Mexico City: Orientation

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Places I visit fall into three broad categories: interesting, but not for me; the noncommital, enjoyed it, hope to be back; and, most importantly, I need to come back here again as soon as possible. Mexico truly makes my heart sing, and this was my first trip to DF.

Safety

Before I left, everyone had a cautionary tale of violence, robbery, or kidnapping. There seems to be profound cultural amnesia about living in NYC through the crack epidemic, or the fact that one in four women experiences intimate partner violence in the US. I tried to remember to trust my instincts and be aware of my surroundings, and that, in general, if you’re not involved in the drug trade, people who are tend to leave you alone. Granted, there are exceptions, that little voice in my head kept saying. This led me to make a few silly decisions, like leaving my cell phone (which is barely staying alive), at home. But I digress. I was somewhat surprised as we pulled up to the hostel in a cab late at night how empty the streets were, but sometimes I forget just how busy New York is at night. I also heard a lot of warnings about smog and air pollution, but was fortunate that it wasn’t bad while I was there. The high altitude (almost 8 thousand feet) didn’t have much of an impact, either. I drank bottled water. Be smart and you will be fine.

The City

Tenochtitlan before the Spanish conquest

Tenochtitlan before the Spanish conquest

Mexico City is a sprawling metropolis, with a population of 21.2 million, making it the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere, and the largest city of Spanish speakers in the world. It has a distinctly Latin feel. People are proud of their heritage, but indigenous people are still visibly on the margins, and fairer-skinned people are in positions of power and better represented in the media. Kind of like the “melting pot” in the US, my friend pointed out. The elderly and physically disabled are more visible here. There are plazas and open spaces all around, but fewer parks or green spaces.

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There are lots of food vendors and mercados everywhere, and informal economies of people selling everything from music (armed with speakers in their backpacks) and sweets to hammers and work gloves. Yet, even with numbers edging out NYC, I never felt the aggressiveness of New Yorkers on the streets or trains. People shuffled along, without the need to shove or push.

Money

The best exchange rate is at an ATM, and there are plenty of those around the city. At the airport, check the rates at the different exchange centers before trading cash. I couldn’t get my head around the conversion rate, until my friends pointed out that it roughly amounts to taking off a zero, as in 100 pesos is approximately 10 US dollars. Not exactly, but it’s a helpful rule of thumb.

Transportation

Take an authorized or radio cab. We quickly learned that you will generally get ripped off by a few bucks if you’re not Mexican, even if you’re a native Spanish speaker. At the airport, check that the voucher for the cab is the same as the rate you are charged, that the cashier doesn’t “get confused.” If you have GPS, use it: some drivers will drive a circuitous route to get to your destination. And at night, drivers turn off the meter, so you will need to agree on a price. I was traveling with enough people for two cabs, so we made a game of comparing rates to the same destination.

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I love taking public transportation in other countries. The metro in Mexico City is efficient and clean, with frequent train service. The turnstiles are clearly marked for entering and exiting (avoiding the massive push of bodies in one direction of rush hour New York). Each stop is represented by a different image, making it easy for people at low literacy levels– or tourists– to navigate. And it is dirt cheap: roughly 30 cents per ride. That makes it an insane deal to or from the airport: you just take the train directly to Terminal Aérea (it’s about a ten minute walk to or from the international terminal). The only drawback is that the metro stops running at midnight. Oh, and no air conditioning. I even rode a crowded bus with people hanging out of the back door. Probably not the safest.

Accommodations

We stayed at a hostel in the center of the city. Our flight was delayed and we arrived after midnight, at which point our room was given away. We had some trouble sorting out the accommodations and getting refunds from HostelWorld for the deposits, but in the end, were given a discount for our room. The room was small, clean, and comfortable, and there was a cozy movie room and a foosball table downstairs. And best of all, the hostel is attached to a fancier hotel, so there is access to a pool and hot tub.

More to come!

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