The first thing many people think when you say “Mexico City” is big, dirty and dangerous. In my opinion you can visit Mexico City safely and enjoyably and not sacrifice your independence if you are a solo traveller or in the company of others. The few common sense tips that follow will hopefully assuage the anxiety that might stop you from getting to know this fabulous world capital in all its glory.
Airport Arrival: Once you’ve fetched your bag, head to the taxi booths and book a taxi direct to your hotel. Just follow the signs that point to the taxi booths that are inside the airport, not out on the street. They take credit cards and will guide you to where the taxis are waiting. It costs considerably more than a taxi off the curb but it will get you where you are going swiftly and safely. My Mexico City friends assure me this is the best way to ensure personal safety. Be sure and have the name and address of your destination written out to show the taxi drivers. Study maps before you get to Mexico City to get a sense of where your hotel is and how long it should take to get there. Know at least a few basic words in Spanish, por favor and gracias go a long way.
Hotel/Accomodation: The important choice of where to stay in Mexico City is based on what you want to see and do and also on your budget. I find that most hotels in Mexico City are cheaper and just as nice as those in Canada. I haven’t used Air BnB in Mexico City so I won’t comment and I always use the same hotel booking app because it offers a free night for every ten nights you book through them. (Hotels.com) For someone headed to the city for the first time, I would recommend staying in and around La Reforma Close to the Historic Centre. Generally, highly touristed areas, like La Reforma, are the safest given you use all the usual safety precautions you would in any large city. This area is modern, lots of cafes, restaurants, great movie theatres, museums, galleries, antique stores, specialty markets, shopping and access to transportation. For first-timers the easiest way to see many sights is to use the Mexico City “Hop on Hop Off Bus”. The bus is great, has English audio, frequent stops and can be ridden for a full loop to get an overview and then used to go back to the places at the top of your list. I haven’t used it for a few years but as a Mexico City “beginner” it was my go to to get myself oriented.
Colonias: Mexico City is divided into areas known as Colonias, some you visit and some you don’t. As a general rule the closer you are to the Historic Zone the easier it will be to get around and stay safe. Over the years I have stayed right on La Reforma in the Colonia Centro, within walk distance of the Zocalo, the Plaza Meyor de Mexico. Very busy area and fun for people watching. There is often an event or an affair taking place in the Plaza and the giant Mexican flag flying above the square reminds you of the pride of the Mexican people. Close by are many sights such as the Mexico City Catedral and the National Palace of Mexico City, not to mention prehispánic ruins.
Over the years I have also stayed in Condesa, an artistic neighbourhood with some really great Art Deco architecture and next door to “Roma” recently made famous in the award winning movie of the same name. Roma is known as a Beaux Arts neighborhood and is one of the oldest in Mexico City. Both of these Colonias are very near to Chapultepec Park where you will find the Museum of Anthropology and Modern Art amongst others. There is also a palace museum on the top of a small hill and the history of Mexico is on display there. The park is full of amusements for families who take full advantage of this green space to enjoy Sunday picnics and family outings.
The Zona Rosa, a gay friendly colonia, is fun too and has lots of funky shops, restaurants and bars as well as antique markets that are fascinating and give a glimpse into daily life for a Mexican family in days gone by.
Coyoacan has been the most favourite of my colonias, but has recently gained a rival in Nápoles but they are very different places and they are favourites for very different reasons. I love Coyoacan, once a sleepy little pueblo south of the City it has long since been swallowed up but still maintains its charm and pueblo personality. Of course it is home to Freda Kahlo’s famous Blue Casa and not too far away, the house where Trotsky took refuge but still managed to be assassinated. And not to be missed is the Anahuacali Museum, conceived of and created by the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. Completed after his death this pyramid inspired building now houses his spectacular collection of more than 50,000 pre-Hispanic artifacts from various places all over Mexico.
Although I haven’t stayed in Xochimilco, it can’t be missed, at least for a day trip. City transportation goes all the way to this southern Colonia and it’s well worth the trip to hire a flat bottomed boat (trajinarás) and enjoy the Mariachis and traditional food. The shores are lined with nurseries and if you’re a plant lover this alone makes the trip worth while.
And now to my most recent stay in Mexico City in the Colonia Nápoles. One of the reasons I liked it so much was the proximity to the home of a friend and so we were able to meet frequently and I was able to learn much about the neighborhood. There is something surprisingly soothing about Nápoles once you leave the grid of the main streets and wander down the slower paced avenidas and calles where people actually live. It seems contradictory to hear birds chirp, children play and the sounds of family life seep from windows and doors given the relentless traffic noise of the main arteries. Nápoles is home to the Mexican world trade centre and was once was an area of more high-end single family dwellings which have given way to urbanization with apartments and condominiums. There are still survivors, colonial style mini mansions, tucked between their new neighbours, hinting at what Nápoles once was. My friends have lived here for 40 plus years and have watched the changes but unlike in the transformation of other large city neighbourhoods a sense of community does not seem to have been lost. Everyone seems to know their neighbours and my friends can’t take a walk without many friendly encounters. I stayed at a great little hotel (The Beverly) with friendly staff and colonial features that I really liked. I would definitely return and as a bonus the metro-bus is a block from the hotel and will take you anywhere you need to go.
Of course there are other Colonias and it’s easy to research the highlights of each of these. Some of the more lesser known and dangerous areas are now accessible on specialized tours that take you safely to markets and other points of interest. I think the Colonias present a good approach to breaking down the megalopolis that is Mexico City. Getting to know the Colonias individually overtime is perhaps the best way to have a glimpse into life for the more than 25 million inhabitants of the City.