I fell in love with Mexico City when I was fifteen. It was a high school Spanish class trip. Till this day I still can’t believe my parents allowed me to go. I didn’t know any Spanish. It wasn’t even my high school. Someone dropped out last minute and somehow, since I had a friend that was going, they arranged for me to go. We scrambled to get my birth certificate, since at that time, passports weren’t required. I’d never been out of the country and had only flown once. To say my mom was worried about me going was an understatement. But I went.
I had no idea how that one trip would influence me. As the late Anthony Bourdain said “travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however slow. And in return, life and travel, leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks, on your body or on your heart, are beautiful. Often though, they hurt.”
As a girl raised in the South in the seventies I’d venture to say I’d never seen a Mexican. Let alone millions. Houses stacked up like Jenga blocks on mountains in an altitude higher than I’d ever been. Mexico City is notorious for smog but there must not have been much the day we flew in because I’ll never forget how far the city stretched. It was as far as you could see and I can still picture it in my mind.
I also remember the people without homes. This was probably my first real encounter with homelessness. Seeing people living on the streets, women and even children, begging for help made a lasting mark on my 15 year old heart. I wasn’t from a rich family but we were comfortable. I had never lacked anything. After seeing others struggling, I had a newfound gratefulness for the privileges that before this, I didn’t even realize I had.
That trip was also the reason I decided to learn Spanish. All it took was getting separated from half the class and the teachers, that spoke Spanish, on the city’s Metro train. The Metro is notorious for it’s fast closing doors and crowds. I’ll never forget the look on their faces, as the six of us students that got on, pulled away from the station. How we made it back to where we needed to be, I’ll never know. Sheer luck. Then and there I vowed to learn Spanish.
Other things I remember about that trip were all the fresh flowers in the markets. Eating nopales for the first time. Seeing an impressive show of the folkloric ballet at the Palacio de Bellas Artes and learning more about indigenous people. Needless to say, I was falling in love with Mexico.
Whatever you choose to call it, Mexico City, el DF, or Chilangolandia, to this day, is one of the most exciting, complex, and somewhat overwhelming cities I’ve ever been to. A lot has changed. There are even more people. There are more cars. There are new modern and hipper neighborhoods with coffee shops and trendy eateries everyone wants to go to. But for as much as it’s changed, a lot has stayed the same. That old world, old school charm is still there and the people are just as friendly now as they were back then.
I’ve been back several times since that first trip. Recently, I had the chance to go again solo. I decided to revisit the older, more historical Mexico City again, and try to rediscover that old school wonder I had experienced at fifteen years of age. Throw in a couple of new experiences and it was the perfect nostalgic weekend.
I still don’t know if I left my mark on Mexico City but it definitely left it’s mark on me.
How to Get to Mexico City
Mexico City is a non stop flight on most carriers from larger US cities and some European cities. Travel requires a passport but United States citizens do not need a visa. Mexico uses an online system which allows citizens of eligible countries traveling by air to obtain electronic authorization to travel to Mexico for tourism or business purposes without a visa.
Travel within the country is super efficient as well. Aeromexico, Interjet, Viva and Volaris all offer frequent flights within Mexico, to Mexico City from most other cities. Once you are in Mexico City, getting around is also very easy. Depending on your budget you could drive, ride a train, bus, taxi or Uber.
The Historic Center is about thirty minutes from the airport. If you’ve read any of my posts, you know I’m a huge fan of Uber in Mexico. Uber is so popular there is an Instagram page that features things that have been said or that have happened on an Uber ride. The service is excellent and the cars are new. Many cities feature Uber Pool which allows you to share a ride to budget your money. Unlike in some smaller cities, Uber is available at the Mexico City airport too.
Some hotels do offer shuttle service but it’s usually an additional fee and the fee is more than an Uber ride. Once you are in the Historic Zone, it’s easier to walk than ride. Walking is very safe and you will see a lot of police presence to keep it that way. I walked late at night but was careful to stay on main streets with others.
Unfortunately, I still have not conquered my fear of the Metro. After the getting separated incident, I have not ridden it again. It is super efficient and fast, with convenient stations located all over the city. I’ll have to save info about it for another trip and another post. I’m determined to ride it again.
How to Experience Old School Mexico City
It would take years to discover all the great places to eat and drink in Mexico City. Here are a few of my favorites in the historic district.
The Opera Bar is a great place to take a break after walking around in “el Centro Historico”. Opened by two French brothers in 1876, it’s one of Mexico City’s oldest bars. It’s pretty ornate for a cantina but you can definitely see the French influence. The who’s who’s of Mexico City have been dining there for years. Even Pacho Villa visited and there’s a bullet hole to prove it.
I sat at the bar for a drink and una botana or appetizer. It’s very common to be served an small bite of something when ordering a drink in Mexico. Refried beans and chips, is what I was served with my Paloma- a cocktail made with either grapefruit soda or mineral water and grapefruit juice and of course, tequila, in a salted rim. A little more refreshing and light than a margarita.
Zinco Jazz Club There are so many interesting buildings in Mexico City and I love to see ones that have been re-purposed. Zinco is a jazz club in an old bank. You enter into an unassuming outside door, go up some steps and then down into what was once the vault for a total speakeasy experience. Inside, it’s a small, intimate space with a stage offering live music, food and cocktails. I had a Mezcalini with you guessed it, mezcal, tamarind, orange juice and cointreau. Reservations are recommended especially on a Friday or Saturday night. There’s no cover charge unless there’s a special band playing. Check the website for the calendar.
La Casa de los Azulejos or House of Tiles has those beautiful exterior walls made of blue and white tiles from the Mexican state of Puebla. It was once a private house but has since been purchased by Sanborns, which is a chain of Mexican department stores that have restaurants in them.
The restoration work they have done is incredible. Even if you don’t eat, it’s worth a look inside. Courtyards, fountains and more tile than you can imagine. If you do choose to eat there, the enchilada suiza is the stuff dreams are made of. It’s served with the freshest salsa on their signature blue and white china. There is a grander main dining room but if you don’t want the fanfare of sit down service, there is counter service too which is good for someone traveling solo too.
Where to Stay in Old School Mexico City
In keeping with my old school theme, I stayed at Hotel Catedral, a historic hotel just steps from the Zocalo or central square, which by the way is the largest in Mexico. You can easily walk to the Cathedral, the National Palace and other points of interest. The hotel offers a really good breakfast buffet, concierge services and accommodating English speaking staff. Some of the rooms even have small balconies. While I didn’t have a balcony, I had a great view.
These are a few of the things I get asked about most often about traveling to Mexico:
- Money– Pesos are the form of currency in Mexico so you should always exchange your dollars into pesos. Depending on where you are, there are usually places that will except dollars. However, if you pay with dollars, you will given change in pesos and the exchange rate will not be as good as a bank or ATM. ATM’s have the best exchange rate and are easy to find. Just remember you will have probably have a fee, maybe two, if it’s not an ATM at a bank. Banks have a good exchange rate too but it’s gotten increasingly difficult to exchange money there. They always require something- copies of your passport or you need to speak with someone on the bank floor before they will let you talk to a teller. Change houses or caja de cambio/casa de cambio, offer the next best option. They also don’t require a passport or ID. Wherever you do decide to exchange money, ask for for some small bills and coins or monedas for tips and other incidentals. I usually change a small amount at the airport when I land, even though that’s not the best place, for incidentals before I change more at a bank or change house. If you are really concerned, you can order pesos ahead of time in your home country at your bank.
- Safety– I’m always asked about safety in Mexico. I can honestly say I have never felt unsafe in any city in Mexico. The Historic District, and much of Mexico City has, as any big city, unsavory areas. You should use common sense and always be cautious. Don’t flash around jewelry or have your phone out. Guard your wallet, purse or backpack. I always use a cross body bag with a sturdy strap. One of my favorites is a PacSafe bag that has an extra reinforced strap. Also don’t carry all your cash on you. If you are concerned about walking around in an area you are unsure about, check with your hotel or one of the many foot policeman around and just ask if it’s safe.
- Altitude- Mexico City’s elevation is 7,200 feet above sea level. Some people could be affected by this. I have found the best way to avoid feeling bad is to drink plenty of water. Especially if you are flying in. Drink as much as you can on the plane. You should also avoid alcohol for a couple of days until you are better acclimated. Since altitude slows down digestion, you might want to avoid heavy meals the first couple of days as well.
- Weather– Because of the high altitude, Mexico City, it can be a little cool, even in the spring and summer months. Carry a sweater or light jacket or rain jacket and shoes with a closed toe. When I was there one May I so was happy I had carried some short boots. It was very rainy and the boots came in handy on the cobblestone streets and sidewalks of the historic center where the water collected.
If you are planning a trip to Mexico City, check out my “Must Do’s in Mexico City article. It’s a great list with things to do in and around the historic center. Viva Mexico and don’t forget to have fun!
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