Mexico City Tips – Stay Safe and Have Fun Solo or Together

Get to know this fabulous world capital in all its glory.

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.

 

 

 

Santiago and the Atacama Desert

The driest desert in the world…

Flying in South America is quite affordable given that there are many small budget airlines. We found a cheap flight from Montevideo back to Santiago Chile so we could complete our Chilean itinerary, our final week, before we fly back to Mexico City. 

Flying into Santiago on a clear day means great views of the beautiful snow-capped Andes and spending another night in Santiago before flying north to Antofagasta and the Atacama desert was a treat. Our hotel was in the Nunoa neighbourhood, a busy area close to City Hall and not far from a subway stop. A good location for enjoying a late supper, getting an early night and catching an eight AM flight to Antofagasta in Northern Chile.

Antofagasta Chile is a striking place with a rugged coastline. For us, with limited time, it was the gateway to the Atacama desert. After deplaning and a quick stop in a taxi to see the famous sea arch “La Portado” and the beautiful ocean and dune cliffs that drop steeply to the sea, we were on our way to the bus station to catch a bus to Calama.

We had a choice of whether to stay in the city of Calama or the town of San Pedro which was closer to the sights we wanted to see in the desert. We opted for Calama. Calama is a mining town and is located close to the biggest open pit mine in the world, Chuquicamata. The town itself is not that pretty, but we stayed in a lovely hotel with a nice little pool that was a ways out of town which for us was not a problem. In Calama we located a private tour company and made arrangements to visit the area around San Pedro, about a hour and a half from our hotel in Calama. 

We opted not to stay in San Pedro, the tourist hub of the Atacama, and we were glad too have avoided what would have been a very touristy experience. Although we enjoyed our day visit there it was very crowded. It’s the kind of place that caters to adventurists who want to do high altitude climbing, sand-boarding and mountain climbing. For sight-seers like us the attraction is the volcano-lined horizons, the blue salt lakes and their resident flamingos, other birds and steaming geysers. There were far more tour companies than attractions and the town itself is a buzzing little place for artisans, chefs, travellers and hoteliers.

Our tour took us out into the desert where we were rewarded with “otherworldly” landscapes. Our first stop on our tour was the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos located in the middle of one of the largest salt flats in the world. The flamingos differ from Mexican flamingos and all three types have a black band on the bottom edge of their wings that their Mexican counterparts don’t share.  The salt flats stretch on past the lagoons disappearing in the horizon with the volcanos behind. In the Reserva there are three lakes that are at more than 13000 ft above sea level. 

Second stop on the tour was the Valle de la Luna. A really eerie landscape where we spent several hours climbing up and down the pathways of the salt mountains to see such sights as abandoned nitrate mines from the late 1800’s to around 1925 which made Chile the king of production of the fertilizer sodium nitrate. Similar to the production of Henequen rope in the Yucatan which died our with the invention of nylon, sodium nitrate mining came to an end with the invention of synthetic nitrates. Close to the old “mines” are the townsites where the miners lived and in some places there is still machinery rusting and disintegrating in the desert weather. 

Three days to take tours to the Atacama was sufficient to get a sense of the beauty of this once-in-a-life-time destination. I haven’t been to any place quite Iike it, the driest desert in the world. A place where the landscape changes with the tilt of the sun, a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. Deserts are funny places, at first glance they can seem dull and lifeless, but stand still long enough and you can see the tenacious life forms and the brilliant pallet of colours that accentuate the contours that make up the Atacama. In a place where change seems implausible, you can even imagine the different seasons and the beauty of the bloom that must come with the rains. 

We bookended our time in the Atacama with a final night in Santiago, returning to our lovely little Hotel Nunoa in time for dinner in our favourite restaurant and we even had a full day to spend in Santiago before we caught our red-eye to Mexico City.