Trip Coach: November 20, 2007

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Nikki Goth Itoi, co-author of "Moon Handbooks Cabo" and "Moon Handbooks Baja," answered your questions on these Mexican destinations.

Nikki Goth Itoi: Hola and welcome! Nikki Goth Itoi, here, standing by to answer your questions about traveling to Mexico's Baja California peninsula. Let the fun begin!

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Pardeeville, Wis.: Can you recommend cities in Baja that are more authentic and not so touristy?

Nikki Goth Itoi: La Paz, the capital city of Baja Sur, is probably the most authentic and least touristy city, although there are many smaller towns and villages along the entire peninsula that offer a true window into Mexican culture: Loreto has both a touristy and non-touristy side to it, as does San Jose del Cabo; Mulege would be another option farther north.

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Portland, Ore. & Ventura, Calif.: For Baja travel over New Year's to Loreto/tropical areas/whale watching: Another couple & their 10-year-old daughter want to travel to Baja with myself & my partner for a week over New Year's. They live in Portland, Ore. and we live 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. My thoughts are that they should fly to LA and we pick them up and drive to Baja so we have a car & avoid high car rental costs. They can also meet us in Baja but I'm not sure which airport is closest to Scammons Lagoon area/Loreto area. We are all vegans as well so I want to find a tropical place we can stay—a house preferably, but I need access to non-dairy and veggie options for cooking. Is there an area/neighborhood you can recommend? Also we are interested in meditation and yoga if that is possible.

We would like to keep the total costs below $2500 for all 5 of us including travel, food, accomodations, whale watching. Thanks for your help.

Nikki Goth Itoi: If Loreto is your target destination, I would recommend that you all fly into Loreto international airport which now has direct flights from LAX. If you drive, you'll need more than two days of hard driving dawn till dusk—plus the costs of fuel and overnight accommodations. You also need to purchase Mexican auto insurance for your vehicle. Driving through Baja is a great idea if you want to make stops along the way, but if you want to spend most of your time in Loreto, I think it would be more cost effective to fly. To keep costs down, you could stay in town and use taxis or rent bikes to get around locally, then only rent a car if you want to take an excursion one day. Whale-watching and other tours typically include transportation, so you wouldn't need to have a car for those activities.

A number of accommodations in town have kitchens, so you can prepare your own meals. There are several markets in town where you can stock up on foods that work for your family. El Pescador is the largest grocery store, and there is an open-air fruits market on Calle Juarez. A good place to stay might be Cocos Cabanas or the Villas de Loreto, both of which have well-maintained units with kitchens and shared outdoor grilling facilities. Check stayinloreto.com for a variety of vacation rental homes.

You might also look into El Sanctuario, a group of environmentally-friendly casitas a short drive south from Loreto—they sometimes have yoga groups stay there, but not sure if you could arrange private classes.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi, I'd like to take my daughter to Mexico for the summer (she'll be 5 in summer 2008) to learn Spanish and have fun. Her same-age playmate and her mother may go with us. I'm concerned about sanitation and access to medical care because of the young age of the children. What's the best city/town to stay? Personally, I'm interested in visiting historical sites but am afraid that may not be a practical idea with young children.

What's there that we can do with two 5-year olds? How do I look for reputable language schools that provide programs for families (both parents and children go to classes, not necessary together)? What's the price range for these programs? What's your suggestion for our living arrangement?

Thank you,
Cecilia

Nikki Goth Itoi: I would recommend the small city of La Paz for this type of trip. It has two very good language schools: CICC and Se Habla La Paz, where you could design a custom curriculum for the two children and two adults; plus access to pristine beaches, outstanding snorkeling and kayaking, modern medical facilities, and an appealing colonial feel. The only catch is that summertime is very hot and humid in this part of Baja. I would be sure to arrange accommodations with air conditioning. You can find long-term condo/apartment type rentals through a place like Las Gaviotas (no website last check). The schools may also be able to arrange a home stay for your visit—a great way for the kids to interact directly with the locals.

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San Clemente, Calif.: My wife and I and two friends will be visiting the Guadalupe Valley in early December. Can you give us advice regarding the best wineries to visit? —Mike

Nikki Goth Itoi: Some top picks for a first visit to this emerging wine region would include Monte Xanic (internationally known), L.A. Cetto (largest in the region), and Casa Pedro Domecq (tempranillo, graciano, and mazuelo varietals). But there are many smaller operations along the valley's 14-mile stretch. Steven Dryden of Mexico Wine Tours can give you more suggestions: mexicowinetours.com.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi. I will be going to Cabo the week of Dec. 15 with my sister. We are both in our early 30s, and wonder what restaurants and bars you recommend. Thanks!

Nikki Goth Itoi: This is tough one to answer without knowing a little more about your travel preferences and where exactly you are staying in the area. Downtown Cabo San Lucas has a wide variety of dining and nightlife possibilities—from casual Mexican and seafood eateries like Las Gardenias to top-notch sushi at Nick-San and an outstanding Continental menu at Peacocks. For nightlife, you can choose from wine tastings at the Sancho Panza Wine Bistro (also a jazz club) to martinis at Red, to rock and roll at the Cabo Wabo dance club and restaurant.

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San Diego, Calif.: What is the best way to visit the cave paintings in central Baja (the UNESCO world heritage site). We would like to do during the winter holiday or perhaps in the spring. Should we do it ourselves or hire a guide? Where do we begin? Drive from San Diego or fly into Loreto? It will just be 2 adults in excellent health, so hiking is not a problem.

Thanks,
Bill

Nikki Goth Itoi: In order to visit the cave paintings, you need to go with a licensed guide who can arrange for the required permits. I would recommend a home base in Loreto or Mulege for this trip. Mulege is closer to the cave painting sites, but Loreto has the advantage of direct flights and easy access to activities on the coast if you'd like to have that option along with your inland tour. I can recommend a guide who is based in Mulege: Salvador Castro Drew. Be sure to check out the mission at San Javier if you decide to go to Loreto. Loreto Tours is one of several companies that leads cave painting trips out of Loreto. Desert and Sea Expeditions is another option.

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Staunton: When renting a car at the SJD what insurance is needed to have good protection? We have good credit card LDW, but ended up buying full MX coverage which ran us over $500.00 us dollars. We plan to go back in a year and would like to pay less for a rental.

Nikki Goth Itoi: I have done extensive research into this topic for my guidebook writing and my own travel purposes, and determined that unfortunately, there is no way around the high cost of Mexican auto insurance when you are renting a car. The insurance that comes with your US credit card does not cover you under the Mexican legal system. So most rental agencies will require that you either buy the Mexican liability insurance, which does nearly double the daily rate of your rental, or leave a large deposit usually equal to a percentage of the value of the vehicle you are renting. Minor accidents can turn into a huge nightmare when you don't have the proper coverage. I've heard enough stories of travelers getting into trouble to be convinced that it's better to be fully covered so you can enjoy your trip. One way to keep costs down is to stay somewhere central and only rent a car for the day or two that you want to take an excursion elsewhere in the Los Cabos area.

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Dallas, Ore.: My husband and our two sons (17 and 19) will be taking our first trip to Cabo in June. We like to snorkel and swim in the ocean, and would like to stay in a condo right on the Sea of Cortez so we can swim. However, we want to be able to get into Cabo, too. Would renting a car and staying in the corridor be a smart move?

Nikki Goth Itoi: It is easy to drive along the corridor to get in and out of downtown Cabo San Lucas; however, there are limited options for swimmable beaches along this stretch of coastline. The best swimming beaches, Playa Chileno and Playa Santa Maria, do not have accommodations on them; closer to San Jose, Playa California has many condo options (Mykonos, El Zalate, Sampiguita, to name a few) and can be swimmable, although not when strong summer swells come through. Playa El Medano just outside Cabo San Lucas would be a good compromise as well—the beach is more crowded and not as secluded as some along the corridor, but it is very safe for swimming and depending on your exact location, you could walk to restaurants in town.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: We are traveling to Baja with two young children in January. Can you advise us on the best family-friendly activities and places to stay in the greater Cabo area? Thanks.

Nikki Goth Itoi: One popular activity is to swim with the dolphins through Cabo Dolphins. A glass-bottom boat tour out to Playa del Amor is also fun for youngsters because they can see the fish through the bottom of the boat. Depending on the ages of the children, a guided snorkeling tour may also be a good family activity. The beaches at Playa Chileno and Playa Santa Maria are family-friendly, though they don't have much in the way of services or facilities. Farther afield, Playa Los Cerritos near Todos Santos would also be good for the kids.

As for accommodations, I believe the new Villas del Arco resort on Playa El Medano is geared toward families; but I would also consider renting a condo so you can have more flexibility with meals. If you're up for more of an adventure, Cabo Pulmo on the East Cape is a great place for young kids who like the water, except that it is a little more removed from medical facilities, supermarkets, and other services that you may want to have nearby.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Are there the equivalent of bed and breakfasts in Baja? And if so, would these be your best bet for accommodations? Or is a hotel a better option?

Nikki Goth Itoi: Baja has a full range of bed-and-breakfast type accommodations, some run by Mexican families and others run by American expats. Quality and prices very widely—some are just a couple of rooms in someone's home; others are run more like true inns. One of my new favorites is in La Paz—Casa Tuscany—great location, friendly American/Australian owners, and stylish accommodations. Baja Bed and Breakfast is also a great choice, run by a local Mexican family and serving delicious home-cooked meals.

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Mill Valley, Calif.: I'm looking for a reasonably priced cooking school vacation in Baja. Probably for 3-4 nights in March, just me and my husband. Any recommendations?

Nikki Goth Itoi: Cooking classes tend to be offered with other activities, such as learning Spanish, as part of a trip package. For example, Mar y Aventura tour company based in La Paz does a combo Spanish immersion/with four nights of cooking instruction: kayakbaja.com/LangCook.html.

One that seems more geared toward the cooking itself is offered through the Baja Language School in Ensenada. For an all-around culinary experience, you could combine one of their cooking workshops with a tour of the Valle de Guadalupe wine country and a meal at Laja, a gourmet restaurant that some are calling the Chez Panisse of Baja.

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St. Helena, Calif.: Hi, Nikki. I'm looking for a good Spanish language intensive study school, particularly in an area where my family would also like to go. Are there any options you would recommend in Baja?

Thanks.
—Doug

Nikki Goth Itoi: The two best options would be Ensenada (Baja Language Institute) and La Paz, where you can choose from two good schools: CICC and Se Habla Laz Paz. I'm partial to La Paz because it's farther south and more like mainland Mexico. There are gorgeous beaches nearby, spectacular islands just offshore for snorkeling and kayaking (safe for youngsters), and a pleasantly small city atmosphere in which to absorb the local culture. However, given your location in California's wine country, perhaps you'd enjoy a chance to see the northern Baja wine region near Ensenada.

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St. Helena, Calif.: Hi, Nikki. Is Baja a good place for travel with young children? Are there any regions or specific places you would avoid?

Thanks!
—Doug

Nikki Goth Itoi: Baja is very safe and fun, especially for kids who like the water. Cabo Pulmo on the East Cape is one of my favorite family friendly destinations—on a shallow bay, with opportunities to snorkel right offshore. You stay in cabanas or bungalows that have kitchens and walk to and from the beach. There are only a few restaurants in the village, so it's very quiet at night. Overall a great place to bring kids and parents who love the outdoors.

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St. Helena, Calif.: I want to take my sons to Baja, but I don't like to stay in big resorts. I'd rather be in smaller surf-side or bay-side locations, with more of a feel of Mexico. When traveling to Baja with young children, how best can I prepare for their food needs and avoid any illness? Only bottled water? Even for teeth brushing? No raw fruit or veggies? What American-level health services, if any, are readily available in the bigger towns? Any places you recommend avoiding with kids?

Nikki Goth Itoi: The best way to guarantee food safety is to rent a place with a kitchen and prepare meals yourself—if you fly into San Jose del Cabo you can shop at large, modern supermarkets, choose the ingredients you like (Mexican or American brands) and then drive to a more remote location. Bottled water is always a good idea, just be sure you don't buy the flavored kind for teeth-brushing! San Jose del Cabo and La Paz both have modern medical facilities, and there are professionally staffed medical clinics in many towns along the peninsula.

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Miami, Fla.: Hi, Nikki. How easy is it to travel from Miami to Cabo? Is it worth going all the way to the west coast of Mexico from Florida? What are the benefits over gulf coast locations?

Nikki Goth Itoi: The Caribbean coast is certainly much closer to you; however, the desert/tropical scenery of Baja is unique and very different from the lush jungle of the Mayan Riviera. If you're looking for a resort experience, the mainland of Mexico probably makes sense, but if you want a more remote destination with access to a host of water sports, plus cultural opportunities, I think it's well worth the longer flight. My guess is you'd probably connect in Dallas or Houston and then continue on to San Jose del Cabo. Connecting in Mexico City may also be an option.

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St. Helela, Calif.: Hi, Nikki. Where are the best begginer/intermediate surf beaches in Baja? What about boogie-board beaches for small children? Gracias! Doug

Nikki Goth Itoi: Playa Los Cerritos, south of Todos Santos is a great spot for both. You can stay on the beach in Pescadero, or in the town of Todos Santos 10 minute away. Along the Los Cabos corridor, there's a break called Old Man's, next to a famous spot called Zippers. Lots of condos along the beach —Mykonos, El Zalate, Sampaguita, etc. Or you can stay at the Cabo Surf Hotel and walk across the beach. Lots of longboarders in the water. up north, Las Gaviotas near Ensenada is known to be good for intermediates, though the water will be much colder.

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Santa Monica, Calif.: Is there a section of Cabo that would appeal to someone who appreciates local flavor and wants to avoid anything commercial? What area of the city would this be?

Nikki Goth Itoi: Cabo San Lucas has a local scene for sure, but you have to push your way through the tourist traps to find it. In general, the farther you get from the marina, the more authentic the town becomes. Try the taquerias along Calle Morelos for good eats. You might also consider staying in San Jose del Cabo, where there are more options for a less tourist-oriented travel experience.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I'm leaving for Cabo San Lucas on 11-26 and want to know about whale watching excursions. I love sailing on a catamaran and wonder if you can recommend a particular company. What is there to do in San Jose?

Nikki Goth Itoi: You've picked a fantastic time of year to be heading to Los Cabos, but you're likely going to be a little early for the peak whale-watching season. Pez Gato runs sunset cruises, snorkeling, and other tours on three catamarans, but the whale-watching tours don't start until January.

San Jose del Cabo has lots to offer for a day-trip from Cabo San Luas: There is an attractive central plaza with shops and cafes all around it, a historic church, contemporary art galleries, and a number of fine restaurants specializing in "alta cocina Mexicana," or authentic Mexican cuisine. Well worth a visit if you'd like to take in some culture in addition to the beaches and water sports.

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McLean, Va.: We want to go to Mexico, primarily to see—and possibly purchase—the art and silver jewelry. We also like colonial architecture and the music. Where would you recommend we visit?

Nikki Goth Itoi: The best place in Baja for a colonial Mexican experience would be La Paz; the silver jewelry all comes from the mainland, but you can find a nice selection in the shops here, as well as in San Jose del Cabo at the southern tip of the peninsula. San Jose and Todos Santos on the Pacific coast also have thriving contemporary art scenes, including both Mexican and American artists. For something more traditional, you may want to consider a trip to the mainland cities of Guadalajara or Oaxaca.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: I am traveling to Cabo San Lucas on Jan. 23, 2008 with my wife and another couple for 5 days. I would like some recommendations on transportation from the airport (SJD) to the Villa del Arco Resort.

Thanks,
Ken

Nikki Goth Itoi: The new Villas del Arco resort is centrally located on Playa El Medano, and you have several options for transportation from the airport: The most economical would be a shared van (colectivo) for about US$15 per person. A private taxi for just your party would run US$70 to Cabo San Lucas. Either of these can be arranged once as you exit the terminal. If you think you are going to want your own transportation while in the area, you could rent a car at the airport from any of the major international chains. Be aware, however, that when you factor in the cost of mandatory Mexican auto insurance, the daily rate will end up being close to double the quote you get from the rental car agency.

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San Luis Obispo, Calif.: Hi! We're headed to Cabo on April 16th, 2008 and leaving the 21st. We will have 6 adults (4 in their twenties and 2 in their 50's) and we need advice on renting a condo or a bit more eclectic hut on the beach or ??? Thanks so much for your help.

Best Regards,
Linda

Nikki Goth Itoi: Cabo Getaways offers a variety of upscale villas for rent, though I think prices tend to be high around the "Semana Santa" (Easter holidays) in Mexico. For something more affordable, you might look into one of several condo complexes along Playa California just outside the town of San Jose del Cabo. Mykonos, El Zalate, Sampaguita are some of the names. Owners and agents often post their rentals on Vacation Rental by Owner. For something more eclectic, look into rentals in Todos Santos—places north of town in an area called "El Otro Lado" (the other side) are closer to the beach than places right in the town center. The East Cape is another option for getting off the beaten path: Cabo Pulmo and Los Frailes are two of the villages that have vacation rentals.

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York, S.C.: How safe is Cabo, Mexico's resort areas? We are going there next week.

Nikki Goth Itoi: The Cabo area is very safe for foreign travelers. The main concern is petty theft, which happens anywhere—and you can generally avoid if you use common sense: keep your belongings under close watch and use the safe in your hotel room for valuables. If you are driving, pay attention when fueling up at the PEMEX gas stations, as some attendants do attempt to give you incorrect change.

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Spokane, Wash.: Hi, Does the Cabo area have any swimmable, gentle wave sandy beaches like Puerto Vallarta, and is it safe for a woman traveling solo? Thank you.

Nikki Goth Itoi: The Los Cabos corridor has several swimmable beaches: Playa El Medano is the closest to town and most crowded; Playa El Chilena and Playa Santa Maria are more remote and offer snorkeling, but you need to drive or cab to get to them. Playa California close to San Jose del Cabo can be swimmable at times when bug surf swells aren't rolling in. And if you head north along the Pacific coast, you'll come to Playa Los Cerritos, also great for swimming and boogie boarding. I would feel comfortable traveling solo in this area—just follow the same precautions as I would advise couples or families—no driving after dark outside of the immediate Los Cabos corridor (cattle in the road, cars with no headlights, unmarked ditches, etc.) And be aware of your surroundings to prevent petty theft in the more crowded tourist areas such as downtown Cabo San Lucas.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hi, Nikki. Kind of a combined question: My friends and I love to scuba dive/snorkel, and are thinking of renting a house in Baja sometime next year for a week. What do you think the best place would be where we're near the water and scuba facilities but still not in the middle of some big tourist destination? We're all 30-somethings, by the way. Also, are there any beers are spirits that are manufactured in Baja? I like to sample the local stuff whenever possible.

Thanks!
—Josh

Nikki Goth Itoi: There are four main areas for scuba diving in southern Baja:

1. Cabo San Lucas: short boat rides and intersting underwater terrain (in one dive, you can literally swim from the Sea of Cortez into the Pacific Ocean under water) but a more crowded harbor—you hear the boat traffic overhead the whole time. I'd rule this one out since you don't want a major resort scene.

2. La Paz: The islands offshore from the capital city of Baja Sur are a magical place—great for diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and even camping if you want to rough it for a night or two. The diving is some of the most excisting underwater terrain I've experienced—strong currents in the open sea bring hammerhead sharks to school around the seamounts, giant mantas come gliding by overhead; closer to shore are sea lion colonies, a neat rock formation called El Catedral (the cathedral), and even a wreck or two. The boat rides are long, but you could do liveaboard for a few days with Baja Diving and Service, and then add a few days before and after to explore the city scene. Or you could do a few day trips and enjoy the city scene each evening, provided you aren't too tired! This would be my recommendation for your group.

3. Cabo Pulmo: Much quieter scene, drift diving along a gorgeous coral reef, shorter boat rides, affordable accommodations in beachfront casitas, not much in the way of nightlife, however.

4. Loreto: More islands to explore, a much smaller town than la Paz, but similar kind of dive trip in which you'd stay in town and take day trips out to the islands. The beach here is not white sand though, but in exchange you get easy access to the mission at San Javier for a little inland culture.

As for spirits, Tecate is the local brew, made in northern Baja. The northern Baja wine country in the Valle de Guadalupe near Ensenada also produces a number of world-class wines. Tequila is of course the most popular liquor, though it all comes from Guadalajara on the mainland. You might seek out a locally made spirit called damiana, sometimes used to make a "Baja margarita."

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Lima, Ohio: I will be traveling to Cabo on February 6 staying at the Rio Cabo San Lucas. What is my best way to transfer to the hotel? What is the best fiesta in Cabo?

Nikki Goth Itoi: If you plan to stay mostly at or near the the resort, then a shared van (colectivo) would be the least expensive option, unless the resort offers it's own shuttle. Otherwise, a taxi will run about US$70 one way. I'm not sure what you mean by the best fiesta in Cabo, but there are infinite opportunities for entertainment and nightlife—from cantinas and wine bars to all-night dance clubs, as well an annual festivals that take place throughout the year. February is peak time for whale-watching, so there may be some kind of local event to celebrate the occasion.

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Mokena, Ill.: What are the must-see things to do in the Cabo area? Should we rent a car to do them?

Nikki Goth Itoi: This is difficult to answer without knowing a little more about your travel preferences, but a few of my top picks would include the glass-bottom boat tour from the Cabo San Lucas harbor out to Playa del Amor (Lover's Beach) and the arch at Land's End, where you can see the Sea of Cortez on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the beach. Snorkeling at Playa Santa Maria along the corridor is quite good—you would need to drive or cab from wherever you stay in the area. I would also check out the downtown area of San Jose del Cabo around Plaza Mijares for shopping and absorbing a little culture. Nearby is a freshwater lagoon great for bird-watching.

These sites would require transportation—if you'd rather not rent a car, you could take a taxi or public bus between San Jose and Cabo San Lucas.

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Coralville, Iowa: My husband and I are traveling to Mazatlan on Nov. 23, 2007 from LAX with our 2 small children ages 9 months and 5 years. We are looking for fun family friendly activities and tips. We enjoy traveling with our children but always look for ways to make it fun and stress free. Also, someone suggested that we take a boat to a nearby "island" for just $12/person. Does such a boat exist and is it safe? Thank you!

Nikki Goth Itoi: Hi, I've been to Mazatlan once before but don't know as much about the options there, as my travel writing focus is really on the Baja California peninsula. I'd suggest that you check out Bruce Whipperman's recently updated guide, Moon Pacific Mexico for details. I've met him in person recently and he is truly the authority on this part of Mexico.

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Stanardsville, Va.: 6 of us will be taking an NCL cruise to the Mexican Riviera Feb. 28 for 8 days. How concerned should we be with the rise in violence against Americans in Mexico that has recently made national news?

Nikki Goth Itoi: Although the Mayan Riviera is not my area of expertise, I was just there last month for five days and didn't feel in any way unsafe. As with any international destination, it's good to remember that you are a visitor, and to take common sense travel precautions.

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Enid, Okla.: I would like a guided tour of Mexico city and the Mayan Ruins. Is this possible? —Dr. Paul

Nikki Goth Itoi: There are many options for this type of tour—but since I am more familiar with the coastal parts of Mexico, I would refer you to the Moon Mexico City handbook for details.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Can you recommend some Spanish language schools and/or volunteer opportunities in the Yucatan Peninsula?

Nikki Goth Itoi: There are numerous options for this type of trip - but since I am more familiar with the Pacific coasts of Mexico, I would refer you to Moon Cancun & Cozumel or Moon Yucatan handbooks for recommendations.

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Nikki Goth Itoi: Thanks for all of your Baja travel questions today. I hope I've provided some insight that will help you plan a fun-filled trip. You can find more recommended travel strategies, plus reviews of hotels, restaurants, and outfitters, in the new editions of the Moon Baja and Moon Cabo guidebooks, available in major bookstores around the country. Adios!

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