Saturday, November 21, 2015

Why You Totally Have the Wrong Impression About Mexico City

Upstairs at El Pendulo bookstore
Despite my love of Mexican food and several great trips to Tijuana and Ensenada, I have to admit I hadn't really been dying to visit Mexico City. I assumed it was impossibly congested with crazy traffic like Bangkok, horribly smoggy like Beijing, and far more dangerous, dirty and chaotic than other big cities.

But since I needed to spend a few days in Baja covering the Los Cabos film festival (seriously, I was working!), I decided it was time to finally spend a few days in DF, as the locals say (like our DC, it stands for Distrito Federale).

I was incredibly surprised to find out how wrong my impressions were, so I wanted to share my experiences with readers who might not be sure about traveling to Mexico City. I planned the trip on my own, and didn't get any comped meals or rooms.

Disclaimer: I'm just an American tourist and food blogger, not an expert. If my impressions are wrong or naive, feel free to let me know, politely. 

Misconception 1: Crime 
Certainly the biggest concern is whether it's dangerous to travel there. Obviously after four days, I'm no expert in Mexican crime, cartels or anything else like that. But I'd say that for an American tourist (or any other kind, really), the crime is no different than most other major cities. I know there are kidnappings of high-powered figures, and, mostly outside of Mexico City, horrific murders. But like gang activity in L.A., it's extremely unlikely to affect tourists. Like in Oaxaca and the Yucatan, there is no U.S. Government advisory in effect advising of problems in Mexico City.

In fact, I felt safer than in places like Barcelona and Rome, where pickpockets and bag slashers abound. The usual precautions remain: Keep an extra credit card and your passport in a safe or locked bag at your hotel or Airbnb in case you lose your purse or wallet. Try not to call attention by loudly yammering in English on the metro or streets, or constantly displaying an expensive camera. But those common sense suggestions go for just about anywhere.

There's a large police presence everywhere in Mexico City, and in the evening police cars often circle the streets with their lights and sirens on, seemingly just to show people they're around. I think this is a good thing, right? Anyway it seems better than NOT seeing police keeping an eye on things. But it can be pretty cacaphonous between dusk and midnight, when things quiet down.

El Pendulo bookstore in Polanco is a great place to browse, rest your feet and have a cup of tea or full meal.
Misconception 2: It's chaotic, and the traffic is terrible. 
There aren't as many "walk" crosswalk signs as in the U.S., but it's still not particularly difficult to cross major streets. Just watch the signals for when the opposing traffic has a red light, and follow a local if possible. Like in L.A., rush hours can be trafficky, so that's a good time to take the Metro instead. You might have to stand for a few stops at busy times, but it's not horrendously crowded like Tokyo.
I was afraid the city might be hard to figure out, but even without a phone it was no problem (Like ancient vagabonds, we used the Streetwise Mexico City map we bought at the beautiful El Pendulo bookstore in Polanco.) It helps to read a guidebook first -- we picked Mexico City: An Opinionated guide for the Curious Traveler because it's compact and recently published. With only four days to explore, we stayed mostly in Condesa, where our Airbnb was, Roma, Centro and Polanco, so naturally our experience was skewed more towards those more upscale and very walkable neighborhoods. Just watch out for uneven sidewalks.

The leafy view from our apartment could have been in Paris. 
Misconception 3: It's incredibly smoggy.
My throat tickled a bit from time to time, and due to the altitude, the three flights up to our apartment sometimes left me winded. I'm not sure whether it was Mexico City's efforts to get polluting cars off the road or we just lucked out with weather (around 80 degrees and cloudy or breezy), but the smog seemed no worse than, say, Pasadena or Riverside. Honestly, you won't even notice once you're strolling the tree-lined streets of Condesa.

Misconception 4: It's dirty, trashy, public bathrooms are scary, etc.
Totally wrong in our experience -- maybe outlying areas are rougher around the edges. Public toilets at the Mercado Medellin, in the Metro, museums and everywhere else were uniformly immaculate, and it seemed as if workers were constantly washing everything down with bleach. Be sure to carry several 5 peso pieces for public bathrooms and Metro tickets, though.

A yogurt packed with granola and freshly-cut fruits at La Morenita fruit stand in Mercado de Medellin
At food stands in the Mercado Medellin and Condesa tianguis open market, plates were covered in plastic, fruits were cut to order and produce for sale looked like it had been washed and then polished. We didn't eat at the actual sidewalk stands only because we were usually en route to a different restaurant, but they looked perfectly fine.

Obviously there's significant poverty in Mexico, and the beggars on the sidewalk in more touristy areas are certainly tragic. But we actually never saw a homeless person -- I'm sure there must be a homeless population on the outskirts, but I think the city tries hard to make central areas pleasant to visit.

A few more tips on navigating the city:

Transportation: Yes, the city is huge, but many of the neighborhoods tourists will visit aren't incredibly far apart. We took the metro everywhere because it was so cheap (5 pesos = 30 cents) and often moves much faster than the traffic. It was easy to navigate and works exactly like the Paris metro. Since we were having phone issues, we weren't able to use Uber as much as we might have if we had a working phone with an international data plan, though we made do with the wi-fi at bars and restaurants.
Uber is so cheap in Mexico City that you might as well use it a lot to be able to pack in more activities, but the metro is even cheaper and sometimes goes faster. If you want a cab, have the restaurant call one for you or go to a taxi stand. We were told not to hail them, but with Uber there's no need. I tried to tip the Uber driver, but he refused. There are also EcoBici rental bikes everywhere, which could be fun for tooling around one of the parks. I wouldn't want to take one on the main streets, but there are plenty of bike paths and quiet areas to try them out, like the Avenida Amsterdam oval street that used to be a horse-racing track.

Water: Like everywhere in Mexico, it's not recommended to guzzle water straight from the tap. We used small amounts for tooth brushing with no ill effects, and the Airbnb provided a large jug of water. In most restaurants, there's a law that purified water must be available for free. Just ask for agua de garafon or point to the large water dispenser sitting on the bar and you'll save a few dollars a day on bottled water. We drank fruit aguas everywhere with no problem, though I have no idea if they use purified water to make them.

Customize your trip: One reason I wasn't in such a hurry to get to Mexico City is I just wasn't sure how many Frida Kahlo paintings and Mayan artifacts I was in the mood to see. But you can build a trip around any interest. My partner wanted to see the James Bond exhibit and the Zocalo and the Grand Hotel where they filmed "Spectre," so our trip was heavily 007-flavored. You can easily do a food trip, architecture trip or photography trip even if pre-Columbian art isn't your thing. But the wonderfully subversive Diego Rivera murals at the Palacio National (free admission!) are well worth a visit no matter what.

The Pyramid of the Moon is a LONG walk from the entrance to Teotihuacan park
Visiting the pyramids at Teotihuacan: If you have a full day available, you can get out of the city and visit the 2000-year old pyramids at Teotihuacan. Is it possible to take public transportation to Tethuouican, about 30 miles from Mexico City, and be back in time for a meal, a shower and drinks appointment at 7 that evening? Theoretically, yes, but you'll be very tired, even without climbing the 246 ft. tall Pyramid of the Sun. Expensive organized tours apparently stop at lots of shops and don't get there any faster, and I don't think you really need a guide to the pyramids. Taking the public bus from Autobuses del Norte station is quite simple and comfortable: here's good instructions on how to do it.
Leave as early in the morning as possible, preferably on a weekday -- before 9 is ideal -- and take a hat, sunscreen and at least one bottle of water per person or buy some at the entrance, as no water or snacks are available inside the park. Consider taking a picnic or having a big breakfast and taking some snacks. There are restaurants outside the park but once you walk to the pyramids you might not want to keep walking around, since the park is a mile or two long with numerous stone staircases.

Eating: That's a whole other blog post! Check back soon for some of our favorite tastes and what's on our list for next time.

Mexico City is one of the world's great cities, and if a trip to Barcelona or Madrid isn't in the cards, you can have a similar experience in DF with just as much great food and art for a fraction of the price. We can't wait to get back and experience more neighborhoods and even some Frida Kahlo. So what are you waiting for? Let me know in the comments if you have more tips.

Here's a post from last year from a travel blogger who had many similar impressions: Why I was So Dead Wrong About Mexico City.

1 comment:

Miles said...

Love it. Can't wait to spend some time there. I've only transferred planes there.