With a population of around 9 million, it is hard to believe that Mexico City is basically built over a lake. Factor in frequent seismic activity and terrible air pollution trapped in a geographic bowl and you might wonder why Mexico City still receives over 2 million international visitors each year. But Mexico City checks every box, besides beach. It’s got history, culture, food, architecture, and even sun. Sun being our main goal, as even Texas gets too cold in the winter for Riki.
Central Mexico has a very lengthy and unique history. Twenty five miles northeast of modern day Mexico City lies Teotihuacán, which dates to around 200 BC and was occupied by up to 250,000 people at its height. The pyramids still located at this archaeological site are one of the most popular day trips from Mexico City. Teotihuacán fell in the 7th or 8th century possibly due to internal uprisings. But other city centers in the area filled the void after its collapse. In 1325, the Mexicas, took a small natural island in Lake Texcoco and expanded it to create a new city, Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City. The Aztecs dominated the area until the arrival of the Spanish, who conquered the city in 1520. The Spanish built over the historic city and expanded the metropolitan area, which has now reached over 20 million people. But that’s just the brief version.
We flew out of San Antonio a week before Christmas. The flights were significantly cheaper, non-stop and San Antonio is only about an hour south of Austin. Plus, we got to stop at the outlets on the way so I could get new walking shoes for the trip, which is always a gamble but my other ones were just as much of a gamble considering the rough shape they were in. At the airport, we bought a sim card for $6 and then took the metro to our hostel near the Zócalo. We pack light, but I would not recommend taking the metro with any type of bag, and not recommend taking it at all during rush hour. It’s chaotic, completely packed and involves a lot of stairs. We dropped our stuff in our $25/night hostel (on the fifth floor, no elevator, no window, shared bathroom, but great location) and headed out to explore the historic district. The Zócalo, which is the main square in the historic district, was completely covered in potted red poinsettias and the facades of half the buildings were lit up with giant Christmas light displays.
We braved the metro again the next day and stumbled upon the Artesania Ciudadela, which is a tangled market selling a lot of souvenirs. We must have been there a bit too early, as most of the shops were closed, so we carried on to Chapultapec Park to visit the Anthropology Museum. I had visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Anthropology Museum) last time I was in Mexico City, but that was 10 years ago, and honestly, even after three hours in the museum, Riki and I both agreed that we could come back.
However, lunch beckoned. We didn’t exactly hit the jackpot with food though. Ordering randomly, we ended up with some sort of meat item vaguely resembling cloudy jello in a taco. It was better than it sounds. Later, after walking Zona Rosa and the San Juan market, we again ordered randomly and got a white bread sandwich with hogshead cheese, or at least we think that’s what it was. Luckily, the mojitos were good.
That evening, after over 30,000 steps, a hot shower was in order. Unfortunately, there was no hot water in our shared bathroom, I forgot to bring my towel and because I was standing there so long waiting for the hot water to arrive, the motion-sensing lights went out me. Cue naked flailing around, splashing cold water everywhere as I tried to get the light to come back on before someone else walked in.
As we usually avoid group tours, we did some research on how to get to Teotihuacán on our own. So we set out early-ish. 3 metro lines and a $2.75 beater of a bus later complete with hitchhiking mariachi players, we arrived at the pyramids. This being my second time here, I was surprised to realize we must have skipped the south part of the site before. Our first stop was to see the plumed or feathered serpent, which we had seen a replica of in the anthropology museum and something I don’t remember seeing on my last trip. This section of the pyramid is largely intact because it was protected by a later pyramid built up against it. These phenomenal creatures are supposed to represent Quetzalcoatl, the God of Wind and Wisdom, who is kind of like a snake-bird.
Next, we went all the way to the other side of the archaeological site and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest one at 216 feet (65 m). It was quite crowded as we ascended, but about halfway up we found orange barricades set out in a way which suggested they had to stop people on busier days to limit the flow. The steps are very steep and there is only one hand rail but the view from the top is worth it. Next we climbed the Pyramid to the Moon, though you are only allowed about halfway up. This site is largely reconstructed and it is interesting to see the different techniques used at different time periods to delineate the reconstructed parts. Old photos show this site largely covered in brush and there are still some grassy mounds that haven’t been excavated. There are even a couple of spots where you can still view original murals.
Our return bus left from right outside of the last gate, was a bit less beat up than the first one and dropped us off at a metro that was more convenient to get back downtown. We headed straight to the Roma neighborhood where we had delicious, large mojitos before wandering back to the hostel.
I was excited to show Riki the Templo Mayor, which is located just off the Zócalo and is the area where Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325. The museum is amazing and showcases the artifacts found in the archaeological site. It also does a great job explaining how the 7 different layers of the superseded temples interact. You can walk down between the ruins and then visit the museum where they house the artifacts; my favorite being the exhibit where they lay out the bones of the numerous animals they found.
We did a quick visit to the Palacio National to see the Diego Rivera murals before finding a sophisticated place overlooking the Templo Mayor for lunch. Two hours, numerous fancy drinks, multiple courses including crickets, and less than $50 later, we needed a nap. Some of the indigenous tribes were out on the square blessing people with odorous herbs and dancing. We watched that before heading into the cathedral and then back for a rest.
Later, we walked to the Bella Artes, where there was a folkloric ballet performance that evening. We inquired about the ticket cost, but as they were almost $100 a piece, we opted to walk towards the Republic tower for a nice view. From the top, we could see the skating rink and then spotted what looked like a carnival in the streets. We ventured a few blocks north and were overwhelmed by the noise, lights, and atmosphere of the street fair.
Saturday we reserved for markets. After running to catch the metro, Riki managed to squeeze in, leaving me on the platform as the doors thumped shut. Luckily, the trains come so often that he caught me on the next train just a few minutes later, but we never ran for the metro again. Our first stop was in San Angelo, where they have a lot of local artists, but it was quite packed with tourists and expensive.
We took the metro to Coyoacan, where we found the main square packed with people hanging out.
The market here was huge, loaded with piñatas, which were very tempting, if only we had a better way to ship them home.
We found a rooftop near Frida Kahlo’s house to rest before the long metro ride back to the Zócalo. We ventured into a packed restaurant called El Quatro 20, where, surrounded by chaos, we had a great, cheap meal with huge beers. Just what we needed after a long day of shopping (though not buying).
On our last full day in Mexico City, we caught La Lagunilla market, where Riki was hoping to browse the antiques, probably looking for old books, if I had to guess. There was a small section of antiques, but the quality varied and nothing really struck us. We then ventured to the Jardin del Arte, which had some of the same artists we had seen on Saturday.
We then found a fruit market and walked on Reforma to the Metro Insurgentes. Unfortunately, on our way home, in the Pino Suarez metro stop, Riki got pickpocketed as he entered the metro. A group of people pushed us into the car as people were still trying to exit and managed to reach in Riki’s front pocket during the chaos and take his wallet. We spoke with the police there who recommended reporting the incident back by the Insurgentes stop. We went back to the hostel to cancel all our cards and then took an Uber to the Tourist Police. And we were not alone. Three other groups of tourists were in there, and the exact same thing had happened to them, in the same metro station. He didn’t have that much money in his wallet, as we always split it up between us, but we were left without a debit card and down to one credit card. Luckily, we were meeting my parents the next day and they were able to hold us over for the rest of the trip. But it left us with an unfortunate impression. And we didn’t ride the metro there again. To mourn the loss of the wallet, we stopped at a bar on Calle Geneve where we met two Mexican-Americans who cheered us up as we enjoyed our liquid dinner.
Uber is so cheap in Mexico City. I was feeling generous as it was Christmas Eve and gave a 50% tip, but our 20 minute ride to the bus station was still less than $5. We next took a first class bus for 6.5 hours ($24 each) to Oaxaca to meet up with my parents for a week.