As soon as I knew I’d be heading to Puerto Escondido for my next Habitat for Humanity Global Village build, I went to work figuring out how I could spend a few days in Mexico City. I booked my international roundtrip airfare into Mexico City and then booked a separate flight (on Aeromar) to the Oaxaca, the most cost efficient option that gave me the flexibility I wanted.
[PRO TIP: You’ll get an immigration form upon arrival. KEEP IT SAFE. You’ll need it to exit the country. I recommend putting it with your passport.]
The city has been enjoying so much positive publicity in the travel world and with movies like Roma, How to be a Latin Lover and the widely seen Frida. Popular fears about the dangers of visiting the largest city in the western hemisphere seemed distant.
Just follow the cardinal rules of travel—be kind and try to speak the language, be aware of your surroundings, don’t flaunt wealth, don’t be flashy with your wallet or electronics, wear your bags cross body, know the dangerous spots to avoid—and enjoy the moment.
It’s no secret that Mexico City is home to world class museums and with such a rich historical and cultural heritage, I was eager to plan to see as much as possible. I also knew I wanted to visit Teotihuacan, once the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. All that in mind, I crafted my 5-day itinerary to Mexico City. Here it is!
[PRO TIP: Mexico City is over 7,000 feet altitude. I had no idea, but quickly figured out why I felt slow and tired a lot more than usual. Take time to adjust and be forgiving if you or your companions need rest.]
I arrived mid-afternoon and headed to the Chaya Boutique B&B for two nights. I was meeting a friend who was already booked into an Airbnb, so I decided to choose a location in the historic city center that would allow me to walk to much of what I wanted to see.
[PRO TIP: I like staying in small boutique hotels. Usually they offer amenities like free breakfast, and give you access to locals who can help you get to know your surroundings. This was definitely the case at Chaya.]
I had just enough time to relax, shower and put my feet up before meeting my friend and taking a night food tour, which we pre-booked online. This would be my first food in the city, a lot of delicious street tacos, learning the ins and outs of Mexican food culture.
As it happened to be January 6th, Feast of the Epiphany, we learned all about the custom of eating “Rosca de Reyes” or King cake, similar to that of New Orleans Mardi Gras fame with the baby baked inside. Get one from Pasteleria Ideal, in business for over 90 years.
[PRO TIP: I enjoyed the food tour although I was tired. I didn’t think it was worth the high price tag, so I’m not recommending it. Also, be sure to check in advance if special diets are accommodated.]
[PRO TIP: If you get the chance try pulque, a Mexican alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. Order a Bandera, at a cantina – shot of lime, shot of tequila, shot of tomato juice, taking sips of each multiple times. Kind of like a Mexican bloody Mary.]
Sleep in and enjoy breakfast!
Because my hotel was ideally located in the near the vibrant Zócalo, one of the largest city squares in the world and considered by the Aztecs to be the center of the universe, I set out to explore the area on foot.
[PRO TIP: You’ll want to have a few 5 Peso coins on you at all times. That’s what they charge to use the toilets all over Mexico.]
Have a look at the noteworthy Museo Franz Mayer (Av. Hidalgo 45), housing Latin America’s largest collection of decorative arts. The courtyard in the center of the once hospital building built in the 16th century is an oasis, where bird’s sing and flowers bloom. You can explore the permanent collections, temporary exhibits and the gift shop in an hour.
Other highlights easily seen on foot:
- Palacio de Bellas Artes – Museum and theater space, perhaps most famous for the large 17 murals by 7 Mexican artists
- Palacio de Correos de México – Working post office building built in 1907 is worth a look for the architecture
- Templo Mayor – Excavated pre-historic site which the Aztecs believed was the center of the universe
- Zócalo – Large public square – when I was there in January you could ice skate!
From the Zócalo take an Uber to the first market, and another Uber to the second market and walk the rest.
- Mercado de Sonora (Av. Fray Servando Teresa de Mier 419) Known as the Witchcraft Market, a new one for me. There are some vendors selling herbs and incense and Day of the Dead-like paraphernalia, but nothing too spooky. Loads of everything else you’d find at a large non-food market.
- Mercado de San Juan (2ᵃ Calle de Ernesto Pugibet 21) Known as the exotic foods market. The best part was finding a place to sit and order food and drinks and take in the bustling atmosphere of this vibrant place. Buy some fruits you may have never tried like mamey.
- La Ciudadela Mercado de Artesianas (Avenida Balderas y Plaza de la Ciudadela) Best of all the handicraft markets I saw. I bought most of my souvenirs here!
[PRO TIP: Uber was easy and cheap to use all over Mexico City. Public transportation is however, much cheaper.]
After another delicious and leisurely breakfast, I headed out with a guide to visit the world famous Anthropological Museum (Av. Paseo de la Reforma s/n, Bosque de Chapultepec) to learn all about the region’s history. You can easily spend all day here, and for me, it was worth having a guide to show me around and converse in English.
After stopping for a coffee we headed into Mexico City’s urban oasis, Bosque de Chapultepec, a beautiful park, three times the size of New York City’s Central Park. There’s a lot to enjoy about the park, but we were headed to the Chapultepec Castle atop the hill.
Originally constructed in 1725 and now the official seat of National Museum of Cultures, a journey through the castle and its grounds is an excellent way to reinforce all the Mexican history I was learning. The 360 degree view of the surrounding city is also stunning.
[PRO TIP: At this point I met up with some friends and moved to an Airbnb in the hipster cool Hipódromo neighborhood. Great deals on Airbnb! Head to the grocery store for water – don’t drink from the tap – snacks and wine!]
We had a reservation at the fabulous Contramar (Calle de Durango 200, Roma North) seafood restaurant, which I highly recommend for the excellent food and service, the festive yet casual atmosphere and the cocktails.
Today we ventured outside the city to Teotihuacan, the ancient and once flourishing Mesoamerican city. On the way we stopped at the Basílica de Guadalupe and national shrine where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to farmer Juan Diego. You can see the original church (c. 1709) and the new one which houses the cloak containing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
We really enjoyed the day with Jonas, our private guide, who picked us up at our apartment in the morning. He was incredibly knowledgeable and we learned so much more than if we’d gone on our own.
[PRO TIP: It was hot, bring water. Wear sunscreen and a hat. Be sure you have on comfortable footwear and possibly compression socks. My feet were swollen and I think the altitude didn’t help. The climbs are worth it.]
Upon Jonas’s recommendation we had dinner at the sexy-chic, candle-lit, neighborhood hot spot Azul Condesa (Av. Nuevo León 68, Hipódromo), which also serves tasty vegetarian and vegan fare.
[PRO TIP: If you see it on the dessert menu, try Chamoy, often served with fruit like apples and Pastel de Elote and the hot drink Atol de Amaranto. Muy Mexican. Muy delicioso!]
With all the wonderful museums in Mexico City, this was the one I most wanted to see – Museo Frida Khalo. Probably owing to my fascination with the woman and a love of her art, the museum, referred to as the Blue House, is where she lived with her husband Diego Rivera, in the Coyoacán neighborhood.
From an early age she battled disease and injury, and her physical suffering informed every aspect of her life and work, including how she dressed.
She was highly politically active in her time and to learn of the convergence of all of these aspects of her life gives you a sense of the power of a person’s imagination, creativity and sheer force of will.
Needless to say the museum is a most interesting way to learn about this influential artist’s life, and afterward the Coyoacan neighborhood is a nice one to wander.
[PRO TIP: Buy your tickets in advance online. You won’t have to wait in line, and you can get your pass to take photos for a few pesos after you enter.]
I spent my last evening in Mexico City with my feet up watching a movie in my apartment with a glass of wine. Final perfecto!
NEXT STOP: PUERTO ESCONDIDO, OAXACA