I was in a dentist’s chair with my mouth wide open. The dentist, holding his hand deep in my mouth, was eager to chat.
“So, where are you traveling next?”
“Mmm… meiii… ko …shity,” I muttered drooling from the side of my mouth.
“Say it again.” He said, taking his hand out of my mouth for a second.
“Oh, my assistant is from Mexico City. Miguel!”
A moment later, a young guy in his mid-20s with impeccable white teeth peeked inside the room.
“Hi! You are going to Mexico City? Why?”
We are now well accustomed to answering people’s questions about why we are going to some questionable destinations. But this conversation was in 2008, only a couple of years after we began our international travels.
“Umm… I don’t know.” I mumbled. “From what I’ve read, it looks like an interesting place to visit.”
Miguel looked genuinely concerned, “You need to be careful. The city is not very safe. I mean, you’ll probably be fine! Use your common sense!”
And so off we went. To Mexico City. Against our common sense.
This post is the long overdue song of praises for my favorite city in the world. We should have probably started this blog with a post about Mexico City. It is a great injustice that I am writing this post now, more than 120 posts later. In a separate post, I will write out all of our favorite things about this city. But today, I want to recall that first encounter with the Mexican capital nearly 15 years ago.
Flying to Mexico City from Chicago was (and still is) pretty easy. Many airlines, including some very budget Mexican airlines, can bring you to Mexico City on a 4-hour non-stop flight for a very reasonable price. A lot of these flights are red-eye. You can leave Chicago around midnight, land at Benito Juarez airport early in the morning, clear immigration and customs, and be in the city by 7 a.m. to begin your full day of sightseeing.
As our plane started to descend toward the airport and flight attendants began preparing for landing, we were getting first glimpses of Mexico City. The behemoth city mightily spread through the Valley of Mexico, filling it up to the brim. Thousands of city lights shone dimly, stretching infinitely to the horizon. We were coming to one of the most populous cities in the world with more than 20 million residents.
Our first impression of the city was not flattering, though. As we exited the aircraft and headed to the terminal to go through immigration, the unbearable stink instantly hit our noses. The air was heavy and smelled of rotten food and waste. Outside of the airport building, while we were waiting for a taxi, things got even worse, and we desperately gasped for air looking at each other in total disbelief. What is this place? Why does it smell like a landfill? I recall thinking that if the smell persisted, allocating four days to Mexico City was a big mistake. But thankfully, once we left the airport area, the terrible smell vanished. We later learned that the nasty smell was coming from the city's compost plant at a landfill near the airport and was a result of the existing waste and trash problems in the city. But despite the putrid welcome, we decided not to jump to any conclusions about the city.
The first morning in the city was also very strange. After being overwhelmed by friends and relatives regarding safety concerns, we were moving through the city as through a war zone, carefully crossing streets and anticipating dangers from around every corner. Why people were worried about us going to Mexico City was understandable. Our trip in March of 2008 was at the height of the Mexican Drug War with disturbing news from the south of the border streaming in regularly. And our first day was a tense and, at times, a paranoid experience. Very soon, though, we realized that if you stick to the main tourist areas, do not wander after dark, and avoid doing what you would not normally do in your city, your chances of getting in trouble were minimal (the rule that applies not only to Mexico City but to most places).
But yes, during that first trip to Mexico City, we were extra vigilant about our safety. After reading on the Internet that Plaza Garibaldi, where mariachi bands congregate and play in the evenings, was also a notorious spot for late-evening mugging, we decide not to risk it and visited it during the daylight. Of course, the plaza was empty and lifeless during the day, with no musicians in sight, and the whole idea of visiting it was kind of pointless. We returned to Plaza Garibaldi years later and visited it in the evening, enjoying the music and the boisterous atmosphere. But I think that paints a good picture of how anxious we were in the big city during our first visit.
As you are reading this, you probably wonder: “So, why do like this city so much then?”
The answer is simple. Mexico City is an absolute jewel box. The city is a historical, cultural, and gastronomical center of Mexico. No matter what your interests are, Mexico City can satisfy them all. History buffs can’t find a better place to learn about Mexican history than in the capital: from the history museum at the Chapultepec Castle to the archeological treasures in the National Archeological Museum. For art lovers, the city is a great place to learn about the Mexican muralist movement, visit places where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived and worked, and enjoy their works throughout the city. If architecture is your cup of tea, you can discover the colonial architecture of Centro Historico, visit the modernist houses of Luis Baragan, and futuristic buildings housing various museums and libraries (Soumaya Museum, Jumex Museum, Vasconcelos Library, etc.). If you are a foodie, you can eat at two top restaurants in the world (Pujol and Quintonil) or enjoy tacos al pastor (a local delicacy) or regional specialties from around the country at numerous restaurants and eateries in the city. For sports fans, catch a soccer game at the historic Azteca stadium or enjoy a night out at a traditional lucha libre event. Exploring the city’s neighborhoods is one of the best things to do in the city: from glitzy Polanco and trendy Condesa and Roma to bohemian Coyoacan and artsy San Angel. And in case you are tired of the metropolis’ hustle and bustle, you can find respite in numerous parks of the city. My favorites are Bosque de Chapultepec and Alameda Central.
Our first visit to Mexico City in 2008 was only four days. Despite the pollution, security concerns, and all inconveniences that come with a big city, we left the Mexican capital completely in love with it and promised to come back. Four days were not enough to scratch the surface and appreciate all this city's treasures. We keep coming back to Mexico City every year and cannot get enough of it. We hope that you will experience it, too.
Coming up soon: our 20 favorite things to do in Mexico City.