Mexico City

Perhaps Donald Trump should worry about Americans crossing the border into Mexico (instead of the other way around) because Mexico City was one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited, with its cheap food, ideal weather year-round, and increasing environmental sustainability. “Livable” isn’t what I was expecting from this city, based on the stories and rumors I’d heard. I came to Mexico City prepared to pity the city that seems unfairly dangerous to so many Americans. That agenda went out the window as soon as we arrived, because I immediately realized that this city doesn’t need my pity at all. In some ways, life here is astoundingly better than in the U.S.

Home to a whopping 21 million people, Mexico City is the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. It’s located at an altitude of over 7,000 feet — roughly the same as Machu Picchu. Due to its tropical latitude but high elevation, it has a temperate climate — never too cold in the winter nor too hot in the summer. The city is the oldest capital city in the Americas, and is one of only two capital cities founded by Native Americans (the other is Quito, Ecuador). Originally called Tenochtitlan, it was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, a natural lake that was eventually drained by Spanish colonists. Tenochtitlan was an impressive sight laced with canals, and bridges connecting it to the mainland — much like Venice. Of course, the Spanish completely destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521 and, while preserving the ancient city’s basic layout, built Catholic churches over the old Aztec temples and renamed it “México” because the Spanish found this indigenous word easier to pronounce.

A few decades ago, Mexico City was infamous for being one of the world’s most polluted cities; however, the city has become a model for drastically lowering pollution levels, which are now similar to those of Los Angeles. Much of this is thanks to Mexico City’s many modes of public transportation, from the subway, to suburban rail, light rail, buses, trolleys, and a bike sharing system with well-defined bike lanes. We caught the subway a couple of times but usually either walked because Mexico City is a surprisingly walkable city for such a sprawl, or caught Ubers because Ubers are dirt-cheap.

We stayed at an Airbnb in trendy Colonia Roma partly because some of the city’s hottest restaurants are there, but the most memorable meals we had were street food from outdoor stalls and markets. Mexico has one of the most extensive street food cultures in the world, and it’s not a surprise that Mexico City consistently ranks as “the number one food destination in the world.” The skilled cooks who prepare the tacos and tortas at these stalls are masters of their art and deserve just as much prestige as Japanese sushi chefs. Every major neighborhood has its own market(s) at which residents (“chilangos”) buy everything from fresh produce to spices to children’s toys. Meanwhile, outdoor stalls are set up around the city — near parks, along sidewalks, sometimes literally on the street. We ate delicious 30-cent tacos on plastic stools, jealous of all the chilangos eating alongside us.

49795517_10217789937956712_8388027930306936832_n
Living room of our Airbnb, which had a kitchen, laundry machine, rooftop, two bathrooms, and a doorman who we grew fond of

Tips for future travelers:

Take a food tour with Sabores. Our tour lasted four and a half hours and brought us all over Centro Histórico. We tried grasshopper salsa and ate ants from a plastic bag, learned what tomatoes should actually look like vs. what society wants them to look like, chewed chilcuague (a medicinal root that makes your whole mouth tingle, and makes water taste like sparkling water if you drink it right after one nibble of the root), and discovered what good mole is. Mole is a sauce made of fruit, chili pepper, and spices such as cinnamon and tomatoes, all of which are roasted and ground by hand for at least one day.

50221068_10217790405448399_2131204326083788800_n
Our food tour group
49405651_10217790406328421_7087536550614925312_n
Mole poblano
49776317_10217790408048464_7815556042980327424_n
Fresh birds at Mercado San Juan
49682565_10217790407048439_3137824474196344832_n
Seafood tostada
49835332_10217790407288445_5099607527457292288_n
Trying ants
49736930_10217790409768507_484329761024245760_n
Picking up desserts at an old dulceria

Visit Coyoacán, my favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. It feels more like a small town due the numerous parks and cobblestone streets. The Frida Kahlo Museum and Trotsky House are located in Coyoacán, but even just wandering around this colorful neighborhood is enough to fall in love. Homes are painted bright colors, the plazas are full of families eating ice cream, and the massive Mercado de Coyoacán is the perfect spot for lunch.

49517052_10217747115126168_9034755687602716672_o
Coyoacan
49895963_10217800290175511_4745667819578851328_n
One of my favorite markets

Hang out in Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City. The term zócalo means “base” and was only adopted into the common Mexican lexicon in the 19th century. Supposedly, plans had been made to construct a large monument in the center of the plaza, but nothing besides the base was ever constructed, hence the term zócalo. The name stuck and even spread to other cities across Mexico, which began to use the term zócalo to refer to their main squares. We visited Zócalo almost every day because it was so centrally located and served as a meeting point for our tours. One day, we stumbled upon a huge Oaxacan festival there. Tents were set up and vendors sold Oaxacan goods, quickly convincing me that my next trip to Mexico must include Oaxaca, a state best known for its indigenous people and unique gastronomy.

49213362_10217805022253810_7069253381641994240_o.jpg
Zocalo

If you’re interested in architecture, check out Museo Soumaya, a stunning contemporary art museum covered by 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles. Also check out the Torre Latinoamericana, the world’s first major skyscraper successfully built on highly active seismic land. Torre Latinoamericana doesn’t look like much now, as its design is fairly straightforward and it is no longer the tallest building, but the fact that it withstood the 8.1 magnitude 1985 earthquake that toppled other buildings nearby is quite impressive. There is an observatory at the top that includes access to a gallery showcasing the history of construction projects around Mexico City.

49206729_10217750921061314_3628359466530897920_n
Museo Soumaya
49696240_10217739512616110_452352002928672768_o
Look at those tiles!
49805594_10217806839779247_5262492835013197824_o
Torre Latinoamericana behind us

Stroll through Alameda Central, the oldest public park in the Americas. Some of our best meals were street tacos from two of the stalls on the southwest corner of the park that open up every night.

49640378_10217805785352887_2288560228318314496_n
Alameda Central
48981173_10217718601933356_6999622877918003200_o
This taco from a stall near Alameda Central was my favorite meal in Mexico

Palacio de Bellas Artes is an opulent performing arts center made of Carrara marble and dreanlike yellow and orange crystal dragon scale tiles. For the best view, you can wait an hour to sit in a crowded open-air cafe at Sears (yes! Sears still exists). For the second best view, squeeze your way through Sears’ gardening equipment on the same floor and see almost the same thing for free without a wait.

49790823_10217809664009851_1007546671342551040_o
In front of Palacio de Bellas Artes
49829592_10217806704815873_4666653881759956992_o
Carrara marble

The best way to get to Mexico City from the airport is to exit baggage claim and find a booth marked “Taxi Autorizado”. Tell the ticket seller your destination, pay for your ticket (we paid 200 pesos, or roughly ten bucks for a cab to Colonia Roma), and present the ticket to one of their drivers outside. The best way to return to the airport is to Uber; it’ll be even cheaper.

Don’t drink the tap water. Instead, try pulque, mezcal, jamaica (hibiscus juice), horchata, Mexican cola, or tequila. We were worried about the ice in our drinks since tap water is unsafe to drink, but we never had an issue; restaurants use filtered water for their ice, and most of the beverages you’ll have on the street don’t come with ice.

How can you tell if a food stall is safe? Look for the crowded ones. Locals tend to know what is good, and a busy one indicates that the food is not sitting around. We didn’t get sick once in Mexico City.

Book tickets to the Frida Kahlo Museum in advance. You’ll still have to wait in a line outside, but you’ll be able to enter as soon as it’s your time slot.

49536045_10217799184427868_7301356755802390528_n
Frida’s wheelchair in her studio
49732828_10217799184227863_2829177524326498304_n
Frida’s kitchen
49535861_10217736576462708_6833679252999634944_o
Obligatory photo with the azul wall
Advertisements