I was wrong about Mexico City.
Mexico City isn't as dangerous as it once was. The food is tasty and the museums are excellent, so you're an art and culture lover, you'll have plenty to do. Mexico City is becoming a traveler’s paradise.
When I travel, I always try to meet adventurous, intellectually curious people. When I do, I ask them to take me to their favorite places. As for the food or the activities, I have no preference. I only ask for a local experience and to avoid tourist traps. I eschew plans in favor of serendipity. Then, I surrender to their recommendations and follow their lead. That’s exactly what I did in Mexico City.
After a day full of meetings and a Naked Brands workshop, Lourdes Garcia, a Mexico City native offered to show me around her hometown. A photographer, Lourdes has an eye like Zaha Hadid and a taste for contemporary art that would’ve inspired Andy Warhol.
I've long held a deep, deep affection for Latin America. From Chile to Costa Rica to Panama, Latin people always seems to radiate with warm hospitality. Like the rolling R’s which vibrate off Latin tongues, my pulse always beats a little faster as I venture South. My smile, a hair wider as I inch towards the equator, communicates what my Spanish cannot.
In fact, the beat of my heart in Mexico City reminded me of what I’ve always known: while the spoken language couldn’t have been more foreign, the body language couldn’t have been more familiar. No matter what our color, creed, or race, all of us are fluent in human emotion.
Mexico City Background
Mexico City is big. No, like really big. Once the capital of the Aztec Empire, Mexico City is the largest city in North America.
Mexico City is an economic powerhouse. According to a recent study, Mexico City has a GDP of $390 billion, ranking it as the eight wealthiest city in the world and the richest in Latin America. The city alone would rank as the 30th largest economy in the world. National wealth is concentrated in Mexico City.¹
Mexico City stretches for miles and miles. The outer edges extend past the limits of the eye — as wide as the eye is long — as if you’re standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and looking for Asia.
At almost 8,000 feet, Mexico City has a bizarre climate. On rainy summer afternoons, the clouds hug the city as if they’re leaning in to kiss the pastel-colored architecture or swooping in for a taste of warm tortillas, fresh-off-the-comal, topped with zesty, sweat-inducing salsa. Perched atop a volcanic plateau, the summer rains arrive every evening, right at 6pm, with the precision of a Swiss train.
A Dangerous History
I had planned a visit to Mexico City three years ago during my senior year of college. We nixed the trip because our parents said that Mexico City was “too dangerous.” Deterred by the authoritarian word of mom and dad, we visited Panama instead.
In Mexico City, every young woman I spoke with mentioned neighborhoods where they were and weren’t allowed to go. The culture of protection was consistent and their mothers check in on them repeatedly. This paranoia must stem from the danger — particularly bad for women — which has historically plagued the Mexican capitol. Company executives that I spoke with also mentioned that security is a priority for them, and as a result, they are private and secretive.
For women in particular, the statistics validate the safety concerns: Mexico City has a high documented prevalence of gender-based violence against women, ranging from 20-30% in a woman's lifetime.
The word on the street goes like this: in Mexico City, cabs are a hot-spot for thieves and kidnappers. Tourists are relieved to step out of the taxicab and into the street. In other major Latin cities, where taxis are relatively safe, but the streets can feel like Chicago in the 1920s, the relief comes from stepping out of the street and into the taxicabs. I don’t know how true this is.
The good news is this: crime rates are falling precipitously. If cabs are danger zones, the emergence of Uber should cause crime to decline in Mexico City. All things being equal, I feel much safer in an Uber than a taxi
Mexico City has terrible traffic. Pink and white four-door taxis crawl along the avenues at the speed of a turtle with a broken leg. To travel to my workshop, we drove along the Avenida de los Insurgentes. At almost 18 miles long, it is one of the longest streets in the world.
The distances are too far to walk and the roads are too crowded for bikes. I spoke with one local who lives 15 miles from the office, but due to grid-lock rush hour traffic, she commutes more than an hour each way.
Cars, not pedestrians, run the show; that and that alone is the kicker for me — I couldn’t live in Mexico City. Should the traffic subside and the commutes shorten, I'll reconsider.
To avoid the traffic, my driver abandoned Waze in favor of local intelligence. The paint-chipped Nissan Versa zigged and zagged through quaint neighborhood after quaint neighborhood, each lined with Diego Rivera-colored buildings — blue indigo hues, deep carmine reds, and a hot pink that would only fly in the Mexican capital — an experience enhanced by the sweet, sweet song of Spanish conversation, and the night-time echoes of Reggaeton that I couldn’t help but dance to.
Unlike New York, it doesn't seem like wealthy citizens take the subway. I’m still not sure why, but here’s what I do know: The Metro system was inaugurated in 1969, right around the time when Mexico City experienced a population boom. During a 20 year period from 1960 to 1980, the city’s population more than doubled to nearly 9 million people.
With 12 lines and 195 stations, Mexico City’s metro system is the largest in Latin America. The 8th busiest metro system in the world, the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo (public transportation system) transports 4.4 million people every day. The subway is heavily subsidized. Each trip costs $5 pesos — the equivalent of $0.27 US dollars. These low fares likely influence the demographics of subway ridership. By comparison, the New York City metro is much more expensive: it will set you back $2.75 per ride. When I return to Mexico City, I will travel by subway and do some more investigating!
The local government is making deliberate, yet still insufficient efforts to ease traffic congestion. The city has extended its public transportation efforts with a rapid bus transit line. Running along the aforementioned Avenida de los Insurgentes, the Metrobús stops at the kind of raised stations traditionally built for trolley cars. As of late 2016, the Metrobús transported an average of 1.1 million passengers every day.
As the wave of bicycle and scooter sharing takes wave around the world, I expect Mexico City to follow suit.
The Condesa Neighborhood is Beautiful
The Art-Deco crescent-balconies in Condesa made my mouth water. Living in New York, I have a soft spot for Aztec-inspired Art-Deco architecture; especially the zigzags, chevrons, speed lines, and streamlined curves. If Art Deco set the standard in the 1930s, contemporary designs are raising it in 2018 — Condesa has excellent contemporary architecture.
Mexico City has more police than any city I’ve ever been to, with the notable exception of Jerusalem.
I enjoyed seeing the police eat with the locals at small, street-side food stands. But in other places, the police influence was over-bearing. The 1984-inspired, uni-directional police towers (pictured below) will play a central role in my upcoming dystopian science fiction novel.
Chapultepec Parks is like Central Park in New York City with more food stands. We meandered through the park in search of sweets, spices and fruits that would surprise me.
First, we enjoyed sun-bright yellow mangos that tasted like appetizers at the gates of heaven. Then, Sour, deep red, gummy bears — my weakness! — caught my eye and I insited on stopping. Within seconds, I was craving those gummies. Unfortunately, we had spent all our small Peso bills at other food stands in the park, so we couldn’t pay for them.
Sensing our enthusiasm, a mother of two perfectly-behaved, cheery young girls, handed us $20 pesos with a sincerity that would have made the Dalai Lama proud. The mother, 5 feet, 2 inches, 35 years old if I had to guess, looked us in the eye and with a smile wider than the Grand Canyon said something in Spanish that I couldn’t understand. Humbled, I replied “Gracias.”
A magical moment.
The bliss, however visceral, lasted no more than three seconds. I looked down to my right and saw hundreds and hundreds of dead grasshoppers, jam-packed like a school of sardines.
Lourdes said: “You have to try them!” I wasn’t going to say no. To procrastinate the pain of eating grasshoppers for the first time, I stuffed my mouth with gummies, motioned to the man behind the food stand and extended my index finger towards the grasshoppers: “Esos por favor.”
The verdict: These grasshoppers were surprisingly salty—too salty for me. Moreover, I wasn’t particularly fond of the hot sauce. With that said, I could see myself eating grasshoppers in the future. With a hard, textured crunch, grasshoppers are an easy, enjoyable snack and an efficient source of protein.
The Ritual of the Voladores de Papantla
On our way to the Museum of Anthropology, Lourdes directed me to something she said would “surprise me.” And indeed it did.
The ritual of the Voladores de Papantla is jaw-dropping. It is as elegant as it is suspenseful, and audiences are amazed as they are terrified. The ritual goes like this: it begins when one of the men (the voladores) plays music with a flute and a small drum. As the music begins, five men (the voladores) climb an 150 foot pole towards a rotating platform at the top.
During their descent, the voladores — dressed in a white shirt, black leather boots, and red pants trimmed in vibrant colors and a yellow fringe — circle round-and-around-and-around like an infinite carsousel, suspended by nothing but a butter-colored rope wrapped around their waist.
Like magicians soaring through the summer sky, “Los Valadores” descend upside down. It’s as if they’re defying the laws of gravity. Their feet suspend in mid-air as they bang their drums and whistle their flutes in pitch-perfect harmony.
Like many other traditional Mesoamerican rituals, the Voladores de Papantla contains earthly symbolism. According to the Totonac myth, the ritual originated to appease the Gods, end severe drought, and put an end to food scarcity.
During their descent, each volador circles the middle pole 13 times. Combined, the four voladores circle the pole a total of 52 times, one for each year in the Mesoamerican calendar cycle. The four voladores represent the cardinal directions and honor the four elements: sun, wind, earth, and water. As they perform, they honor the earth, the passage of time, and their place in the universe.
Note: Here are some photos of the ceremony. Since we only had our phone cameras and I want to help you see the ritual, the last three are from Google Images. At the bottom, you'll find a YouTube video.
A big thank you to Lourdes for being an incredible tour guide. I look spending more time in Mexico City in the future.
- Thank you for Devon Zuegel for inspiring this piece. If you have some time, I recommend her post on Bangalore.
- A lot of this information is from Wikipedia. I apologize for any informational errors in advance.
¹ Since the city is so big, this statistic is a bit misleading. It reflects the entire economic pie of Mexico City. Compared to cities with a similar total GDP, the average citizen of Mexico City is not very wealthy.