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What is Mexico City Like?

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What is Mexico City Like?

MEXICO CITY, Mexico- “It’s pretty nice,” I spoke when questioned about what I think of Mexico City. I was walking with some friends in Balderas, and I kicked myself that “nice” was the most adequate adjective that I could come up. But it is true: Mexico City is pretty nice.

Perhaps, I have never been in a more livable major city in all of my travels than Mexico City.

These are strong words as I have visited a good chunk of the major cities on the planet. I stayed for three months in New York City, know Tokyo, ran through Panama, been to London a handful of times, breezed through Paris, Madrid, spent time in Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Phoenix, Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, enjoyed Lisbon, floated in and out of Shanghai, stayed in Beijing, crashed for a month and a half in Istanbul, had a lot of fun in Prague, worked in Budapest, visited Bangkok 1, 2, 3 times, said “yuck” in Hanoi, can say that I know most all of the capitals of Central America (though cannot claim to be the better for it), enjoyed Buenos Aires, had my mind blown in Guayaquil, Quito, Lima, Santiago, Montevideo, I really dug Ulaanbaatar, took Belgrade as good place to crash, thought Kunming was awesome, was amazed in Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, coughed my lungs out in Bangalore, was awestruck in Damascus, quickly learned to hate Cairo, loved Rabat, found Casablaca decent, and came as close to living in Hangzhou as I have anywhere else on this planet. I know many of “the cities” on this planet, and I know that Mexico City ranks above most all of them in terms of livability, comfort, stimulation, entertainment, transportation, global access, efficiency, and, perhaps most importantly, affordability.

View of Mexico City

I sit in a $325 per month reasonably equipped and spacious room in the Coyoacan university district, becoming more and more amazed each day I spend tramping around this city. For the past two weeks I have ridden the metro and buses around the central, west, and south portions of Mexico City and have yet to find a single area less than sightly. There is still an entire city out here for me to check out, but at this point I must proclaim that I have never been to a major city so “nice.”

Mind you, I am from the rust belt, my standards of what constitutes a good city could be called very basic.

In his book, First Stop in the New World, David Lida called Mexico City the global capital of the 21st century, and in my review of this book and subsequent interview with the author, I had no prior experience to either confirm or refute his sentiments. But now I do, and I say that Lida was correct: this city is a central looking glass of urban living in this century. It is happening in Mexico City right now, the place is the sprawling, conglomerating centrifuge of what the 21st century has in store for its major urban centers.

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Reputation

Mexico City has a pretty shit reputation. Even today as the city thrives in relative efficiency, cleanliness, orderliness, few travelers come through here with many good things to say. It is perhaps far easier to criticize a place scarcely even looked at and run off to the next destination than it is to stare preconception in the face, distorted it, and formulate an independent opinion.

On this run through Mexico, I traveled up from the south. For five months of travel here, I’ve been meeting travelers going south from Mexico’s capital.

Smog, traffic, yuck, I didn’t like it there, too big, crazy, not impressed.

This is what I have been hearing of Mexico City. Now that I have arrived, I have little clue what these travelers were looking at — Where were these people to take away such a shabby impression of a city?

Public Transport

Mexico City metro map -- when metro maps look like spiders urban navigation is easy.

Waiting for the metro in Mexico City is a rare occurrence. I have not yet stood on a platform for over five minutes before a train arrives to take me off to another destination. So many brag about the NYC subway system, but I have distinct and consistent memories of regularly standing down in that old hole for what seemed like endless expanses of time. In Mexico City, there is no wait, and the trains have the DF area (the city proper) covered. In fact, if one train looks too crowded, it is in the realm of reason to just wait a few minutes for the next one that will be pulling right up.

Mexico City metro

On top of the underground metro runs the metro bus, regular buses, taxis (no idea why you would want to take one of these), and the sidewalks tend to be wide and easily walkable. The underground metro costs 3 pesos (25 cents) a ride, the metro bus and regular buses cost 5 pesos, I have not yet had the need to flag down a taxi so I cannot record the price, and walking, of course, is free.

I tend to rate cities by their walkability, and the sidewalks of Mexico City are often easy to navigate — very rarely being too full to stroll comfortably. The largest chunk of my days here involves taking the metro to a random neighborhood and then walking endless for hours. In fact, if given enough time, a person could avoid public transport here all together, and just walk — it is probably the best way to observe and feel this city.

People

Big city people. What else could you expect? No smiles, no hellos in the street, not bad people, but city people none the less. Mexico City is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world logging over 22 million heads, and the people here show this in their gait and their ability to see right through you –locked up within the noise in their heads as city people often are. In cities, people are part of the landscape, the backdrop, and the person who notices the pattern of the wallpaper is an outsider, for sure.

This is not a place to make friends of strangers, non-introduced, unprovoked by a mutual contact. Unprovoked conversation is usually met with smiles and replies — the people don’t seem to be frightened of each other — but they also don’t seem to be looking to speak with a stranger either. This lack of  does not damper the Chilango character, this is simple how the social wheels of big cities churn everywhere.

Air Pollution

I’ve heard endless statements, rants, and banter about the air pollution of Mexico City. I thought that upon entering this place I would be thrust down within a churning inferno of smog, exhaust, and haze. But I have been conditioned to air pollution in some of the biggest offenders on the planet — China, India — and I have grown use to black boogers in my nose and layers of dark metallic dust piling up on the insides of my rooms. I cannot say that the air in Mexico City is crisp and clean, but it is far less vile in China — a country where I once climbed a tree in an urban park and came down looking as though I spent the day scrubbing chimneys.

I do not cough, squeeze, or hack in Mexico City, and my boogers come out in accordance to their color standards.

For any traveler who has ever ventured through the major cities of the far east, the air pollution in Mexico City is not something to notice — though this is not to say that it is good. Mexico City lies in a giant geographical bowl, with mountains hemming it in at every cardinal direction. This leads to the air staying within the bowl and the city stewing in its own exhaust.  Again, I would not brag about the air quality here, but it is not near as vile as its Asian counterparts.

Traffic

Arch in Mexico City

There has only been a handful of occasions in the DF area of Mexico City where I have become annoyed with the quantity of traffic. There are busy avenues that cut this city through and through, but they are generally very manageable for the pedestrian. I have not seen a traffic jam, nor anything close yet, and the traffic moves in an orderly procession — no excessive honking, no free for all melee, no drivers hanging out of their windows screaming and yelling. I have not yet come close to being run down. Mexico City has not yet been conquered by the automobile, it is still a pedestrian’s city.

Crime

Drastic efforts seem to have been taken in recent years to make Mexico City a more secure place to be, and this efforts have been successful. Not once here have I felt to be in a compromising situation or even in a place where I felt the need to watch my back. I must remind myself that this place has the potential to be dangerous as the obvious signs tend to usurp these warnings: this city does not seem to be at the mercy of criminals.

It is a police state.

If an excessive police presence makes you feel safe, then you would have no worries in Mexico City: there are cops on nearly every block, paroling, watching, standing on the street drinking coffee and playing with their cellphones. Unfortunately, the police in Mexico tend to be some of the biggest criminals, and they often act with complete impunity. I have not yet observed or experienced this in the capital city, but reports of robbery (and worse) being carried out by the Mexican cop in other locations around the country are rampant — I have heard many first hand stories from travelers here on how they were shaken loose of their cash and valuables at the hands of the police.

Cops do not make me feel comfortable, but they do seem to keep the civilian criminal elements at bay in Mexico City, and I have not yet felt particularly threatened in this city yet nor have I yet had a story of travelers dealing with the police here other than asking directions.

Mexico City is green

Park near Viveros

This was perhaps my biggest surprise in Mexico City: its green areas — parks, zoos, trees, even wooded areas — are rampant. I will soon publish a separate entry about this. This city has not been rendered into a man made desert.

Can’t believe what travelers tell you

This is a general rule of travel: you must evaluate a traveler to evaluate their advice. If a European has stepped right off the boat into Mexico, I will not take their advice very highly. But if a traveler tells me that they have been to 100 countries over two decades, then I will listened a little more closer to their words.

“Why do people tend to not like Mexico City?” I asked my friend, Caitlin, who is an expat here from Canada.

“It is probably because they have not been to any other Latin American cities,” she replied.

I agree.

Experience and comparison are the handmaidens of opinions. If someone grew up on farms, Mexico City may seem hectic; if someone is pompous about their sterile and orderly European city then perhaps they will look down their noses at Mexico. If someone has seen hundreds of cities on this planet, then I would expect that Mexico City would slide into their scale of relativity at the proper place: for me, it is at the top.

People also seem to have a tendency to see places through the lens of their expectations, and will often give free reign to allow their “observations” to meet these expectations. All too many shit holes on this planet still have the reputation of being beautiful (Costa Rica) because that is what expectation decrees; far too many good places are still stamped with old reputations that they are dangerous, dirty, and to be avoided. Reputations all too often have the power to outlast the reality they aim to represent: places change faster than their reps can keep up with. This is a rule of travel: opinions of places cannot be rendered from afar, you need to come within arm’s length of a place — get into the streets, into the people — to come out with a true impression.

Conclusion

Mexico City cathedral

I am not a city boy. I was raised in the countryside of the USA, far from all signs or indications of urban life. Through travel, I have come to terms with urban landscapes, I have learned to navigate through cities and have become use to this type of environment. I do not particularly love cities, but my disposition is no longer adverse to them. As far as Mexico City is concerned, I am awestruck: this place is good.

Mexicio City use to just be an airport, a quick transfer point between the rest of the world and the riches of Mexico’s tourism liturgy. Travelers would ride into DF, creep through the streets with worrying lemming eyes, and then get on a bus or another place as soon as possible to the more welcoming cities to the north, south, and east. “Whew, we made it,” this sentiment still resonates in the air that surrounds many travelers here. I have no idea why.

As David Lida pointed out, Mexico City is the capital of the 21st century.

“Nice.”

I find myself repeating this word often as I venture into new districts around the city. “Nice, nice, nice.” Occam’s Razor of vocabulary: the most poignant word is often the simplest.

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Filed under: Cities and Urban Development, Mexico, North America

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been moving through the world since 1999. He is the author of Ghost Cities of China. has written 2709 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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