Walking through the streets of Mexico City, we knew we were being followed. There were three or four men, dressed only in black and white, staying a steady distance behind us. They followed us for over a mile. When we slowed down, they slowed down. When we sped up, they sped up. When we were forced to stop to cross the street, they quickly approached and the largest man spoke first. “Would you like some more vegetables?”
I never had Mexico City on my travel wish list. Not only is Mexico City in Mexico, a country of kidnappings and murders according to most media reports, but it’s one of the largest cities in the world. I assumed it would be chaotic and dirty and, yes, dangerous. I half expected to be kidnapped by my taxi driver at the airport (seriously – the entire drive I followed his progression to my hotel on Google Maps). But the great thing about travel is that it can quickly break though media reports, stereotypes and ill-conceived assumptions. And the tuxedoed waiters carrying snacks for us from the National Museum of Anthropology to Chapultepec Castle only underscored how civilized the city is.
I was in Mexico City with AFAR Magazine for five days. I’ve always loved the magazine and I enjoy group travel when the groups are made up of like-minded travelers, so I jumped at the chance to join their annual AFAR Experience. Over the five days we visited palaces and locals’ homes. We traveled by bus and boat. We ate at amazing restaurants and cooked amazing meals ourselves. We met with an impressive array of experts on Mexican culture, art and history. And yes, my preconceived notions about Mexico City quickly evaporated. The top five things I learned (and why you should want to go there):
1. There’s a lot to do. Our first three days we jumped right in, attending Lucha Libre, riding bicycles down Paseo de la Reforma and boating through the canals of Tlahuac. All were extraordinarily fun. Lucha Libre was crazy – picture professional (fake) wrestling with costumes, cheerleaders and ring girls and a very involved, largely costumed crowd. The action was entertaining but it was the atmosphere in the building that made it such a great experience. And it was child-friendly too – I saw numerous kids dressed in the masks of their favorite wrestlers and very emotionally invested in the action in the ring.
The bike ride down tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma was a great way to feel like a local – traveling with the city’s walkers, runners, rollerbladers and cyclists through the city. With the crazy Mexico City traffic you wouldn’t want to ride your bike down the thoroughfare normally, but on Sundays the city closes the street for the enjoyment of everyone. And the boat trip in Tlahuac was reminiscent of a gondola ride in Venice, but more colorful, less touristy and longer. The city was originally built on a network of canals before they were filled in to accommodate the infrastructure needed to support 22 million people, so the boat ride is a great way to get a feel for what the area looked like 600 years ago.
Then there are the museums. I was particularly impressed with the National Museum of Anthropology, with its incredible Aztec and Mayan artifacts, and the Dolores Olmedo Museum, with it’s large collection of artwork by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And Chapultepec Park, an expanse of green space in the middle of the city with lakes, museums, the National Palace and a zoo, is one of the world’s great urban parks. Don’t miss the mural of Mexican history in the National Palace.
2. The city is dynamic. Do you ever listen to interviews on NPR and then quickly Google the interviewees because they were so interesting and articulate that you want to learn more about them? Every speaker that we had the pleasure of listening to and meeting in Mexico City was like that. Ricardo Rafael spoke about the history of the US/Mexico borderlands. Cecilia León de la Barra talked about the current art and design scene throughout Mexico and made me (a non-shopper) want to go out and purchase large amounts of local art. Susana Pilego Quijano introduced us to Diego Rivera. Gabriella Gómez-Mont spoke about how she and others are actively working with the city government and utilizing technology to harness the collective power of the 22 million minds in the city in order to make life better for everyone. Their methodologies and the brain power that they are drawing on are incredible. James Oles led us through the National Museum of Anthropology and made Aztec and Mayan history so interesting that I immediately booked a trip to take my kids to Chichen Itza.
3. The food is amazing. I have a family of foodies and thoroughly appreciate locally-sourced interesting ingredients and freshly-prepared meals. In Mexico City I took a cooking class with Graciela Montaño and Aura Club de Maridaje, making excellent Tacos al Pastor, and visited three markets – the Mercado de San Juan and La Merced Market, with Lesley Tellez of Eat Mexico, and the Centro de Abasto. The stalls of the first two sold not only fruit, vegetables and meat, but Day of the Dead decorations for the upcoming holiday. There were also eateries throughout with tacos, tostadas, tortas and other local specialties made in front of you. The food in the markets, on the streets and in the restaurants was all excellent. And no, I never got sick from any of the food or from drinking the water at the hotel or in restaurants. I even ate crickets and ants several times, both on their own and when mixed in with guacamole and other dishes – they’re better than you would think.
4. The Centro de Abasto is even more amazing. This is a place that everyone should see at least once. I’ve been to a lot of markets around the world, including Africa’s largest open-air market, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia just last month, and this one blew me away. Imagine hills of virtually any fruit or vegetable. Then imagine many, many football fields full of those hills. Everything was fresh – cut and harvested the day before. It’s estimated that 80% of the produce for Mexico City comes through this market. I woke up at 3:30am to head there early with chef Eduardo Garcia of Maximo Bistrot, and it was fun seeing him purchase not only what he needed for our breakfast, but fresh ingredients for lunch and dinner at his restaurant as well. He’s there every day doing the same thing – though typically not while being tailed by six Americans gazing around in wonder.
5. The city is clean, green and safe. This surprised me most of all. I’ve been all over Latin America this year. In each of three trips to Buenos Aires I was struck by the amount of trash and graffiti everywhere. Honestly, if a city’s residents don’t care about keeping the city clean, it makes it hard for me to care about that city. I was impressed with Santiago, Chile, its public art, parks and markets, and its lack of trash and graffiti. San Jose, Costa Rica, and Panama City, Panama, were somewhere in the middle. In Mexico City there are wide tree-lined boulevards with medians of flowers. I saw fountains and parks everywhere. The canals of Xochimilco and Tlahuac are beautiful. I saw many people out sweeping the city streets to keep them clean and very little trash blowing around. I didn’t spot much graffiti – in the city center at least. And yes, I felt safe. I don’t doubt that there are areas of Mexico and Mexico City that aren’t safe, but as a tourist taking in the culture and markets of the city, I never felt like there was any danger. If anything the city is less chaotic than other major cities – lines at bus stops were as organized as I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
My litmus test for a place is: would I want to bring my kids there? Is it safe and would they find it interesting? For Mexico City, the answer is easy: yes. When I bring the kids, I will definitely include the same foodie elements – market tours with Eat Mexico and a cooking class with Aura Club de Maridaje. I’ll want to do another boat ride through the canals and take them to the National Museum of Anthropology and the Dolores Olmedo Museum. And I’ll of course take them to Chapultepec Park.
I love the surprises that travel brings. It’s been a long time, though, since I was as surprised as much as I was with Mexico City.
Kid Friendly: Very
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Mexico City Specifics
Airline/Routing: AeroMexico direct to Mexico City from Los Angeles. The airline’s computers were down in LA so check-in and boarding were chaotic. Things were a lot smoother departing Mexico City.
Hotel: Las Alcobas in the Polanco neighborhood. I would put it on my shortlist of my favorite hotels around the world: Al Ponte Antico in Venice; Antica Torre di via Tournabuoni in Florence; the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai; and now Las Alcobas. Their service and attention to detail are very impressive. There were some kid-friendly elements, including a foam map of Mexico puzzle in the desk and a hand-made toy truck left in the room with the nightly snack the first night. They have a handful of connecting rooms for families.
Foodie Tours: Eat Mexico
Cooking Class: Aura Club de Maridaje
Cost Factors: AFAR’s annual international experiences are typically in the $3000-$4000 range depending on when you book. It was an extremely well-organized trip. The events, dinners, speakers and excursions were all excellent. Direct flights from LA aren’t expensive. Las Alcobas hotel was $265/night and I would stay there again in a heartbeat.