Mexico City

About six weeks ago I started to think about how it would be pretty cool to go to Mexico City for Día de los Muertos. It was something I had always wanted to do, but because of a lack of vacation days or poor timing or a  shortage of friends interested in visiting a city best known for express kidnappings and smog, I had never gone. I knew there were other places that were better known for their Día de los Muertos activities, but Mexico City seemed so easy to get to, and so intriguing.

About five weeks ago I found a round trip airline ticket for $350 from SFO to MEX. I don’t really know if that is an exceptionally great price, but it seemed really good to me. That same week, after much campaigning, I finally found a friend who was willing to go with me, and that week we bought the tickets.

I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, but about three weeks ago we set out on a five day trip to the Mexican capital, armed with a guide book and an arsenal of remedies for digestive distress. I had heard a number of good things from a few people who had been there, but it was mostly things like “Oh yeah, I have been to Mexico City. I mean, it was only for eight hours during a layover, but it seemed really cool.” Fortunately the bad reviews were even less credible, always involving someone’s dad’s friend’s friend who knew a guy who had been kidnapped in the late 90s.

As we began our descent into the capital, I started to get a little nervous. Mexico City is big, and you really start to understand just how big it is as you fly over it. There was a thick, yellow-gray fog hanging above the city, and I was confused by what looked to be a number of hot pink streets. They kept popping up around the city as we descended lower and lower; hot pink intersections with dots of other colors mixed in occasionally with the pink. Right before we hit the airport, I realized that what I was seeing was street markets, little tianguis filled with neon pink tents that literally filled the streets in some areas. I had known about the heavy presence of the informal economy in Mexico City, but I didn’t expect to see evidence of it from the air before we even touched down.

We got an authorized cab from the airport as our guidebook suggested, and after a predictable attempt by the guy at the counter to overcharge us (which was thwarted by me, with help from my pre-trip research, thank you Moon Guides!), we had an uneventful cab ride into the center; no kidnappings, no assaults, nothing even remotely sketchy. Our hostel was fabulous, we felt safe the whole time, we ate delicious food with abandon without getting (too) sick, and generally had a fabulous time in what I’m now convinced is an extremely under-appreciated city.

That isn’t to say that everyone should throw caution to the wind and jet down to Mexico City. While we had a great trip that completely changed the way we thought about the place, bad things still happen there. Mostly because it’s a HUGE city, and if you put 25 million people in one place, a lot of stuff, good and bad, is going to go down. Before we departed, I had concerns about the safety of the bus ride to Teotihuacan, the pre-Colombian archaeological site that sits about 30 miles northeast of the city. I had heard horror stories online about people who had been robbed at gunpoint on the busses, but after being in the city and hearing first-hand accounts of successful trips from our fellow hostel guests, we just went for it. Again, the trip was uneventful, easy, and felt completely safe, but when I took my seat on the bus, my view was obscured by what was undeniably a very large bullet hole. On the way back we made a quick stop to pick up some other passengers, and the stop walls were covered with wanted posters for men who had assaulted and robbed bus passengers and hadn’t been tracked down yet.

Overall, we felt safe because we proceeded with the same amount of caution we would in any big city in the world and didn’t put ourselves in questionable situations. Speaking Spanish was a huge plus, as was traveling with a guy. I have felt more uncomfortable in Rome or San Francisco than I did in Mexico City, but I still didn’t push my luck by going into the neighborhoods that the hostel told us to avoid or by hailing cabs on the street or wandering around in dark alleys late at night with my wallet hanging out of my pocket.

Mexico City also isn’t the most exotic of locations, but this was the first trip that I have taken since Albania that really showed me something unexpected and thoroughly changed my perception of a place, and I love when travel can do that for me. I feel like I discovered a destination, and considering that the place I “discovered” is a city of 20 million+ people about four hours away from home by plane, it’s pretty remarkable that it can still feel that way.

I’ll be posting more photos and recommendations for the city in the next couple weeks, based on my experience there, but in the meantime, here is my advice for anyone thinking about taking a trip to the DF: Go.

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