I was a little apprehensive about going to Mexico City for vacation. I got quizzical looks from my friends and family when I told them I’d be going there. Mexico City? OK. I felt their concern, I admit. I’ve followed the Drug War for a few years now and know the violence has gotten out of control. But I knew better than that. I wasn’t going to be visiting the northern border areas and running drugs, so my chances of getting killed in some shootout were pretty much nil in the capital.
My friend and I went over Columbus Day weekend and stayed for three nights. We could have used one more night but I think we covered the big highlights, including a day trip to Teotihuacan.
I can’t believe it took me 36 years to visit Mexico City. It’s got beautiful European architecture that rivals some that of some sections of Paris and Rome, excellent food, nice people, and a great Metro system that makes it easy to get around. If you’re into history, architecture, practicing a little Spanish, and saving a buck, Districto Federal (D.F) might be a good destination for someone who wants to try a little bit of foreign culture without breaking the buck or getting jet lagged.
Mexico City is a great example of a developing world city. It is teeming with people, constantly pushing the boundaries of its geographic space and filling the countryside with shantytowns that climb up steep mountain cliffs. On our drive out to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, we saw endless stretches of shacks on both sides of the highway, set in front of an orange sky reflecting the smog of the city.
Day 1: During rush hour on a Friday afternoon, we boarded a subway car that was so packed that I ended up pressed up flatly, almost face to face, against an another unfortunate rider. As even more people boarded the train, I sensed that I was being lifted towards the roof of the car by a squirming mass of people below me—I was, after all, the tallest person in the train. Playing Twister in a Mexican subway car sucked, yes, but it did not compare to the challenge of exiting the car when we got to our stop. After watching other more seasoned riders elbow and shoulder their way out of the car, I realized that the only way to unlock myself from this cruel South-of-Border Twister match was to use a bit of brute force myself. I nodded to my friend, who had independently come to the same conclusion. The doors opened. I turned towards the door, leaned in, and applied even pressure with my shoulder blades against the old woman in front of me. OK, it wasn’t a old woman—I don’t remember who it was. It could have been four separate people. I don’t know. It happened so fast I was off the train and enjoying some new fresh air.
We then spent the afternoon touring the Centro Historico, one of the oldest parts of the city. Its central plaza, the Zocalo, is the center point of the Centro Historico and is bordered by the National Palace and the Templo Mayor, an Aztec site discovered as the more modern Mexico City was being built. We got some lunch and continued down a pedestrian-only street towards the tallest building in the old part of downtown—the Latin American Tower. We also visited the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Palacio de Correos, a working post office set in a 100 year old building (pictured above).
Day 2: We went out to Teotihuacan, the ancient city of the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures. As an archaeology and history buff, I knew the site was going to be really awesome, but I ended up being blown away by how big this place was. The Avenue of the Dead, the road that leads from one end of the city to the other, was about 1 mile long, and ended at the Temple of the Moon (pictured below).
While the Temple of the Moon for me typified what an Aztec temple looked like, the nearby and much larger Temple of the Sun won out in my book by its sheer immensity. I’m in good shape, and I was winded walking up the steps to the top. The view from up top was unmatched. I will just post a few pictures to try to do it justice.
Note: We were dumb enough to book a tour from our Bed and Breakfast to Teotihuacan. As seasoned travelers, we should have known better and just figured out a way to take public transportation or to take a cab. Shortly after being picked up by a van and a driver who didn’t speak English, we were shuffled through two different pick ups before finding ourselves amid a larger tour group of other random tourists vacuumed up across the city under similar circumstances. We were then subjected to a series of commercial tours, including visiting a silver shop on the way, and then a touring a sort of tourist truck stop selling ceramics and tequila and other stuff, in sight of the pyramids.
Day 3: We used this last full day to see what we hadn’t seen in the city, mostly the western part of downtown near Chapultepec Castle and the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. The museum was a good addendum to our tour of Teotihuacan. In fact, I think it was better to have visited the actual site first, then to see the artifacts in the museum. We then walked over to Chapultpec Castle, where Ulysses S. Grant made a name for himself during the Mexican War in the 1840s. The view from the castle was superb.
I finished up the day taking a subway trip to Coyoacan, a neighborhood of Mexico City that used to be its own little independent town distinct from the capital, until it got swallowed by the city’s urban sprawl. Coyoacan, while part of Mexico City, retains its small-town feel with cobble stone streets and exquisite plazas surrounded by old Mexican style architecture. I imagined I was in a smaller Mexican town hundreds of miles away from the capital. Definitely recommend this part of Mexico City as a quick day trip easily accessible by the subway.
I learned from my tour book that there was a place to get coffee nearby in a hacienda called the Casa de Cultura de Coyoacan, a cultural arts center. It’s set back from the street by high walls so it’s really tranquil inside. I sat at the outdoor cafe for a while and read a magazine as the sun began to set.
Mexico City’s food is certainly something worth traveling for. I got my fix of tacos, gorditas, refried beans, and pozole. It was also really cheap. To give you an idea of the prices, a bottle of beer averaged around $2-$2.50 while were there (Oct 2014). I found myself eating four meals a day rather than three, just so I could experience more of it and stuff myself while my time was short. Take a look at some of the dishes I had:
- Roma Norte, Panaderia Rosetta: I used Yelp to find a little coffee shop in my neighborhood called Panaderia Rosetta. This cozy coffee shop not only had exquisite ambiance and decor, but the coffee and pastries were out of this world. I sat in this place two mornings and read by Economist and was really content just relaxing and taking the scene in.
- Coyoacan, Casa de Cultura de Coyoacan: As I described above, the cafe in the back right corner of his hacienda is a great place to unwind after a long day of walking. The waiters were really friendly and the coffee was tasty.
We stayed at a little B&B called La Querencia DF, right in the middle of the nice and quiet neighborhood of Roma Norte. It costs us only $80 a night or so, so we did not expect much. But it met our expectations, sort of. There were some drawbacks, like having to take a metal ladder to our room on the second floor from a sort of inner courtyard, and having to wait about 5 minutes for the water in the shower to get warm enough to tolerate. Even then, the water came out in more of a spray than a stream of water powerful enough to qualify as a shower. The window in our room also didn’t close all the way, but that didn’t matter because the neighborhood was quiet and the weather was warm. We were even provided with a bit of mosquito repellant should any mosquitoes enter our room, which fortunately wasn’t the case. The breakfast was served at a communal table, which was a bit awkward for me, given that I like to read at breakfast. That, I guess, is why I don’t stay at B&Bs normally. Overall, though, I thought the B&B was OK and provided an overall good value for what we paid for. Pico, the B&B owner, even invited us upstairs to the rooftop deck to a going away party for his friend.