Current Country Count: 26.
This post is super late because I changed jobs and got engaged. You know…just little things.
But I am happy to share one of my favorite trips with all of you. Like a coach waiting for that magical win that propels him/her to a new level, I’ve been stuck at 26 countries for what feels like forever. My sister graduated from college this past spring and I decided to look for a trip to celebrate her accomplishment. Finding $300 round trip tickets on The Flight Deal from SFO to MEX proved to be the catalyst and soon enough we were off to our neighbor to the south!
Going to Mexico City evoked a lot of mixed reactions from people. Some friends suggested I avoid drinking the water. Others were terrified of the prospect of my getting into an unlicensed cab and being robbed at gunpoint. Most of the comments were generally apprehensive or negative. But while security and safety should be a concern when traveling in Mexico, these examples are all classic exaggerations brought on by media perceptions. Mexico is a culture rich in flavor, music, and a vibrant history that brings together both Hispanic and native Indian elements.
For this trip, we decided to explore for a couple days and take a one-day guided tour. To do Mexico City properly, you should plan on four full days. We had three full days plus a morning before we departed and despite seeing a lot, we could have used one more day.
Day 0: Transit
Our routing took us first on a red eye to Dallas, which meant we had a 12 hour layover in the Lone Star state. As a result, we rented a car and took in a few sights – namely the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. For those looking for a historical moment, spend a couple hours learning about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the legacy he left. Every generation has a moment or two where everyone remembered where they were – and this event defined the lives of Baby Boomers. We left Dealey Plaza both inspired and compelled by the reactions of the world.
Arriving in Mexico City that night, our first stop was one of the licensed Taxi booths at the airport. You’ll find them all lined up in proper, well-lit and professional looking booths and you can choose any of them. I picked Nueva Imagen because it was mentioned in another blog post and you pay based on the zone in which your hotel is located. It cost us $220 MEX to go from the airport to our hotel in the Roma Norte district and we got there in a quick 30 minutes. Once you pay for your ticket, head out the door and look for the Nueva Imagen logo, hand your receipt to the agent or the driver, and you’re off!
Day 1: Getting the Sites In
Our first real day brought sunshine and clear weather – much to our surprise. Summer in Mexico City can be rainy, but we lucked out. If you’re looking for a quintessential MX experience, head for the Zocalo (also known as the Plaza de la Constitucion or Plaza of the Constitution).
The area surrounding it is chalk full of fantastic historical sites, including the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) and El Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts). The path to this district has some noteworthy activities and sites, a few of which I have highlighted here:
- Dulceria de Celaya:
- Step into this shop and be immersed by the smells and sights of sweet joy. My recommendation: try the dulce de leche, made with almonds (almendras). You won’t go wrong.
- Catedral Metropolitano
- Stunning columns and ornate vestibules show you the largest cathedral in Latin America.
- Museo de la Caricatura
- In this small museum dedicated to animation, you’ll find caricatures and sketches both witty and warm – some with biting political commentary and others that make no sense whatsoever.
- Templo Mayor
- The stone ruins of the Aztec temple will amaze you but the museum will impress even more.
We managed to do all of this on foot and after taking an Uber home (which was really easy and convenient), we took a nap before proceeding down the street from our hotel in search of our real goal: Mexican street food. This is a no frills kind of place and at first glance, you might think you’re going to get sick from the lack of sanitary conditions. But the reality is locals don’t get sick from eating in this environment – it just takes the right stomach and an adventurous spirit!
Day 2: In the Shadow of Ancient Times
No trip to Mexico City is complete without a full day dedicated to the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside of Mexico City. We decided to use a tour company and the activities were both fascinating and full of tourist gouging moments:
The morning began at Tres Culturas, a plaza that contrasts three cultures in the form of an Aztec temple remains, a Catholic church, and the Mestizo nation. From here we proceeded to a jewelry store where I decided to engage in some banter with the shopkeeper. I found a lovely charm to give my girlfriend but refused to pay for the chain because it looked brittle and fragile. In the course of my negotiation, I may have suggested they were all made in China and were prone to break. The irony is not lost on me, but I lost that battle and wound up chain-less. The last destination of the morning was the Basilica of Guadalupe. There are actually two important buildings here. Old one is tilting and old, the other is new and reasonably level. This site is incredibly popular and as I later learned is one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage locations in the world.
From the Basilicas, we drove for about 45 minutes to the Teotihuacan site, but before we entered the site itself, we stopped at a tourist trap shop which prominently featured beautifully carved and polished fine rocks and minerals. Since I was in a tourist mentality, I wound up buying several pieces as gifts but learn from my experience: The cool obsidian carvings you’ll find in these kinds of shops are gorgeous but terribly overpriced. I paid $1550 MEX (Around $100 USD) for four pieces, but when you continue onward to Teotihuacan, you will find many similar pieces for FAR less. The hawkers offering pieces will start at $200-300 MEX each and I got two here for $300 MEX (less than $20).
Teotihuacan itself is stunning and could merit an entire day of exploring. My advice is to tackle the Pyramid of the Sun first because it is spectacular, it is huge, and you’ll want to put your energy into the harder ascent before you hit the Pyramid of the Moon. Regardless of what order you do things in, you will have some spectacular views at the top of each structure. It’s up to you if you want to include a meal with your tour, but unless you have no confidence in your Spanish or ability to find food, pass on this option. The buffet food was not particularly good, although there was a redeeming factor: by choosing lunch, we managed to avoid a crazy downpour that would have clobbered us.
Day 4: Los Museos and the Food
For our last day, we decided to wander down the Paseo de la Reforma before going to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Museum of Anthropology). Reforma is home to many major corporations, fine hotels, and a series of roundabouts that merit a visit on their own, but the only way to understand it is to walk it. It’s a monstrously wide street that seems to continue on forever, and it will also lead you west towards the other must-do experience in the city: the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. If you have any desire to learn more about Mexican history, it costs $64 MEX ($4 USD) per person to go in and once inside, dozens of pavilions spread across two levels will provide a rich education on the Mexican regions, people, and culture.
If you’re feeling a hungry streak once you finish browsing the museum’s rich tapestry of history, step outside and look no further. My sister and I went berserk so don’t feel compelled to eat all of this…although I highly recommend each of these items:
- Churros: Fried, doughy, with a light crunch and a dusting of cinnamon and sugar, these will
- Fresh Mango: They’ll ask you if you want it spicy or if they should add lime and salt. Choose what you like, but the lime and salt makes the flavor of the sweet, juicy mango just explode.
- Elote: Roasted ears of corn with the option to cover it in mayonnaise, cheese, and spice
- Esquite: Corn kernels served piping hot in a cup, with similar options to add mayo, cheese, and spice
Our final evening demanded something truly spectacular and I decided to buy my sister and I tickets to see Lucha Libre – the Mexican wrestling that was made well-known by the Jack Black movie “Nacho Libre.” For those of you who have not seen this movie or heard of Lucha Libre, take American wrestling, add in colorful masks and identities that the luchadores (wrestlers) assume for the duration of the match, and swirl in a great deal of fun and scantily clad dancers who distract in between fights. This is hands down one of the most fun events I’ve ever been to – and even if you’re not a wrestling fan, I guarantee you’ll enjoy this event. Splurge for seats closer to the ring for an even more intense experience.
Staying: As a loyal SPG member, I go out of my way to find SPG properties, but I had no idea what distinguished each neighborhood. I took a chance and booked the Four Points by Sheraton Colonia Roma. This neighborhood reminds of Brooklyn or the lower east side in New York. Comfortable with a well-off population but still just a bit gritty, Colonia Roma is convenient, safe, and offers several great restaurants in the area.
Dining: It should go without saying that while in Mexico City, you should spend at least one meal on a plastic stool on the sidewalk eating from a hastily constructed or improvised restaurant whose cleanliness, you may suspect, is quite suspect. Put your inhibitions on hold for a bit, toughen up the stomach, and just get out there and do it. Nothing satisfies like a freshly pressed tortilla wrapping up the hot grilled chicken and veggies, washed down by a Mexico coke.
Overall: Ask a bunch of your friends what they think about Mexico City. The ones who have never been will likely share tales of corruption and danger, but the ones who have been (like yours truly) will be able to dispel all of these falsities. Mexico City is huge. It’s crowded. And it’s got more to do than most cities. There’s great art, food, and soul to this city. Ignore whatever the naysayers will tell you. Go. Be safe and keep your wits about you – but go. And have a blast!