It’s strange and humbling when we realize how little we know about a culture, especially when it’s a culture we’ve been close to for so much of our lives.
Over time my curiosities about Mexico had built up—as did the many misconceptions which unfortunately are so dominant in the United States on the other side of the border, the fence, the wall.
Like most American tourists, I played it safe 10 years ago and visited one of the usual party beach towns…Playa del Carmen. A few years ago, I added Mexico City to my wanderlust list. Last month when we left, and made the usual “we’re traveling to…” Facebook status update, the reactions by family and friends were very similar: “Be safe!” and “Be careful!”
It’s because it’s what we don’t know about another place that makes us fear. That’s why my husband and I chose to see Mexico City for ourselves, to find our own truth about a culture we knew so well, but didn’t know at all.
Mexico City is a big city
I had the pleasure of being connected with a local, Mariana. Over tacos, we grilled her about the real Mexico City. When I told her about the safety concerns so many Americans have, she completely understood. She also said the same thing we always say…it’s a city.
There are places you go, and places you don’t. You’re not going to walk around the worst neighborhood in Chicago by yourself at night, the same as you wouldn’t in Mexico City.
There are women-only train carriages on the subway that were created back in 2000 to protect women from harassment and assault. There are mixed feelings on the effectiveness of such a measure, but other countries have similar systems.
When you’re exploring any city anywhere in the world, you need to have some street smarts. We had zero problems while we were in Mexico City (we loved the neighborhoods of Condesa and Roma Norte)—just be aware of your surroundings.
Mexico City is changing
Crafting, trading, and selling goods has long been a part of Mexico City’s culture—especially with the low minimum wages, which inspires entrepreneurship and side-hustles for many of its people. But, advertising?
We saw two young men dressed to the nines walk out in front of the traffic at a stoplight, holding a crisp banner that was a Volkswagen ad. Just before the light turned green, they collapsed the banner and headed back over to the curb. Simple, but effective.
Conveniences abound. Many of you can use your phones, texting, and WiFi without roaming charges, because AT&T has expanded its services into Mexico. Uber is also widely available, and it’s reliable and inexpensive.
Courtesy of a recommendation, we went to a very hip cocktail bar named Limantour to devour mezcal cocktails. It rivaled the hippest bars we’ve been to in other cities, and we started thinking: What’s going on here?
Old meets new in so many ways. You can stop by one of the many street food vendors for a cheap, fast, and yummy torta (a Mexican sandwich) or you can take your time and enjoy oysters and cocktails at a restaurant like La Docena, which has been featured in Forbes and the New York Times.
Another drastic way Mexico City is changing? It’s sinking. The city was built on a lake and now there is a visible tilt to many of the old buildings. Although Venice gets more attention, you may want to hurry up and see Mexico City’s history before it disappears.
Mexico City is delicious
Food is everywhere you turn—from the street food vendors to the markets, to the cool restaurants and cocktail bars—mouth-watering scents smack you in the face.
The great thing about the delicious tacos here is that there’s a near-endless supply. While we were on our Urban Adventures tour, we made it our mission to taste as many as possible while exploring the city’s history and wonders.
Not quite so delicious? Some of the other cuisine…. Earning a bug-eating badge may not be a life goal for you. So, here’s a warning: watch out for the yummy mezcal cocktails. A popular accompaniment to mezcal is crushed up grasshoppers or crickets mixed with chili powder and salt. I thought I made it out of Mexico City sans bug protein, until I discovered I was licking it off the rim of my cocktail glass.
Mexico City is chaotic
There are over 20 million people in Mexico City. No matter how many cities you’ve seen around the world, you won’t be prepared for this one. You can feel the chaos inside you and around you. You have to brave it, on the sidewalk and across the street, or you will be swallowed by the foot traffic or hit by a car.
As you gawk at the heavy traffic move in this sporadic dance of confusion, you keep waiting for an accident to happen that never does. The chaos works here, a dance the people have rehearsed to the point of baffling perfection.
All over downtown there are stores for everything you can possibly imagine, organized by districts (music, lighting etc.) Each store is crammed with their specialty offering from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. If you’re staying in the middle of Centro Historico, bring earplugs so you can sleep. And, always look both ways before you step off a curb.
Mexico City is magical
When you’re ready for a break from the chaos, a visit to canals in Xochimilco is a must. Yes, there is a touristy element at play but there is also history to be enjoyed. These are the only canals left behind that the Spanish didn’t drain back when they built Mexico City on the ruins of the ancient Aztec city—and the infamous lake that is reclaiming the land over time.
Home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Mexico City is also a vibrant playground for art lovers. The art here has soul and staying power.
Art is everywhere, on the streets and on the buildings. While you can certainly join the tourist pilgrimage down to Frida’s house in Coyoacan, there is plenty to absorb as you walk around.
There are ruins right in the middle of the city. Our Urban Adventures tour guide, Pilar, revealed that there are over 200 archaeological sites, with only 60 open to the public and 10% of them being excavated. When you’re standing on the ruins, surrounded by a modern and sinking skyline, it is a magical moment that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else besides Rome.
I’m not going to tell you to go to Mexico City—go if you want. But, I am going to tell you to go to a place you don’t understand so you can understand it.
That means stepping out of your comfort zone…that means opening your mind and your heart to learn. And you’ll learn so much: about the place you visit, about the place you came from, and about yourself.
Visit Mexico City…and the rest of this awe-inspiring country. Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours there.
(All images c/o Britt Skrabanek and Intrepid Travel.)