A visit to Mexico is not really complete without a visit to its capital and the heart of the country, Mexico City.
Whenever I asked a Mexican person in Playa del Carmen where they were from, the answer would inevitably be, “Mexico.” For a while I thought they were stating the obvious until I realised they were referring to the illustrious capital city with a population of over 20 million people.
Famous for it’s high population, high crime and high pollution, this city completely surprised me with how much I enjoyed it. We only had a few days there at the end of our first Mexico jaunt in 2012, but I could have stayed much longer and would love to return some day.
Artistic, cultural and lively are words I would use to describe the city which pulsates with history while marching forward into modernity.
Tree lined avenues, crumbling churches, edgy street art and urban green spaces compete with traffic, restaurants, food stalls, markets, museums and art galleries in a wonderful amalgam of commerce, art and culture, making it one of my favourite cities in the world.
Of course, this wasn’t what I expected after being warned by just about everyone we encountered in Playa (including Mexicans themselves) about how dangerous and overwhelming the city is. I don’t know if we were just expecting the worst and were therefore pleasantly surprised, or if we happened upon a slightly less chaotic week on the Mexico City calendar (we were there late November, 2012), but we didn’t see what they were talking about.
Our concerns about personal safety led us to book a private room at a new hostel in the upmarket suburb of Condessa. Its clean streets were lined with shiny Audis and well dressed residents with Rolex-clad wrists and bejeweled fingers clasping crystal glasses at classy restaurants. It was lovely, but I actually wished we had stayed somewhere slightly grittier.
It was called The Barefoot Inn Condessa and is relatively new, with neat, small rooms, free breakfast, a roof terrace and a large communal area downstairs. The walls were paper thin, however, which was rather inconvenient on the night they threw a huge party on the roof.
Dorms are 180 Pesos ($16) and privates are 650 ($55)
We did a lot of walking and caught the metro around the city, which is the most convenient and best value way of getting around. At a mere 3 pesos per journey (25 cents), no matter the length, the trains are extremely regular and will take you almost anywhere you need to go.
We enjoyed the Mercado San Juan for local eats as well as the plethora of al pastor hole-in-the-wall joints around the main square.
We perused the murals by Diego Rivera and other well-known Mexican artists inside the Palacio de Belles Artes, the most beautiful building in the city, and rode the elevator to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana for a bird’s eye view of the sprawling metropolis.
The Rufino Tamayo mural inside the Palacio de Belles Artes.
Torre Latinoamericano – take the lift to the top for an amazing view (see the very first photo)
Tip: Opposite the Belles Artes is a Sears department store. On the sixth floor is a cafe with a balcony overlooking the building, providing a great vantage point for viewing and taking photos.
We marveled at the large scale religious artworks inside the crumbling Church of San Francisco in the center of the city and purchased homemade flan from the nuns out the front.
We walked to the Chapultepec park near our hostel in Condessa and made a visit to the Castillo de Chapultepec. It houses the Museum of National History with a spectacular mural on the ceiling depicting the Ninos heroes, or boy soldiers, who died defending the castle against the US in 1847.
Most exciting for me was the fact that the castle was featured as the Capulet’s Mansion in Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet.
We didn’t make it to Frida Kahlo’s ‘blue house’ on the outskirts of town, which still remains a sore point with me, but we did experience the cultural spectacular of Lucha Libre, or Mexican wrestling to make up for it… kinda.
This one might not be for everyone, but this night of comedy, athleticism and farce, performed by men in stretchy pants was one of the highlights of our Mexico City visit.
Matches are performed every night at Arena Mexico, and tickets can be purchased at the door. Be ready to laugh, scream, hurl abuse, learn swear words from mouthy school children and eat a lot of fatty, high calorie foods.
The ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan about an hour outside of the city are also worth a visit! Most people visit on a day trip, but the town itself is quite quaint for a night or two. We stayed at the Hotel Ollin which was absolutely lovely for US$50 for a triple room and is walking distance to both the ruins and the town square.
Tip: Flights in and out of Mexico city may be cheaper from/to Toluca airport, which is a new, large terminal an hour’s bus ride from the city.