American expat Jade D’Angelo has been living in Mexico City for nearly six months and has fallen for Mexico City’s charms, chaos and contrasts. I asked her to put together a “local’s perspective” city profile of Mexico City.
Overview: It’s hard to imagine a more culturally packed, higher intensity place than Ciudad de México. Currently rivaling Tokyo and Seoul for the most highly populated city in the world, Mexico City sits squarely on the pulse of Central America. Mexico is a beautiful dichotomy: A sprawling modern metropolis inhabited by some of the world’s best, but maintaining a strong Mexican tradition and culture. You may be able to find Starbucks at every corner, but don’t be surprised if you also spot an indigenous couple walking barefoot down a main highway. Mexico City is a fast-paced, colorful, textured, rich urban hot spot. It is chock full of amazing museums, art, music, delectable food, traditional dances and events, soccer stadiums and fans and breathtaking architecture. The options of things to see and do are endless, and with a little planning, you will be enthralled by what you find in this cultural hybrid.
Mexico City is an easy travel destination. It is not a holiday destination and thus, there are hotels at every price point constantly available. Airlines are rarely over-booked from Europe and the Americas, and many direct flights are available to one of the two airports. Plenty of ATMs are scattered about. You can always find an open Internet café, and the city has the largest metro in the world, making transportation a breeze.
History: Mexico City has a tangled history of vast kingdoms, brutal conquests and industrialization. It rests on what was once a lake, a woof and warp-like structure of canals and farmland. The maize has long since been replaced with endless asphalt and buildings, but even amongst this modern world, you can happen across the ancient Temple Major in downtown, centuries old cathedrals, and the reverend Guadalupe. There are few cities in the world that provide such an exciting mix of tradition and modern existence.
Climate: There is no right time to visit Mexico City. The climate is temperate year round. If you do not enjoy frequent showers, you will want to avoid the summer months from June to September. If higher temperatures are not your cup of tea, consider visiting in April. The entire city is green and alive with beautiful purple jacaranda trees. Whenever you plan on coming, rest assured that the city will be alive with activity — the two exceptions are Holy Week, the week before Easter Sunday and the couple of days after it, and Christmas to New Years, when the city slows down considerably as locals go on vacation. If you are looking to do business in the city you definitely want to avoid these times. One climatic characteristic to be aware of is the altitude. The city stands at almost a mile and a half above sea level (7,200 feet). This, combined with the fact that it is in a valley flanked by mountains and two volcanoes, which promote heavy smog, makes everyday activities exhausting for travelers. Being aware of this can make all the difference. Don’t be surprised if after a day or so of running on adrenaline you suddenly crash. Take it slow, drink plenty of water, rest as needed and you should still enjoy a delightful Mexico City experience.
Attractions and Neighborhoods: Being such a large city, there are truly endless excursions to go on and sights to be seen. The historic center offers a rich cultural experience and gives one a quick glimpse of DF’s history. For a bohemian feel you can head to Roma; to Condessa if you desire a beautiful residential area full of hip cafes and a buzzing nightlife, or the affluent Polanco for upscale hotels and cutting edge chefs.
One really should spend a day in the Centro Histórico Neighborhood (Historic Center) and the surrounding areas. This historical downtown area of Mexico City has a wide plaza known as El Zòcalo. Full of museums, restaurants and cafes, street merchants, markets, art, music, Aztec dancers, and hotels this is a wonderful place to start. The Palacio National (the presidential palace and home to exquisite Diego Rivera murals), cathedral, and excavated site of Temple Mayor (the main Aztec Tenochtitlan temple) are just a few of the sights which could keep you occupied for hours.
Directly west of the Zócalo lies the breathtaking Palacio de Bellas Artes. Slightly further, you will find Mexico City’s famous street, Paseo de la Reforma, adorned with the “Monumento a La Independicia, El Ángel.” This beautifully gilded angel stands as the symbol of Independence and rises above the city to watch over her people. Daily tours are available and upon summit you will be treated to a bird’s eye view of the city. Several other monuments mark this grand boulevard and you can easily follow it down to Zona Rosa and enjoy any of the many restaurants on your way to Bosque de Chapultepec. This park is a trip within itself, with lakes, gardens, and abundant trees. It also holds several museums, including the world famous Museo Nacional de Antrologia and the Museo Nacional de Historia.
Getting Around: Transportation is a breeze throughout the city. The Metro is extremely economical ($3 pesos, or about 25 US cents and you can ride to any destination one way, no matter how many stops or transfers) and criss-crosses the city very efficiently. Taxis are also extremely abundant and affordable. Avoid all “Libre” taxis, which are denoted by an “L” before the vehicle’s registration number and license plate. Instead look for a “Sitio”taxi, traditionally denoted by a “S”. New regulations (changes in license plates) have made it almost impossible to differentiate between Libre and Sitio taxis. The smartest course of action is to always call a 24-hour Sitio taxi service, which is available at 5516-6020 to 34, 5571-9344, and 5571-3600. Your hotel or restaurant will gladly call one for you.
Dining: You are never far from some of the world’s most delicious cuisine in Mexico City. Any type of global delight can be found, although some of the most delicious food to be found is in the markets and taquerias. Keep in mind this rule of thumb: Don’t eat unless you can sit at the establishment. Hopefully this will help you avoid any run-ins with less than sanitary establishments. Perhaps the most tantalizing way to find good eats is stop locals and ask them what they recommend. Make sure you try the “T Diet” while you are in town, which consists of tortas, tamales, and tacos. Some of the best al pastor and bistek tacos are to be found in the city, and any good Samaritan can direct you. Eating is generally quite inexpensive and one of the true joys of Mexico City. Due to Mexico City’s dichotic character, you can enjoy tamales on the street for breakfast and an exquisite world-class dinner in Polanco later that day.
Safety: Mexico City does have a reputation for being one of the more dangerous cities in the world. Precautions should be taken to not draw attention to yourself. Do not wear expensive jewelry or watches, carry or show large amounts of cash, advertise your nationality, or generally advertise yourself as a foreigner. That being said, you will immediately notice how friendly the city is. In general, the Mexican people are proud of their country and happy to assist in any way they can. As in any large city, take the proper precautions to not put yourself in dangerous situations, such as hailing a taxi off the street.