Mexico City. Two little words that had a huge effect on people when we announced we were heading that way with two young children. Depending on levels of subtlety, the reactions ranged from minor nervous twitch to blurted concerns that we’d be attacked, stabbed or killed, potentially all three.
No matter that we’d braved Kathmandu and rural Himalayan home stays, the scooter-studded chaos of Saigon and the brutal poverty of Cambodia. No matter. Apparently it was Mexico City that would be the undoing of us.
It played on our minds a bit, this unanimous negativity. But then we started to read. And we found families who’d had an incredible time there. And besides, Olivia was developing a fully-fledged love for Frida Kahlo, so it was only polite to go and say hi.
We are many things as travellers, but we’re not stupid. We had no intention of walking unknown roads after dark. We didn’t seek out an edgy area. We used our heads. We did our research. And I’m happy to say that our few days in Mexico City was enough to surprise and utterly charm us. The capital is sprawling, a metropolis of nine million people. But rather than drug lords and crime rings, the city we found was green and beautiful, full of excitement and surprises and tacos. Dear God, the tacos.
Anyway, back to the kids. Every time we hit a city, we try to find something specifically for children, whether it’s a unicorn cafe, an adventure playground or a kids cooking class. The reality may be that children find joy in the least likely places, from street art to giant Buddhas, but still. We owe them a bit of fun that’s aimed squarely at them.
We had read wonderful things about the Papalote Museo de Los Niños, but nothing quite prepared us for how good it really was. A vast huddle of buildings, tiled in traditional ceramic of eye-popping blue and egg-yolk yellow, the children’s museum is nestled deep in the Bosque de Chapultepec, 700 hectares of green lung and relative fresh air in the heart of the capital. Architect Ricardo Legorreta’s design was made to be interacted with, the tactile walls encouraging children to touch them and the ceilings designed by local kids. Inside, nearly three hundred exhibits are split into five key areas about human development: ‘Soy’ (I am), ‘Comunico’ (I communicate myself), ‘Pertenezco’ (I belong), ‘Comprendo’ (I understand) and ‘Expreso’ (I express myself). Throw in an archeology-themed Mayan garden, an enormous IMAX screen and a special exhibition space, and you have yourselves a day of effortless entertainment.
Both Olivia and River jumped in headfirst. They built soft play forts and vegetable gardens, became vets and supermarket cashiers. They climbed through giant mouths and arteries. They discovered the addictive special exhibition entirely about Lego, with a huge Duplo pit for the younger ones too.
We’d planned our visit to be an hour or two long. We didn’t stand a chance. Just as we’d finished the ground floor, and were about to leave, we popped our heads upstairs out of curiosity. We thought it would be more of the same. Wrong again. There were paper rocket-making stations, complete with wind tunnels to test their aerodynamic qualities and wonky wings. There were 3-d printing rooms and invention workshops and chemistry labs ripe for experiments. Shoals of painted wooden fish soared up through the high-ceilinged space and orchestras made of junk provided the soundtrack. It was a joyful, open, exciting place, full of imagination. We left, amazed, inspired and unsure how, with three months to go, we’d ever manage to outdo this place.
So it was with our daughter’s standards set outrageously high that we arrived in Oaxaca. Still full of excitement about the Papalote, she asked hopefully if there was a kids museum. We gulped, worried it would be a letdown. But it turns out that, while Oaxaca was an entirely different kettle of fish to the capital, it punches way above its weight when it comes to children’s museums.
The Museo Infantil de Oaxaca is unique. Built across an old railway station, the history lives on, the hand-painted station sign still hanging above the platform, the old carriages taking on new lives as workshops and classrooms and baby discos.
While there was clearly no expense spared at Papalote, this one was a clear labour of love. Beautifully executed with care and consideration for small people and their needs, MIO is a quieter, humbler, more thoughtful affair. There’s nothing showy or ostentatious. Just the fantastic foundation of a station —and what kid doesn’t love trains?— with craft and creativity running through its veins.
There is space to run across the railway tracks and clamber the platforms. Inside, hand-painted chairs in the traditional local style huddle around similarly bright tables for guided activities. Olivia settles in to make a hippo puppet from coloured paper, while across the room, a group of six year olds giggle and shriek their way through a blindfolded taste test.
Near the entrance is a light-flooded library area where children curled in beanbags can lose themselves in stories. Outside, an assault course and wheelchair-friendly playground coexist, the most able and disabled playing alongside each other at last. Elsewhere, carriages become climbing frames and vegetables sprout up teepees. The occasional animal comes along to say hello.
The atmosphere here is peaceful and respectful. There are no rules, no barriers, no brats. Just genuinely entertaining, enthralling spaces and activities. Places to learn and not realise it’s happening.
We’re spoiled back home in our little London bubble, of course we are. We can take the kids to the Science Museum, the Transport Museum, the Museum of Childhood. They’re all wonderful and it’s tempting to assume ours are the best in the world. But Mexico took us by surprise and won the title. Greatest kids museums, hands down. Who knew?
Papalote Museo de Los Niños
Avenida Constituyentes #268, Mexico City 11830, Mexico
Open Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 7pm
Museo Infantil de Oaxaca
Antigua Estación del Ferrocarril, Francisco I. Madero 511, Ex-Marquezado, 68034 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
Open daily 10am to 7pm