Often during the holidays, the question of vacations in the new year comes up. If you’re starting to think about where to go in 2020, I’d like to tell you about a trip I took recently that turned into one of the greatest adventures I’ve ever been on.
We’ll start here: if I told you that my next trip out of the States was going to be to Mexico City, what would you say?
If you’re anything like my friends, you might tilt your head, look at me quizzically, and ask something along the lines of, “What the heck are you thinkin’?”.
With the narrative the country of Mexico has been given over the last few years, that reaction is understandable. But I had heard some great things about Mexico City, so I did my homework, donned my “all who wander are not lost” t-shirt, and flew south -- sort of a Christmas gift from me to me. Thanks to the climate, culture, food, and value, Mexico City is now one of my three favorite places to visit. Here’s why...
Big and beautiful with nice people
Mexico City is a huge place. With 20+ million people, it’s only slightly smaller than New York City, yet much larger than Los Angeles, and just as cosmopolitan as both.
There are skyscrapers in Mexico City, the most beautiful (and open-air) Apple store I’ve ever laid eyes on, a downtown that’s every bit as vibrant as Manhattan, shopping that’s as department store-like or boutique-like as you want, and the whole place is outlined by some incredible little villages where I found the same kind of ambiance, shops, and cobblestoned streets I fell in love with in Aix de Provence, France and Rye, England.
Big parks, too — with lots of green space to roam around in, lakes with boats you can rent, open-air bookstores to browse, and food vendors ready to tempt your taste buds. By the way, the street corn is a must.
The people couldn’t have been nicer, either. I’ve been in places where I felt like an “ugly American,” but not here.
They also seemed happy, too. Maybe it’s because life is good in Mexico City -- residents enjoy both a low cost-of-living and a decent earnings potential. One quick, happy note came from my Sunday excursions, where I saw major city streets closed off so individuals and families could bike through town without worrying about staying out of the way of cars and trucks.
The food in Mexico City is muy bueno, original, and plentiful. However, don’t expect two-for-one margarita specials or burritos as big as your head -- the Americanized version of Mexican food is nowhere to be found.
What is to be found are a) incredible tacos, either from street vendors, at El Tizoncito (the birthplace of tacos al pastor,) or at least a dozen other places that battle with each other for the best taco crown; and b) some great seafood. Believe it or not, Mexico City is home to the second-largest seafood market in the world (behind Tokyo), so the ocean-fresh options are not only diverse but in abundance.
The weather is very San Diego-like. It seemed like 75 and clear was the forecast du jour every day I was there. At night, there was a cool-ish, light jacket type of weather.
One of my friends refers to those conditions as “Prozac weather.” He’s spot-on. From January through December, the Mexico City weather seldom gets above 81 degrees during the day or below 41 degrees at night -- perfect for folks looking for a temperate break from the winter chill.
More bang for your buck
The value, in and of itself, is incredible. You can buy some of those delicious tacos I mentioned for as little as 50 cents U.S., get a subway ride from one end of town to the other for less than 25 cents U.S., or only be charged $10 to take an Uber for a 50-minute drive. And my Airbnb? $25 U.S. a day.
Not having to worry about watching my wallet allowed me to amp up my adventures even further. Along with Krakow, Poland, Mexico City offered the best bang for the travel buck that I’ve found.
Culture fit for a king
Oh, boy, the culture. It’s amazing. As advertised, there are more museums here than anyplace else on the planet, and they could beat out museums in Paris or Madrid and easily go toe-to-toe with London. I did my best to visit two or three museums a day, and I didn’t make it through all the city has to offer.
Now, mind you, the museums don’t have some grand Monet or Rembrandt to bank on as a lure, so many have to curate special exhibits of their own to be competitive, and they do a darn fine job of it. They’re all remarkable in both size and scope, each serving a unique niche so as not to step on the feet of their peers.
The Museo Nacional de Antropología and Frida Kahlo's “blue house" were personal favorites. The niche curations of places like the Memory and Tolerance Museum and the Franz Mayer Museum are distinctive, and I recommend them highly.
On a performance level, the Ballet Folklórico de México is one of the most thrilling things I’ve seen on any stage anywhere, plus the combination of a mezcal tasting and lucha libre match is something you won’t experience anywhere else.
For travelers who like to bring a piece of the city home with them, I found that Mexico City’s artisans offer items and styles that will catch the eye of the folks back home. Granted, there are peddlers trying to make a quick buck off of cheap imitations that may appear authentic to the untrained eye, but you can find the real deal if you look in the right places.
One of my luckiest discoveries was the Artesanias Plaza San Juan, a fair-trade organizer that serves the interest of artisans from across Mexico and sells bona fide ceramics, apparel, and other items.
For those who have a curious side, there are some sidebar trips that are also worth trying -- including learning how to paint a street art mural; cooking classes; taking a day trip to Teotihuacan, the Aztec-built City of the Gods which dates back to the 13th century; or the charming town of San Miguel de Allende, a World Heritage Site about 170 miles from Mexico City.
With the myriad of travel sites trying to elbow each other out for the best prices, travelers can find comparatively low airfares to Mexico City, especially during the winter months. Google Flights shows roundtrip fares for snowbirds as low as $309 from Philadelphia, $417 from Milwaukee, $400 from Omaha, and $359 from Boston.
Or, you may want to do what I did and cash in rewards points that I earned with my American Airlines credit card. Using rewards travel to fly to Mexico from the U.S., at least on American, requires fewer points than flying to Hawaii and nearly half the points that it does going to Europe or Asia.
Getting through customs in Mexico City was smoother than many places I’ve been. That said, a word of caution: unlike other countries that keep the customs card you fill out upon arrival, in Mexico you’re required to show that same card when you’re returning home. If you don’t, you have to visit the customs office and pay as much as a $60 fee per person. Luckily, I had mine, but that little oops can not only cost a traveler money, but it could eat up valuable time at the airport trying to sort things out.
Google is a godsend
As a consumer tech writer, I’m not wed to any particular brand or platform. I’ve got parts of Apple, Microsoft, and Google all running through my daily life. All the same, I have to hand it to Google for making this trip simple and connected.
With Google Fi as my carrier, calling from Mexico was as seamless as calling from Chicago or Dallas, with no fussy country codes, country-specific SD cards to put in my phone, or a slew of charges that popped up on my phone bill when I got home.
Google apps also made my travel life easier. Unlike many other countries, people in Mexico aren’t educated in a bilingual system, so Google Translate was a constant companion. It added some time to get the answers I was looking for, but it was better than trying my luck with broken Spanish or gestures that probably made sense to no one but myself.
But it’s dirty and has all those migrants, doesn’t it?
Fortunately, as I quickly found out, Mexico City may be in Mexico, but it’s a far cry from the distressed areas of Mexico like Juarez or Tijuana. The streets are void of chicken buses, and there’s no one trying to sell you junk as they do on the beaches in Cozumel.
“But, aren’t there all those migrants from Central America?” you ask. People in Central America who want to migrate to the United States want to get to a U.S. border town in the shortest, straightest line possible. While Mexico City gets a share of the folks passing through headed northwest toward Nogales, Ariz. or El Paso, Texas, many are on a beeline up the coast to McAllen, Texas, a route nearly 250 miles from Mexico City.
About the cleanliness of the city, I can tell you that the streets appeared to be cleaned every morning and every night. Shop owners sweep the sidewalks, and the city has crews out cleaning the statues once a week. Even the street vendors hawking their fake Nikes are required to disassemble their booth every night, put it away in a warehouse, then get it out the next day and reassemble it. Not every place you’ll visit is that buttoned up.
Is it safe?
I’m a seasoned traveler, and my tolerance might be higher than the average tourist, but I felt safe -- safer than I’ve felt in parts of Buffalo, NY, Belize, Budapest, or even my hometown of Louisville, Ky. In fact, the crime rate in Mexico City is lower than Detroit, Baltimore, and Albuquerque and is about on par with St. Louis, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Houston, and Chicago.
The police in Mexico City keep a “presence.” Not an overbearing or military presence like I witnessed in Tibet, but more of a “we’re here just in case you need us” sort of footprint that makes tourists feel safe and provides a friendly deterrent to anyone bent on doing something criminal.
One question I get asked a lot is about cartel-related violence. Again, that issue is typically in the border towns north of Mexico City. A prime example would be Reynosa, a popular rest stop for Central American migrants hoping to be granted entry to the U.S. However, like the other border towns, Reynosa is a far cry from Mexico City -- about 700 miles as the crow flies.
No one -- not even my fearless girlfriend who’s been with me on most of my adventures -- wanted to go with me to Mexico City. Now, thanks to photos and posts, I could probably book a tour for a dozen people who would like to experience the same wow that I did.
Mexico City is not for everyone, but if you’ve been to most of the major destinations and are comfortable being in a culture where there’s a whirling dervish of possibilities, then give it some consideration the next time you’re thinking about taking an adventure.
I’m glad I went -- and I’m already planning to go again.