Mexico City’s Rich Tapestry Awaits: Don’t Be Afraid!
Mexico City – a heady must-see destination
By NR Venkatesh
Many of us love to travel. Besides being hard-wired for curiosity, our urge to travel is propelled by our desire so see new places, meet new peoples and enjoy new experiences.
Mexico City had always fascinated us, but reports of violence and crime had deterred us. Until the New York Times anointed Mexico City the # 1 travel destination in the world (2016).
We just returned after a memorable eight-day adventure in Mexico. Our safety concerns, though well-founded, were manageable with commonsense precautions.
A City of 25 Million!
Mexico City is a sprawling megalopolis of almost 25 million people spread out over 600 square miles and situated 2,250m above sea level. Steeped in rich history and culture, there are tons of things to see and do.
Navigating immigration and customs at Mexico City International Airport is straightforward.
However, you would do well to avoid the exorbitantly-priced duty-free shop temptingly situated just beside the immigration counters.
Importantly, make sure that you purchase a prepaid taxi ride from one of the stands located at the airport and get into the right taxi.
The fare to areas downtown should be around 200 pesos (USD 13). Do not get into any of the free-standing (libre) taxis outside the airport. You risk being ripped off, robbed or even kidnapped.
Hampton Inn a Good Choice
Given our preference to get under the skin of the places that we visit, we opted to stay at the Hampton Inn and Suites by Hilton (Phone: +52 55 8000 5000) in the heart of the city. This enabled us to spend time with the locals and be within walking distance of many places of interest.
The best feature of our hotel was the superb customer service led by concierge Edgar Mendoza and his colleagues (Martin, Alejandro, Gisselle, Carlos, Om Sheila, to name a few).
You could stay in more trendy neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa or Polanco, if you want to avoid the hustle and bustle and are more interested in partaking in the city’s impressive nightlife, including bar hopping.
Hop-On, Hop-Off Buses
A neat strategy to get a feel for a new place is to ride its hop-on, hop-off buses and that’s what we did. Spending over half-a-day on Capitol Tours Mexico City tour. The tickets cost us 160 pesos each and they were valid for 24 hours. We covered two (Templos and Centro-Polanco) out of the three circuits on offer, taking in vast and fascinating sections of the city, comfortably.
The Capitol Tour buses are newer than the Turibus ones.
One morning, we visited the highly rated National Museum of Anthropology (entrance fee 70 pesos), which is located right beside the impressive Chapultepec Park. Before we entered the museum, we made it a point to savor the beauty of Chapultepec Park, including the wondrous Sunday morning sight of fitness enthusiasts jogging, bicycling and even roller-blade skating.
Some of the major thoroughfares in the city like the Reforma are closed to cars, buses and taxis from 7 am til 2 pm, and it’s a magical time seeing the streets reclaimed by people instead of vehicles.
The sprawling anthropology museum boasts 21 galleries on two floors and serious museum buffs could easily spend a full day there. We visited just three interesting galleries – the Maya, Mexica and Teotihuacan – and that took us half-a-day.
There were a number of street vendors offering Mexican food outside the museum. However, our tour guide had cautioned us against giving in to this temptation for fear of contracting e-coli. It is also advisable to drink only bottled water in Mexico.
Deciding to make that day into a museum day, we ordered an Uber-ride to get to the iconic Soumaya Museum, owned by Carlos Slim, the richest Mexican and the seventh richest man in the world. Organized over six floors and with free admission, the museum is simply bursting with exhibits. One of the museum’s highlights, ironically, is a collection of hundreds of ancient coins from around Mexico and the world.
A smart way to cover the museum is to take the elevator to the sixth floor and then make your way down instead of having to climb six floors.
Other highlights of our stay in Mexico City included:
In Xochimilco, you can ride brightly painted boats gliding gently along waterways around man-made islands built hundreds of years ago.
Covering the breath-taking Zocalo (Plaza de la Constitución) on foot. It measures 57,600 square meters and is one of the largest public squares in the world. Prior to Mexico’s conquest by the Spaniards, the Zocalo sat right in the center of the Aztec capital. We passed by the Zocalo every day and it was always buzzing with feverish activity.
Enjoying a mesmerizing two-hour performance by the Mexican Folkloric Ballet at the Palace of Fine Arts. Seasonally discounted tickets cost us just 240 pesos (USD 15) each, for good seats, albeit in the rafters.
Covering sections of the city, at leisure, on foot. Given Mexico’s most recent earthquake on September 19, 2017, we came upon collapsed buildings that had largely been cleared of the debris.We made it a point to visit the private Enrique Rebsamen School where 26 people, including 19 schoolgirls, lost their lives. Family and friends had placed memorial wreaths and it was a painful sight to behold. Poignant rescue efforts at the school had made it to television screens around the world.
An edgy walk on Avenue Republica de El Salvador teeming with locals (we were constantly looking over our shoulders while hopelessly also trying to blend in), on our way to La Ciudadela, the handicrafts market, where we did the bulk of our shopping.
Visiting Coyoacan Market, a fun and safe place, where you can confidently enjoy Mexico City’s famed street food.
Watching 25 or so Mexican girls giving belly-dancing and Bollywood dance numbers a gamely try at India Town Vegetarian Restaurant (Telephone + 52 55 5512-3165) one Saturday afternoon.
The not uncommon sight of street vendors selling boiled and roasted edible bugs, often grasshoppers (chapulines), by the cupful, with salt, lemon and spice added to taste.Apparently, entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) has been practiced in Mexico since pre-Columbian times.Bugs were an important and affordable source of protein and the practice continues in many parts of Mexico to this day.
Memorable meals within walking distance of our hotel at El Café Popular, El Café de Tacuba, Taquiera Arandas and Azul Historico. A decent sit-down meal can be had for 300 pesos (USD 17) in many restaurants.
Other vignettes from our trip that come to mind include: a visit to the sprawling Ideal Bakery; bumping into Hare Krishna devotees dancing their way through bustling pedestrian-only Madero Street.
And watching indigenous street performers, acrobats, and jugglers performing at traffic lights; and stealing a bird’s eye view of the city from the restaurant on top of the LatinoAmericana building.
Safety Tips for Mexico City
An important safety tip for Mexico City that we received (including from Mexican friends) and, which we would reiterate is to never flag a taxi on the street. It could prove costly, even deadly.
Also, check with your hotel concierge where you can safely withdraw money from ATM machines.
Card skimming devices are rampant. There have been instances where customer bank cards have been swallowed by ATM machines and where the machines have delivered fake bills.
You would also be well-advised to steer clear of Merced Market and the Tepito neighborhood, to avoid being pick-pocketed, mugged or assaulted.
During our stay, besides delighting in the charms of Mexico City, we did four day-trips with our excellent tour guide Jorge Mendoza (firstname.lastname@example.org or on cell + 52 55 3660 8182).
NR Venkatesh was a top film journalist in Bollywood, India and a travel and creative writer in the Middle East, daughter Nirmala has worked with leading English dailies in the Middle East. And son Arjun, who both writes and takes pictures, is also the spark behind the family’s collective efforts at sharing their travel experiences with the world. Incidentally, Venkatesh is a Certified Public Accountant from the US, Nirmala an international banking professional and Arjun, a software engineer based in San Francisco.