I had kind thoughts of Mexico City as my JAL jumbo touched down at "el DF" (districto federal) airport. After 5 years absence, I reckoned there must be lots of new things to do and unfamiliar places to explore. For now I had 3 months ahead to roam Mexico and Guatemala with no fixed itinerary…just go with the flow anywhere.
My first pleasant surprise was the development of a network of youth hostels with backpacker accommodation throughout most of Mexico. This has come about over the last 5 years by the efforts of the Mexican Youth Hostels Association (AMAJ) in order to promote youth tourism in Mexico. Impressive is their National Plan for the period 2001 to 2007 which sets out objectives and standards for member hostels located in key tourist areas. Now there are dozens of new hostels located in central and southern Mexico, from Zacatecas to Chiapas and the Yucatan, plus there are other independent hostels.
Before leaving home it is worth while to become a member of the Youth Hostel Association (senior members welcome) because card-carrying members can get 10% discount on accommodation at member hostels (HI, or Hostelling International – look for the triangle logo). Cost for a bed in a dorm is about US$12 per night, usually including a light breakfast.
Outside the capital, particularly down south, accommodations can be found for US$7 or even less.
Hostel development is still in its infancy in Mexico compared to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. For example, Mexico City (population 20+ million) now has half-a-dozen major hostels, whereas Adelaide city, South Australia, where I live, has 23 hostels in the central business district alone. The initial question on arrival anywhere is which one to try out, if there is a choice.
You can do your homework before leaving town by using the Internet as all the hostels are listed there, somewhere. The facility of online booking is useful for your first arrival in Mexico City but after that, don’t bother as I have rarely found a hostel full up (except some at Xmas and New Year’s, or if you want a private room). If all the beds are taken they may let you sleep in the lounge room or camp out on the roof!
You’ll find Mexicans are friendly, flexible people and great lateral thinkers…where else can you find Ciber-lavanderias (laundromats) or Ciber-barberias? (barber’s shop)…we just have Internet cafes.
On the Net try the Hostels Guide with Bootsnall, also Hostelling International and independent hostels. However, website descriptions of a hostel (like real estate) do not always match up with reality, so preferably checkout the hostel before committing yourself.
"El centro historico" is the place to stay for first time visitors to Mexico or Mexico City. Fortunately, there are two excellent hostels located within a stone’s throw of the zócalo, or huge central plaza. I have stayed at both and each has its advantages and disadvantages. There is a healthy ongoing competition by management to entice tourists.
Where To Go
I booked over the Net to stay initially at Hostel Monada on Calle Moneda, one block from the zócalo. Why? I knew where it was and I was arriving after dark from the airport. A good choice as I found out. It used to be the Hotel Moneda, a 5 story building, now converted to a backpackers (markets change). Similarly the nearby Hostel Catedral and Hostel Mansion Havre in the Zona Rosa were once hotels and now offer from 85 to 200 beds to travellers. Alternatively, on a smaller scale with 10 to 50 beds, you will find many interesting colonial-style houses and mansions converted to backpackers.
Coming from Adelaide’s pristine and spacious city streets, my next morning venture onto Calle Moneda, with its chaotic street stalls attended by noisy vendors, all seemed somewhat confusing and grotty by comparison. However the cultural shock lasted only about 5 minutes and then I began to enjoy myself.
The local authorities have banned vendors from the zócalo and now they are concentrated in the nearby streets, with certain restrictions. Often they cover up their wares with a blanket on approach of officers of the law, but it all seems to be a friendly game and I have yet to see anyone arrested.
Returning to Hostel Moneda after my first glimpse of the New World, I decided to check over the hostel’s credentials. Just what makes it tick? I was impressed by the computer room by the office where 6 computers are available for Internet communication 24 hours a day free of charge to guests. Security is very good and I doubt whether any dodgy bods or terrorists would get in.
The flat roof top is where you get an excellent buffet-style free breakfast consisting of cereal, fruit, pancakes, bread roll, boiled eggs and coffee. In the evening the roof top is a bar and restaurant where guests can mingle and enjoy themselves.
I noted a kitchen where you can cook up a meal and another high-up balcony overlooking Calle Moneda with hammocks where in the evenings always seemed to be full of Australians drinking beer.
Morning new guests at the hostel are asked whether they want to join a free guided tour of either the local city cultural sights or the famous National Museum of Anthropology. This is a great attraction for first time visitors to the city. I did both, each with a group of 20 or more backpackers. The guide takes you on the metro (initially a daunting experience) to Chalpultepec where you spend most of the day at the museum (my third visit) and then brings you back home by bus.
Next day I did the city tour which included a visit to the Secretaria de Education Publica housed in a nearby beautiful colonial-style building containing 120 magnificent murals done by Diego Rivera and his assistants in the 1920’s.
What more can you ask for from a backpackers?
Later on I decided to check out the neighboring Hostel Catedral to see what attractions were offering there. This hostel is located in a choice spot behind the cathedral on Calle Tacuba. It has an impressive entranceway and is more modern than Hostel Moneda but accommodation costs are similar. If you are travelling with a girl friend then maybe this is the place for you to go.
When you book in, you are given a magnetic security card which opens your room door and the entrance door in the lobby. Also you get vouchers for a free breakfast each day, which is provided in the ground floor restaurant and bar facing the street and open to the public. There are about a dozen computers available on a mezzanine floor which cost 20 pesos per hour or 10 pesos between 11:00 am and 3: pm (US$1 = 11 pesos).
There is an excellent modern kitchen on the fifth floor which opens to an extensive balcony where you can hang out and have lunch or admire the view of the zócalo. Next door is a washing machine and an area where you can hang clothes out to dry in the sun. Very convenient in the lobby is a secure storage room where you can deposit excess gear and leave it there for weeks free of charge while you take off somewhere and eventually return to stay.
The crowning glory of the Hostel Catedral is its open roof top bar and lounge area which has a fantastic view of the city by night. It is open in the evenings and has elevated gas heaters in the winter to warm the customers. The only drawback is the high price of a beer which dampens one’s enthusiasm somewhat.
What to do
Already you are in the middle of el centro historico which will take many days exploring on foot. The area is very safe for tourists to roam around as there are policemen on every corner making sure of this, and directing traffic. To go further afield take the metro. Mexico City’s metro system is probably the best in the world, with 9 lines covering the whole city area. You can go anywhere for two pesos.
The "must do" visits on foot would include the Metropolitan Cathedral, Templo Mayor and the National Palace, all located around or close to the zócalo. Further away towards the Alemada is the Palace of Fine Arts and many museums.
The Museum of Torture I found rather frightening. The National Museum of Anthropology at Chapultepec covers the history of human development in Mexico and is best seen before you take off for a day’s visit to see the pyramids at Teotihuacán. Your hostel staff can arrange a cut-price tour and other day tours, such as to Taxco, the silver city. Then on Sundays at the Plaza Mexico (metro San Antonio) there is usually a bull fight.
Shops in the city are arranged in clusters selling similar commodities. Adjacent to the zócalo are maybe 50 jewelry shops selling gold and silver items. Next could be electronic goods or wedding dresses etc.
My favorite street is Donceles which has many enormous secondhand book shops where I know, by diligent hunting, I can find paperback novels (Agatha Christie) in English to read on the bus.
If you are interested in dining out at fine restaurants and clubbing, then consider staying at a hostel in the modern Zona Rosa (metro Insurgentes). The Hostel Mansion Havre on Calle Londres, and the small hostel "Home" will look after you.
With only a few days left in Mexico City one’s attention is directed to buying (more) souvenirs and handicrafts. For cheap knickknacks you can browse the stalls adjacent to the Cathedral in the zócalo, but to buy top quality handicrafts there are special craft markets, of which 3 are particularly worth visiting.
Take the metro to Insurgentes in the Zona Rosa and check out the Mercado Insurgentes for silver jewelry and textiles (pricey, with very pushy shop owners). By far the best market is the Centro de Artesanias La Ciudadela (metro Balderas) which has a huge range of Mexican handicrafts at reasonable prices. Things like tablecloths, place mats, wall hangings, scarves, ponchos, silver jewelry and small pottery items don’t take up much space if you are flying out. Four blocks nearer the zócalo is the Mercado de Artesanias San Juan which has similar materials but not so well presented.
My prediction is that after a successful week or more exploring Mexico City, the world’s largest metropolis, you will as I did, grow to like it and come back time and again to enjoy what it has to offer.
For more information, check out the author’s website.