After living in Mexico City for a year, I can say it is noisy, smelly, crowded, polluted, exciting, exotic, endless and breath-taking. The ancient Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, now turned modern metropolis, has everything a visitor might be looking for, whether they are the intrepid traveler looking for adventures, the seasoned city-stroller searching for something new, or the rookie roamer taking his first steps into a new world of traveling.
Mexico City has architecture that shows the stages of history from the Pre-Hispanic period through the Colonial days and until today. It has a history resembling a swashbuckling tale of adventure with its gold-hungry conquistadors, evil inquisitors, brave indigenous and idealistic revolutionaries. There are massive marketplaces selling everything from animals and insects, both dead and alive; fruits and vegetables of every color, size and taste; and all the knick knacks you could ever hope to buy for your friends placed on stands between never ending masses of people from every region, country, social and economical class. Visiting Mexico City is a life long project; you will never see everything the city has to offer, but that also means the city will always leave you wanting more time to see the rest.
You wake up in the morning from the sound of traffic – a garbage truck banging away on its bell to announce its coming – or a street vendor yelling about tamales, gas or agua at the top of his lungs. As you walk out onto the streets, you will learn that looking for a place to eat in Mexico City, whether you are looking for breakfast, lunch or dinner is a delightful experience. On every corner throughout the city you should be able to find either a taco stand selling everything from pastor, which looks more like kebabs than anything else to different meats, sausages and more, including pig heads – at least all the edible parts and parts you never thought could be edible,. You will find delicious and filling tortas, which give you more than enough energy for whatever excursion you have planned for the day. There are also the famous tamales, which are made up of a mass of maize filled with salsas, chicken or pork and wrapped in banana leafs. Or go to one of the many cafes, where they sell all kinds of egg and chicken breakfasts.
When choosing a place to eat, go to a cafe or a stand where there are many locals – the locals always know which place is the cleanest or best. Though, if you ask them straight out, you will notice that by some weird coincidence that every Mexican will claim to be the neighbor of the best taco place in the city.
Taking micros instead of taxis will save you the trouble of looking for a taxi stand. Also, street taxis can be stolen taxis used to kidnap tourist in what they call a secuestro express – express kidnapping. The micro will definitely be a little slower than the taxi, but it gives you a cheaper trip and a glimpse of the everyday life in Mexico City. You have time to take in the view of the city from the bus window, and you will see how the locals do their traveling. Remember not to be afraid of asking the other passengers if you have any problems finding your stop. They will most likely help you find the right place to get off, stop the micro, and make sure the bus driver keeps the doors open long enough for you to fight your way off.
Taking a day walking through the markets around the Zocalo – the city center – is a well-spent day. Begin at Metro Auditorio and walk up Paseo de la Reforma. Then you can take in views of the Chapultepec Park with its castle, which belonged to the short reigning Austrian Emperor Maximillian Hapsburg. You will also see the ever-changing photo exhibition on the fence of the park, pass the Anthropology Museum – which should be on your must-do list – and continue through the chic sky-rises in this part of the city.
At the Zocalo you will see the heart of Mexico City. It is a massive plaza surrounded by governmental buildings, an impressive cathedral and the ruins of Tenochtitlan´s main temple. Have a look at the ruins over the fence, but there is no point in going in. Instead take a look at the two cathedrals. The smaller one was the first cathedral of Mexico, and is actually built up of stones from the Aztec temple next to it. This cultural continuity also shows if you walk down the streets behind the cathedrals, where you will find an endless array of market stands, locals, tourists, sellers, good deals, bad deals and pick-pocketers. Make sure you know where your wallet is as you walk through the tianguis – the Aztec name of marketplaces. Much like Mexico City, Tenochtitlan was filled with marketplaces that much of the daily life centered around. The Zocalo and the marketplace can show you how the Mexicans keep their cultural duality alive in their everyday life.
If you are looking for a place to go out at night, you can either go to the hip and happening Condesa, the fancy and posh Polanco, the artsy Coyoacan or the Zona Rosa, home to the gay and lesbian bars, the biker rockers and the freaks of the city. Live music can be found all over the city in every genre imaginable. However, before you leave the city, make sure you have a sit down in one of its many cantinas. The cantinas are the traditional drinking holes for your average Jose. Here the jukeboxes are playing rancheros and norteños, the beers are sold by the bucket, the prices are lower, and the clientele is just as friendly here as anywhere else.
When going back home to your hotel at night, keep in mind the warnings about the taxis. Ask either your hotel for a taxi number before you go out or ask the bar to help you with a safe taxi. Late at night, neither the street taxis nor the micros or metro are safe, at which point it is always better to take a recommended safe taxi home. Listen to the locals; they usually know what works best and how to navigate through their city in a safe and pleasant way.
© Oyvind Fuglestved Bakkevig