Just because you have kids doesn’t mean you have to stop travelling altogether. In fact, bringing the kids along for your next Latin American adventure can be an enriching experience for everybody involved. It’s easier than you think, and just a few simple guidelines can keep your once-in-a-lifetime vacation from turning into yet another cautionary tale of a family trip gone wrong.
So where should you go?
While much of Latin America is great for the whole family, some areas should be avoided because they are either too dangerous, too remote, too high, too low or just too darned hot. There’s been much ado about drug- and gang-related violence in the region (and for good reason). For the time being, you may wish to skip bringing the kiddos if you are headed to Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Northern Mexico. But with a bit of caution, most other areas are good to go.
How do I keep my family healthy?
Check ahead for vaccines. Many tropical areas of South America require a yellow fever jab. Breastfeeding mothers should not take the vaccine – and you should definitely think twice about giving the vaccine to a toddler under two. Consult your doctor for advice before you go. In the end, your best way to avoid yellow fever is by sticking to higher elevations and straying away from deep jungle areas. The best way to avoid most illnesses is to avoid getting bitten in the first place (use long sleeves and a natural bug balm). You’ll also need to be prepared with plenty of anti-diarrheals and a top-notch first-aid kit. While treating your tastebuds in local markets is fun for adults, unless you have older kids, stick to cleaner mid-range restaurants when your kids are in tow.
How do I make it fun?
Let your kids take the lead, plan your itinerary together and mix educational opportunities and fun in equal parts. While the Maya ruins of Mexico and Inca cities of Peru are fascinating historically, they are also good to play on. Cut your destination list in half and plan on a few days by the pool. While kids are highly adaptable (more adaptable than most grown-ups in fact), it makes it easier if you stay in mid-range digs with pools, room to spread out and plenty of activities. Private rooms in hostels can also do the trick, depending on what you are used to at home. For young kids, keep your home routines no matter where you are.
Top 10 Latin American destinations with kids
1. Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It’s safe, it’s easy to get to (with tons of flights to Cancún just an hour north), the beaches are awesome, and there's more to do than at the big Riviera Maya all-inclusive resorts for independent families. Top attractions include easy day-trips to Maya ruins like beachside Tulum, rough-and-ready Cobá (a climber's delight), and Chichén Itzá, where there’s even a cool laser show. Water babies will love the protected lagoons and cenotes, or the quick ferry trip over to Cozumel. And if you get tired of the tots, you can always stick them in a kids' club at one of the hotels and head out for a night on the town where you’ll find some of Mexico’s best clubs.
2. Granada, Nicaragua. All of Nicaragua is great for family travel. It’s cheap, the locals are friendly, and, believe it or not, it’s one of the safest countries in all of Latin America. Granada is a lake-front colonial town that perfectly mixes old-world charm with new-world zest. You can head out on the lake to explore by day or pop over to nearby surf towns. Be wary of Nicaragua’s strong Pacific currents; only let the older kids out.
3. Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica. Costa Rica is without a doubt the most kid-friendly and most-developed travel destination in Central America. In the beach-front Manuel Antonio National Park, you can spot howler and spider monkeys, hang out on the beach, trek through rainforests and chase frogs. There are plenty of great high-end hotels here.
4. Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Costa Rica is so great for kids, we had to include two. Tamarindo is a surf town high up on the Pacific Coast with good hotels, and easy day-trips to cloud forests, volcanoes, dry tropical forests, mangrove kayak tours and more. Daily flights to nearby Limón make getting to this part of Costa Rica a snap. Long day trips can take you to Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal (where there’s an active volcano) or the remarkable cloud forests of Monteverde.
5. Canal Zone, Panama. A lot of families skip Panama, but English is widely spoken, they use the dollar, and there are amazing beaches, waterways and cultural sights to explore. For easy day-trips from Panama City (a fun spot in and of itself with a cool colonial center to explore), head out by boat to visit with emberá tribes that migrated to the canal zone, explore the waterways and massive locks, or challenge the whole family to spot as many separate species of bird as possible in one hour… we bet you get to at least 30.
6. Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador. Hang out near Cotopaxi where quick day trips take you to remote indigenous villages along the Quilatoa Loop, and into a big national park that protects one of the world's highest volcanoes. There’s plenty of fun to be had in the hacienda-style hotels that date back hundreds of years, including horseback rides, pool romps and llama interactions. Take precautions against altitude sickness here.
7. Machu Picchu, Peru. We had to include it. The top archaeological attraction in all of South America is better for older kids who will dig the history. Also, keep in mind that it’s tough to get here, and it’s pretty darned high. A couple of days around Cuzco and maybe a romp across to Lake Titicaca can be worth the trip.
8. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Wild explorers in your tribe will love the hiking near here. Chile is one of South America’s most economically advanced countries, and decent infrastructure makes it a little simpler for travellers with tots. You could even comfortably camp out if you felt like being adventurous.
9. Amazon, Brazil. Leave your trip to Rio for when it’s just the grown-ups. Instead, head out from the Brazilian hub of Manaus to explore the Amazon forest. You can go on high-end river cruises, out to jungle lodges or keep it simple with a couple of day-trips.
10. Buenos Aires, Argentina. Want to mix some European flavour into your South America romp? Buenos Aires with its cobbled-stone streets, impressive European architecture, sumptuous cuisine, and, tango - yes, tango - will appeal to city explorers. There are excellent museums and plenty to do for young ones as well. From there, head out to Iguazu Falls or to Patagonia for great sightseeing and wilderness.