Where does one even begin to talk about the logistics of Mexico City? How can any one person say “here’s how the city works?” The first word I use when describing Mexico City is “big.” It’s huge. It’s full of people. It makes any other city I’ve been to look like a little village. It’s every adjective that you can possibly imagine, all at the same time. People love it and hate it. It would take a lifetime to figure it all out.
Before I get into my own attempt at Mexico City’s logistics – things like how to get around and where to go – it’s important for you to know this: my fiance, Enrique, grew up and lived there until he was in his late 20’s, and his parents still live there. I lived in Puebla/Cholula for almost one year (2012-2013), which is roughly two hours from Mexico City. Therefore I’ve been to Mexico City a lot – as a tourist from Europe (before 2012) and as weekend visitor when I was living in the country, and again as a visitor this past winter (Dec 2014). I’ve been a guest, a host, and a tourist, and I always had the distinct advantage of either being with a Chilango (Chilango = a person from Mexico City) or at least being somewhat close to my chilango somewhere in the city. So. Here we go.
Where is it and what do I really need to know right away?
Mexico City is kind of smack in the middle of the country of Mexico, but a bit more toward the south. It’s inland, not by the sea. The weather is relatively perfect year-round, never getting painfully hot or freezing cold. There is a reliable rainy season and a reliable dry season. The pollution, which used to be absolutely terrible, does not feel different these days than any other big city (NY, LA, Istanbul, London, Rome, etc). It’s not something I would have noticed at all if Enrique hadn’t pointed out one gray day that the grayness was due to more pollution, not bad weather. But overall, I’m used to blue skies and warm sun whenever I’m in Mexico City during dry season. And when I say “dry” season, I really mean dry – my skin and hair are super dry and crave moisture when I’m there, as there is very little humidity. The population of Mexico City itself is almost 9 million, but there are way more people than that in the city on any given day.
Mexico City (Ciudad de México) is officially México, Distrito Federal (federal district of Mexico), which is why you’ll hear everyone call Mexico City “DF”. It’s exactly the same concept of how Americans call Washington D.C. “DC”. When you’re in DF, you’ll hear the Mexicans call their city “day-efay”, which is “DF” in spanish – if you try to say “DF” in english it doesn’t really work (say “ciudad de mexico” if you can’t do the “DF” in spanish). Another thing to know: a lot of people within the country of Mexico will refer to Mexico City, DF simply as “México.” So if you’re in Puebla and driving two hours into DF, you’ll follow street signs that say “Mexico.” You’ll tell people “I’m going to be in Mexico for the weekend, sorry I can’t come to the party.” You can say “Ciudad de Mexico”, but most people don’t. It’s either “DF” or “Mexico.” Got it?
The airport is big and international and very well connected to the city. It’s not outside the city limits, it’s really right there (keep in mind, Mexico City’s urban-ness seems to be never-ending). You can get from the airport to any location in the city with the metrobus, metro, city buses (peseros), taxis, etc. If you take a taxi from the airport you should pay in advance at one of the million taxi counters, which (in my experience) are all legal and all pretty much the same price to wherever it is you’re going to go. Expect to pay around 200 pesos if you’re going somewhere within the city. The metrobus that goes from the airport to the city is 30 pesos (instead of the usual 6 pesos) and the normal metro is the normal price of 5 pesos (there was recently a price increase, it used to be 3 pesos). The local buses (called peseros in DF, but also known as collectivos or combis elsewhere in the country) are somewhere between 3 – 6 pesos. If this is your first time in Mexico City, I would stick to taxis, the normal metro, or the metrobus. A Mexico City pesero is definitely advanced level and it’s better to use them once you know the city better.
DF has ugly and beautiful parts. It’s full of all classes of people, from incredibly poor to insanely rich. There are lots of places in Mexico City where you won’t feel a speck of insecurity, and then you might walk into a market that suddenly feels like something wrong is about to happen. It’s hard to answer “is Mexico City dangerous?” with one simple answer. Based on my own personal experience, I’d say no, it’s not. But I only say this because I’ve never seen anything dangerous, I never felt in danger, I was never mugged. I’ve been pick-pocketed in Naples, I’ve seen some violent fights in Amsterdam, my friends in Philadelphia have had guns pointed in their faces, but I haven’t had those experiences in DF. I’ve been sexually harassed way, way more in NYC and Philadelphia and Paris than I ever have in Mexico City, but this doesn’t mean sexual harassment doesn’t exist (it just means that for me, it existed more in other places). I’m (currently) blonde and tattooed, and I wear my normal clothes in DF. I’ve never been a short-shorts kinda girl, but I do like to wear form-fitting tank tops and flowy skirts when it’s warm outside. I think someone did grab my ass once on the metro. I’ve heard catcalls, and those are absolutely annoying, but they didn’t reach the level of crudeness that I’ve heard in the US.
I have had the huge advantage of always being able to ask Enrique or other locals “hey, I want to go to blah-blah market with my other female friend, is that cool?” and locals will either say “oh totally, go for it, the tortas are amazing” or they’ll say “nah, I wouldn’t go there myself.” Make asking part of your routine when you’re in Mexico City.
Unfortunately for Mexico, there are a way scarier places than DF in the country. However, dangerous things DO happen in DF, and a sketchy situation in Mexico can be much worse than a sketchy situation in Paris or Philadelphia or Rome. You can get robbed, scammed, attacked, etc., in any of those cities – but there is kidnapping in Mexico. There is so much organized crime run by the narcos. There are disappearances within the whole country – way, way more than make the news. So you should take precautions, not feel bad about it, but also try keep it in perspective (comparing Mexico City to cities in the US is good for perspective, if you think the US is a safe place). You should ask Chilangos their opinion on the neighborhood you want to go explore or the bus route you want to take. Most of the time, the answer will be “it’s fine.” Most of the time, you probably wouldn’t even be close to accidentally wandering into a sketchy area. Most of the time, it’s worth it to go out of your way to find that market or pyramid or cafe or taco stand or party. But ask, and listen, and play it safe. Need a taxi? Ask a local to help if you are confused. “Taxi? un taxi seguro?” means “Taxi, a safe taxi?” and is honestly all you really need to say for a local to know what you mean. Don’t fuck around with taxis and your ideas that you lived in New York and you know what you’re doing. Taxi drivers run some pretty incredible scams in DF, and there are ways to tell what taxis are legit and what aren’t, but before you know 100% how to do that, ask someone else for help. Always, always ask. Ask a woman if it makes you feel safer (it generally does for me). The good thing about DF is there are pretty much always tons of people everywhere you go, because seriously, DF is full of people. And if something doesn’t feel right to you, don’t do it. Enrique has skipped taking certain taxis or going into certain bars or spending more time in certain areas when he’s been with me just based on the “this doesn’t feel right” feeling. There is always another taxi, bar, or area to explore.
So is it dangerous? It can be, from what I hear. I mean, we all hear things. But for me, I have to be honest, it didn’t feel dangerous. Ever. You will see poverty, you will see people who live on the street, you will be asked for change. I don’t think this happened to me any more in DF than it has in Rome. Keep in mind, beyond the almost 9-million people who live in Mexico City, the population of the metropolitan area is 21 million. Twenty One Million people. And if you’re in the center of the city, or on the metro during rush hour, or stuck in traffic, you will feel it.
How we got there & how to get around:
We’ve gone to DF by plane, car, and bus. I don’t really think it’s necessary for me to explain how to reach one of the biggest cities in the world, so I’ll use this opportunity to emphasize once more how insanely gigantic Mexico City is. If you plan to arrive by bus, there are a lot of bus stations throughout the city, so figure out exactly where in the city you’re staying and plan to arrive at the bus station closest. You can easily spend 2-3 hours in traffic in DF if you arrive anywhere close to rush hour, which can be anywhere from 7am-9am and then 6pm-9pm. There’s also a mini-rush hour around 2-3pm. The traffic is horrible. Terrible. Do not take what I’m saying lightly about the traffic. Plan your entire day around it. Is the metro a picnic in the sun? not at all. Is it better than sitting in a pesero/taxi/car for what seems like forever to go 3 kilometers? Yes it is. Walk. Walk as much as you can, or ride a bike (cycling is becoming more and more popular in DF, so go for it). The other somewhat nicer option is to go around as much as possible by metrobus. The metrobus is an above-ground bus with its own dedicated lane, so it will go much faster than the peseros or cars. The metrobus also gets very crowded during rush hour, but at least it’s overground with windows that open and is somewhat better than the metro, even if you’re smushed.
Chilangos are used to being smushed into public transport and are, by necessity, aggressive about getting in and out before they are killed by the doors closing. You will need to learn how to do this as well, because you will have seconds to get in and out of a crowded metro/metrobus. Rush hour in Mexico City is no joke, and it’s more hardcore than NYC (though they are comparable). On both the metro and metrobus, the front portion is reserved for women, children, and elderly people. You will end up seeing perfectly healthy young men in these parts as well, though by and large Mexican men are the types that will not keep a seat if a woman is standing nearby. The woman/children/elderly thing is a bit more enforced during rush hour times.
You need to take the chaos and hugeness of DF into consideration when planning out your day. There is so much to do and see that you don’t want to get trapped in traffic or rush hour and spend half your day just getting from point A to point B.
Where we stayed in Mexico City:
Enrique’s parents live in the south part of the city, Coapa. When we stay there, we’re close to Coyoacán and Xochimilco, so we spend time hanging around those areas. When we’ve gone to just hang out with friends, we’ve rented apartments through Air B&B in La Roma, Condesa, la zona rosa, the historical center, Coyoacán, or places with friends. I would recommend all those neighborhoods as potential place to stay, all for different reasons. Here’s a super quick breakdown:
Historical Center (Centro historico) – if you’re traveling with a friend/partner and enjoy a bit of chaos. If you want to be close to the famous zocalo (the main plaza), which is one of the biggest city squares in the world where there is always something going on. If you want to get right into the heart of all the action, eat your weight in street food, and become overwhelmed by art and music. It’s intense, it’s fun, you’ll get easy walking access to museums and galleries and amazing food. Do take a bit more caution in this area, as it is absolutely full of people (and tourists) and some of the surrounding neighborhoods are a bit tough.
La Roma or Condesa – a great location for single travelers or really, pretty much anyone. These areas have moved way beyond “up and coming” and have full-on gentrified to become trendy, beautiful, fun, safe areas. It feels a little calmer in these parts while still very much being part of the city – the way Brooklyn can feel calmer than Manhattan. You’ll have easy access to artisanal beer and mezcal, these are great neighborhoods to ride a bike, there are plenty of markets and access to public transport, and these are very green areas of the city. The neighborhoods border each other and La Roma is one of my favorite parts of Mexico City.
La Zona Rosa – Mexico City’s “red light” district. A very good area if you want to party, if you’re younger and good looking and want to show that off, or if you’re into gay nightlife. It’s also great if you just want an easy location that is within reasonable walking distance to the historical center and close to everything. It’s not a seedy area at all, it’s just full of clubs and restaurants and young people doing young-people things. It has a slightly more “mall” feeling than areas like La Roma – you’ll find more chain restaurants and whatnot. I stayed here when I was in DF with 8 friends, and it was absolutely perfect for our needs just because the location was so great and there were a million bars and cafes close by. Watch your pockets, take a bit of extra precaution at night (and please don’t buy hard drugs off the street, really) but if you want to go a bit wild and you’re under 30, this is a good area to do that.
Coyoacán – I love this area. It’s amazing. It’s like a city within a city – it has its own zocalo that is full of activity at all times. Day markets, night markets, music, dancing, so many bars and restaurants, street food, fancy food… anything. This is where Frida Khalo grew up and where the “blue house” is that she shared with Diego Rivera. This is where you can visit the house where Leon Trotsky was killed. The neighborhood is full of art, families, dogs, kids, old people, poor people, rich people, students… and it’s quite green and colonial, so it’s a lot more beautiful than other areas. The disadvantage is that it’s further away from other parts of the city, and not really well-connected. You’ll find more peseros serving this neighborhood. But remember, taxis are pretty affordable, cycling is possible, and you always have your own two feet.
Regarding Air B&B: I’ve had both good and bad experiences in DF with Air B&B. Apartments can … vary, let’s say. Water is always an issue. Was the gas tank recently refilled? is the water pressure stronger than a trickle? Is it freezing inside at night? Take the time to read all the reviews. Ask the host if it’s ok to put the toilet paper in the toilet (a lot of the time, you shouldn’t). Central heating is not common at all in Mexico, so even though it’s a warm city, you can oddly enough find yourself more cold inside than outside, if it’s an older apartment.
Some of my favorite things to do in Mexico City
1. Eat. And then eat some more. and then keep eating. This is one of my favorite places in the world to eat food. From street vendors, markets, mid-range restaurants, fancy restaurants, seriously… all of it. I wouldn’t even know where to begin saying “this is where you should eat” because it is so seldom that I’ve had a bad eating experience. But here’s two places I always, always go back to:
Salon Corona in the Historical Center (Av. Filomeno Mata 18, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06000) – this is your proper taqueria/cantina style restaurant. It is run like a well-oiled machine. You can just keep ordering tacos here and no one will stop you. Excellent place to see if you really speak spanish, because those spanish classes you took in school aren’t going to help you get through the menu here. Everything comes as a taco (in a small corn tortilla), a quesadilla (small corn tortilla with cheese), torta (a big sandwich) or a torta with cheese (a big sandwich with cheese). “Gringa” means a white flour tortilla (slightly bigger) instead of a corn tortilla.
Enrique’s in Tlalpan (Insurgentes Sur 4061, Tlalpan Centro, Tlalpan, 14000) – this is your “I want the best mexican food ever in a nice restaurant but I’m not trying to be super formal about it, however I want to sit down at a nice table and eat like a king” kind of place. It’s not cheap (though it’s not overpriced either). It is delicious. Everything. Every. single. thing. The mole, the pulque, the tacos, the soup, the rice… but my favorite is the barbacoa (goat meat). The food is 100% authentic Mexican. Large mariachi bands might start playing while you’re eating. The service is wonderful. They have mezcal.
2. Drink. And specifically: mezcal and artisanal mexican beer. Dear god, the mezcal options in DF are no joke. Another drink to try: pulque, and if you can find it, pox. If you want something that isn’t alcohol, try the gigantic, fresh juices that cost 10-20 pesos.
3. Look at art. Mexico City is so full of art it’s overwhelming, and so much of it is free or the cost of entry to museums is very inexpensive.
4. Play dominoes at cantinas with friends while eating and drinking.
5. Go to museums. If I started to write about museums this post would never end. Just be sure to leave a lot of time for museums, because it’s an absolute pleasure to museum-hop in DF.
6. Go to the Torre Latinoamericana (Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas 2, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06000), and take the elevator all the way up to the restaurant (tell the elevator operator “restaurant” when you get in, then follow the path until you’re there), which is around the 50th floor. The restaurant itself is pretty bad, so try to avoid eating there unless you really, really only care about the view. Instead, have a drink at the bar at sunset and enjoy the view – it’s up here that you will see how huge the city is (If you’re scared of heights, this isn’t the best place).
7. Go to markets. All of them. Explore them. Some are better than others, there’s probably a million lists online that all talk about the best market for this or the best market for that.
8. Meet locals. Mexicans are by and large really friendly, and chilangos are no different. The people are a huge part of why I love Mexico City so much (I am obviously biased here!).
9. Go to Teotihuacan. It’s about an hour from DF (remember to plan around traffic!), and reachable by bus. It’s so incredibly worth it, no matter how many ruins or pyramids you may have seen in your life. Bring sun protection (ideally a hat) and be ready to spend the day.
10. Dance. Finding places to dance, to be loud, to drink, to shout… they’re everywhere. Sometimes it feels like the entire city is dancing, shouting, running, shoving, drinking, and kissing. Man, the kissing. you will see so much kissing in DF.
My last trip to Mexico City was mid-December, 2014. Enrique and I stayed mostly with his parents, and enjoyed all the usual things – family, meeting up with friends, drinking and eating, typical stuff. We had been in Mexico for about 3.5 weeks (a little more than halfway through our overall trip) when everything changed: I found out on Christmas Eve that I was pregnant.
After over four years of being together, and just over a month of being engaged … we were thrilled. Clearly everything would be different… but this night in Mexico City, we ate dinner with the family, tried to act normal, and I subtly gave my glass of wine to Enrique to drink for me after toasting.