From 30,000 feet, the ground between Tijuana and Mexico City doesn’t look particularly Mexican.
But, descending through the smog, fuzzy images begin to take on a distinctly Méxican feel – a soccer stadium, a bull ring – and as far as I can see, stretching out in all directions, are the cars, and houses, and humanity that is Mexico City.
The airport is big and crowded, but the metro station isn’t far, and with some direction, we find it easily. The line at the ticket counter is long but moving quickly. It’s rush hour. How does this work? Do I pay more if I’m transferring trains? I haven’t dusted off my Spanish in a while, and I don’t want to hold up the line. I’m still fumbling with my wallet and working out the exchange rate in my head, and before I know it, we’re up.
“Dos al Zócalo.”
My tongue feels thick and sluggish. I’m out of practice.
I pass a blue 20 peso note under the window and get two tickets in return. Stuffing my change in my pocket, we head toward the turnstiles, tickets in hand. Easy enough.
On the map the Zócalo doesn’t look far, but it takes us about an hour and three different trains to get to the centro historico.
Climbing the steps from Pino Suárez station, we’re surrounded by cathedrals and colonial architecture; street performers, vendors, tourists and business people; a bustling, modern, megalopolis.
Much of the historic center sits on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlán – the ancient Aztec capital. Parts have been excavated and preserved – like the Templo Mayor – but most of the ruins lie beneath the buildings and broad avenues of modern Mexico City.
When Cortez and the Spanish arrived in the 1500s they destroyed much of what they found. Legend says they used the stones from the ancient city to construct the now iconic buildings of their colonial empire – places like the Cathedral Metropolitana, and the Palacio Nacional.
Our hotel (Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico) sits in the southeast corner of the Zócalo. We arrive near dusk, and make our way to the rooftop restaurant. With sweeping views of the Plaza de la Constitución and a healthy selection of tequila, we watch the sun set. Our waiter tells us of a street nearby – Calle Madero – that is reserved for pedestrian traffic only. We decide to take a walk and find something to eat.
The streets are active and Calle Madero is full of retail shops and restaurants. A mix of American staples (Starbucks) and some less familiar names as well. We wander through the crowd for a while before settling at an Italian restaurant on a quiet side street. We drink wine and watch local hipster kids line up for a concert at the venue next door.
“Rock en español,” our waiter informs us.
Part of my attraction to Mexico City was the food. Mexico City has some world-class restaurants, and in our short time in the city we experienced it all – from street food to fine dining and everything in between.
With only three days in the city, we opted to explore the streets, neighborhoods, parks, and plazas, rather than wander through the museums (of which there are almost too many to count).
The various zonas (neighborhoods) of Mexico City are distinct and diverse.
We grabbed lunch and people-watched in the Zona Rosa, where music and energy pumped through the doors of street side restaurants and second-floor bars.
We got lost in the Bosque de Chapultapec (Mexico’s central park) and enjoyed the vistas looking down on the city from the Castillo above.
We explored the yuppie neighborhoods of la Condesa y Roma, where we struck up a friendship with a local cab driver (Emilio), who met us in front of the hotel the following morning and drove us an hour north of the city to visit the pyramids of Teotihuacan. On the way back, we drank pulque – a milky mixture of fermented agave sweetened with pineapple – served in terracotta mugs at a roadside stand.
We experienced the sights, sounds, and sensory overload of el Día de los Muertos, streets teeming with costumed Catrinas and public concerts; huge decorative calaveras dotting the plaza de la constitución, each inscribed with the name of a famous Latin American poet and the words – “a la memoría de sus vidas”.
We woke up early and drank coffee, and stayed up late drinking mescal.
Throughout our time in Mexico City, the people we met were warm and welcoming, proud of their city, and eager to give directions or to make a recommendation.
Mexico gets a lot of bad press in the US – and understandably so – parts of the country resemble the Wild West. But I have to say that, during our time in the city, not once did I feel as though we were in a dangerous situation, or like we were being taken advantage of.
Our countries are so close, both culturally and geographically, and yet there were moments when I realized how far apart we are in certain aspects. Driving through the city’s outskirts, through mile after mile of hillside slums (colonias) where millions live, often without access to running water, electricity, and sanitation services – it made me grateful for things I often take for granted.
The city’s ubiquitous, branded abbreviation – “CDMX” – adorns everything from street signs and trashcans to cabs and cop cars, and serves as constant reminder of the government’s presence here in the Distrito Federal. And yet, so many people fall through the cracks, with no safety net to break their fall.
I really couldn’t have asked for more from my PARALLAXploration. México City is an amazing place, teeming with art and culture, food and drink, traffic and congestion, and the living, breathing, pulsating energy of 20 million people.
For anyone who has ever considered a visit, I would encourage you to experience CDMX for yourself.
And, let me know if you do. I know a great driver who will take you anywhere you want to go, and I can tell you where to find the best tamales in the world.
Click here for photos from my PARALLAXploration!