Mexico City is many things. National capital? Yes indeedy. Financial superpower of the Americas? Affirmative. Largest metropolitan population in the western hemisphere, and largest Spanish speaking city in the world? Si, señor. But conquered by Liivi and Will was one thing it was not, therefore what better place to begin our travels in Central America than this heaving mass of humanity?
What to do with a few weeks in Mexico City?
We had flown to Mexico City in a hasty attempt to mix things up, after 3 months of pummelling the North American pavement in our aged beast of a motorhome (see our last U.S. post here). As such, we arrived in the City of Palaces with a fair amount of time to kill, having made the decision to stick it out there until the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) at the end of October. This was just fine with us, as there was much to explore in this preposterously large accumulation of people.
This was our first port of call, as we had made plans to stay at Mexico City Hostel, situated in the heart of the historic district. The Centro Historico was a reasonable place to hang out for a few days, but anything beyond that would be a bit of a stretch. We strolled the cobbled streets, dodged speeding cars and pedestrians alike, dined at some traditional Mexican restaurants, and saw some of the more notable sites. Highlights from this area were the Bella Artes Palace (particularly as seen from the top floor of the adjacent Sears department building, while pretending to peruse the extensive selection of whiteware on display), discovering weird and wacky (but mostly just insanely spicy) dishes at Cafe El Popular (more on that later), and generally just getting a feel for the character of Mexico City and it’s people. Centro Historico was a good place to find our feet in the city, but it wasn’t exactly jaw-dropping material either.
Teotihuacan, or “Piramides de Teotihuacan”, and how to get there
Our third day in Mexico city was spent exploring the famous pyramids of Teotihuacan. One of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas, Teotihuacan was a highly advanced Aztec city which, at it’s height around 2000 years ago, reached an estimated population of around 150,000, making it the largest Meso-American city of its time. Historical trivia aside, this place is a must-see even if you don’t give a rats arse about ancient civilisations or strange cultures. This is due to the sheer size of the structures the Aztecs built at this site, which even by today’s standards are impressive feats of engineering.
Rather than join the other zombie-like masses of tourists who opted to join a tour group in order to see Teotihuacan (we had researched these tours and determined that the vast majority of them were absolute rubbish, with more time spent being taken to vendors and restaurants than to the archaeological site itself), we took the slightly more difficult path and elected to use publish transport. With the aid of Google Maps and a few helpful travel bloggers, we took the subway to Autobuses del Norte, then walked to Gate 8 of the bus station and arranged a return trip with Autobuses Teotihuacan for the very reasonable price of $88 pesos return (around US$5.30). The bus we were ushered onto was a complete piece of crap, and clearly on it’s last legs, but we got there in the end. As expected, along the way various hawkers jumped on the bus and attempted to sell their sugary wares to the sweet toothed traveller, and at one point a man with a guitar and an awful voice attempted to elicit some coinage from our wallets via a selection of atrocious renditions.
Once at Teotihuacan, we paid around 60 pesos to get inside then began exploring. The place is huge, and it takes some serious walking to get from one site of interest to the next. I made the mistake of thinking that my baseball cap would be sufficient to prevent sunburn (even adjusting the cap to account for the diurnal “movement” of the sun), but it turns out I should have swallowed my pride at the entrance and acquired a cheesy sombrero. Sunburn aside, it was a glorious day and we did a good job of exploring the archaeological wonders, including The Citadel, the Pyramid of the Sun (the third largest in the world), the Pyramid of the Moon, the Avenue of the Dead, and the Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly (the Aztec name of this being completely unpronounceable). Probably the coolest of the whole lot was the Plaza of the Moon, which is huge and surrounded on all sides by brilliantly preserved smaller pyramids. The museum at Teotihuacan is also well worth a short visit, if you have the time.
After being thoroughly sizzled by the sun and frazzled by the multitudes of hawkers shouting about their equally identical trinkets for sale, we escaped the mayhem and headed for the nearest gate. Stopping off for a delicious meal at Restaurant El Ranchito, just outside Teotihuacan, we dined in style then jumped on the nearest bus, home-bound for Mexico City.
Castillo de Chapultepec
We spent the next 5 days staying at an Airbnb apartment in the Navarte neighbourhood of Mexico City. This neighbourhood was actually quite a nice change from the claustrophobic mayhem of Centro Historico, and we took the time to relax a little, hit up some supermarkets in the (mostly vain) hope of finding good quality produce, and enjoyed some nice restaurants in the area.
Being within “walking” distance (around 6 km) of the Bosque de Chapultepec (aka Chapultepec forest), we also saw this as a good opportunity to explore Chapultepec Castle and the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Anthropology Museum). So, after a long, somewhat confused (thanks to Google Maps suffering a meltdown) fume-filled walk which ended up being closer to 8km, we finally made it to the Castillo. From here, we made our way up the picturesque “driveway” (in the grandest sense) to the castle itself, which sits atop a small hill above the Bosque.
Upon cresting the hill, we were fortunate to have jumped in line for the entrance tickets just before a trainload of predominantly Italian tourists spilled out and introduced their own little kind of mayhem. Paying a small fee (around 50 pesos per person, if my memory serves me) we strolled up to the security check and were firmly informed by the grumpy Mexican lady that our water bottles were not permitted in the castle. This was nothing new, but we were still rather frazzled by this unnecessary show of authority (Liivi, in particular). After fruitlessly arguing with the small but solid-looking señora, we ditched our bottles and stamped inside.
In my opinion, Chapultepec Castle is one of Mexico City’s lesser-heralded gems, and we spent a goodly portion of the afternoon exploring it’s many rooms and exhibits, impressed by the array of artwork, pristinely preserved architecture and furnishings, and glorious views. Possibly the most enjoyable aspect was the sun-filled rooftop gardens, which were immaculately maintained and surprisingly extensive.
National Anthropology Museum
A pleasant 15 minute walk from the castle, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia is one of the top visitor destinations in Mexico City and the most visited museum in Mexico – with good reason. Situated within an architectural masterpiece, the museum boasts an extensive array of archaeological and anthropological artifacts from Mexico’s pre-Columbian era. For this reason, the museum was an excellent place to take the plunge into Mexico’s heritage and culture, with the vast collection of exhibits providing an historic background for the modern day status-quo. We particularly enjoyed the pre-historic models and depictions of early humans, the artfully designed full-scale replicas of temples and tombs from Aztec and other ancient civilisations, and the huge original sculptures depicting anything from oversized eagle heads to tongue-protruding dragons.
Mexico City Restaurants
As with the rest of Mexico, there are some great places to eat and some utterly atrocious ones, and it’s typically a bit hit-and-miss if you don’t do your review research before you head out the door. In Centro Historico, we ate almost exclusively at Cafe El Popular, the rather immodestly but not untruthfully-named diner-style restaurant on Calle 5 de Mayo. The food here was reasonably priced, the meals substantial, and the fare traditional. Plus it was almost entirely filled with locals every time we went there, which is generally a good sign.
We had an interesting Mexican gastronomic experience at Los Hornillos, a curious establishment in the Navarte neighbourhood which boasts a ridiculously extensive menu consisting only of tacos, and which we had a hard time making sense of. In the end, we just pointed to a few different concoctions and hoped for the best, and overall our tastebuds were not disappointed.
Otherwise, our food experiences in Mexico City did not compare to those we’ve had in different locales. Other restaurants around the city were ok, but not noteworthy, and most were overpriced for what you got (a “typical” dish comprising re-fried beans, a few nacho chips, nopales (cactus leaves), and a squashed piece of old meat). We did, however, enjoy the range of drinks available at the eateries, particularly the aguas frescas (delicious concoctions of fresh fruit juices and water).
Public transport in Mexico City is surprisingly easy, and at least 10 million times better than the sorry excuse for transport we had been exposed to in Toronto for the past 4 years. For a measly 5 pesos one-way, there’s really no excuse for taking the metro, which has a range of lines which cover most of the inner city. That’s provided you don’t try to catch the subway during rush hour, which sees half the city (reminder: we’re talking the biggest city in the western hemisphere!) being squeezed into the rail cars like an oversized tin of brown sardines.
As far as taxis go, save yourself the drama and use Uber. It costs a bit less than the regular taxis, the drivers won’t rob your money or organs, and you can call them any time, anywhere and get an accurate GPS location of how far away the taxi cab is. We used Uber a lot while we were in Mexico City, and it was laughably cheap.
Otherwise, buses are an option, but they’re pretty hectic and not really worth the effort. I also boldly booked rental cars twice through Thrifty in order to explore the surrounding cities and countryside, but the rental experiences were not enjoyable and I wouldn’t recommend going down this road (excuse the pun).
Mexico City Hotels
Provided you book a hostel, hotel or apartment in the safer areas of Mexico City (generally considered to be Centro Historico, Roma Norte and La Condesa), you’re on to a winner. We stayed at Mexico City Hostel in the Centro Historico district and were impressed by it’s cleanliness, friendly staff and good wifi. Our other accommodations in the city included a VERY strange stay at what we eventually concluded was a sex hotel (Hotel MaxIntimo – actually quite a nice hotel for the price, when you got used to the purple furnishings, purple lighting and condom pictures on the walls) and two different apartment room rentals through Airbnb. Both of these rentals were in reasonable neighbourhoods (Navarte and Doctores, both of which were on the fringes of the more sought-after Roma Norte), however we had varied experiences at each, some of which we would not choose to repeat. But thats the joy of Airbnb – you never really know what you’re going to get!