Set over 2400m above sea level in a shallow mountain bowl, and crammed with over twenty million people, Mexico City is one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas. Although it does have a high crime rate, and some terrible pollution, the capital is nowhere near as intimidating as you might expect. Nonetheless, you may still prefer to take it in a couple of days at a time, taking days off to visit the places described in the following chapter, all of which are possible as day trips.
The city radiates out from the Zócalo, or main square, as much the heart of the modern capital as it was of the Aztec city that once sat here. Immediately to its west, in the streets between the Zócalo and the garden known as the Alameda, is the city’s main commercial area. Beyond that, the glitzy Zona Rosa, with trendy Condesa to its south, stretches towards Chapultepec Park – home to the incredible Museo Nacional de Antropología – and the rich enclave of Polanco, while Avenida de los Insurgentes leads down to the more laid-back barrios of San Ángel and Coyoacán. Around the outer edges of the city are shantytowns, built piecemeal by migrants from elsewhere in the country. Hidden among these less affluent communities are a number of gems, such as the pyramids of Tenayauca, Santa Cecilia and Cuicuilco, and the canals of Xochimilco.Read More
México, Mexico City and El DF
México, Mexico City and El DF
For clarity, we’ve referred to Mexico’s capital as Mexico City throughout this guide, though Mexicans frequently refer to it simply as México, in the same way that Americans often refer to New York City as New York. It’s a source of infinite confusion to visitors, but the country took its name from the city, so “México” can mean either, and in conversation it most often means the latter. To avoid misunderstandings, the nation may be referred to as La República Mexicana, or occasionally in speeches La Patria, while Mexico City may be referred to as El DF (“El Day Effay”), short for “Distrito Federal”, the administrative zone that coincides with the city boundaries and contains most of the urban areas. The title Ciudad de México is used much less commonly, usually in an official context.
Finding your way in Mexico City
Finding your way in Mexico City
Remember that many street names are repeated over and over again in different parts of Mexico City – there must be dozens of thoroughfares called Morelos, Juárez or Hidalgo, and a good score of 5 de Mayos. If you’re taking a cab, or looking at a map, be clear which area you are talking about – it’s fairly obvious in the centre, but searching out an address in the suburbs can lead to a series of false starts unless you know the name of the official colonia, or urban district (abbreviated “Col” in addresses outside the centre), that you’re looking for.
Pulque and pulquerías
Pulque and pulquerías
Pulque is the fermented sap of the maguey cactus, a species of agave that grows in the countryside north and east of Mexico City. Traditionally considered a poor man’s drink, pulque had its heyday in the first half of the twentieth century – as beer and other drinks became more affordable, pulque’s stock went down. At one time there were over 1400 pulquerías in the capital, but today owners estimate that there are only around a hundred or so left. It’s possible, however that Mexico City’s pulquerías may yet see a revival, as the drink has seen a rise in popularity of late among young Mexicans fascinated with all things pre-Hispanic. Regardless of demand, production continues much as it has done for centuries, with barrels being shipped daily to the capital.
Unless you are looking for them, pulquerías are hard to spot; they’re concentrated in less salubrious areas of town mostly unvisited by tourists and often have no sign, just a pair of swinging doors guarding a dark interior. Like cantinas, they are traditionally macho territory and women are more likely to receive a respectful welcome when accompanied by male friends.
These places are not set up for anything much more sophisticated than knocking back glasses of the slightly astringent, viscous white beverage, usually ladled out of barrels behind the bar. The emphasis is as much on socializing as drinking, which is a good thing since most pulque is only two to four percent alcohol and getting drunk requires considerable commitment. The task is made easier when pulque is blended with fresh fruit juices – pineapple, apricot, guava and many others – to form a weaker but more palatable cocktail. The most popular hunting ground is the Plaza Garibaldi, where La Hermosa Hortensia is always brightly lit and usually has several good flavours served up to a cross-section of men and women, locals and foreigners. During the day you are better off exploring the district south of Bellas Artes, where choices include La Risa at Mesones 71, on the corner of Callejón de Mesones (Mon–Sat 11am–8.30pm) and Los Duellistas at Aranda 30 (Mon–Sat 9am–9pm), both of which have quite a young clientele.
Accommodation in Mexico City ranges from budget hostels to some of the swankiest hotels in the country, but the best-value places can fill up quickly, so booking ahead is always a good idea.
Most places have 24-hour reception desks and are geared for late arrivals and early departures, and with reasonably cheap taxi fares into the Zócalo or Zona Rosa it seldom makes financial sense to stay near the bus stations or airport. However, if you arrive especially late or are just in transit and need a place to rest up for a while, there are places to stay that are very handy for the airport and Terminal del Norte.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
Eating out seems to be the main pastime in the capital, with reasonably priced restaurants, cafés, taquerías and juice stands on every block.
Costs vary enormously. You can get a decent comida corrida pretty much anywhere in town, even in the fancier neighbourhoods (though not in Polanco or Condesa), for M$35–70. Otherwise, there are excellent bargains to be found all over the city in small restaurants and taquerías, but as you move up into the mid-range places you can expect to pay something approaching what you would at home. At the top end you can soon find yourself paying big money, especially if you order something decent from the wine list. In upmarket restaurants, a cover charge of M$10–50 per head is commonly added to the bill.
The choice of where to eat ranges from traditional coffeehouses to fast-food lunch counters, taking in expensive international and rock-bottom Mexican cooking along the way. There’s a small cluster of Chinese restaurants lining Dolores, just south of the Alameda, and food stalls in markets throughout the city: Merced is the biggest, but not a terribly pleasant place to eat. At the back of Plaza Garibaldi, however, there’s a market hall given over to nothing but food stands, each vociferously competing with its neighbours. Mexico City also abounds in rosticerías, roast chicken shops, serving tasty set meals and crispy chicken with beer in a jolly atmosphere. There are quite a few good ones on 5 de Febrero. For lighter, sweeter fare, try a jugería (juice bar) or a pastelería (cake shop). Both are good bets for flavourful and inexpensive breakfasts.
More so than anywhere else in the country, Mexico City is flooded with chain restaurants. American franchise establishments are well represented, along with slightly classier Mexican chains such as Sanborns and VIPS – on the whole, you’re much better off with a comida corrida.
The area around the Zócalo and west through to the Alameda is packed with places to eat, and there are plenty of tourist traps in the Zona Rosa, but for serious dining, especially in the mid-range, head to Condesa, about twenty minutes’ walk south of the Zona. We’ve mentioned a few options in this area, but they are really just starting points, and the real pleasure is in simply wandering around and seeing what grabs your fancy. Top-class restaurants are mostly concentrated in Polanco. The southern suburbs of San Ángel and Coyoacán are also good hunting grounds and it is worth sticking around for your evening meal after a day’s sightseeing.
Nightlife and entertainment
Nightlife and entertainment
There’s a vast amount going on in Mexico City, which is as much the nation’s cultural and social centre as its political capital. Bars are dotted all over the city and range from dirt-cheap pulquerías and cantinas to upscale lounges and hotel bars, though there are unfortunately few mid-range places.
The live music scene has broadened appreciably in recent years, and there are venues for all kinds of bands. Two attractions are particularly worthwhile: the mariachi music in the Plaza Garibaldi, a thoroughly Mexican experience, and the Ballet Folklórico, which is unashamedly aimed at tourists but has an enduring appeal for Mexicans too.
While Mexican theatre tends to be rather turgid (and will of course be in Spanish), there are often excellent classical music concerts and opera or ballet performances by touring companies. Bellas Artes and the Auditorio Nacional are the main venues, but other downtown theatres, as well as the Polyforum and the Teatro de los Insurgentes, may have interesting shows. On most Sundays, there’s a free concert in Chapultepec Park near the lake.
Bars, clubs and live music venues
As elsewhere in the country, cantinas and pulquerías are still largely a male preserve. Though there’ll often be a few women inside, most unaccompanied female tourists probably won’t want to brave the back-slapping macho camaraderie. More civilized bars, where you might sit around and chat, are relatively thin on the ground. There are a few, but most concentrate on music, or bill themselves as antros, a relatively modern creation somewhere in between a bar and club where you can sit and talk (just about) or dance if the Latin pop hits get you going.
Club-oriented nightlife starts late, with live acts often hitting the stage after 11pm and few places really getting going before midnight. Entry can be expensive, ranging up to M$300 for men (women often get in for much less or free), though this is likely to include a drink, or even bar libre, where your drinks are free for at least part of the evening. If you stray far from your hotel and stay out after the Metro has closed for the night, be sure to get the bar or club to order a sitio cab for you; flagging down a cab late at night is not generally considered safe, especially if you are lost and drunk.
Live music venues are dotted all over town, offering anything from old-fashioned romantic ballads to cutting-edge alternative rock bands. Cuban music is particularly popular, and with Cuba just a short flight away, Mexico City provides a local but international proving ground for the island’s talent.
Plaza Garibaldi (Metros Bellas Artes and Garibaldi) is the traditional final call on a long night around the capital’s bars, and as the night wears on and the drinking continues, it can get pretty rowdy. The plaza is on Lázaro Cárdenas, five blocks north of Bellas Artes in a thoroughly sleazy area of cheap bars, grimy hotels and several brightly lit theatres offering burlesque and strip shows. Despite a high-profile police presence, pickpockets are always a threat and it’s best to avoid coming laden down with expensive camera equipment or an obviously bulging wallet.
Hundreds of competing mariachi bands gather here in the evenings, all in their tight, silver-spangled charro finery and vast sombreros, to play for anyone who’ll pay them. A typical group consists of two or four violins, a brass section of three trumpeters standing some way back so as not to drown out the others, three or four men on guitars of varying sizes, and a vocalist, though a truly macho man will rent the band and do the serenading himself. Mariachis take their name, supposedly, from the French mariage, it being traditional during the nineteenth-century French intervention to rent a group to play at weddings. You may also come across norteño bands from the border areas with their Tex-Mex brand of country music, or the softer sounds of marimba musicians from the south. Simply wander round the square and you’ll get your fill – should you want to be individually serenaded, pick out a group and negotiate your price.
At the back of the square is a huge market hall in which a whole series of stalls serve simple food and vie furiously for customers. Alternatively, there is at least one prominent pulquería on the square, and a number of fairly pricey restaurant/bars, which try to drown out the mariachi bands with their own canned music, and tempt customers with their no-cover entry. The last Metro leaves at midnight.
The Ballet Folklórico (t55/5529-9320 to 22, wwww.balletamalia.com) is a long-running, internationally famed compilation of traditional dances from all over the country, elaborately choreographed and designed, and interspersed with Mexican music and singing. Despite the billing, it isn’t really very traditional – although it does include several of the more famous native dances, they are very jazzed up and incorporated into what is, in effect, a regular musical that wouldn’t be out of place on Broadway.
Mainstream Hollywood movies make it to Mexico just a few weeks after their release in the US and often before they get a British or European release. With the exception of movies for kids, they’re almost always in their original language with subtitles, and since you’ll usually only pay around M$35–50 (often reduced on Wed), a visit to the flicks can be a cheap and entertaining night out. Movies are listed every week in Tiempo Libre, as well as in most of the Spanish-language dailies.