Mexico City is huge. I mean, freaking huge. 24 million people in the metro area, at least according to a reliable-seeming cab driver. When I’ve previously thought about Mexico City I imagined a crowded, noisy, dirty and dangerously polluted city. But my actual experience of Mexico City was very different indeed – wondrously so.
Mexico City has been on my “to visit” list for a very long time. But for context, so are about 100 other places, and it was not high on that list. Much of that is its reputation, but also my previous visits to the country were focused around the beach (Cancun, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarte), and didn’t exactly brim with authentic cultural experiences. Staying at an all-inclusive resort on the cheap can conjure up mixed feelings about the exploitation of cheap labour versus the idea that the tourist trade at least elevates the living standards of tourism employees and their families.
Fortunately, Mexico City doesn’t present as much of a moral quandary. Yes, it’s inexpensive. But it’s not really a tourist city. Indeed, the American Airlines employee who checked me in at YYZ was surprised (and delighted) that I was visiting her home city as a tourist rather than (more typically) for business. When you’re in Mexico City, you are living, eating and shopping among people who are overwhelmingly local – participating in the economy (mostly) exactly as they do.
But enough about the ethics of tourism. Here is the wonderful experience I had in this vast, beautiful and vibrant city.
When you land at Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, follow the signs for Foreigners. On the plane you’ll have filled out a customs declaration and a (separate) immigration form. The immigration/customs line can be long, but I was through in about 15 minutes. Be sure to save your immigration receipt, as you’ll need it when you depart Mexico. Also be sure to hang on to your checked baggage receipts, as every claim receipt is checked by security at baggage claim – a feature I wish more airports would consider.
The cab to your hotel can be a source of stress, as scams and overcharging are common. This is something you’ll experience in a lot of countries (I’m looking at you Romania), but there are easy solutions. If you have Uber, you can use it from the airport safely, reliably and cheaply. Otherwise, go to a cab company counter at arrivals and pre-pay your ride. If they try to charge more than 200 pesos (and they will), haggle or walk away to another company. Never just walk up to or hail a cab, as fake cabs are a real safety issue.
The view as you ride in from the airport will not give you the best impression of the city – dark and dilapidated streets (and bumpy) will be your greeting. But imagine if we judged any city by the area around the airport? Happily you’ll likely be staying in the Centro Historica, the Reforma or other beautiful and perfectly safe neighbourhood. The centre of the city is pleasantly walkable, and you can use Uber for longer journeys. If you absolutely must use a cab, get it from your hotel receptionist or at a clearly marked taxi stand.
Okay, now on to the good stuff.
This city is gorgeous!! A good first place to explore is the Centro Historico, starting with the National Palace Square. Keen-eyed movie buffs will remember James Bond fighting in a helicopter over this square. It’s bordered by a cathedral and several major government buildings, and grand streets feed in to it from every direction. The cathedral is worth a visit, and reminded me of the cathedrals of Spain. If you’re lucky like me, a men & boys choir may be rehearsing when you walk in. Once you’ve been awed by the scale of the cathedral and square, head west into the pedestrian zone for an afternoon or evening stroll. I visited in January, so don’t know if this is typical, but I felt like the only tourist. You’ll love the gorgeous classical, baroque and occasionally Art Deco buildings and romantic decay.
As you stroll through the zone, you’ll encounter hawkers of all kinds – many of whom really really want to sell you one-hour optometry services. They are not aggressive and you can ignore them. More insistent are the organ grinders. They are interesting and kind of terrible. At one time they were apparently one of the more charming and beloved features of the city. They are unionized and uniformed, and will hound you for tips. Unfortunately, none of their organs have been serviced since about 1940, so they sound excruciatingly terrible. And they are on every block. I managed to just barely think of them as a charming anachronism. Just barely.
On the west end of the zone don’t miss the Salvador Dali sculpture garden. It’s free, peaceful, and full of his wonderful wacky work. Keep heading west and you’ll arrive at the Palace of Fine Arts, an expression of a former president’s obsession with all things French. Even the Metro stop at the Palace is modeled after Paris. It’s a beautiful space, and the hundreds of major artworks inside are worth a visit. Adjoining the Palace are lovely gardens with strolling paths and monuments to artists and composers – including a monument to Beethoven, built in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his 9th symphony.
Keep heading west and you’ll reach the Paseo de la Reforma – the glitzy European grand boulevard that cuts a diagonal line through the city. Before strolling down its leafy expanse, travel just past it to the Museum of the Revolution – a grand, spectacular Art Deco tower that at first distant glance inspired an out-loud “wtf is that?!?” You can climb or ride an elevator to the top (for free on Sundays, otherwise about $3) and get an incredible panorama of the city. From there you can truly appreciate how magnificently and impossibly vast this city really is.
Heading SW on Reforma, you’ll walk through what is basically western Europe. Really pleasant on a nice day, but not super interesting – except on Sundays, when the entire boulevard (and old town) go car-free and become a family cycling adventure. It is magnificent to see this normally car-choked metropolis quiet down into a pedestrian and cycling paradise. And the city’s inhabitants take full advantage.
Oh, and in case I haven’t mentioned, this city is car-choked. The traffic is beyond insane. DO NOT RENT A CAR, unless your masochism has reached clinical levels. Not only will you stew in a nightmare of traffic, the driving style of the city’s populace makes Rome look sedentary.
To either side of the this grand boulevard you’ll find some of Mexico City’s nicest and most lively neighbourhoods. The ones I’ll highlight are the adjacent “Roma”, “La Condesa” and “Zona Rosa” districts. A bit earlier I referred to this city as vibrant. That’s an understatement. I’ve never been to a city that is more alive. People are out and about and brimming with energy, ambition and a lust for life. This city is social, and these districts embody that notion. People get dressed up and go out – and not just in the “spend money somewhere trendy” way. It’s like huge swathes of the city embrace the Italian concept of Passeggiata, but not only in the early evening – rather all through the night and all weekend.
These zones are full of interesting restaurants, bars and clubs with pedestrianized zones at the centre. Not only will you see every culture represented here, you will see everything represented; street music, dancing, art, drag, prostitutes, zoomba… But not for one second did I feel unsafe. Instead I was instantly invited into social groups who were dancing, cooking on the street, or participating in some sort of festival or religious procession. And mind you, I was only there for a few days. La Condesa is the more sedate of these zones, but worth a wander because of the huge number of art deco homes.
I saw really incredible street music, from traditional ensembles to opera. I saw a bearded man sing soprano arias so beautifully it brought tears to my eyes. I saw a 4’ tall adolescent play brilliant Spanish guitar, and a bunch of uniformed idiots grind broken organs (I’ll get over it).
Keep heading down Reforma and you’ll reach the immense Chapultepec gardens – a truly mammoth public park, zoological gardens and museums. They are worth a day’s visit by themselves.
There is a lot of art in Mexico City, including numerous museums and galleries dedicated to favourite sons/daughters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. You could spend a couple of days just enjoying their works all over the city – but the one I recommend is a longish Uber ride out to the Dolores Olmedo museum. This converted home and gardens contain the largest collection of Frida Kahlo paintings, and is considered one of the best art museums in North America.
On my second full day, I found out there were ancient pyramids nearby (I really should have researched this trip before booking), so immediately booked a tour. The Teotihuacan site is a mystery – huge pyramids believed to be constructed a couple of thousand years ago – long before the Aztec or Mayan civilizations – and shrouded in mystery. According to historians, the Aztecs discovered this site around 1400 AD and were so awed that they attributed their construction to the gods. Nobody knows exactly when they were built, nor by whom. But like the much later Aztec pyramids, they are perfectly aligned to the patterns of the sun. And they are fantastic. Go there.
And that’s my main message: Go to Mexico City. It’s a great place to understand the vibrant, sophisticated culture of our neighbour to the south, and to counter the Trumpish misconceptions. It’s a fabulous place that will demand many more visits to truly get to know.
SIDEBAR: Going to the pyramids
I booked a tour. You don’t have to do that. You can just book very cheap transportation to the park and buy entry tickets on site. Unlike many of the Aztec sites, they have not yet been degraded by millions of visitors, and as a result you can still climb them. The climb is not for the faint of heart. The steps are many, narrow and steep. Whoever built them had smaller feet and a lower centre of gravity. They were also probably in better cardiovascular shape than us, and were used to the altitude.
The compelling reason not to book a tour, is that all of the tours are really about the shopping afterwards. They will take you to a tequila tasting, which will put you in the proper frame of mind to pay ludicrous prices for obsidian and traditional crafts. On the positive side, on the tour I learned (and tasted) that there are a ton of other agave-based beverages besides tequila that taste way better. Also, did you know that obsidian is slightly transparent? You can take an obsidian disc about a half inch thick and look through it directly at the sun. I wish I’d had one of these during the eclipse.
SIDEBAR: The Altitude
Mexico City is on a plateau at 7,300 feet above sea level. Give yourself a day to adjust, and try not to get TOO drunk on your first night. The altitude hangover can be epic.
Mexico City has a bad Beijing-like reputation for smog/pollution, and at times it is well deserved. Recent laws curbing the use of high-pollution vehicles have helped a lot, and it was no problem for asthmatic Klaus. But when booking your vacation, it couldn’t hurt to look at the pollution forecast. Yes, there is a pollution forecast.
SIDEBAR: When to travel.
I went to Mexico City in January, and the weather was very fine. Sunny and 70 degrees fahrenheit (21C) during the day, but a quite chilly 40 degrees (4C) in the wee hours. I found this weather perfect for hiking, climbing pyramids, etc. So if you go in January, you’ll need to pack layers. If you need to bake, there are much hotter months to choose.
I got a last-minute round trip flight on American Airlines for C$400. My very nice Hampton Inn in the city centre was C$80/night and very nice with impeccable service and a good free breakfast buffet. You could go fancier, but why? In four days of great eating, sightseeing, tours, craft beer and some souvenir shopping I spent about C$200, and I did not skint. So all in it was C$920.00. I was traveling solo, so it would be less pp if in a couple or group sharing hotel rooms.