotic birds, and bank of hammocks.