Why I Was So Dead Wrong About Mexico City

2 Posted by - February 5, 2014 - Mexico

I was not prepared for Mexico City. I don’t know why, but I had the idea that the sprawling metroplex would be like one of the large Asian cities I had visited with choking pollution, insane traffic, tangles of wires running from building to building in random nests of connectivity, hawkers and street food vendors crowding the sidewalk, a sort of delightful chaos that I love, but is also a little gritty, overwhelming and dangerous.

We avoided the toll roads from Guanajuato to Mexico City, taking the scenic country roads over the mountains instead. We arrived after dark, so it wasn’t until the next morning, waking up in the Centro Historico, next to the Zocalo, when I was met with the reality: a very large version of Madrid. With tacos. We took a turibus around the city… to walk it is impossible, we covered 7 miles in one direction the first day. There are so many city parks, the buses have recently switched to biofuel, there’s a new city bike program that just started and the streets are often lined with trees. There’s historical monuments, sky-high statues in the middle of roundabouts, but also modern architecture, art, and the old estates – giant houses that have been preserved, and seem to just exist between skyscrapers, the remains of what Mexico City used to look like.

Why had I avoided coming here so long? I think the lingering impression that it would be too overwhelming, too polluted, and not enough to see. Instead, I found a beautiful city that was relatively easy to navigate, with lots of museums and neighborhoods worth exploring, amazing food at all levels from their nearly endless street food to their world-class restaurants.

Hmm. Mexico City, who knew?

Some photos:

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I was surprised by the amount of green.

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Or the fact that you’d be walking down a city street and suddenly a beautiful old home like this would appear, plunked down in the middle of everything.

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At night the city is even better.

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Especially the center.

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But this part of the city seems to shut down completely by 10 PM.

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I am going to write more about the food, but it was fantastic. It’s worthy as a culinary destination for so many reasons. I would love to live here just for that. There’s so many great bakeries too, something we don’t really have in my area on the Pacific coast.

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I was charmed by the architecture.

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I know Mexico City isn’t Madrid, but sometimes you can’t even tell the difference. I think it’s a good shorthand for describing it, because at least for me, the expectations and reality are so conflicting.

Also, we had our first introduction to the protests that are going on right now across Mexico. We were warned to avoid Morelia because there were some issues there (locals are angry that the government isn’t providing more security so they took up arms and became vigilantes, until the federal government stepped in) but there’s also a separate issue with labor reforms. We came across the downtown encampment:

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Later when I was looking through my photos (I think the one below is the Bella Artes, correct me if that’s not right) and I noticed I had accidently caught one of the signs for the protest. It says, “No a la Reforma Laboral, Señores Legisladores: Basta de reformas a la constitution en beneficio de unos cuantos. No al marco juridico a conaculta trabajadores in Bellas Artes.”

Which basically says, No to the Labor Reforms, Members of the Legislature: Stop the constitutional reforms that benefit only a few. No to the legal framework for the conaculta workers in the Bella Artes (Conaculta is the acronym in Spanish for the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes or the National Council for Culture and the Arts). I asked a local why the government was taking away benefits from workers and he said, “Because the government is assholes.” Well there you go.

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Mexican SWAT team members (or equivalent) watch passively.

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For the most part though, it was entirely possible to not notice the protests. Considering the size of the city and country, it was a really small group, contained around a single monument. Elsewhere, the city continued as usual.

By the way, here is the eco-friendly bicycle program I mentioned (there are also biodiesel buses as well).

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The city caught me entirely off-guard. It had never been on my list, despite my love of Mexico and art and food. I need to spend a few weeks here some time and just tour all the museums. Oh and probably eat my weight in street food. More on that in the next post.

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  • CWhoa

    Glad to see you enjoy it! I’ve been coming to DF for years and just took a permanent job here. I was terrified my first night, and found a friend of a friend to meet me in a park. As it grew dark I nearly ran home in fear. This turned out to be Parque España, in the middle of the yuppie Condesa neighborhood. The group who met me took me on one of the Roma/Condesa art walks, where I was surprised to wander in and out of galleries drinking wine. My perception of the city changed that night and I kept coming back. I highly recommend them if you’re in town again: http://www.ccromacondesa.mx/

  • Autumn Maddox McTaggart

    We loved our month in DF. I agree with CWhoa – my perceptions where totally off kilter as well. Before arriving in the city I had my hair cut at a small salon in Sayulita. While sitting there two ladies struck up a conversation with each other. They started talking about DF- and saying how there were so many shootings and one of the ladies said that while she waited at the airport in DF she could hear gunshots outside! Needless to say, I stayed silent and eavesdropped :) Well with imagination in overdrive and mommy mode kicking in you could say that my mind was filled with crazy thoughts regarding DF after I left there. Also, when we told people where we were traveling to next- they told me to hold on to my children tight (always!) for they could be kidnapped at any time!
    Well, we stayed in the Condesa neighborhood and loved all of the parks, food and people we met. What an awesome city! And needless to say- we emerged unscathed, the children still in tow and the only negitive impact that city had was on my waistline!

  • alicia pierre

    It looks lovely Christine. I, too, have a bias that it is a sprawling unattractive metropolis. My future plans to visit Mexico all steer clear of Mex City. I am now rethinking this. Your pictures and description do sound nice. Can’t wait to hear -and SEE- more about the food!!!!

  • Lisa Sonora Beam

    Mexico City and Madrid tie for my favorite. DF is where I go to relax and rejuvenate after a couple of months in Oaxaca. I describe DF as NYC times a thousand, how it feels to me in every sense. love the mercados in the many Barrios Magicos outside of the city center. The city brings me alive more than any other place I’ve been.

  • dtravelsround

    I have heard such good things about Mexico City! Thank you for sharing this. Makes me want to go even more!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    Great to read this—I have always had an unfounded curiosity about Mexico City (unfounded because I couldn’t tell you why I’m interested in it, and I certainly haven’t done a ton of research into it…) so it’s nice to hear it’s worth a visit and actually a pleasant place to be. I would like to hear a lot more about the street food (now that I think about it, this is probably what first piqued my interest in the place…)!

  • Sarah Somewhere

    Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by Mexico city too. Loved it. It certainly is misrepresented. I have to add: The metro is amazing!!! 3 Pesos per journey, fast and efficient.

  • Jimmy Dau

    I loved Mexico City. Originally planned three days (what was I thinking?) and stayed for a week. There is so much to do an the food and markets are incredible. Such a buzz and the locals were super friendly! Be sure to eat pancita there hahaha

  • http://www.discovershareinspire.com/ Rachel

    Lovely photos. We were also pleasantly surprised by our visit to Mexico City… had some strange impression that it would be too ‘dangerous’. But instead we LOVED it… rode the subway with the kids, visited the Museum of Anthropology. Can’t wait to go back!!

  • Katharine Asals

    Years ago I fell in love with that city and spent some 6 months there, but it was still pretty gritty at the time, and yes, there were protests everywhere all the time. I remember the stat: 7 protests a day in the city. But so wonderful to hear about the biofuel buses and bicycle programs! This is great progress on the air quality front.

  • Julie Schwietert Collazo

    I’m SO glad you loved DF! Now you know part of the reasons why I love it so much and miss it every day. Many of the great eco initiatives you described were ushered in under the previous city administration with mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who now is the director of urban sustainability initiatives at the United Nations (He actually has a compelling article in the most recent issue of Americas Quarterly about some of the specific measures he instituted in DF). The Eco-Bici program isn’t new– it’s at least seven years old (it was there when I lived in DF), and may be older. And here’s a fact you might find interesting– the police in their riot gear stand by passively because they are required to do so by law. You may have noticed that they are not armed– they’re not allowed to be during peaceful protests. In fact, while it bothers many chilangos who are just trying to get to work, police can’t even physically move protesters unless they’re being violent. As one officer told me when I was covering protests there in 2007, “Protesters have to feel that they have the right to protest safely.” That law was born out of a pretty violent past where police did not esteem that particular value.

  • MexicoCooks

    Couple of things from someone who lives in the DF: first, that’s the National Art Museum, not Bellas Artes, in the photo with the protest sign.

    Second, about Morelia: Morelia, the city I love best in Mexico, is in the state of Michoacán, the state I love best in Mexico. There aren’t any autodefensas (vigilantes) in Morelia. Those groups are in a different part of the state, fairly far to the west and south of Morelia (the capital). The issues are incredibly complicated, not merely about security. Morelia does have a lot of other kinds of protest activity and has had for years, but most of it is about the teachers’ union and a couple of other labor issues. The protests have on occasion turned violent, but not in the last several months. If you’re ever interested in going over there, let me know; I give culinary and cultural tours in that part of the world.

    The Ecobici program—free bicycles in the city—is about five years old, not a new start-up.

    Those policemen you pictured are called granaderos. They’re not SWAT teams, they usually protect the routes that protest marchers walk in the DF. Julie Schwietert Collazo has it right.

    For seven years, I’ve written a web page about Mexico’s cuisines and cultures. You might like to take a look. It’s Mexico Cooks!, at http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com. Enjoy!

    Cristina

  • Trishia Jacobs

    Christina, I was in Mexico City on a layover headed to Puerto Vallarta many years ago. Flying out and over the city, I was overwhelmed by its size and have always equated it with poverty, which I feared would also overwhelm me. So your post here has given me a totally different perspective. In fact, I’m one to always half-seriously believe in government conspiracies and I can’t help but wonder why so many of us have such a wrong perception. I wonder if it’s a US thing?? IF so, then I know we’re being manipulated:) Anyway, can someone please explain the DF part. I reread your column twice and I’m not understanding what DF means.

    • Jever Saldana

      Hi Trishia. DF is abbreviation of “Distrito Federal” (Federal District in english), where Mexico City is located. The “Distrito Federal” is where the 3 nation powers are located: The President, The Congress, and the Supreme Court. Mexico have 31 states and the DF as federal entities.

      • Trishia Jacobs

        Gracias!!

  • Pauline Susanto

    I, too, thought Mexico City would be like what you described – dirty, polluted, and generally unpleasant. I’ve never been there, so I don’t know why I have this on my mind. I’m glad, though, that you cleared the air! I have a trip to Mexico City in October and now, I can’t wait to explore it! Looking forward to your post on the food of Mexico City!!

  • http://www.lunaguava.com/ Lunaguava

    Our first impression of Mexico City was of being completely engulfed in chaos. Navigating the subway system was almost a comedy of errors, squeezed as we were to an inch of our lives. We left it absolutely drained. We were staying close by, in San Andrés Cholula, and dreaded the fact we would have to return and take care of some bureaucratic business. Second time around, and to our utter surprise, we loved it. There is just so much to discover! It’s a gigantic city, and some areas are obviously grittier than others, but one has only to give it some time – it may unexpectedly open up to you. Lovely post, thank you. Good luck!

  • Jever Saldana

    Mexico City, like other large cities in the world, I guess, have 3 different levels of life: the poor, the middle, and the rich. You have to take care, as a tourist (as a citizen also) where to walk. If you ask hotel’s or restaurant’s personal, they will tell you where not to go. Mexico has a bad fame in some cases, due the news. Yes, we have problems (like NY City has) but the news only sell bad news. Good news are rarely hear, they don´t give money benefits. Enjoy you stay in the city, and at other great mexican cities like: Guadalajara, Queretaro, Puebla, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, etc. Everyone is welcome, and we appraise your visit!

  • http://www.livedreamdiscover.com/ sarah horcoff

    I’ve always felt the same way Christine but since I started traveling through Mexico and Central America I’ve heard so many good things about Mexico City. In fact just yesterday in Antigua a fellow traveler made the same comment as you in that it reminded her of Madrid. I’m definitely adding Mexico to my itinerary, probably after my next house sit in Lake Chapala.

  • Rebecca and the World

    I really enjoyed Mexico City – I found it really easy to get around and the food was amazing. It’s been years since I’ve been there though and it looks like it’s changed – bikes weren’t there when I visited. But there were protestors… I just can’t remember what they were protesting about…

  • Amanda Steinman

    I have never thought of traveling to Mexico City. Most people never mention the beauty that Mexico City holds. I love this blog because it has made me intrigued with Mexico City. The pictures are captivating. I held a similar stereotype of Mexico City. I imagined pollution and crime surrounding the city. Thank you for sharing your positive experience in Mexico City! I will make sure it makes my bucket list!!

  • Jaryd Krause

    Isn’t it just awesome! I love that city and the best thing is, it’s not as dangerous as everyone makes it out to be, that and the incredible food you can get dirt cheap just about anywhere. Good post, cheers

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  • http://www.seriouslyspain.com/ Seriously Spain

    I’m just a bit bemused by your opening paragraph about Asian cities being ‘dangerous’.

    I’ve lived in Asia for 15 years (currently Bangkok) and have yet to be in an Asian city that’s remotely as dangerous as most American cities can be. Bangkok, for instance, is one of the safest cities in the world and particularly for women.

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