Somehow since childhood I'd always been fascinated by Latin American culture wanted to visit Mexico. Having a friend in college from Mexico city helped fuel that passion to discover this Latin American metropolis someday. Naturally, when I began seriously traveling in 2015, this was one of my top destinations especially given the proximity to the cities in USA. So we finally decided to make a 5-day trip to taste what Mexico city offered and we came back with colorful pictures, artful souvenirs and an expanded horizon.
When we told our friends we were going to Mexico city, we got anything from "Ooh, cool" to "Come back alive" and "Stay safe". Sadly most people discouraged us from considering it. I knew that I wanted to go there even more just show them that hey, that's the whole point of traveling; to overcome our fears and explore and learn for ourselves. We were so enchanted by the experiences even a non-touristy busy city like Mexico city could offer. There was so much history; native American and colonial as well as art and architecture and local culture that we had the chance to experience, that I am so thankful for making this choice.
First thing you notice in this crowded and busy city is the crazy traffic! It took us almost an hour to get from the Benito Juarez airport to our hotel in Paseo de la Reforma. When we reached our hotel, we were greeted warmly and we were also pleasantly surprised to see the US embassy right behind our hotel which reassured us that we are in one of the most secure locations within the city. We had tacos in a local taqueria and sipped on our tamrindo while watching soccer (liga Mexico). Classic south American vibes. Later in the evening we walked by the beautifully lit Ángel de la Independencia just a couple of minutes walk from the Sheraton where we were staying. I was starting to like Mexico city. Maybe it was the all too familiar feeling of being in a developing country close to the equator; the roads were lined by old trees and the dusty pavements with wobbly slabs over open sewers and streets cutting through residential areas reminded me Chennai and Bangalore in South India where I grew up.
Over the next 4 days, we discovered many enchanting aspects of this city and here are the highlights of our observations:
When we traveled:
We picked the Memorial day weekend to travel to Mexico city from Seattle. We flew via Houston from where it is hardly a 2 hour flight! Taking 2 extra days (Thursday and Friday) helped us get 5 full days to spend in Mexico city. I really wanted to take a bus down from there to a coastal town on the west coast of Mexico and would recommend that if you want both an urban/cultural exploration as well as the country-side/coastal experience.
Museums, History, Churches and Art:
One thing we soon learnt was that Mexico city has one of the highest density of museums! We soon realized why this was the case as we spent a whole day in the Museum of Anthropology. There is so much of native American history here with the Aztec and the Mayan ruins as well as cultural history of the Hispanic race. We really enjoyed exploring this as the art and history were quite engaging. We also visited the National Palace (Palacio Nacional) museum, museum of Bella Artes and Frida Kahlo museum. If you have a taste for art and colonial Spanish architecture or are a fan of the work of Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera or even just appreciate street art and graffiti, Mexico city has so much to offer!
There were also plenty of Spanish churches from the colonial era with beautiful architecture and history
Mexico is strewn with ruins from the many ancient civilizations that thrived here in its pre-colonial past. If that piques your interest, you will definitely enjoy a trip to the Teotihuacan. We went with an organized tour (this is recommended as you would have to travel through remote villages and we also really enjoyed the experience tailored for tourists as our guide spoke English and also made multiple stops (including a pit stop at a local art shop that sold jewelry and curios made of obsidian, demonstrations of tequila making and a visit to the church of Guadalupe, and lunch at a local buffet with a tribal dance performance). Our trip to the Teotihuacan was great! We loved walking through the ruins and discovering the lifestyles and stories of ancient Central American Mayans. We climbed up the pyramid of the sun and enjoyed panoramic views.
This was undeniably my favorite part of our trip to Mexico city! The tens of colorful boats along the small river carrying enchanted tourists and Mariachi bands, the fair on the shores, locals enjoying colorful food and art with their families that gave this village the quintessential Latin American holiday vibe are vivid in my memory in sound and visuals. I looked around as I felt immersed in Mexican folk culture and every one was just having a wonderful time... locals and tourists alike. Known as the Venice of Latin America, Xochimilco is the perfect stop for culture enthusiasts and must be on your list if you're in this city.
Food in Mexico was flavorful cheap and authentic. Of course in posh areas, there was no shortage of fancy dining places that served European fare but if you love quick cheap and local street foods, the Reforma area has plenty to offer. We ate authentic tacos, flautas and flan at La Casa De Tono (So good!!), chilaquiles for breakfast, halal tamales after Jumma at the only Masjid in the city. If you are looking for vegetarian or halal food in the city, it might be a little tricky since pork or pork based product such as lard are used in most preparations. We used google translate to talk to the servers in most places and made sure we understood the menu items. Locals were very friendly and helpful to us and they even tried to help us out by speaking to the servers in Spanish on our behalf. In the end when we got tired of struggling to find food sans pork, we ate some delicious pasta at an Italian restaurant in a mall nearby and also made a trip to the Indian/Pakistani restaurant in the Polanco area and .. The owner at Zaiqa shared very interesting stories from his travels within Mexico and gave us a lot of information about the city as well as the South Asian community in the city. We found that having interesting conversations with locals is always a great way to learn about the city!
Police presence everywhere...
One thing we noticed everywhere in Mexico city was heavy police presence near monuments and tourist sites. In some places there were even military vans with plenty of armed guards. There wasn't a single block in the Centro Historico area that wasn't flooded with military vehicles. At first we found this kind of strange but it became all too common by the end of the day, and hey... it's more safety for us right?
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Before visiting Mexico city I knew little about Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera so I wasn't too keen on visiting the museum (their house is converted to a museum). But visiting the house and learning about Frida's life was such an eye opening experience that I came out with much reverence for them as well as art in general.
We also wanted to watch an opera show at the Palcio Bella Artes and a Lucha Libre show. Unfortunately, we were only able to spend 5 days and couldn't cover all that we wanted to. Overall, Mexico city was such an interesting city to explore especially since we were seeking cultural exploration and history. If you find yourself there, do not miss Xochimilco, Museo Frida Kahlo and Teotihuacan.