Mexico City: Biggest city guide for the savvy traveler
Mexico City can be a safe place to visit, and even live in, for anyone who will use a little common sense and follow our informed lead. David and I have visited this phenomenal burg regularly for nearly 35 years and lived here long enough to come up with the following Biggest City tips, which we humbly offer to any and all.
Learn some Spanish
There is no tip more important than this first one: Be able to ask how to get where you want to go, how to buy what you want to buy, and how to get back to where you started in polite Spanish. It is not hard to do. Most guidebooks give you a page or two of useful phrases.Of course, once you ask a question in Spanish, you have to be able to listen well enough to get the answer straight.
Spanish is the primary language in this country and even though many Mexicans speak some English (as well as scores of indigenous tongues), it is only proper that English-speaking visitors and residents know enough Spanish to get around.
A second Biggest City tip to take seriously: Watch every step you take. While you are looking down at the sidewalk, be sure to glance up often to see where your footsteps are leading you in the longer term. Be aware of what is going on all around you. Always act like you know exactly where you are going even if you are going into the closest corner grocery to ask for directions.
Please do not drink alcohol or otherwise alter your perceptions and walk at the same time. (Heck, we can't even walk and chew gum at the same time.) It rarely works well-here or anywhere else.
A transportation tip: Mexico City has one of the world's best mass transit systems; use it. It is cheap and easy and safe if you will take our Biggest City tips to heart. Driving yourself through the traffic-choked streets of this city will only lead to wasted time, frustration, and trouble. Also, big time Biggest City thugs usually do not look for prey on the Metro or in the trolley buses. Neither do cops looking for a little extra cash.
Small timers, such as pickpockets, can be easily thwarted by carrying only sturdy, shoulder-strap purses, not carrying obvious camera or laptop computer bags or exposed cameras strung about your person, and by putting your cash out of harm´s way in a little bag hung around your neck and stowed under your shirt. Only carry as much cash as you estimate you will need on an outing. Leave your credit and bank cards at home or in your hotel safe. No one but a miscreant is impressed with a wad of plastic.
Which reminds me, carry nothing in your pants pockets. We learned this the hard way one time in the Balderas Metro station. We got pushed on the train and in three seconds every pocket of our pants was turned out and left painfully, irrevocably empty. We didn´t feel a thing. It was a valuable lesson. Now, with deliberately empty pockets, we can enjoy those intimate moments on the pink line through downtown without worry.
If you must drive...
If you must drive, remember our friend Victoria's secret: If you get stopped by one of Mexico City's finest, ask for her or his name, number, and the name and phone number of his or her superior officer right off the bat. If that doesn't avoid a crime scene, then ask to be led, driving your own vehicle, to the superior officer for an explanation-no matter how long it takes. I saw Victoria drive away from a potentially costly and undoubtedly trumped-up "crime" scene scot free with the confused cop shaking his head in our lead-free exhaust fumes.
Although this is much less prevalent than in the past and is actually prohibited by law), some people pay a mordida (a little bite or bribe). It usually doesn't have to be much. Police persons in this city are not paid very well, and bribes are a way of taking a little extra tocino home to the kids. A while back, the city took traffic ticket books from male cops and handed them over to the lovely ladies in uniform. This did not lead to the gentling of our trafficky streets. We watched a woman cop cheerfully giving tickets to unwise motorists under the pedestrian bridge over Miguel Ángel de Quevedo at Tasqueña with a bevy of boy cops urging her on with glee. While discouraged by the government, mordidas can be seen as an efficient way of avoiding time-consuming trips to police stations and traffic courts. Our Mexican friends cheerfully offer a mordida whenever a situation calls for it. They do not consider this to be dishonest; it is just the way things are done, and, well, everyone wins. At least until the City's new penchant for honesty (and maybe higher salaries) filters down to the beat and traffic cops.
Dress well, but not too well
Here is a Biggest City "do" for the fashion-conscious visitor: Dress down in our town. You will feel more comfortable, you will fit in better, and you will not call yourself to the attention of would-be muggers and other ne'er-do-wells, who are always on the lookout for a well-dressed-and-so-presumably-well-heeled mark. Mexico City people dress smart and conservatively in dark clothes. The local couture of choice is sophisticated and simple. No one who is anyone wears shorts or halter tops or Cancun-colored anything. This is a major world capital, not a beach resort. Jeans are always de rigueur, as they are anywhere else in the world. Some restaurants and clubs require a level of dress unfamiliar to many, more casual North Americans.
The weather at this altitude is cool in the evening and in the early morning so bring a jacket. From May to October carry your rain gear in the afternoons and evenings. Comfortable shoes are essential, because walking is the order of the day. If you don ´t believe it, check out the myriad shoe stores in our town. I'd swear there's one per every hundred big toes.
The next tip is not just a tip, it's a Biggest City Order: Take only "sitio" cabs. They are the ones parked in front of a sign that says, "Sitio Such-and-Such," usually on well-lit streets and corners or in front of major hotels. The numbers painted on their doors are normally prefixed by the letters SO. The driver will tell you how much the ride will cost you ahead of time, and he will be able to show you his posted registration card and photo. Write down his name and the cab number or ask for his business card. (I found out recently how useful this advice is when I left my book bag in a cab and was able to call the cabbie later to retrieve it.) Lock the doors close to you and make sure the cabbie locks his. If all the doors don't lock, stay out of the cab.
Have a pretty good idea ahead of time in which direction you should be going. Keep your Guia Roji Mexico City map book with you everywhere you go. If you know you are supposed to go north and the cabbie heads off towards the south, ask, "A dónde vamos?" Make him explain or get out of the cab at the first opportunity. Do not take an unfamiliar cab if you are drunk or your senses are otherwise altered. Get the restaurant or watering hole in which you find yourself to call one of the cabs for you that they know. They are used to doing this. When you are in a cab, always use a seatbelt if it is available. That's the law.
The cabbies in our town are seriously chagrined by their downbeat reputation. Most of them are honest people just trying to make a living. They speak with disgust and disdain of the "pirates" who call themselves cabbies, and they are the first to try to clue you in on how to use cabs safely. It is in their best interest to do so. Many do not speak or understand English, so remember our Biggest City Tip number one about learning some Spanish.
One morning we were heading out on the town with a flush friend, who wanted to avoid the taxi "problem" altogether, so we hired a driver with a fine, comfy car from the sitio at her hotel. The driver took us to museums, archaeological zones, cafes, shops, and back to the hotel again. We spent nearly the entire day in his able care. He showed us places not dreamed of by our guidebook and told us wonderfully entertaining stories the whole way. He dropped us off at the various entrances and retrieved us elegantly with a door-opening flourish. Now that's the best way to see Mexico City, by far, if you can spring for the bucks. We, that is, our prosperous amiga paid around $10 US per hour. Some charge more and some less. A tip is always appropriate.
Those of us who live here and feel comfortable break the foregoing rule freely -- especially in the daytime. It is just so easy to flag down a Libre cab on the street and zip over to the café district in Condesa. But even we who live here occasionally get burned by a creepy cabbie. The creeps are more likely to hang around waiting for unsuspecting victims in touristy zones like the Zona Rosa, so beware. Or be aware, might be a better way of saying it.
The world's biggest city
This next Biggest City tip is designed to keep you on the good side of those of us who love living here: Do not expect Mexico City to be just another Disneylandia or San Miguel de Allende. One recent visitor we "entertained" said she thought our town was "nasty, filthy, dirty!" That hurt our feelings, first of all because it isn't, and also because in the few places it sort of is, it's because this is a huge city. Our city government, while no more perfect than any other human endeavor, does its best to keep the place safe and clean. Someone asked one of the city's previous mayors why he didn't do something to fix it. The mayor wisely responded that fixing the problems of Mexico City is like "fixing a 747 while it's in flight." The beauty and charm of the city far outweigh the few annoyances and inconveniences which bother some unseasoned visitors.
Remember, you're a guest
As a subset to that last tip, please remember that you are a visitor here, even if you've lived here for 30 years. (Our Purépecha Indian friends say, "We are all just here on a visit.") North Americans, especially, should know that Mexicans both love and loathe them. U.S. troops have invaded the "Halls of Montezuma" far too many brutal times. Unlike many norteamericanos, Mexicans have not forgotten their history. Read or ask any Mexican about the Niños Heroes or the Battle of Churubusco for a refresher course. As a rule, Mexicans are incredibly generous and even forgiving of our imperial kind, but it won´t hurt for North Americans to keep the tangled histories of our two nations in mind. We always tell the Mexicans we meet that we are "Tejanos, otherwise known as Mexicanos of the North." ("Irish" works real well, too. Read up on the San Patricios and you´ll see why.)
This next bit is not just a Biggest City Tip, but an important Mexican law: Do not get involved in any way with Mexican politics-left, right, or center. It is none of your (our) business. Don´t even talk about it. Read and observe only. Keep opinions to yourself, even if you are asked. We always say, "You know, we don't know anything about that. What do you think?"
If you live in or are familiar with another major world city, our Biggest City Tips will doubtless seem obvious to you. If you don´t, you will quickly need to make them a part of your traveler´s luggage.
There seem to be a whole lot of "don'ts" involved in Mexico City travel tips. The "do´s" can be pretty well summed up in one paragraph:
Enjoy this amazing metropolis
Do enjoy this marvelous city. Walk its streets, eat in its delightful cafes, loll about in its gorgeous parks and plazas, buy its native handicrafts and arts, and soak up its culture, history, and charm. Say "hola!" to everyone you meet (unless you are downtown and there are just too many jillions of people passing you to hola! them all). Most of all, get to know the Mexicans. They are warm and congenial hosts. Expect to be treated like a welcome guest, and you will be.
(Revised and updated in April, 2009)