Traveling to Mexico City: what to do, and how to stay safe?
June 6, 2007 10:34 AM   Subscribe

I am about to go to Mexico City for 3 days. I am a white American 19-year-old and will be staying at Hostel Catedral. I haven't taken Spanish since 6th grade, so my language skills are at phrasebook level. What should I do? And how worried should I be about safety?

I would love to go see the pyramids. Can a person traveling alone safely make that trip? (Assuming I don't meet other people at the hostel to go with.)

What other places in Mexico City would you recommend? I've got no plans other than exploring the city for the next 3 days.

Also, I understand Mexico City does not have the best reputation for safety. I will keep my wits about me, but how worried should I be about traveling around? Should I only visit places that I know to be safe? In Asia, I enjoy riding public transportation to the end of the line and exploring the outer suburbs of cities. I assume I shouldn't do that in Mexico City, right?

(Found this post about moving to Mexico City, but nothing about traveling there.)
posted by jbb7 to Travel & Transportation around Mexico City, Mexico (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You shouldn't worry too much about travel in Mexico beyond the standard safety measures you would take in any city of 20 million people (have someone call for a taxi, be conscious of your pockets in crowded public places, don't hitch rides, etc.). I'm not sure it's ever a good idea to just get lost on the subway in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. You can easily get to see the pyramids by bus. The central square (zocalo) in Mexico city is amazing. The cathedral and the Diego Rivera murals are fantastic.
posted by B-squared at 10:54 AM on June 6, 2007

Seconding the have-someone-call-a-taxi. Don't get in a taxi off the street, especially not one of those green and white VW bug ones. Go to a nearby hotel and have a concierge call a "secure taxi." It's significantly more expensive than a regular taxi, as it's basically a private driver, but at least you'll know you're safe. (For example, there's a Holiday Inn near the Zocalo you can go to.) And seconding the Zocalo suggestion as well. Check out the National Palace to see Diego Rivera Murals.

Make sure you check out Chapultepec park. There's a fantastic museum at the top of the hill, but IIRC most of the signage is in Spanish. But the views of the city are great. You can also wander around the lake there and check out the vendors. It's a decidedly non-touristy place. It was quite a lot of fun. There's a zoo there too, but when I went, we got rained out. :(

Also make sure you go to the National Museum of Anthropology, which covers almost every period and geographic location in Mexico city. You can see artifacts from all of the indigenous tribes, and I am pretty sure there is English signage.

Also, if you're into art, just outside the city is Frida Kahlo's home. It was interesting and had lovely gardens.
posted by liesbyomission at 11:06 AM on June 6, 2007

I've travelled in Mexico & Central America and have found the safety issue to be quite simple - if you travel low key then you shouldn't have any trouble. Safety problems arise for people who do things like, oh, wear an SLR around their neck that costs more than a lot of people in the city earn in a year. Looking at it from this perspective, you gain comfort from that fact that there are lot of other people much higher up in the list than you of most likely to get robbed.

You can absolutely go to the pyramids alone, just bear in mind that you'll be completely exposed to the sun and there's very little shelter, so the earlier you go the better. The Latin American Tower/ Torre LatinoAmericana has a great view of the city, and The National Anthropology Museum really has everything you ever wanted to know/ see about Mexican culture (although the text on the exhibits are in Spanish only).

On the subject of taxis, I never had the need - the metro system is excellent, very cheap and easy to use.
posted by forallmankind at 11:17 AM on June 6, 2007

The metro is fine in Mexico City. As with travel anywhere, don't be an ass and you'll be alright.

If you do get taxis in DF (note that in Mexico they refer to it as "Distrito Federal", or "DF" pronounced deh-efe, much as we say "DC" when referring to our capital) get them from an official taxi stand... you usually buy a little ticket at the stand then get on the next in line. Don't just hail a cab from the street; the few horror stories about cabs come from people doing that and ending up in unlicensed cabs.

The Mexico bus system is amazing. Get to one of the big bus stations (if you google around you can find them; should be a metro stop near one) and hop on a bus that will take out out to Teotihuacan. Those are some awesome pyramids.

Lots of people speak some English, but don't expect them to. Learn the name of your hostel (learn to pronounce it well) so you can tell cab drivers or ask someone to point you in the right direction. Learn basic numbers so that you know how much people are charging you for things. Otherwise, you'll probably be fine.

Have fun! Mexico is awesome!
posted by olinerd at 11:59 AM on June 6, 2007

Seems to be some useful safety-related advice here.
posted by treepour at 12:03 PM on June 6, 2007


I know that there is at least some English text in the exhibits at the National Anthropology Museum. The majority may be in Spanish (like all the little signs explaining the individual pieces), but the major signs are in both English and Spanish. (Just looked at my photos from last summer to make sure.) It's a pretty significant museum, culturally, and at least their website has an English section.
posted by liesbyomission at 12:06 PM on June 6, 2007

yeah - I meant those little signs explaining the individual pieces
posted by forallmankind at 12:17 PM on June 6, 2007

I'm sure it's changed since I was there back in '95 but Mexico City is a great place and if you are alert and excercise common sense I think you will be fine.

I speak very little Spanish and got along fine with people there and they were all helpful - much more so if you are trying to speak their language!

I suggest you buy American express traveller's checks - we did and being able to go to the Amex office in downtown Mexico City was - 1. very helpful because of the concierge and the exchange rate was better and 2. Everything was in english.

I constantly felt underdressed in DF, slacks and dress shirts were by far the most common everyday clothing while we were running around in shorts and backpacks.

Riding the subway is no problem - it was very clean and safe - if crowded when i went. It's color coded so you can easily navigate it even if you speak no Spanish at all. The have some cool anthropological exhibits in the subway of items they found while digging it too.

We saw very few Americans the whole time and welcomed it, you will be surprised how your Spanish improves with only a few days even.

That said, places to not miss:

The Pyramids. Also at the pyramids I highly recommend eating at La Gruta - a natural cave right next to the Pyramids - food and atmosphere were great.

Chapultepec park also is a must. Also the Castle there.

The National Museum of Anthropology

The Zocalo

Be safe and have fun!
posted by clanger at 12:46 PM on June 6, 2007

I came back from Mexico last week. In fact the last 3 days of my trip I spent in Mexico City, which is too little time for that place. The Cathedral, the museum of Belles Artes, the museo des las tres culturas, the zócalo. The entire center of the city is studded with very beautiful buildings. Visit the Chapultepec Park. Go have a coffee or some food in the Opera Bar (Avenida Cinco de Mayo). Across the street, a few blocks away, there is a candy shop (Dulcería de Celaya) which you *must* try. I did not feel unsafe at all walking all over the center by myself. But, do not eat food off of street vendor's -Montezuma's curse, you don't want to find out what that is...

If you want to see outside the immediate center of the city and feel uncomfortable taking public transportation, ask for a car service (like a taxi) to take you around, no stops required. This trick always works wonders for me. Perhaps you want to visit Freida Kahlo's place ouside the city (Coyoacan) and the Trotsky museum.

Go --absolutely-- to Teotihuacan (the pyramids). You can ride a bus or join a travel group for the pyramids. It is very worth it.

Enjoy the food, it is one of the bestest foods I have tried in my life. Mexican people are very warm and kind. I travelled by buses in other parts of the country and I encountered no threat whatsoever.

It is a gorgeous place, I tell you.
posted by carmina at 12:49 PM on June 6, 2007

on preview, what clanger said too!
posted by carmina at 12:50 PM on June 6, 2007

The State Department advisory on Mexico is a relatively short read, and basically says to avoid political demonstrations and not to travel in border areas such as Neuvo Laredo.

Keep your ID and or passport in as secure a location as possible, and bring xerox copies with you. Travel with the aforementioned traveller's checks, and if you carry any cash break it up and keep it in several pockets. This enables you to pull out very small untempting rolls of bills when you purchase things, and also to look like you don't have much money on the rare occasion that you need to bribe a cop (although I've heard corruption has been cleaned up considerably).

Do not rent a car and drive anywhere if you can hire a trustworthy driver.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:40 PM on June 6, 2007

Having gone to Mexico in March and spending most of my time in Mexico City, you should be fine. It'd help if you try and brush up on your Spanish, but otherwise you should be okay.

To add to what olinerd was saying, Norte (the major bus station in northern Mexico City - it's right on the Metro) is the station where you can get tickets to the pyramids. It was about $4 each way, if I recall correctly. Just to warn you though, at the pyramids, there are tons of people hawking crappy pan flutes and they get very in your face. But frankly, the pyramids are awesome. In fact, I preferred those pyramids over Chichen Itza.

In addition to what everyone else has said, I recommend the Bascilla de Guadalupe, where the shroud with Our Lady of Guadalupe. Even if you're not religious, there's a huge market where you can buy anything humanely imaginable that has the Virgin's image on it. Hell, you can even buy one of those hologram things so look one way, it's Pope John Paul II, the other it's Christ suffering on the cross. Oh, not to mention they have the Popemobile that Pope John Paul II used in Mexico City. If you're religious, it's a good site as well.

Trotsky is buried in Mexico City too. I spent longer looking for the place than I actually spent there but I got a kick out of it.

Anyways, I did well getting around solely using the Metro (only 2 pesos or 20 cents for a ticket, with transfers), so you should be okay. Just try to sit down (this usually won't happen) or stand against the doors so you can't get pick pocketed (I've been to NYC, DC, and various other major cities and I've never seen subways jammed packed like in Mexico City). If you're a girl, the first two cars are usually reserved for ladies so I'd take advantage of that if that is the case.

Anyways, enjoy el DF!
posted by champthom at 1:44 PM on June 6, 2007

Oh, and I was fine with street vendor's food. Just look for where everybody is eating. Vendor food is tasty and cheap. Better than stuff I've had at "authentic" Mexican type places.
posted by champthom at 1:46 PM on June 6, 2007

I constantly felt underdressed in DF, slacks and dress shirts were by far the most common everyday clothing while we were running around in shorts and backpacks.

I just want to add that Mexicans come in all shapes, sizes and colors. What will single you out as an American is not your whiteness but the way you are dressed and the way you act. Americans and their shorts really stick out - this applies to Europe as well and even most of Asia.

I'll second visiting the Basilica - its this enormous kitschy chaos with buses full of folks from the provinces constantly loading and unloading. Also don't miss Chapultepec incuding the castle.

Find time to wander around. DF is a crazy, wonderful city full of all sorts of characters.
posted by vacapinta at 1:54 PM on June 6, 2007

Also, if you're into art, just outside the city is Frida Kahlo's home. It was interesting and had lovely gardens.

And within walking distance is Leon Trotsky's house. Very interesting no matter what your political persuasion. Both places are in Coyoacan which is a beautiful suburban place to walk around.

Mexico City is great, like most others say, if you are not an ass, respectful, and if you don't stand out, and if you take private taxis only you'll do fine. Metro is great.

I would worry slightly around the Zocalo only because it is so crowded, but then again, I'd do the same in Times Square.

Don't know how you are about altitude but it is higher up than Denver. If you are sensitive you *may* have a problem but I don't think it is high enough to bother most sea-level people. For real fun note how long it takes your plane to take off in Mexico City (high thin air means longer take-off rolls)
posted by xetere at 2:14 PM on June 6, 2007

I am a white 24-year-old American guy and just got back from Mexico City in April with my very non-Spanish-speaking mom. My Spanish is probably about as good as yours. We used a copy of the newest Lonely Planet Mexico guidebook from the library and basically everything was correct, and the maps of the city were amazingly good.

Here's a link to some questions I asked about DF.

Now onto yours:

Safety: it's fine. Seriously. Keep your wits about you, learn a few words of Spanish to ask for directions, and you'll be fine. During the day, we saw cops everywhere, and we felt safe using the Metro even at night as long as we were going a few blocks from a station; if we were going somewhere at night with less-than-awesome Metro connections or if we were coming back later than the Metro was open, we took cabs, which while more expensive than the Metro were cheaper than taxis at home - I don't think we ever paid more than 100 pesos to get anywhere at night, and you can bargain a little (learn the numbers!).

Money: We used ATMs and had no problems; they're safe, everywhere and nobody accepted dollars.

Getting around: The Metro comes every ten seconds, is almost free of graffiti, and while crowded, didn't really seem threatening, especially with the people selling bootleg CDs blasting ridiculously bad music in the cars. We did see a giant double-decker Turibus right outside your hostel full of tourists, but it always seemed to be stuck in traffic whenever we saw it around the city, and it seemed really expensive, like 100 pesos for a day pass, and everyone was wearing these neon wristbands, presumably to show they'd paid. It seemed easier to use the Metro or colectivos, which are smaller buses you pay a cash fare on board to use - we used one to get up and down Reforma from our hotel to Chapultepec Park where the Anthropology Museum is without incident. I think it's 2.50 pesos one-way if you're going less than 5 kilometers or something - really, really cheap.

Location: Hostal Catedral is essentially one block from the Zocalo, so everything you'd want to see is either walkable, doable by metro or by taxi, and everywhere we ever went at night, from the shadiest cafe to the nicest bar, was willing to call us a reputable one.

Hidden Diego Rivera murals are everywhere (the Antiguo Colegio del San Idelfonso has one of his first works, and the Palacio de Bellas Artes has a few more) but in addition to the Palacio Nacional (which is literally a two-minute walk from your hostel and offers really thorough tours in Spanish, which are easy to follow along with), check out the Secretariat of Public Education, which I think is northwest-ish from your hostel, near a square where most of the citiy's printers used to be (Calle Argentina?) - all of the interior walls of a three-story courtyard are covered with Diego Rivera murals and it was basically deserted on the Tuesday afternoon we went.

The pyramids of Teotihuacan were awesome, but we got crazy sunburned and I got a grain of sand in my eye from the wind: a nice medical-type person working at the first aid station adjacent to the Pyramid of the Sun helped get it out. Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun on Easter Sunday would have required standing in a huge line, but I doubt it'd be that crowded if you went on a weekday. Getting there was really easy - Metro to Norte, walk across the street to the station, and when you get inside and see all the ticket booths, head all the way to the left. I forget the name of the company, but you'll want a return ticket to "Piramides." Buses leave every ten-twenty minutes and take about an hour; the last bus back leaves around 6 in the evening. All the displays at the site are in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl.

Food: Cafe de Tacuba failed to disappoint, and there's a bakery located a block or so west of the Cathedral on Calle de Tacuba, on the southwest corner of an intersection, that's got amazingly flaky pastries - we got something absurd, like ten pastries, for 30 pesos. Vasco? Something like that. Street food was great too.

Lucha libre: Arena Coliseo is a few blocks north of your hostel on Calle Republica de Chile and is walkable, but didn't let us take photos: even so, it was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen live. Another arena, Arena Mexico, is southwest of the Zocalo, near Chapultepec metro, but it might be easier to scare up some hostel friends and get a taxi out there.

My number-one recommendation, though, is to remember that this is probably one of the easiest places in Latin America to be a tourist. We had no problems when we were there, and as tourists we weren't always batting .1000 with our local knowledge, so to speak. Just make sure you've got the lay of the land down - it's a grid system in the center, so you can't really get too lost. Everyone we met was entirely courteous to us, willing to help us find whatever we needed, and extremely tolerant of my mother's constant butchering of the only Spanish word she learned down there - ashtray. :)

Have a great time!

Oh yeah, on preview: no shorts (it's actually kind of cold at night), and don't miss Coyoacan - we took the Metro to Viveres and walked about a mile through this huge park to get to Frida's house, which we both loved and which was almost eerie in its detail - down to the books on the bookshelf and all of Diego and Frida's personal effects, it's amazing! There's also a neat marketplace and town square that's a lovely place to have lunch - the Lonely Planet's got all the details.
posted by mdonley at 2:36 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

To add to the thing about the Palacio Nacional, you actually can request a free tour in English. (Make sure it's an official staff person. There were some dudes hawking non-free tours in English. The Palacio Nacional gives them for free.) The guide will explain the giant Rivera mural that details the entire history of Mexico and show you the other murals in the place. I did this with my family last summer. His English won't be perfect, but I am pretty sure you'd get more out of it than a tour in Spanish.
posted by liesbyomission at 9:11 PM on June 6, 2007

There's a lot to do right around the hostel. San Ildefonso is great, and the Spanish Cultural Center is also about a block away and hosts free art exhibitions and late-night parties that a lot of the hostel-dwellers attend. Just don't fall into the hanging-around-the-hostel-all-day was amazing how many people did. It's a big city.

In the so-bizarre-you-have-to-see-it category, if there's any way you can get to Santa Fe--I don't think it's accessible by public transport--take a day to check it out. It's a neighborhood wayyy on the edge of town with ridiculously opulent glass apartment towers and office buildings and an obscenely huge mall, and it's all built on landfill. It doesn't look real. Or liveable. But it's hot and it's all been built in the past few years.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:01 PM on June 7, 2007

Hope I'm not too late and jbb7 actually sees this.

I've lived in Mexico City all my life and most of the recommendations above are spot on: Pyramids, Museo de Antropología, Centro Histórico (Zócalo, Catedral, Bellas Artes, Palacio Postal, La Opera, Café Tacuba, etc.), Chapultepec, Frida and Diego's houses -which are not outside the city- and Coyoacán.

You have more than enough information to fill up a week, let alone three days, so I won't add anything other than to suggest a visit to Colonia Condesa, a young, hip neighbourhood filled with great restaurants, bars, parks, art galleries, shops and a really cool pool hall. You'll want to concentrate on the Streets of Nuevo León, Tamaulipas and Michoacán.

Don't drink Corona, try Negra Modelo instead, and do not, under any circumstances, drink beer with a lime wedge.

My email is in my profile. Feel free to contact me should you need more info or any help during your stay.

Cheers, have a blast.
posted by Cobalt at 10:53 AM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm the original poster. I am having a great time in Mexico City. I've been picking up Spanish rapidly, and I generally felt extremely safe. We bumped into an 18-year-old Mexican kid at UNAM who took us around for the whole day, which was amazingly lucky for us. When I get back, I'll post about everything I did for people who come across this thread.
posted by jbb7 at 12:03 PM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

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