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What is Mexico City Like?

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. [...]

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.

Comment on photos individually

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 traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3424 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

28 comments… add one

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  • Jasmine February 16, 2011, 7:39 pm

    I´ve heard really good things about Mexico City and have been excited about heading there some day… you´re totally right about sizing up the traveler before heeding their opinion. It´s like I heard Ecuador was so dangerous from other travelers, but have been here about 3 months and have had no problems. What I have seen is tourists doing stupid things that an opportunist in any city would take advantage of. Another country who still hasn´t shaken off their bad rep completely is Colombia, though in my opinion is one of the safest places I´ve been.

    PS – I´m not getting posts via email still

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 17, 2011, 11:02 am

      This place is really great. I highly suggest a visit — or stay here and work for a while. It is easy for US citizens to get work visas.

      Hmm, about the posts by email, it should work. I will look into it. Thanks.

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      • Steven September 16, 2013, 8:13 am

        What are the rules for foreigners regarding work visas? How easy is it to get work? I am researching moving to Latin America and Mexico City is on top of my list. I am also considering Colombia and from what I’ve heard from people living there (expats and locals) is that it is pretty impossible to show up and find work outside of teaching English. Most expats were sent there by their company back home. What is the situation in Mexico?

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        • Wade Shepard September 16, 2013, 8:28 am

          I take it you don’t want to teach English. So it will be more difficult, though not impossible. Though it is generally easier to set up abroad by a company you’re already working for in your home country — especially because of visa decrees like needing to apply from your home country — it’s not impossible to just show up and find work. The trick is befriending the right people and hanging out in the right social spheres.

          Seriously, I would have to say that 50 percent of the people I meet who are working abroad outside of teaching or another common traveler job, got their positions just by being friends or becoming acquainted with people who are already working in the location you want to be in. I sort of make a sport of asking foreign workers how they got their jobs, many say things to the effect of “I knew this guy . . .” An incredible amount have had no previous training in the jobs they end up landing. It’s really a right place/ right time/ befriending the right person kind of deal, but they happen often, you just have to know how to best set yourself up in position for this to happen.

          If you’re hanging out in hostels and backpacker bars or just visiting tourist towns or tourist districts in cities then, no, you’re probably not going to meet people who can help you find work. You need to go to the expat hangouts in the areas where the companies you may want to work for are set up. Seriously, if you’re not looking for them, the working abroad expat community can seem very much invisible. They are often on the outskirts of cities or in districts that visitors are just not really going to go. Also, unless in a place where the expat community is small, the foreign worker (non-English teaching) community often doesn’t overlap too much with the English teaching/ retired expat crowd.

          This is vague advice, but this is a serendipitous kind of search. I notice that your email address is from New Zealand. Try finding the New Zealand companies that are set up where you want to go and try to meet the people working there.

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  • David Jacobs February 17, 2011, 2:17 am

    nice post! 😉

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 17, 2011, 11:00 am

      Thanks David,

      Much appreciated, as always.

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  • Caitlin February 17, 2011, 11:18 am

    My boogers come out black.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 17, 2011, 12:40 pm

      I’m going to have to see this to believe it. A booger off it is.

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      • Bob L February 17, 2011, 1:08 pm

        Try riding a motorcycle behind a long line of diesel trucks heading to Guatemala…….

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 17, 2011, 1:19 pm

          Haha, yes, I would not dare venture out to the highways that surround this city.

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  • JIM JOHNSTON February 17, 2011, 12:16 pm

    Great post. Thanks for spreading the positive news about our great city.
    Jim Johnston, author of ‘Mexico City: an Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler’

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  • Sam February 19, 2011, 10:41 pm

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion of Mexico City. So far it has been one of the best Latin American cities I’ve been to and people’s impressions are a bit skewed. For me, Mexico City and Buenos Aires are the Latin American cities to be. Granted, I still have much more to see.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 21, 2011, 10:59 am

      Right on, Sam. There are only a small handful of “classic” capital cities in this part of the world, and you name two of them. When I think of cities in this region where I would like to stay for a while, Mexico City and BA are definitely two of them.

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell February 20, 2011, 6:31 pm

    Couldn’t agree more Wade. I spent only a couple of weeks there with my Mexican babe, Brenda; and we had a blast. I loved the history and other sights. People were great, too. City had an exciting vibe.

    I said, that I would return and live there for awhile, one day.

    RE: Sam – Yeah, agreed: BsAs, is also another classic city – spent a couple of months, chillin’ there in 2002).

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

    (PS: just returned to Taian after a Chinese New Year / Spring Festival road-trip …)

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    • Lily February 21, 2011, 5:09 am

      —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.—

      I would also add, how much is this traveller like you in temperment, looks, class…
      People who have been to 100 countries can be just as jaded/scared/unimpressed/overenthused as anyone. Especially nowadays when you can just hop a plane to a new destination at a moments notice.

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 21, 2011, 11:01 am

        Good addition to this rule. Thanks.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 21, 2011, 11:01 am

      Yeah man, this place is really great — history at every turn. It is funny how Mexico City has a tradition of leaving much of the old city in tact — even as it expanded to include many other towns and cities. It is amazing to see old time single structure housing in the middle of the city. Much regards to this place for not bull dozing everything and making high rises everywhere.

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  • Adrian March 5, 2011, 2:04 am

    Wade, I’ve certainly enjoyed reading your experiences in Mexico City, they are proving to be valuable to me becuase I may venture off to this megaloplis this October. However, I would like to know about Mexico Citys nightlife..I am 22 years old,will be traveling solo, and very much enjoy bars, nightclubs, dancing and all the the nocturnal activities that come along with the nightlife of urban centers..

    I’ve read several comments regarding people staying out late (usually no later than 10 p.m. becuase of safety reasons) but for me this is a bit too early, especially if the nightlife of Mexico CIity is amazing.. So I would really like to know, how is the safety in areas popular with cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 5, 2011, 10:16 am

      It is my impression that, within reason, it is not much more dangerous partying out late in Mexico City than any other large city in the world. Much of the city is pretty high class, and it is common for the streets in the party districts to be full of people until late in the night. If you stay in the party areas, it should not be excessively dangerous. I would not recommend against staying out late in this city.

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  • Just wondering March 6, 2011, 6:54 pm

    I need to fly to Mexico City to visit a friend but only for like a day…I am allergic to sulfer dioxide…but live in LA…is the air quality that much different from LA…that I am going to need oxygen or something stupid…or will I break out in hives? When I am on the freeways here in LA I break out in hives sometimes cause of car exhaust…if I flew in and went right back home would that be ok too? I am just picking up some cats that my friend has to bring back to TJ.

    Thanks!
    MaryJo

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 6, 2011, 7:04 pm

      I have no idea what elements make up the air in Mexico City. You would be better to contact a doctor about this.

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  • Isana Amed February 3, 2012, 6:57 pm

    Oh Wade… your article has made me sooo happy. I’m a mexican from Mexico City living in Denmark. Europeans have such a bad impression of Mexico that it takes me a while to convince them otherwise or to ignore them. And then I found your article… thank you!!!. : )

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    • Wade Shepard February 4, 2012, 9:47 am

      Thank you for this feedback, it means a lot. Right on, it is good to think of home when away for a long time — especially when the people around you don’t really know what it’s like there.

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  • scraw March 22, 2012, 12:05 am

    i have been in mazatlan for a month and im considering moving to mexico city. I want to experience a true crazy cosmopolitant city. would you say that it is comparably stimulating and chaotic as cairo, egypt?

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    • Wade Shepard March 25, 2012, 9:53 am

      No way. Compared to Cairo Mexico City is chill. Outside of the downtown historic district it’s mostly a collection of smaller cities that were swallowed up into a megalopolis. Truly, for its size, Mexico City is a rather relaxing place to be. Cairo is nuts.

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  • Jade May 30, 2012, 7:34 pm

    Hi wade,

    Envious of your extensive travelling!

    Just wondering if you have been to Tlalpan, south of the city and what u thought of it, am going there on Friday for 11 days!

    Xx

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    • Wade Shepard May 30, 2012, 8:07 pm

      Nope, I have not yet been there. Let us know how it is.

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  • ph January 27, 2016, 7:46 am

    I know this is 4 years old, BUT… I lived in the DF for several years. I am SOOOOO honest when I say that you have nailed this description of the DF perfectly. I love this city! I used to do the same thing…grab the subway with my child in arms (baby) and go to a different location every day, then just walk for hours. I got to know the city like the back of my hand. The people are just so friendly.. (maybe it was different because I was fluent in Mexican). The city has so much to offer and is so cheap to know. When I lived there there were not nearly as many lines to the subway. (I spoke with my cousin last night and he said there are over 13 lines now and one is going into Toluca, in Mexico State…) There is NO need for a car or taxis, as busses, trolleys, and the metro take you anywhere, and walking is safe (being aware of a few areas that are NOT safe). I miss the city. Everytime I go down something else has changed, but it is still my favorite city in the world!

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