Learning can be child's play at city attractions

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MEXICO CITY -- Mexico offers a wealth of options for families, including archaeological sites, theme parks and, of course, beaches.

The following is an overview of family-friendly destinations and attractions:

Mexico City

There's so much to do and see in Mexico City, travel agents who advise families not to push to see too many of the same things in any one day will be providing a real service.

Advise families to allow time to do nothing but "hang out" or picnic in Chapultepec Park.

Mexico's parks are a perfect spot for families to enjoy time together and experience Mexico as the locals do. On Sundays, in particular, they can check out the park's vendors for their local crafts, handiworks and snacks. Or take a train up to Chapultepec Castle, the city zoo (don't miss the pandas) and the Museum of Anthropology.

Here are some other Mexico City attractions:

• Zocalo Centro Historico is the heart of the city and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Families interested in the history, culture and politics of "old" Mexico City will want to start here. To give an idea of its size, the zocalo is the third-largest public square after Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Red Square in Moscow.

• The Palacio Nacional on the east side of the zocalo provides a vivid lesson in Mexican history through the medium of art. Diego Rivera's murals depicting Mexico's history cover 4,850 square feet and took 20 years to paint.

• The markets of Mexico are an attraction unto themselves. The country's biggest, the Mercado Merced, east of the zocalo on Circun Valacion, sprawls for blocks.

• The upscale section of Zona Rosa can be mesmerizing for teens, with designer boutiques, restaurants and nightlife.

• Mexico's interactive, educational Papalote Museo del Nino is perfect for kids age 14 and under. Highlights include a climbing treehouse and the wheelchair obstacle course set up to help children learn about disabilities.

• Six Flags Mexico, on the Web at www.six-flags.com.mx, opened in 2000 after a major renovation of an older park. It features 52 rides and two roller coasters. Batman the Ride is the signature attraction. It's the only suspended looping coaster in the country.

Oaxaca

About a five-hour drive from Mexico City, Oaxaca offers a rich, culturally diverse experience, enlivened by Zapotec and Mexican/Mixtec arts. It's a good destination for families with curiosity and interest in the designs and arts of other cultures.

• The Cathedral and Iglesia Domingo de Guzman may be a bit stuffy for kids. More family-friendly is the Rufino Tamayo Prehispanic Art Museum, a "home" built around a spacious, informal courtyard housing exceptional pre-Columbian and early Mexican ceramics and folk art, including a mask collection.

• The small village of Teotitlan del Valle is an hour or so away by inexpensive taxi. (Note: Usually the taxi drivers recommended by the hotel speak enough English to serve as basic guides.) In "Teo" the big attractions are the artisans working their looms, weaving colored carpets of bright wool.

• A hike up the Pyramids of Monte Alban can be tiring (and hot) but worthwhile, providing dramatic views of Oaxaca Valley.

Cozumel

All of Isla Cozumel, Mexico's Caribbean retreat on the Web at www.islacozumel.com.mx, is a family attraction, especially Chankanaab National Park.

• A pocket-size main town along the ocean, San Miguel, features a small museum with cooking demonstrations and a replica of a Mayan village that should interest kids.

• Chankanaab, 10 minutes south of San Miguel, is a wildlife preserve, a botanical garden and a natural aquarium set alongside a tranquil bay with outlying reefs. The gardens feature replicas of Mayan sculptures and village huts. The beach has facilities with lockers and showers. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 per person. The Dolphin Discovery program, a 30-minute swim with dolphins, is held within the park.

• The 10-acre Mayan ruins in nearby San Gervasio have been restored by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. Once inside, you can wander through four districts, dating from 300 to 1500. Tours are led by a Mayan guide.

Riviera Maya

The Riviera Maya stretches for about 75 miles along the coastline of the Yucatan peninsula. It has a wide range of family activities, including kayaking, mountain biking, scuba diving and snorkeling.

• An hour south of Cancun is Xcaret Nature Park, a well-designed, 150-acre water park featuring a botanical lagoon, gardens, an aviary, a butterfly zone, marine-life exhibits and another chance to swim with the dolphins. Families also can enjoy an unusual water sport here: floating through the "underground rivers" of limestone caves, the same waterways historically used by the Mayans to escape their enemies. Participants wear inner tubes and water wings. The caves are punctuated by many openings, letting light shine through.

• Akumal (Riviera Maya's north end) is in the heart of the archaeological remnants of the Mayan civilization. The ruins of Tulum, Coba and Xcaret are 15 minutes away, and the famous cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Palenque make easy day trips.

Los Cabos

In the Baja, Lindblad Expeditions runs a whale-watching trip that is popular with families. This weeklong journey through the Mexican Galapagos, according to one family, was "the best time we ever had as a family. Anywhere." For information, call Lindblad at (800) 397-3348 or visit www.expeditions.com.

Tip: Agents might advise parents planning a vacation in Mexico to check out www.elbalero.gob.mx/index_kids.html. This site is a colorful introduction to the country, well-designed and fun to navigate.

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