The largest city in the world, so they say…20 million people…and possibly the worst air pollution! Would the pilot see the airport for smog, I wonder?
For this reason, I have ambivalent feelings about flying to Mexico City. Better go by bus.
I am loathe to leave the sun and surf of Acapulco, the premier Mexican Pacific beach resort. To visit “el DF“, as the locals call it (el Distrito Federal), is a daunting thought.
I take a luxury bus ride to the capital. The highway climbs through rocky, barren mountains studded with cacti. Isolated corn fields and children riding donkeys break the monotony.
Mexico City sprawls across the altoplano at 2240 meters altitude and is ringed by mountains. The reduced oxygen level causes incomplete combustion of gasoline. So automobile exhausts and industrial pollution can create a great smog, especially when the phenomenon of thermal inversion occurs. This happens when the warm Pacific air flows over the Valley of Mexico and traps the cooler polluted air at ground level which rapidly becomes even more polluted.
Air pollution levels are continually monitored. At a specific high level there is a mandatory reduction in certain industrial activity and use of automobiles is discouraged. People are advised to stay indoors and if venturing on the streets, to wear a “mascarilla“, or face mask. One occasion during my December visit visibility was down to 2 kms briefly, otherwise things were OK.
I arrive at Terminal Sur full of apprehension. But slowly this evaporates! I find the taxis well organized. I go to a kiosk and explain where I want to go, pay a standard fee, get my ticket and front up to the taxi rank.
“Lléveme al zócalo, por favor.” I want to go to the central plaza. My Lonely Planet Guide mentions several economical hotels near there on Avenida Cinco de Mayo.
At 240 meters square the Zócalo is one of the world’s biggest plazas. A monster size Mexican flag flies in the center. The entire northern side is taken up with the Metropolitan Cathedral, perceptibly leaning this way and that, and on the east side is the National Palace and entrance underground to the metro station.
The metro is fantastic! For only 2 pesos (US 20 cents) you can go anywhere with transfers on nine lines, all day. The trains are rubber-wheeled, long, crowded, fast and zoom by every 30 seconds or so. The 135 metro stations are modern, often with shopping malls. Amazingly, the metro actually goes to the airport and all four major bus terminals!
Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive, especially the VW beetles. The net result is that Mexico City, although huge, is easy to get around in.
To gain confidence I play “Hunt the Embassy”! Most are located in the plush Chapultepec and Polanco areas, requiring inspired metro and taxi excursions. This is the best place to get visas for Central American countries, if need be.
The natural starting point to explore Mexico City is the Zócalo. Formerly this was the center of the lakeside Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which was a thriving metropolis with a population estimated at 200,000 when discovered and later destroyed by Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, in 1520 AD. He rebuilt the city as the Spanish capital of the New World.
Much of the paving stone in the Zócalo is derived from destroyed Aztec buildings. The foundations of the Great Pyramid are preserved in the block adjacent to the Cathedral. On site is the superb Museo del Templo Mayor which records the development of human habitation here.
Next door is the National Palace, now home to the offices of the Mexican President, the Federal Treasury and National Archives. It was built by Cortés on the site of the palace of Emperor Montezuma II. The main attraction for tourists today is the display of dramatic murals by Diego Rivera, that adorn the walls of the balconies overlooking the central courtyard.
The guardians of Federal authority are conspicuous around the Zócalo making it one of the safest places in Mexico for the tourist to roam. The policemen are polite and helpful.
On a busy street corner I get a tap on the shoulder by a gun-wielding cop. “No photographs, please,” and he explained, “in Mexico you are not allowed to photograph banks.”
Actually, I was trying to photograph a shoeshine stall across the road with my telephoto lens, not realizing there was a bank with guards carrying automatic weapons in the background!
Further west about a kilometer is the central park of the Alameda. This old part of the city along Cinco de Mayo and Madero has a fascinating range of shops and restaurants housed in 16th to 17th century buildings. At Donceles 80 is a bevy of second-hand book shops. Shops selling silverware and wedding paraphernalia seem predominant. There is a host of museums and galleries to visit.
The modern buildings, including museums, bus and metro stations and skyscrapers, are magnificently designed, impressive for size and practicality, yet they do not seem intrusive amongst the colonial treasures. The main boulevard of Mexico City is the Paseo de Reforma which runs SW from the Alameda park down to Chapultepec Park. The glass skyscraper housing the Stock Exchange impresses.
The major banks and top hotels are found here in the Zona Rosa, located about 2 km from the Alameda, in the few blocks south of the Reforma at the point of El Angel, the gilded angel Statue of Liberty. This is an upmarket area of fancy restaurants and night-spots.
After absorbing all the central city attractions there are two “must-do” items on the agenda. Firstly, a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, secondly the ancient city of Teotihuacán, with its fabulous Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.
This huge museum is the work of famous Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez and was built in the 1960’s. Each room is devoted to some aspect of pre-colonial Mexican life. The Teotihuacán Room has models of this ancient city which you can visit in real life.
It lies 50 kms NE of the city center. There are two ways of getting there. Either you go on an organised bus tour costing US$24, or try a DIY excursion, stay all day and spend only a few dollars. I chose go the “el cheapo” way, but then splashed out on organised tours to the Sunday bullfight and the silver city of Taxco.
I take the metro to Terminal Norte and then a Los Pyramides bus, total cost about $1 for 90 minutes travelling time.
Teotihuacán is awe-inspiring. The Pyramid of the Sun was built about 150 AD and was followed by other temples and palaces, and the Pyramid of the Moon, covering an area of 20 sq. kms in a broad sun-scorched valley. At its peak in 500 AD it was the sixth largest city in the world, but by the 7th century this civilization fizzled out and the city was abandoned. Now it swarms with tourists, like columns of ants, climbing to the stony summits where high priests used obsidian knives to carve out the hearts of their sacrificial victims.
Mexico City is now on my list of favorite cities of the world! A place you can return to many times to be inspired, to enjoy new experiences and relish past ones. Viva México!
Most major international airlines fly into Mexico City. Coming by bus, you may end up at one of the four major bus terminals e.g., Norte, Oriente, Sur or Poniente (West), all very logical and practical. What could be simpler? Next, one gets a taxi to the hotel of your choice.
Taxi Fares: Airport to Central ca 75 pesos; Terminal Sur to Central ca 45 pesos.
I recommend, for security and perfect location, Hotel San Antonio in a back street one block from the zócalo, at 2a Cerrada de Cinco de Mayo 29.
Also, 4 blocks away Hotel Isabel, at Isabel la Católica 63, which is popular for meeting fellow travellers and has an economical restaurant that caters to the public. Both hotels have doubles ranging US $15 to 25.
A no-hassles way of seeing the sights. Combine with some DIY local excursions. The most comprehensive tour agent is Grey Line Tours (phone 5208-1163) with office at Londres 166, located 2 blocks NW of Insurgentes metro station (Linea 1), a good reason to test out the metro!
They have tours to almost everywhere! e.g.,
1. City Tour Deluxe
All day, US$44 (inc $19 entrance fees)
2. Teotihuacán pyramids
All day, US$24
3. Cuernavaca & Taxco
All day, US$35
Sunday only, 3 – 6pm, US$30
plus many more ½, 1,2,3 day tours to places ranging from Guadalajara to Cancún.
Dry and temperate. Summer (May/June) temps to 27°C; winter (Dec/Jan) to 20°C with maybe snow on surrounding mountains. Check weather report for today.
ATMs plentiful for VISA. An extra money card is useful, especially a Thomas Cook VISA Travel Money Card (for $1000 say), which is thrown away when used up. Better than traveller’s checks, I reckon.
Exchange Rate: 1 US dollar = 9.6 Mexican pesos, but check the rate today.
I have never had any problems. It is a safe city for the cautious and sensible traveller but always be on the alert for scams and danger (as anywhere!).
Last December there was a warning to tourists not to hail a taxi in the streets (you may be hijacked and taken to an ATM at knife-point!). Get your hotel to phone a reputable taxi company, or go to a recognizable taxi stand. Stay with the crowd, be confident, keep moving and be inconspicuous!
Fairly scarce in the central area. Try at Bolívar 66 around the corner from Hotel Isabel; also upstairs at Donceles 80. Both are 30 pesos/hour.
P.S. The main text is an upgrade of a newspaper article I wrote several years ago about my first visit to this sprawling metropolis. Since then I have returned to Mexico City twice and enjoyed myself immensely.
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.