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Posts Tagged ‘travel with kids’

No sign of Ollie North on Playa Madera.

Nicaragua is one of those destinations that tends to get a “You’re going where?” any time you mention your travel plans. Despite the fact that Nicaragua’s notorious civil war ended a generation ago, its name remains stubbornly connected to violence and Regan-era scandal.

Which is truly undeserved and a darn shame. It’s got tropical beaches. It’s got volcanos. It’s got friendly people. It’s only two-and-a-half hours from the US. And a trip here costs a fraction of the price of a vacation in neighboring Costa Rica. On our recent trip, we ate, drank, and did anything we fancied and the final cost was… not that bad.

Nicaragua still sees more tourists with backpacks than suitcases, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be sleeping in hostels and eating your meals sitting on a curb. There are plenty of upscale hotels and refined dining options—most of them so inexpensive that you can opt for upgrades and order lobster with unbridled abandon.

And you won’t be the only ones bringing your kids there. Seriously. We met other vacationing families every place we went. And the hotels and restaurants were ready to receive us, pink kitty suitcases and all.

To market, to market in Granada.

So how rustic is it?

You get a good flavor for Nicaragua by taking a spin down its stretch of the Pan-American Highway. Its two lanes comprise one of Nicaragua’s few paved roads and bear everything from old American school buses whizzing to market with produce and passengers on the roof, to sleek new Mercedes sedans, to ox carts loaded with two stories of hay. Chickens literally cross the road (our preschooler was beside herself at that one), along with cows, pigs, and dogs. Along the margins, street vendors roast fabulous-smelling meats on giant wok-like skillets. Women in frilly aprons stroll by with enormous baskets of bread balanced on their heads. Howler monkeys swing from the trees. The daily grind seems like a carnival—all at once wholesome, frenetic, pastoral, and gritty.

Anja falls under the spell of Hotel con Corazon's tranquil courtyard.

Granada, with heart.

While you’ll land in Nicaragua’s largest city, Managua, there is little to see and no reason to dillydally. Granada, just an hour south of the airport, has far more to recommend. Founded way back in 1524, Granada maintains a rather down-at-the-heel colonial charm. A cathedral-flanked central park is always abuzz, a looming (but gentle) volcano owns the horizon, and its ramshackle side streets echo with hoofbeats mingled with the buzz of motorcycles. The center of the city is easily walkable and always interesting—I wouldn’t so much as run an errand without bringing our camera.

Our family stayed at the commendable and kid-friendly Hotel con Corazon. Its name translates into “hotel with heart”—and with good reason. The hotel is a non-profit operation that supports the local community with an emphasis on education and responsible tourism.

Just because Hotel con Corazon is a hotel with a mission doesn’t mean trading altruism for comfort. The hotel is so clean, cozy, and well run that you’d forget that you were staying at a non-profit foundation, were it not for its prevailing warm and fuzzy vibe.

The rooms have a Scandinavian sensibility, with clean lines, minimal furnishings, and walls adorned with photographs taken by Nicaraguan youngsters. In the main quad, you can linger over a cheerful breakfast or check your email from a hammock in the hotel’s lush garden. Or have their warm, English-speaking staff arrange a day trip for you through one of their various community partnerships.

Along with all the usual Granada sightseeing tours, Hotel con Corazon also offers activities especially for families, including piñata-making workshops, lake fishing expeditions, or cross-cultural play dates with Granadan kids.

Hotel con Corazon’s nightly rates range from US$63 for a low-season double, to $116 for a high-season two-room family suite (with travel crib, if you ask). Breakfast is included.

Nothing says adventure like having to park your car in a manner that allows you to make a quick getaway. Volcán Masaya.

To Hell and back in a (lovely) day.

If you are short on time, you can cram three of Granada’s most popular day trips into a single ambitious day. Begin with the very much active Masaya Volcano, next make an afternoon stop in Masaya’s renowned market, then end the day with a late afternoon cruise on massive Lake Nicaragua.

A short drive outside the city, Masaya is a must-see hell mouth of sulfurous steam. Unsuccessfully exorcised by Spanish missionaries who thought they’d found the gate to the underworld, Masaya has been active enough to hurl boulders at sightseers as recently as 2001. Hilariously dire reminders to park your car facing the exit and dive under your vehicle if the volcano starts acting up add a note of adventure to an otherwise easy outing.

Fishwives in Masaya's New Market.

Safely downslope from the cone of Volcán Masaya is the village that shares its name. Widely renowned for having the biggest and best craft shopping in Central America, the double markets of Masaya would take days to thoroughly explore. No mere tourist show, Masaya’s New Market is a sprawling labyrinth of stalls selling everything from shoes to squid. If you’re short on time (or olfactory fortitude—the meat district smells just as you’d expect piles of offal in the tropical sun to smell), the nearby Old Market caters directly to tourists. Its celebrated collection of dealers and artisans offer such Nicaraguan staples as handcrafted hammocks (a must-have souvenir), traditional pottery, soapstone sculptures, and a variety of textiles and woodcrafts.

Crossing the street, isleta style. Residents of Lake Nicaragua's community of tiny islets routinely scoot from island to island in row boats.

Back in Granada, board a safe and stable panga boat (with kid-size life jackets) for a cruise around Lake Nicaragua’s unique community of isletas. Late afternoon is a great time to explore the lake. With the heat of the day abating, the hundreds of tiny islets go through an intriguing sunset bustle. Dozens of residents hop from island to island in row boats or pull nets from the Lake Nicaragua’s depths. Thousands of roosting lake birds fill the trees as the sun sets vividly between Mombacho Volcano and Granada’s cathedral-dotted skyline.

After spending the morning touring the farm, there's nothing like finding the farmer's wife awaiting you with a hot lunch.

Meeting my beloved coffee at its source.

Masaya’s sister volcano, Mombacho, can be thanked for the isletas’ existence. It was a massive explosion ages ago that jetted about a third of Masaya into the lake. Today Mombacho is calm and forested, with only a few fumeroles to remind you that it is dormant, but not extinct.

Hotel con Corazon arranged a guided visit to Mombacho and the slope-side village of San Pancho. In San Pancho, a local farmer named Don Julio walked us through the village’s shade-grown coffee plantation and croplands as our guide described the strict logging rules and conscientious farming practices that make these farms look like forests. We nibbled coffee berries, gathered produce, and watched howler monkeys swing through the passionately protected canopy.

Frank Luna, our amiable guide, leads us along the dormant caldera of Volcán Mombacho.

All our ambling finally led us past a dozen or so simple and dusty homesteads to Don Julio’s own home, where the doña of the the house prepared a wholesome meal completely from food gathered from their farm. And let me tell you, the doña could cook!

After lunch, we rolled ourselves onto a military-weight truck and drove toward the summit of the volcano. Slightly upslope, a quick stop at Cafe las Flores showed how coffee berries become the beans we know and love. The small factory shop offered sample brew and bags of beans at a bargain (US$4 a pound!).

Further up the steep and switch-backed road, the summit of Mombacho has some great hikes around the extinct caldera. In about an hour, you can hike through a lush forest paradise full of birds, scads of butterflies, and trees laden with dozens of species of wild orchids. Beyond the forest are unrivaled views of the lake and isletas, tiny Granada, and a half-dozen other volcanos in the region’s chain. On a clear day, views sprawl as far as the Pacific Ocean.

If only every restaurant in the world had a hammock to keep the kiddos occupied.

Town life in Granada

Back in Granada, we squeezed in the requisite (especially if you have a four-year-old girl traveling with you) horse-drawn carriage ride around the city. We didn’t insist on an English-speaking driver (a luxury that will bring the cost of the one-hour tour from about US$10 to US$15), which meant many of the city’s landmarks were lost on us. In hindsight, it is worth the effort to ask along the ever-present row of carriage drivers around the central Parque Colon to find one who can provide commentary along with quaintness.

Eating and drinking in Granada is inexpensive and laden with delicacies. Seafood figures prominently on Granadan menus, including fish, lobster, and shrimp harvested both from the nearby ocean and the lake itself. Sangria is the local tipple, and Flor de Caña rum is the boast. Make a small splurge and try the brand’s premium 18-year variety, a rum so smooth and mellow that it can be sipped like cognac.

We dined one night on the sidewalk of the touristy Calle de Calzada and regretted it. While the carnival atmosphere of street performers and musicians is entertaining, the incessant table-side onslaught of street vendors, performers seeking tips, and bold beggars become a nuisance. Instead, opt for one of the city’s many better restaurants with courtyard gardens. Loaded with colonial charm, these places offer the delight of dining al fresco with the quietude of a private garden. Even better, all had at least one hammock; a blessing for anyone dining with small kids. With room to run and play for our daughters, we could actually order multiple courses—and even a digestif.

Incredible food. Great live music. Dining al fresco. Warm service. Very reasonable prices. And a play house. I believe that I have found my dream restaurant in El Zaguán.

Family-friendly—and gourmet.

By all accounts, Granada’s most acclaimed restaurant is El Zaguán. Our guidebook advised us to follow our noses to it meat-laden grill, and their instructions were perfect. It looks like nothing from the street, but inside it’s a refined fiesta with fine dining, vivacious live music, and a grill you will photograph and brag about like it’s one of your children.

The food and service at El Zaguán lived up to the hype. My husband’s steak elicited a, “Wow. Just wow”, on the first bite. I was looking forward to their famed whole-fried fish known as pescado a la tititapa. But the waiter warned me that the smallest guapote fish they had that night was large enough to feed at least three. Since news of my competitive-eating-caliber appetite clearly hasn’t reached these parts, I let him steer me toward sea bass steamed in ginger. And he was right: I was very happy. For the girls, a cordially divided adult portion of fried fish fingers made for the freshest, most gourmet fish sticks we’ve ever come across.

I’d be remiss not to mention one of El Zaguán’s biggest draws for anyone eating out with young kids. Just a few feet from our table, a quaint wooden playhouse beckoned kids to be kids. Thanks to the volume of the live music and the open-air digs, they were able to play so vigorously that we could scarcely keep them at the table long enough to scarf down a few of the aforementioned fish sticks.

El Zaguán is located on the road behind the cathedral—these directions will make sense when you get there. Entrees average about US$12.

Lobster tails at Mediterraneo.

An equally fabulous dinner was had at Mediterraneo. This is certainly one of Granada’s most upscale and expensive restaurants (I think we cracked US$80 when all was said and done, but we ordered multiple courses… and rounds). Set in a formal garden with floral table clothes, roving musicians, and charismatic waiters, it was a date night place if ever there was one. Fortunately, it still had a hammock and grass to sprawl on, so the girls stayed busy without causing a ruckus.

We ordered their signature mixed seafood grill and a lobster tail special. The portions provided a glut of smashingly seasoned fish, prawns, and shellfish. Andrew’s lobster portion was so large that he had to enlist my help in finishing it—no easy task, since I’d already downed most my own enormous entree. But seriously, what kind of maniac leaves lobster uneaten?

Mediterraneo, Calle Caimito. Entrees average around US$12.

The Garden Cafe. Now isn't that just lovely?

We had a standout lunch at the Garden Cafe. The beauty of the cafe’s eponymous garden can not be overstated. Lush, tropical, and white hammock ringed, it’s an oasis from the hot and dusty midday streets. Exotic birds flitted in and out of a trickling fountain as we sipped glass after glass of homemade lemonade and dined on fresh and healthy sandwiches. I’m definitely adding it to my list of happy places.

Garden Cafe, Enitel, 1 c al lago. Lunch with fresh juice costs about US$6 per person. Open for breakfast and lunch only.

Vamos a la playa!

Anja and Ingrid fall in with Mango Rosa's surfer crowd. Surf instructor Johnny is the blond dude on the left.

Nicaragua has 565 miles of tropical coast, and not a single Tony Roma’s. Or a Senor Frog’s. Or a Club Med. Or a Ritz Carlton. Most roads are unpaved. The beaches don’t have cabana boys. And words like “luxury” refer to amenities like private bathrooms. It’s rustic in a cabin-on-the-lake kind of way, so you must be prepared to endure small discomforts like fluctuating water temperature in the shower (and no tubs), dusty dirt roads anyplace you’re going, and roosters and howler monkeys awakening you at first light. But on the plus side, the beaches aren’t crowded, you don’t feel like you’re in a tourist Potemkin village, and roosters and howler monkeys awaken you at first light.

The Pacific coast around San Juan del Sur is an easy two-and-a-half hour drive from Granada (paved roads, baby!) and offers a good balance of infrastructure, wild nature, and authenticity. This region is legendary in surfing circles and the surfers definitely own the tourist vibe. Since surfers don’t seem to mind where they sleep, so long as there are waves and cold beer nearby, many accommodations are little more than a bunk on the beach and not suitable for families with small kids. But a handful of family-friendly resorts are popping up, offering clean, secure rooms, on-site restaurants, and fun-for-kids things like swimming pools.

Once such resort is the countryside compound of Mango Rosa. Ironically, this surf resort is not actually all that near the beach, but don’t let that dissuade you. Instead, it is a trim village of thatched ranchos and tidy bungalows largely hidden in the tropical jungle. Its nearest neighbors on all sides are farms; and it is commonplace to see livestock grazing alongside the dirt road that leads from town past the hotel. Follow the cows for another kilometer or so and the road dead ends in the sand on one of the neighborhood’s two gorgeous beaches.

San Juan del Sur itself was a 15-minute drive away, and a great place to restock, make an emergency bathing suit purchase (yes, we actually forgot to pack my husband’s trunks), or have a seaside meal. That said, it is hardly a destination in and of itself and can be missed without much regret. Instead, Mango Rosa has a way of meeting your every need, so the days slip by with little effort or worry.

Mango Rosa's cozy bungalows are plenty roomy enough for a young family.

Mango Rosa’s accommodations range from a grand three-bedroom villa, to simple one-bedroom bungalows. I can attest first-hand that the one-bedrooms can easily accomodate a young family. Spacious and sparklingly clean, our little cottage came with a well-equipped kitchen, a decent-sized living room with cable TV (with Nick Jr. in Spanish), and a bedroom roomy enough to accommodate a twin mattress at the foot of our bed, where our daughters slept soundly each night.

Good food is easy to come by, both at the resort’s soaring open-air rancho bar and a smattering of local seaside cafes. Don’t miss the taco stand on the nearby surf beach of Playa Madera. Trusty and delicious, this little shack serves up fresh fish tacos and nachos to die for, along with frosty cans of Toña (the local brew), fresh juice, and bottled water.

Hang diez.

I didn’t have high hopes for my surfing abilities. I’m not what you’d call “graceful” or “coordinated” or “not humiliatingly clumsy.” But since Mango Rosa was ready with board rentals, beach transport, and a perpetually shirtless surf instructor named Johnny, a surf lesson just seemed to naturally follow. Believe me: nobody was more surprised than me when he had us riding the waves within minutes of our hour-long lesson. With nearly two years of expat living under his belt, Johnny is also a ready tour organizer who knows the countryside’s rollicking backroads like the back of his suntanned hand.

I may not be quite a surfing legend, but thanks to a great lesson or two from Mango Rosa's surf instructor, I got to ride some of Nicaragua's legendary surf.

Zip-lining through the canopy with a trusty guide. Yes, we were all humming the "Go, Diego, Go!" theme.

Flying preschoolers and baby sea turtles.

While our daughters would be more than happy to play in the sand until the sun goes down (it crossed our minds that they might have gotten the same vacation experience in a sandbox), we do try to get some non-bathing suit fun in once in a while. Mango Rosa can arrange horseback riding (ages 5 and up) and zip-lining (ages 3 and up). If images of a three-year-old careening out of control down a zip-line are terrifying you, rest assured that little kids ride along with a guide and that the zip-lining itself is a pretty lite adventure.

Nighttime sea turtle viewing is a must for any family. While the cost (US$50 per person) is high by Nicaraguan standards, and the ride out to the beach is a bone-jarring hour on a route that is more potholes than road, it is so incredible that you’ll scarcely believe that it’s happening in front of you and not on TV.

The destination is the carefully protected preserve of La Flor, located just a kilometer from the Costa Rican border. Here, 30,000 female Olive Ridley turtles return each season to the very sand from which they scrabbled forth about fifteen years earlier. They haul themselves up on the beach, dig a nest, lay their eggs, then push on back to sea. About two months later, thousands of downright adorable baby sea turtles erupt from the sand and skedaddle to the ocean beneath an inky sky of a million stars.

With the help of the preserve’s researchers, it’s pretty easy to find a nest on the verge of hatching. “They’re a bit like microwave popcorn,” described Johnny. “First you’ll see one or two pops, then the whole thing just erupts.”

He was right. In mere minutes, a depression in the sand became a writing pile of cuteness, as dozens of hatchlings clumsily smacked each other with their outsized flippers. Once they got their bearings, each scampered off to the ocean, leaving a sweet path of wee flipper tracks.

An added treat for our four-year-old (Who am I kidding? For all of us!) was getting to release a baby sea turtle ourselves. Since nests that hatch during the day don’t stand a chance of making it to the water before a host of predators gobble them up, the researchers gather the hatchlings and hold them in baskets until evening. Kneeling in the sand, we each got to pick up a flailing little turtle, whisper good luck, and set it in the sand on the water’s edge.

Forgive the horrid photo quality, but we didn't want to bother the newborn sea turtles with flash photography. Anyway, here they are emerging from their nest.

Anja named her turtle Lucy and wished her buena suerte. We mused about Anja and her hatchling reuniting on La Flor when they’re both grown up. And in true Globe-toddling style, we hope Anja’s own children can welcome Lucy’s grandchildren into the world someday on that distant beach in our now-beloved Nicaragua.

A one-bedroom bungalow at Mango Rosa is US$95 a night in low season, or $139 a night during the Christmas and Easter holidays. A three-bedroom villa rents for US$220 a night in low season, or US$300 in high season.

Zip lining on an 18-platform course is about US$35 per person.


The simple life in the countryside outside San Juan del Sur.

Getting there: Nicaragua can be reached by a very manageable two-and-half-hour flight from Miami. Several US carriers offer daily flights out of Miami, as well as Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, or Houston.

Getting around: Expect to pay around US$34-45 for a trip from the airport to Granada, and US$70-80 for the two-and-half-hour ride to San Juan del Sur. A cab from Mango Rosa into the town of San Juan is US$15 each way.

A note on safety: It is difficult, but not impossible, to find cabs with seat belts. Our family struck a balance by insisting on them for long-haul trips, but crossing our fingers for shorter journeys. If you want a car with seat belts, ask ahead—it may take your hotel a bit of calling around to arrange your ride.

Granada and San Juan del Sur’s crime is mostly of the petty variety. Conduct yourself as you would in any larger city and you should be OK. As with any destination, use commonsense and keep a low profile. For more information, visit the US State Department’s tourist info page for Nicaragua.

A note on health: Nicaragua, like most of the developing world, requires a bit of traveler’s care and caution when eating and drinking. Many restaurants catering to tourists use purified water to prepare food and drinks. Be sure to ask before you order. Also, be sure to visit the CDC’s website for Nicaragua-specific guidance. Then line up a pre-trip visit with a travel clinic or your regular doctor’s office to discuss health precautions.

A note on poverty: While Nicaragua is one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries, the track described here is part of the nation’s more prosperous swath. Expect life here to be far simpler (most farms can be described as “living off the grid”), but not alarmingly destitute. Globe-toddling always promotes responsible tourism, and we encourage you to give back to the communities you visit by purchasing from local artisans at fair prices, patronizing local businesses, and supporting community initiatives. Hotel con Corazon was an enormous help to us in adding a humanitarian element to our vacation. Just ask them about ways to help when you book. We ended up bringing two extra suitcases full of clothes and supplies… and bringing them back full of souvenirs!

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Whoever said getting there is half the fun surely never flew with a toddler.

Getting there isn’t even half the battle; it is the battle.

If you accept this truth and view your flight as the trial to be endured for the payout of getting to visit a new destination, you will go into the experience with realistic expectations.

That said, there are measures you can take to make your journey more tolerable. Sometimes, you are even graced with that rare and beautiful flight that lives up to one blessed word: unremarkable.

The airplane part of traveling with kids (with toddlers being the most difficult group by far) warrants an entire book. But because I know how busy you are, I’ll give you the straight dope in just three easy installments.

Today, we’ll discuss getting along with others, or as I like to call, it:

Combating Pariah Status

It’s not all in your head. Nobody likes you when you’re flying with kids. Yes, those are withering glances being aimed your way. Yes, the gate agent did just sigh with exasperation when she saw you. Yes, that business traveler is irked that he’s behind you in the security line.

Who can blame them? You and your children are going to make a trying journey/workday all the more trying, what with all their fussing, rambunctiousness, and requirement for five times the hand luggage as anyone else.

Empower yourself with these words: These flights are for the paying public. We bought tickets just like everyone else. Nobody gets to pick who they fly with. WE HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BE HERE.

(And to those rude business travelers —who are often bigger babies than anybody who’s ever sat on my lap: Mr./Ms. Important Pants, is this your big, important private jet? No? Then shut up and take your seat with the rest of us. Then I’ll add a Please. Because I try to adhere to the same good manners that I foster in my kids.)

That said, plenty of people will be kind and helpful to you. Usually those people are also parents, and understand that this trip is tougher for you than most people, and that your child isn’t crying because you are obliviously allowing her to cry.

Navigating between these two extremes, you can get what you need without annoying and alienating your fellow travelers. Too much.

Howdy, neighbor!

First of all, smile and say hi. Smile and say hi with all the sycophantic exuberance you’d use when being introduced on a job interview. Because you need to make friends. Lots of friends.

Smile and say hi to the gate agent. He might grant you an extra seat or bulkhead row.

Smile and say hi to your seat neighbors. They might have more patience with you than if all the noise was coming from some faceless screaming kid.

Smile and say hi to the people behind you in the security line. They might grumble less when you fill the entire belt with your hand luggage.

Then remember this:

To be merciful to your fellow travelers, you must aim to accomplish two impossible tasks: keep your kids quiet, and for the love of all that is holy, try to curb seat kicking.

Hush!

Keeping a baby or toddler quiet on a flight is a feat so impossible that even the Greek gods wouldn’t wish it on a mortal. Here’s the best you can do:

1. Try to schedule overnight flights.

If your flight is going to be a long one, use your child’s circadian rhythm to your advantage. Most small kids will readily fall asleep on a plane. And then sleep at an uninterrupted depth that I would only get in my wildest inflight dreams.

If those dreams weren’t interrupted by an excruciating crick in my neck.

2. Have a bag of tricks prepared.

We dealt with this topic in the epic gear post, and will deal with it again in another installment. Suffice to say that you should pull out all the stops in packing a separate bag full of toys and snacks, then pull out those stops g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y throughout the flight.

3. Apologize profusely.

Yes, you are disturbing others. At least let them know that you are trying your darnedest to keep the peace. Because otherwise people become irate not just because of the noise, but also because of perceived apathy on your part.

Who among us hasn’t heard (or thought), “Why won’t they shut that kid up?” As if stopping the screaming is just something you haven’t bothered doing yet.

4. Expose your kids to flights and long car rides early and often.

Because I firmly believe that the ability to sit contentedly in a small space for hours is equal parts nature and nurture. If my kids weren’t pretty good on planes (and gratefully, they are pros), Globe-toddling probably wouldn’t exist.

5. Remember that noisy toys are nearly as annoying as crying kids.

I am unable to forget a transcontinental flight over a decade ago when a little girl pressed a button that struck a harp chord and said, Your wish is granted!” at least 60,000 times.

Also annoying: DVDs cranked to full volume. Be kind. Use headphones.

6. Even happy kids are only cute to strangers for, oh, 60 seconds.

After that, a cheerful “Wook! Airpwane!” whooped endlessly is going to drive others to drink. And with the price of inflight beverages, they’re not going to be happy about it.

Loose! Footloose!

As far as seat kicking goes, there is often little you can do if your child hasn’t reached the age of obedience (say under two-and-a-half).

Luckily, seat kicking isn’t generally an issue unless your child is in a car seat —otherwise their wee legs won’t reach the seat in front of them, even in these days of non-existent legroom.

If your child is in a car seat, then you can give the person in front of you a couple of choices. This not only let’s them pick their own lesser of two evils, but also makes them feel like they have a say in their fate. And people like that.

Choice #1: To recline or not get kicked.
With most car seats, you can choose either front- or rear-facing orientation. On a plane, each has an unpleasant side effect.

If you place the seat facing forward, little feet press up against the seat in front of them.

And little feet irresistibly kick. And flex. And make the person in front of you contemplate hitting you. Because they don’t want to admit to wanting to hit your kid.

Rear-facing seats present their own pickle. Economy seats being what they are, the top of the seat rests right up against the seat in front of it, rendering that little recline button on that passenger’s armrest useless.

Here’s the script:
“Hi,” you say say with award-winning congeniality. “I’m so sorry, but I’d like to ask you what you’d prefer. I can either face his/her seat forward, and do my best to keep him/her from kicking your seat. But he/she is too little to understand and I can’t promise I’ll be able to stop it. Or I can face the seat backwards, but you won’t be able to recline. I’m so, so sorry about this. What’s better for you?”

(For anyone reading this who doesn’t have kids: the reason we can’t stop this is because, a) toddlers do whatever the hell they want with reckless abandon unless restrained, and b) if you try to restrain a kicking toddler, they will only get angry and kick more.)

Choice #2: Get kicked, or get to know us.
If you’re traveling with another adult, you can offer to have one of you sit in front of your child, thereby absorbing any fancy footwork on your kid’s part.

Again, this is a lose-lose for your neighbor, because in switching seats, they end up sharing your chaotic row. People almost never choose the second option. But you showed goodwill, and…

…encouraged them to move. If the flight isn’t full, this exchange seems to give folks tacit permission to relocate without offending anyone.

Truth: it’s really better for everyone this way.

Here’s that script:
“I’m sorry, but would it be better for you if one of us sat there so that my child won’t kick your seat? You can sit in this aisle seat instead.” (Because car seats must go in window seats by law. And offering them the middle seat between you and your baby is so insane that its comical.)

When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough

You can do all of these things, and some people will still resent your presence and spare you no kindness.

As I said, they are not the arbiters of who may and may not fly and you shouldn’t be cowed by them.

What you can do is make sure that you are doing everything in your power to be as kind and courteous to your fellow passengers as possible.

And with a little luck, they will do the same.

Isn’t it nice when the grownups behave better than the children?

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We’re above 12,000 feet and a stout village woman is carrying my baby on her back.

Slung between the woman’s waist-length braids in a flamboyant blanket, tiny Ingrid is the cooing darling of the ancient marketplace. The air is thin and crisp here in Chinchero, but the sun is strong. In any direction, we are eye-to-eye with the peaks of the Andes and in the shadow of Incan ruins. Suffused in a chuckling crowd of market women in full black skirts, we watch giddily as Ingrid models traditional Quechua baby gear.

“This,” I think, “is why we brought the kids.”

No stroller? No problem. Ingrid helps a local woman model a traditional Quechua sling in the high-Andes village of Chinchero.

Months before, when my husband and I announced that we were planning a trip to Peru’s Sacred Valley, we invariably got two questions. First, “Who’s watching the kids?” Nobody, we answered. We’re bringing them. Cue second question: “Are you crazy?”

While bringing an eight-month-old baby and an almost three-year-old to a place like Peru is a bit different from taking them on vacation in the Poconos, there is nothing so insurmountably challenging about it that it can’t (or shouldn’t) be done.

Challenge number one for bringing small kids to this part of the world is the terrain. The Incas may have been master engineers (their temple complexes would make Escher blush), but their creations are far from stroller friendly.

Now populated by the Inca’s descendants, known as the Quechuas, villages remain paved in ancient cobblestones —where they’re paved at all. Steep terrain, haphazard steps, and open channels make even a stroll to the village square seems like an occasion for hiking boots.

Forget the fish and the bicycle, the old saying could easily go “like a Quechua needs a baby stroller”.

Since wheels are out of the question, we carried our children in backpacks. Beginning our trip in the hamlet of Ollantaytambo, we set out through the morning’s wood smoke and bleating sheep to explore some of the Incan ruins tacked high on a dizzying slope above the village. This strenuous morning hike with our kids in the Andes’ rarefied air made us feel like super parents.

Until we saw what the locals were carrying.

Back in the village, we passed an elderly woman toting enough sticks to shame the guy on the Led Zeppelin album cover. Barefoot schoolgirls flitted about with bundles of alfalfa twice their height. An old man strolled along a lane with an entire tree trunk tilted on his shoulder. The feats —and the scenery —were so unbelievable that we had to get some pictures.

Quechua people carry everything. And never complain about it.

While we were busy photographing the Quechuas and their bundles, the wee people riding on our own backs were turning us into a village curiosity. The locals may have grown accustomed to seeing pale-skinned adult tourists, but our blue-eyed babies were clearly a novelty.

We knew it was time to brace ourselves for an onslaught of affection.

Before we had kids, we’d travel through foreign cities like ghosts, invisible to everyone but the hawkers. Now, with babies in our arms, people are drawn to us.

My Spanish vocabulary, once comprised of the basic phrases necessary to order a meal, can now hold up my end of conversations that include, How old are they?, Your children are beautiful, and, For shame, your baby’s head is cold! (I have also learned that it is the universal prerogative of grandmothers across the globe to be aghast that your baby is not wearing a hat.)

Our kids turn heads and make friends in Ollantaytambo.

When we travel with our kids, we connect with people not as tourists, but as fellow parents. We get to talk to them about things that don’t involve the purchase of goods and services. People are actually happy to see us.

We trade the label of “tourist” for “family”.

Which brings us back to that high-Andean marketplace.

Near the end of our trip, we were were strolling through Chincero’s main square, my baby snuggled against me in a high-tech baby carrier as my husband and older daughter looked for souvenir ceramic bulls. A woman caught my eye, cocked an eyebrow, and held aloft a technicolor blanket. This was just the invitation I was hoping for.

For our entire trip, I’d been marveling at the tidy, origami-like folds of cloth that the local women used to carry their kids. Curious to try, but too shy to ask, I now leaped at the chance to test out a traditional Quechua baby sling.

With a few deft movements, they had Ingrid swaddled and on my back. I was pleased with the result, but sensed from the assembling crowd that I was somehow doing it wrong. With skeptical hands on chins and a few slow head sways of disapproval, Ingrid was plucked from my back. As I waited to feel the readjusted burden returned to my shoulders, I realized that she was already refolded and wrapped across the blanket seller’s back.

Suiting up with a traditional Quechua sling. Apparently, I was doing it wrong.

The woman’s friends erupted in giggles as she led my baby through the paths of the market. Ingrid snuggled against the woman blissfully, cooing and smiling amid the ageless Incan stonework.

Without language and across cultures, we found common ground in one universal truth: everybody loves babies.

These sorts of things just don’t happen to adults traveling alone. And they don’t happen to kids left behind at grandma’s house either.

From the cradle, we are teaching our daughters that this planet is theirs to explore. That their culture is but one of many wonderful ways that the people of the world live their lives. That there is so much that is beautiful and intriguing and delicious and wondrous and exhilarating to see and eat and do in this world if you’re only willing to make the journey.

And for that, I’d carry them anywhere.

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We Took Our Two to Peru. (And You Can, Too.) by Jody Pratt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at globetoddling.com.
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