Mexico City – dangerous, dirty, and ugly, right? Keep thinking that way, and tourists like me will get to enjoy the city all to ourselves. While border towns have become death traps due to the escalating war between federal agents on both sides of the border and criminal drug gangs, Mexico City, smack dab in the middle of the country and with over 20 million residents, is one of the easiest to lose yourself in. And while it’s not perfect, it sure as hell beats the more usual travel destinations in Europe and the US, that I’ve gotten tired of and which have eaten aggressively away at my bank account.
Read more after the jump…
So, here are some caveats about Mexico City that might put off potential visitors (they didn’t deter me or my partner):
- It’s crowded. With 20 million people packed into the greater Mexico City metropolitan area, there are people moving in all directions, all the time. If your idea of a quality vacation is solitude and quiet communion with nature, look elsewhere. Mexico City is not the ideal place for agoraphobes.
- It’s dirty. Not really disgusting dirty, with sewage and rotting waste issues, actually, but just dirty in a grimy way. There is a lot of pollution that just clings to buildings and the ground like soot. Maybe it’s different during the rainy season (May-October) but when we were there, we didn’t see a drop of rain.
- You need to know some Spanish. You don’t have to be fluent, but if you learned most of your Spanish from a Taco Bell menu, you might be in a little trouble. Because Mexico City is so huge and it has so few tourists, English is not widely spoken because it’s really unnecessary.
Surprising(ly good) things about Mexico:
- It feels safe. People don’t feel guarded, there are police everywhere, and there isn’t a sense of uncontrolled crime. Sure, there are still kidnappings and killings, but most tend to be targeted towards the Mexican elite (i.e. Carlos Slim and anyone who’s ever spent time with him).
- Street food is safe to eat. As long as you can watch a vendor cook something in front of you, it should be fine. Avoid salads, fresh juices, and other things that require washing. Cooked food, which predominates anyway, is totally fine.
- Everyone has a cell phone. About 80% of the country has a mobile phone. Feel free to bring yours and not worry about it getting robbed from your texting fingers.
- You get major bang for your buck. Foreign currencies, even the embattled dollar, go very far in Mexico City. We stayed at an amazing hotel in the heart of the Zona Rosa for $85 a night, and could eat very nicely for $10 per person.
- Public transportation is amazing. The Metro runs everywhere, it costs about 35 cents per ride, and we never, ever had to wait more than a minute for a train. It put our shitty MUNI in San Francisco to shame.
And here are some unique highlights that make the city worth returning to:
- Ballet Folklorico. Imagine riverdance but with regional and Mexican historical influences, incredibly colorful costumes, and a sense of humor. Pay the extra $15 or so and get great seats for one of the evening or matinee shows.
- Pulque. This beverage made of fermented agave sap was once drunk by Aztec priests, but in modern times was drunk at pulquerias up until the latter part of the 20th century. Beer companies started spreading rumors that it was fermented using human feces, and people stopped drinking it in favor of beer. There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in this ancient beverage, which has the consistency of saliva but which tastes nice and is often flavored (curado) with fruit like blackberries or tamarind. We loved Pulqueria Los Insurgentes in the Roma neighborhood, and went there twice.
- Zona Maco. This annual art festival takes place in a large conference venue, and features tons of great contemporary art from Mexico and abroad. If you want to go to an event where the ultrarich hobnob with supermodels and funky art students, this would be it.
- The Markets (Mercados). The largest, La Merced, is a neverending chain of stalls selling exotic fruits and vegetables, quinceanera decorations, 50 lb bags of green cheese puffs, and literally anything else you can imagine buying in Mexico. Other markets, including the gourmet food San Juan, or the charming Coyoacan market, are smaller but no less spectacular and surreal.
- Alebrijes. Brightly painted, fanciful wooden animals are the perfect souvenirs and gift for people back home.
- Bizarre food, even for vegetarians. Huitlacoche (bluish-black corn mold), huauzontle (a cross between quinoa and broccoli, as bizarre as that sounds), and flor de calabaza (zucchini flowers) are not niche food items; they’re mainstream in Mexico. They’re also delicious, nutritious, and veggie-friendly. If you like meat, the options are even broader. And don’t forget the ice cream: scalded milk, pink pine nuts, and countless untranslatable tropical fruits flavor ice cream and popsicles here.
- Museums. These are the kinds of museums you could easily spend the whole day in, even if you try to rush through them. Inexpensive, very well-curated, and fascinating, although in some, knowledge of Spanish is helpful or necessary. Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia (ultramodern but sobering), Museo de Templo Mayor (full of Aztec and other Mesoamerican stonecraft), Museo Antropologico (the monster of all Mexican museums; seriously, set aside a day for this one), Museo de Frida Kahlo (“Casa Azul” in Coyoacan; beautiful and intriguing if you like Kahlo’s and Rivera’s aesthetics). Am I forgetting any? Probably.
- Cheap shoe shining. They do an amazing job on suede, canvas and other athletic shoes, too. For 15 pesos, or about $1.25.
I’ll stop raving, and just book my ticket for next year. From SFO it’s no more than 5 hours away, or a shorter flight than to New York City.