Who would have thought that I’d end up loving a place I was so hesitant to visit?
You hear things about Mexico: drug cartels, corrupt government and police force, the time your cousin was escorted around the city in an armored car while on a business trip- and you think, these things are not a ringing endorsement for Mexico. But when your friend tells you about a long weekend trip to Mexico City, you think: why not? And then you start reading up and you realize that Mexico City, with over 150 museums, art, culture, and tacos galore, sounds like an interesting vacation spot indeed. And it is.
Mexico City, home to some 22 million people (with another 6 million daily commuters, I am told), is the largest city in the Americas and it’s probably not the place you think it is. For all of my hesitancy around scheduling a trip to this giant metropolis, I can’t wait to get back.
One of the joys of traveling to Central America is the ease in getting there. My flight from Houston, Texas to Mexico City was only 90 minutes. And, to sweeten the pot, Mexico City is currently on the same time as my home. (Mexico City does observe Daylight Savings Time, but they don’t spring forward until April 1st). After reading about what a nightmare baggage claim can be in the Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, I decided to carry on. Armed with my Samsonite under the seat carry-on suitcase and my Baggallini purse, I deplaned in Mexico City after an uneventful flight. The only real excitement was the two Mexican gentlemen seated next to me, politely stifling chuckles while I sat, nose pressed against the window and mouth wide open at the sheer size of the city. When you go, you’ll get it. Once you descend through the haze (there is a pollution problem in a city this size), you’ll see what looks like a never ending city. It simply sprawls on forever. I’ve been to some big cities: Paris, London, Los Angeles….and these all pale in comparison. I was also mesmerized by the vibrant pops of purple that I could see from the air. These turned out to be my newest obsession, the jacaranda tree.
A few points to note if you are planning a trip to Mexico. US and Canadian citizens need a Passport to visit for up to 180 days. No Visa is needed unless you plan to stay longer. If you’re flying in from elsewhere, check to see what documentation is needed. On the flight, you’ll be asked to complete an Immigration Form for entrance into the country. This form is not unlike immigration forms I’ve filled out for other trips, except that you will be asked to retain one portion of your form. It will be collected when you exit the country and it you don’t have it to hand in, you’ll be assessed a fine of 42 Mexican Pesos.
You’ll also want to exchange some money. Several places in Mexico City did accept credit cards, but I found that the city operates on more of a cash basis than I anticipated. You can exchange money at the airport (the exchange rate is great for those of you coming from the USA – about $16.80 Mexican to ever $1 US Dollar) or you can easily access a cajero automático, ATM, while out and about. US Dollars were accepted some places but not with the frequency of a coastal resort town.
A note about plumbing: you cannot flush your toilet tissue in Mexico City. The plumbing cannot handle it. This isn’t uncommon in many areas of the world: Greece, parts of Italy, other countries in Central and South America. (I wrote about it when I went to Ecuador.) You’ll find a small wastebasket next to the toilet. Simply deposit your used tissue there and proceed with your day. In some of the more rural stops, you may find that there is no toilet tissue or that you’ll be asked to purchase tissue for your visit. Tuck a small pack of tissues or a tiny roll of Charmin To Go in your purse for these occasions.
The city of Mexico City is made up of 16 burroughs and has everything you’d expect to see in a bustling metropolis. While I felt completely safe during my visit, there are a few precautions to take here, as you would in any city of size.
- Don’t take an unauthorized taxi. Make sure that you are registering a ride with an authorized and marked taxi cab. Criminals posing as taxi cab drivers is a thing here so do your due diligence and take a cab that is authorized or have your hotel arrange for a cab for you.
- Uber is a great way to get around the city. We used Uber almost exclusively for our trip and had a great experience. Simply fire up your Uber app and order a ride just like you do at home.
- Mexico City does have a subway and it’s rumored to be pretty convenient and fast. Be alert and mind your bags and wallets. As our hotel concierge noted, most of the crime in the tourist heavy parts of Mexico City is pick-pocketing.
- Police presence is everywhere in Mexico City. From traffic cops to riot police, you will see law enforcement on the streets.
There are several great places to stay in this city. We opted for the Hampton Inn and Suites – Mexico City Centro Histórico. This beautiful hotel was a convent in its former life
and the building and terrace are lovely. It’s also right in the middle of the busy historic center of the city which means you’re within walking distance of some of the main tourist sites: Zócalo, the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
We arrived late on a Friday afternoon and opted to spend our first evening getting to know our neighborhood with a stroll to the Zócalo (formally La Plaza de la Constitución), about a 2 block walk from our hotel. Take care in crossing the streets in Mexico City! Traffic is insane – both pedestrian and vehicular. There are crosswalks, but they are not always respected. The Zócalo is a large plaza that serves as a gathering site for the city’s many festivals, religious events and concerts. It’s one of the largest squares in the world and it is the largest square in the Western Hemisphere. (Get used to me saying that, by the way. Everything in Mexico City is the largest, oldest and most visited in the Western Hemisphere). Mexico City has an interesting Aztec tradition and the Zócalo is built right over one of the main ceremonial centers in the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
From the plaza you’ll be able access many shops and restaurants. You’ll also get a great look at the Palacio National, the seat of the federal executive in Mexico City. The National Palace has also been here since Aztec times and materials from Moctezuma II’s palace were used in crafting the building you see here today. Go inside to see Diego Rivera murals. (You can see more Rivera works in the Public Education building. Simply show an ID and let the guard know you’re there to see the murals).
Also on the Zócalo, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los Cielos. In typical European conqueror style, Hernan Cortés ordered the building of the cathedral after his conquest of Tenochtitlan and he built it atop several sacred Aztec sites. Like the Palacio National, stones from the original Aztec sites were
used in the construction of the early cathedral. At least the Spaniards recycled when conquering the native peoples? The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (that’s a mouthful) was built in sections between 1573 and 1813 and is, are you ready, the oldest and largest Catholic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also incredibly beautiful and a great place to check out several different styles of architecture at once, including the Churrigueresque style front entrance. Please note, this is an active cathedral as it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Mexico City. Mass goes on quite frequently. Please be respectful of the barriers put up so that those attending mass are not disturbed. You’ll also want to ensure that you are somewhat covered up for a visit here – that means no shorts and no bare shoulders (I always tuck a large scarf into my bag for this reason).
Mexico City style note: you will not see many shorts in Mexico City at all. Even though the weather can get warm here (up to 85 degrees F), you will see people a bit more covered up. Jeans are very popular and you’ll typically see longer sleeved tops and layers. Skirts and dresses are commonly seen as well. You’ll be fine here with a selection of pants or jeans (even cropped pants, ladies) or skirts with a few tops and a couple of cardigans or scarves. Bring sensible walking shoes. Mexico City’s streets are old and in some areas uneven cobblestone. My final style note is to avoid wearing white athletic shoes…nothing screams American tourist more loudly than this.
A quick walk from the Cathedral and we ended up at our dinner destination for our first evening. The restaurant was not our intended destination, but after a long and mixed up conversation with the concierge, we ended up at La Casa de los Azulejos, an 18th Century tiled palace that was built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba. The gorgeous home, tiled in the traditional blue and white tiles of the Mexican state of Puebla, is now home to Sanborns. Sanborns is a drug store chain that you’ll find in Mexico, Panama and El Salvador. It was opened by two California brothers who moved to Mexico and it featured the first soda fountain in the country. During the Mexican Revolution, Sanborns became a meeting place for the troops of Emiliano Zapato. Today, you’ll come to appreciate Sanborns as a department store with a consistent restaurant and clean bathrooms.
From the Casa de los Azulejos, it’s a short walk and an a harrowing street crossing to get to the Palacio de Bellas Artes or the Fine Arts Palace. This building was begun in 1905 and finished in 1930 in the Art Deco style. The building features murals by artist Diego Rivera, a stained glass curtain by Tiffany & Co. and it’s sinking. All of Mexico City is actually sinking and you’ll see evidence of it around town. From cracked foundations to added stairs to monuments, the city is fighting a never ending battle….all because Mexico City and its ancestor, Tenochtitlan, were built in a lake bed. You can catch performances here from Ballet Folklórico de México, but the building itself is best viewed from across the street at the Sears. I kid you not. The Sears department store, which very much looks like a grand department store from the golden days, has a coffee shop on the 9th floor with a fantastic view, I am told, of the Palace. Go early. The coffee shop is tiny and there will be a wait – we didn’t get there in time.
On day two of our trip to Mexico, we visited the Pyramids at Teotihuacán in the morning and then returned to the neighborhood of Coyoacán in southern Mexico City. Coyoacán is a Nahuatl word meaning the place of the coyotes. Built upon a pre-Hispanic village of the Tepanec people it is now a Bohemian neighborhood with lots of restaurants, colorful squares, restaurants, and museums. One of the highlights here is the Frida Kahlo museum: Casa Azul.
The Blue House was Kahlo’s childhood home and it is the home where she died. It was donated as a museum in 1958 and houses several of her works. I can appreciate the work of Frida Kahlo, though I wouldn’t want it hanging on my wall. Frida’s life was both interesting and tragic and that is reflected in her works. As a child, she accompanied her epileptic father, a photographer, perhaps instilling a love for art. After a horrible bus accident, she was bed ridden, eventually forced to wear a leather corset and sit in a wheelchair to offset the medical issues from the accident. Kahlo married muralist, Diego Rivera, and by all means it was a stormy relationship with affairs on both sides. One of the rumored affairs for Frida was Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. (He’s got a museum here, too). The grounds and gardens are gorgeous and are worth a visit even if you’re not a Frida fan.
This museum is very popular. Book your tickets online before you go so that you can wait in the shorter line. If you want to take photos inside the museum, you will need to purchase an additional photography pass in order to do so. Your entrance here also gets you into the Diego Rivera house and museum, Anahuacalli.
After museum going, we were hungry and we stumbled into a bakery called Pan de Gabriel. We visited a bit with the man manning the register, who explained to us that the bakery was a vegan bakery. Not at all what I’d expect in Mexico City. Everything in the bakery was made without gluten, sugar, dairy or eggs and it was still delicious! After a chat with the bakers, who were thrilled that we were giving Mexico City a chance and that we loved it, and a visit with a couple from New York, we were off on another Uber ride back to the historic center for dinner.
Dinner at El Huequito Bolivar is soooo worth it. Mexico City is know for its tacos and this taqueria specializes in tacos al pastor. For those of you not in the taco know, tacos al pastor feature spit-grilled pork mixed with fruit and – most traditionally pineapple – and chile. El Huequito marinates its pork in their specialty orange salsa and it’s delicious. Be careful of the salsa. On this trip to Mexico I tasted three salsas hot enough to kill me and I’m used to eating spicy food! Enjoy some tacos and a refreshing bottled coke, margarita or beer here. (You know not to drink the tap water in Mexico, right? Not to worry – refreshments, including safe to drink bottled water are easy to find).
After dinner, my friend and I were both craving a sweet so we wandered back towards our hotel to a bakery we had seen before: Pasteleria Ideal. Let me just interject here that Mexico City knows how to do baked goods better than any place else I’ve ever been – and that includes Paris where pastries are serious business. Residents of Mexico City love pan dulces or sweet breads and nowhere was that more apparent than in this bakery on a Saturday night. The place was packed! Upon venturing inside, we see a veritable smorgasbord of pastries laid out on a series of tables in the back of the bakery. People grabbed restaurant serving-sized trays and a set of tongs and began piling the baked goods high! When you had what you wanted, you proceeded to a station where your goodies were wrapped and weighed. Take your receipt to the counter to pay and off you go with pounds of delicious sweets. I’m not sure if this is a weekly indulgence for most in Mexico City, but I’m thankful that we’d been walking enough to have a pastry.
Day 3. Tired feet after two days of walking and climbing pyramids, we decided to take advantage of something that was suggested to us: The Turibus. The Turibus is just what it sounds like: a double decker tour bus cruising the streets of Mexico City and it’s a great option for safely seeing the sights. For approximately $9 USD, you can ride the Turibus and its five circuits from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM to see the sights and to hop off at any of the sights you want to explore more. With unlimited hop on/hop off rights and a gorgeous day, it seemed like a good way to see a bit more of the city while giving our feet a rest. Buy tickets at the major Turibus stops (like the Zócalo) or buy them right on the bus. Simply show your wristband the next time you want to hop on a Turibus. The buses also have Wifi and recorded information about the sights. Listen over the speaker in Spanish or plug in a set of headphones to listen in other languages.
We hopped off at the Angel of Independence, a beautiful monument to independence on Paseo de la Reforma that was built in 1910 to commemorate the centennial of Mexico’s War for Independence. The sinking sculpture, more steps have been added to the base, is a sculpture featuring the four bronze figures of law, justice, war and peace, as well as Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. It’s also a gathering place for the many walkers, roller bladers and cyclists out on a Sunday morning when Paseo de la Reforma closes down. Several people were out enjoying the weather and a few were out peacefully protesting the concerns they had about the Mexican government.
After a stop at the world renowned Anthropology Museum, we walked over to Chapultepec Park, the largest city park in Latin America and one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Bosque de Chapultepec is the green space in Mexico City and it is enormous (think Central Park in NYC). The park houses several museums, the zoo, the botanic gardens, and a lake among other things. We took a stroll through the park that sees more than 250,000 visitors per day. The park has been inhabited since pre-Columbian times and is a great place to spend an afternoon. Stop for a paleta or refresco at one of the many vendor stands and enjoy performance art, a paddle boat ride on the lake, or some time at the zoo.
A ride back to the hotel on the Turibus and a quick dinner and I can’t believe my time in Mexico City has already come to an end. Allot yourself plenty of time to get back to the airport. Depending upon traffic, it may take anywhere from 30-60 minutes. Check-in and security at the airport were surprisingly easy.
¡Adiós, Ciudad de México!
If you’ve been contemplating a trip to Mexico City….Go! It’s a wonderful city with friendly people, great food, charming neighborhoods, and amazing museums.