Christmas of 2016 promised to defy all expectations when we decided to hop on a plane and spend the holiday in Mexico City, the oldest capital city in the Americas. From the moment we stepped out of the airport and breathed in the warm and soft air of this mega-city we realized this place will be our first experience of Latin America, and one that would leave a lasting memory. We arrived expecting one city, and found another. I guess that’s the beauty of traveling.
Since we chose to stay in the Paseo de la Reforma neighborhood, much of the downtown was available for our exploration. What struck us at first was the laid-back nature of the locals, many of whom were reading a book on a bench, snuggling with each other, chatting away, leisurely riding around on their bikes, or simply watching passersby. The spirit was contagious.
This main artery of the city is lined with monuments, long lanes with trees and benches, upscale hotels, banks, and restaurants. Zona Rosa seems to cluster much of the independent boutiques and cafes. If you can’t find a money exchange or “casa de cambio” anywhere in the city, you will surely stumble upon one here (if you’re looking for the best exchange rate, you should do it at the airport upon arrival). You’ll find Columbus and Cuauhtemoc here, as well as the Angel de la Independencia and Diana the Huntress. I also liked Rio Lerma that housed quite a few beautiful homes with a relaxed and sleepy vibe.
Based on our preferred “research” method, a random person in the street advised us to eat at Los Canarios, which was quite pricey, but the tacos were tasty and juicy. We paid more for two water bottles than we did for the food 🙂
If you’re looking for a cheap and tasty place to eat at in this area, one of the local go-to spots that was recommended by a few of my friends who are Mexican was La Casa de Tono, which is really affordable, and seems to be busy at all times (there are several branches in the city). I have a special place in my heart for this little restaurant, as I left my purse with my passport, money, cell phone, and everything else, went home, and only realized then that I left it there. Upon my return, the manager had placed my purse in a plastic bag and put it in a drawer behind the counter. This world is run by good people after all!
Mexico is apparently also famous for still having quite a few of the old beetle cars, and I enjoyed spotting them all around. I want one!
Since our time was limited, we tried the hop on/off buses (both Capital Bus and Turibus) with varied success. But we did get to see more than we would have on foot. One of the most memorable and architecturally impressive areas was Centro Historico (the oldest part of the city) and Alameda Central. What makes this area even cooler is that most of the Spanish-era buildings were built on top of the destroyed Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Take half a day to stroll around here, get a taste of the little food stalls, and follow the narrow streets with mighty and old buildings that seem to align themselves around wherever you go. You’re sure to snap a load of nice photos. Just one Zocalo would require some time, the central square the plan of which was borrowed from the Aztecs.
For a more funky feel, we loved the Coyoacan area, which is home to the Frida Kahlo Museum, aka the Blue House (you should really buy the tickets online, the lines outside the museum go around the block most of the times), where she lived with her husband Diego, and even sheltered Leon Trotsky for a few years in the 30’s before his assassination. Even if you’re not familiar with the artist, the museum will make one quickly understand her unique style, her fusion of art, disability, fashion, suffering, festivity, and talent in one home, through her diary and art statements. A real icon of the 20th century. I truly felt as if I was inside her head, and would highly recommend a visit.
Coyoacan begs for a nice, camera-ready stroll. Lots of colorful and lively homes, cafes, and general aura of the people laughing about, snacking on street food, shopping, taking tequila shots, and hanging around the square. I’d say the Christmas festivities definitely added to the liveliness and the cheerful mood all around.
The next day we decided to pay a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe to witness one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Catholics ever since the 16th century, especially around this time of year. As expected, there were thousands of people congregated at this “complex” (it is so huge). But while we were peacefully sitting on the bus on our way there, and already admiring the close view of the Basilica, a little incident happened that derailed the trip and made us feel like we were entering a movie set in Mexico! Scene 1: a little local bus drives into our 2 story bus and breaks off the side mirror. Scene 2: while our driver pulls over to talk with the guilty party, the small bus unapologetically drives off as fast as possible, turning the corner and disappearing from our view. Scene 3: our driver runs back to the bus like the cheetah, and takes the route of small random streets and neighborhoods. We are no longer going to the Basilica… And mind you, we were sitting on the top floor of the double decker, feeling every sharp corner and bump. Scene 4: all of the passengers actively participate in the ongoing event, standing and screaming to passersby and pedestrians to call the police and stop the little bus from going further. Scene 5: as soon as the opportunity comes, an older man with his wife who sat next to us run off to keep the other bus from driving away, all with much enthusiasm and will to help the driver. We were thoroughly enjoying this random experience. Scene 6: somehow all at the same time, the police and the couple corner the little bus and all is resolved. A rep from Turibus walks us to the Basilica, and here we are, little ants in the sea of people. What an experience!
The city is also decorated with many beautiful murals and brightly painted homes, which makes it that much more fun to explore on foot.
Some general observations that you might find interesting:
- Since Mexico City is a high-altitude city, getting a headache should be expected. Make sure to drink plenty of water and take it easy for the first 2-3 days.
- Not that anyone has to, but it was surprising to find out that not many people in Mexico City were comfortable with communicating English (I guess it makes sense, as most tourists we came across here were from Spanish speaking countries). I had to pull out my French in order to make some sense when conversing, or trying to read a menu. The funny part was that I could understand a lot of the academic Spanish (because of French), but not much of day-to-day or food related words. So if you can, do get those dictionaries out, or better yet, practice some Spanish before your arrival.
- My Mom and I had a lot of fun trying to find cafes/any landmark, and asking random people in the street. We observed (please correct me if I’m wrong) that the distance mentality here was definitely different from our expectations. For example, oftentimes if you ask a person in the U.S. how far something is, more often than not people would advise you to take a car for a very short distance that I’d walk in 7 minutes. Here, it was the opposite. We would ask many people where a place would be, and they’d say it’s super close. We ended up walking 40+ mins to the site, and finally figuring out after a few different tries that we just all have different perceptions of time and distance, and that is what makes this world beautiful and diverse!
After this trip, I definitely got the bug to explore more of Latin America, and to put Spanish on my “to learn” list. Hopefully, we’ll be back here sooner than later!
Next stop: Teotihuacan Pyramids.