Mexico City: The most under-rated city on Earth?

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La Ciudad de Mexico is a truly misunderstood place. Easily one of the most charming and monstrously large places I’ve seen to date, it stands on its own as a “world city”. I arrived in Mexico City late Friday afternoon. Known locally as the DF (Distrito Federal or Federal District), Ciudad de México, or CDMX, it’s a stunning city with incredible food, people, history, and culture. My very first impression of the city flying in was that it is surrounded by a natural boundary where rural, unusable land runs up against a massive metropolis. It’s quite a site flying in to Benito Juarez airport. Once on the ground, I found the airport flow to be quite pleasant, clean, welcoming and efficient. Good first impression in the international terminal. Got through customs in about 30 minutes and enjoyed a quick conversation with a fellow solo traveller (always a highlight for me).

Mexico City is certainly NOT Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. It is not a city based upon tourism. I’m quite certain you could get by with speaking little Spanish but I felt compelled to start stretching those long dormant Spanish lessons right in the airport. From talking to customs to getting through the money change desk. I was pretty happy that I understood about 80% of what the cash change counter lady was telling me. The rest I just filled in the blanks based upon the context of the conversation. (By the way, don’t make the mistake I made and DO NOT convert your dollars to pesos in the airport. The fees are far far higher than anywhere else.)

Fellow travelers debate this point with me. I prefer to have local currency when I’m traveling. I don’t like swiping my debit and credit cards everywhere I go. A traveller I was chatting with in Mexico City disagreed and feels the exchange rate is much better when using a credit card (with no foreign transaction fee) or a debit card. I’m sure he’s right but I feel more free when I don’t have the worry of swiping my card all over a foreign country. Obviously you do not want to have all your cash on your person when walking around. I always leave some in the hotel safe and keep some on me. So if I get robbed, I’m not going to be in trouble. Similarly, I always leave my passport in the safe and only take a copy of my passport with me when walking around along with my US drivers license. I don’t want to take the risk of my passport being stolen or lost. My rule on money is to get enough cash for spending money but of course if I run low, I can always go to the ATM and get more.

Anyway, I had prearranged a pickup through City Discover and the price was very small. I think I paid about $30 with a coupon and that including a full day pass to 4 bus routes for the Hop on, Hop Off tour in Mexico City along with a private pickup from the airport and drop off at my hotel. Honestly, it’s an amazing deal. Something you’d probably only ever see in a lower cost destination like Mexico City. The Hop on Hop Off pass alone is worth the money. My driver, Pedro, was very nice and helpful. Happy to help me practice my Spanish and explain the lay of the land. I later realized that all of his information was accurate and useful. Pedro was indicative of every person I met in Mexico City (that I could communicate with). It’s a city of families, of welcoming people, and people who love their city. Very different than what most Americans seem to think when you say “Mexico City”. I never felt unsafe in my entire trip. Sure, there are bad areas and areas you need to be on guard. I always tend to think that if I take precautions and use common sense, I’ll be ok. So far, so good. Precautions generally means: No wrist watch or jewelry, no expensive shoes or clothing, minimal items carried with me and carried in front pocket (nothing in back). Other than that, I used my cell phone everywhere (as most people do in the city) and there are parts of town that are not only safe but quite high-end to boot.

After deciding to Airbnb this trip, I arrived at a small two-bedroom condo close to La Reforma for a mere $37/night. It was relatively clean and ‘as advertised’. The problem was that I really was not as close to the “thick of things” as I like to be on a first trip. I felt like I was in a residential neighborhood and sort of a far walk from anything of note. I walked to a little restaurant called La Polar and had birria (that’s all they had on the menu apparently). Had no idea what I was eating at the time but turned out to be tasty. Not spectacular. It was really a local place and just felt completely far from where I meant to be. I’ll need to write a post on my personal feelings on Airbnb but I’m in the apparent rare group that just does not care for it. I understand the cost savings and the upside is immense on that point. Yet, I am someone who just never gets comfortable in someone else’s space. It’s the way I’m wired. I’ve tried to force change but all I end up doing is paying double when I decide to go to a hotel. Which is what I did in LA the day before and again in Mexico City. I found a cheap, very nice Le Meridien right on Paseo de la Reforma. The location is ideal. It’s central with easy walking or Uber to Zócalo, Palacio de Belles Artes, Alameda Park, Mercado de San Juan, and the Central Historico District in one direction and then Zona Rosa, Colonia Roma, Condesa, El Ángel de la Independencia, the Polanco district, and Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Forest) in the other. It really is a city of endless wonder to me and with such a great location, I had a great opportunity to see a lot in a very short trip.

30 April 2016

On day two, after checking in at the Le Meridien, I took a food tour with Eat Mexico and checked out La Merced Market. Located east of Zócalo district, it’s a massive monstrosity of a market. Sensory overload will come for you when you venture into La Merced. It goes on forever, with sights, smells and sounds that were foreign to me. Eat Mexico does a great job warning “beware” to all those who join this tour. It is not for the faint of heart. La Merced moves quickly (very quickly), with thin corridors, hazards, and a crush of customers and vendors alike. I LOVED it.

We had an amazing tour guide in Victor. He has an immense knowledge of all things Mexico and it served as a great backdrop to the tour. It was really much more than just a “food tour”. Food is the point of connection to the soul of any society in my opinion. Learning about customs, terminology and the background of the market gave great confidence when I ventured into other markets alone. I highly reccomend a market tour to start off any trip to a developing country. The first part of the tour started off with AMAZING tacos in the market. Made fresh right in front of me, I tried Cecina. A cured beef. My first expereince with an authentic taqueria taught me much. This particular taco included a thin sliced french fry right on the taco. The textural difference was tasty. After that, we tried even tastier tripe and bistek tacos. Amazing! Our tour took us to various other tastings (including the biggest mound of mole I’ve ever seen). I think the highlight for all of us was the cabeza. Seeing a cow head come out of a steam bag and the preparer take a huge meat cleaver to crack open its skull so he could divide up the meat and serve to a line of hungry customers was a sight I’ll never forget. Especially the cow tounge. It was HUGE. Chopping that baby up and serving it to me fresh on my taco was memorable. And tasty! While we were eating our tacos, someone knocked over a massive container of acqua fresca and fruits. The mess spilled through the streets like rivers of blood. It is without a doubt the most chaotic scene I’ve ever witnessed. And it is exhilirating!

We finished off the day walking through nearby neighborhoods and I got to try a platter of ricotta cheese piled on top of guacamole and topped with grasshoppers. Yes, grasshoppers! Not bad. La Merced exposed me to the flavors of both grasshoppers and worms. Both of which are apparently deliciacies in Mexico City! Great day in the city!

1 May 2016

Sundays in Mexico City are different. The streets traditionally close for runners and bikers to get through the city. A very novel idea. However on this particular day, I (later realized) that it was also Workers Rights Day. What appeared to be 50,000+ people flooded Paseo de la Reforma and marched down the street with hundreds of armed police looking on. It was quite a sight. Always great to see peaceful free assembly. They were shouting “Si Se Peude! Si se puede!” I wonder if that was an Obama influence (translates roughly to “Yes We Can”.)  This was the day for my Hop on Hop Off pass to go into effect. Naturally it was difficult to “hop on” without being able to find a running bus (due to the fact that many roads were closed). As luck would have it, one of the big red double decker Turibuses just happened to pass me by while I was walking (somewhat nowhere).

The bus picked me across from El Angel de independencia. From there, we reached the Polanco district, just north of Chapultepec park. Certainly my favorite neighborhood of them all. I later learned that it is one of the most famous in the city. Home to the rich and well to do. It is easy to see why. The area is well manicured and stunning to behold. With beautiful parks, beautiful buildings, lakes, and world class restaurants and shopping. VERY different experience from the developing area around La Merced. I enjoyed wandering the tree lined streets. From there, I made my way back to the bus and ended up travelling through Chapultepec park. It is a massive park and really just too much for me to get to on such a short trip. Next time, it will be first on my list! I decided to get off next near Zona Rosa. I had explored the Condessa and Colonia Roma areas the night before but did not make it to Zona Rosa. This area has a mixed reputation but I found it to be quite charming. With lots of bars, cafes, beautiful streets, and architecture.

I found myself determined to find authentic Mexican food on my own today. You’d think it would be quite easy in MEXICO city, but I learned the hard way that Sunday’s are devastating for food plans in this city. All the street food vendors I would expect to see were closed. I had 3 restaurants in mind today from my research but I did not know to check to see if they were open in advance. After finding the first two closed, I ended up wandering Zona Rosa. A beautiful area to be sure. Tons and tons of restaurants but most of the open ones seemed to be chains or for tourists, while the local places were closed. In my mind, those types of places are almost always bad. After looking up my brothers suggestions from his earlier trip to CDMX, I realized (using my indispensable iPhone Maps app), that I was only 13 minutes away from  a little place he suggested (I forget the name of it). I told the universe the entire way there that I was sure it would be open. Their website said they were open, as did google. So that’s a good sign, but no guarantee in Mexico City. After walking there, I was saddened to find it closed! Dejected, I ended up at Bellopuerto and did have GREAT guava mescal cocktails but the rest of the food was uninspired. 0/2 start to the day for food.

Luckily I was close to la Angel de Independecia and Reforma, so I tracked down a hop on bus and rode toward my hotel. Not willing to give up yet, I made the fateful decision to stay on the bus past la Reforma (and my hotel). Starting to feel the effects of all those mezcal cocktails mixed with no air conditioning on the hot bus, I started to consider just getting off and getting an uber. Then I noticed my phone was nearly dead too! I was determined to have a good meal but the only remaining place I could think of was Taaueria el caifan. It came highly recommended but seemed to far away and with no phone, navigation would be impossible ( it’s a huge city and maps don’t help as much because so many streets are un marked). My iPhone always could tell me where I was at any time.

The bus took us through beautiful tree lined streets and into the Zocalo. The Zocalo is the historic center of the city. It felt like a quick visit to Zocalo and then an uber to the hotel would be prudent. I was in world famous Zocalo plaza! So I took the time to see the historic center of Mexico City and its spectacular architectural wonders, old world charm, and ancient aura. With time running out on my phone, I walked to Calle 5 De Mayo and called an uber. After waiting a long time, the driver called me to ask me to walk to some other street. However I still don’t know to this day what street he was talking about. I couldn’t find it on google maps and walked both directions and nothing. Why he couldn’t just come get me at the location I chose is still a mystery to me. Anyway with battery life draining, he kept trying  to explain but my phone was gone. With it, any chance of calling him back, ordering another uber, or navigating to the hotel. I literally was completely turned around. I was not sure what direction would take me where. I was incredibly frustrated because the one time I needed uber to work, it failed me. All the other times I used uber in Mexico, it went off perfectly.

I had been warned not to call a taxi in Mexico City on the street. Even if I did, I knew the name of the hotel but I couldn’t recall the exact address. Hyperventilating a bit, not feeling well still from the mezcal, hot, and frustrated (both about food and the driver), I walked into a rare welcome site of a Starbucks and ordered a water and just sat. The girl at the counter seemed so friendly and for some reason I felt like crying into her lap. So I sat, and ruminated about my situation, rolling through my head all my options. Then as I started to feel despair, I suddenly realized that sitting in that chair wasn’t going to solve anything. One way or another I would have to use my limited Spanish to figure out how to walk the long distance to the hotel. So I perked up, asked the nice girl where la Reforma was (one of the main streets in the city). I knew my hotel was on that street but which direction I couldn’t guess. She explained in simple Spanish which direction to go with a smile and I appreciated her upbeat attitude. It was a comfort to me in that moment and reminded me I was in a city of 20 million. I was not alone.

So I walked out the door, following her directions and after about a block I was amazed to see Palacio de Bellas artes. The one place I really knew well far from my hotel, because it was the site of our meetup the day before. Embarrassed, I realized I was so dejected and all I needed to do was walk one block to salvation. If I had gone the other way … If I had not asked for help when I needed it, I might’ve gotten incredibly lost. Instead I was golden. Better than that, as I walked a fairly familiar path to the hotel now, I realized I could walk through Alameda park. As I did so, I finally saw street food vendors! Roasting up corn that smelled delicious. More than that, I felt like Harold and Kumar when I stumbled into none other than Taquiera el caifan!! What are the odds in this mega city that my horrible uber experience and friendly directions would inadvertently lead me to the only remaining place to try my foodie fantasies out on a bland foodie Sunday. Not only were they open but the food was GREAT! The pino (guava?) drink was so refreshing that I order two of them. The bistek tacos were delicious and best of all, all that food was less than 90 pesos! A ridiculous small amount. I was so happy I left a 30 pesos tip. To me, an incomprehensibly small amount of money but the waiter was ecstatic.

I walked the rest of the way to the hotel, with the overwhelming feeling that the universe led me there. The one time uber failed me this whole trip led to the best meal I found on my own. Respect, universe.

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I ❤️ Mexico City 🌃 and this is an image I shot on a solo trip last year in the Zócalo district, which is a square in the middle of the city. One of the fascinating things about Distrito Federal is that it's an ancient place. It used to be the city of #Tenochtitlan going back to #Aztec days. The influences of that ancient culture are still everywhere in the city. 👏🏾👏🏾#lawoftravel #wanderlust #worldtraveller #instatravel #travel #solotravel #travelphotography #instagood #photooftheday #travelstagram #travels #travelholic #naturephotography #landscapephotography #lovetravel #traveler #solotraveler #moments #americantraveler @instagram #mexicocity #megacity #mexico #latinamerica #centrohistorico #zocalo #distritofederal #travelworld

A post shared by Kyle Cunningham (@mylawsoftravel) on

The next (and final) day in CDMX was really short as I had to fly out. I did get a chance to go to el mercado de San Juan. I really enjoyed sitting on a stool and watching a kid work the grill and throw together some amazing tacos hand made from scratch right in front of me. That was a great way to end my trip, to say the least!

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