This trip occurred in 2014. I had written these posts a long time ago on a different computer which I just gained access to again. I hope you enjoy Mexico as much as we did. It is a wonderful place to visit and live.
One of the strangest things about living in Texas is despite how strong the Mexican influence is, from food, fashion and holidays, most native Texans have little to no desire to visit the country. Ask anyone and they can surely direct you to the best taco or elotes spot in town or maybe where to pick up some tres leches cake, but to suggest trying these in Mexico, most everyone I told about my trip got a bit queasy. Talks of gangs, kidnapping and water quality issues were raised as reasons for their concern, but isn’t it true that I can drive to certain areas of Dallas where the same things could happen? Better to die traveling and exploring a new city I felt. I had two friends with me so it would be a bit harder to kidnap me or at least I would have witnesses.
The only issue for me was this trip’s early departure time coupled with a late night at work made for a rude awaking. My phone jarred me awake and I noticed that not only had I slept through my alarm twice, I’d missed calls, likely from the shuttle I’d arranged. I frantically ran out to see the blue shuttle waiting. I opened the door and apologized and was greeted with the best words:
‘Don’t worry about it. You are my only ride today, plus its Thanksgiving. Take your time,’ the driver told me.
Wow, did I need to hear this! Thanksgiving Day is the least crowded time I’ve ever seen both on the roads and at the airport, it was nearly deserted. At least I was able to sleep more and charge my phone with the extra time on my hands. Shuttle services schedule pickups too early, especially this ride as I was the only pick up with zero traffic, I had two full hours before boarding. I really do not like any part of the airplane boarding process. It is way too unknown and I wish it were more efficient, to the point where there is an ER line, should you find yourself near boarding time, but still have to navigate security.
I caught more shut eye on the brief flight south. What I didn’t realize is how close Mexico really is by plane. Maybe two hours in the air and we were in Mexico City. What is remarkable about the City is how massive it is, not large, massive. You hit the outskirts of the city minutes before you land, the entire time you see building after building, and the sprawl is miles in every direction. It’s not like some of the DFW sprawl, this is totally unbroken, downtown cramped, people living feet from each other level sprawl for miles and acres of land.
We had to go through a lot of security and it was then I realized how bad my knowledge of Spanish was. I speak a little Spanish, but not when spoken to me rapid fire that is the style of the locals. The guard switched to English after I answered incorrectly a couple times. He laughed and waved me through. We spied some money changers and I decided to go all in then and there to change my dollars to pesos. I didn’t think we’d get that much of a better rate in town; it was 4 to 1 conversion rate, so we were doing well already. I changed nearly the full amount of cash I brought, save $20, because you never know. As it would turn out, I still had pesos left over; it was very affordable in Mexico.
We had a moment to contemplate taking a bus or a taxi to our hostel. We had a lot of time before we could check in, plus we wanted to see the city so a bus it was. I think it cost maybe five pesos to ride, so maybe a dollar. We crept along on the narrow roads, speeding up and stopping, over and over, there was so much traffic. Also a lot more homeless, graffiti, pretty much amplify anything you see in any other downtown, x10. That is how much larger Mexico City is vs. just about any other big city you can name. NYC is dwarfed by Mexico City in terms of size.
We arrived to Zocolo, the part of the city we were staying near city centre. I had found a very cool hostel, Catedral, which was maybe a block away from the Metro Cathedral and Zocolo train station. We stopped into a 7-eleven and I picked up a Mexican beer. We were still bit early to check in so we walked around the blocks to check out what was in our neighborhood. Lots of small eating, drinking spots, and clothing booths were all around.
The hostel is five stories, a bar on the ground floor. The next floors were dorms and a rooftop bar & restaurant that had an amazing panoramic view of much of the City. It was a fine old building, most buildings around were over a hundred years old I’d say. Cranes dotted the areas that were further away. Modern structures mingled with older structures as far as the eye could see. I really enjoyed the view of the square, watching merchants selling, dancers, and people mingling, all unaware anyone was looking.
My friend I was with spoke Spanish and he handled the introduction with the desk clerk. We arrived around a shift change and the morning guy was not having it today. He was not about to check in anymore people, and he was eating, too. He told us to get a drink at the bar and to wait for the afternoon person. The afternoon guy was late, so I asked them to signal us when the guy arrived and grabbed a beer from the bar. After a beer, we were checked in and found our room. We took three out of the four beds in a mixed dorm so it was just like how it would have been at a hotel, but a lot cheaper and closer to city center. Inside we met our roommate, a Canadian, and selected our beds from the bunk options. He was in town for a month, following futbol with some friends. He was about to take a nap and we wanted to walk around some more so we parted company.
We were staying literally a block from the city center square, the square that had held thousands of pissed off protesters burning the president in effigy only days before. This protest was due to 40 students who had disappeared and local, state police where believed to have been involved with their disappearance. They wanted answers and nothing was coming. They wanted to trust their government, the police, someone who supposedly sworn to protect them, but wasn’t for sell. Drug gangs were also suspected and the police either helped them do it or let them get away with it. There were riot police all over the city, at all the busy traffic intersections. The few interactions we had with them asking for directions were all pleasant. It is a bit hard to laugh with someone with several guns strapped to their body, I can say that, but they did smile.
This was my first experience with heavily armed police, basically the military everywhere we went in the City. They had assault weapons, shields, tank like vehicles, and paddy wagons should they need to transport people away. They had to be ready, the various gangs around had guns, too, so it really did come down to who had the most might, the most fire power. Thinking on it now, a war is certainly a possibility. I do not know what keeps the peace, why they do not go after each other? I was also a bit surprised at how many women police there were and most of them were very pretty. All the police wore bulletproof vests; others also wore helmets with face guards or just a black military style hat and knee high boots.
We walked through the immense cathedral, taking it all in. We felt safe in the church, for sure nothing bad would go down there. One of the first things I noticed about Mexican cathedrals is how much more bloody the images of Christ are vs. US images. Lots of focus on the bleeding crown of thorns, more blood on the hands, wrists and feet. I think several statues and paintings were crying blood. They were taking more away from the suffering he had endured instead of say, love and community. I saw many people slowly making their way to the cathedral on their knees. Through pain there would be gain in the afterlife.
We then walked our way through the square, in the center stood a very tall flagpole, the red, white and green flag swaying and flapping in the wind. The flag and cathedral behind it was a powerful image so we took many pictures, as did many around us.
Across the street from the square was the garment district. Every building had many small businesses each selling different clothes from dresses to suits, as well as yards of fabrics to make your own. Some stalls were not much larger than a closet, but each made full use of their space. They generally had items on their arms and showed them to passersby or they shouted their deals to anyone walking by in loud Spanish.
We then had to find our way through the immense traffic jam that was occurring out front of the garment stores. It wasn’t even five o’clock, after work time, it was middle of the day. It was chaos and I don’t know why they let cars drive through what is basically an outdoor market. There were certainly many more people on foot than in cars, trucks. We followed a larger group of people out, safety in numbers. A motorcycle would suddenly coast through, nearly hitting a car or pedestrian. Everyone seemed to have ear buds in their heads and seemed more concerned about other things than driving safely. Still, I never saw a wreck when in was in the City, traffic just worked out.
We walked west towards the sunset, hoping for a park or place that wasn’t surrounded by buildings. We walked through an entertainment district or maybe it was a just large boulevard as there were many people dressed up in costumes. Most were dressed as video game characters, like Mario Bros. or Tim Burton movies: Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland. People walked up and paid to take a picture with their favorite character. I presumed this was the street performers’ job? The costumes were spot on and very well made, nothing cheap here, they were movie ready quality.
We then bought some ice cream, which is everywhere in the City. Most of the times if you saw someone eating in public, they were eating ice cream. We located a park and watched the sun go down. Traffic was still backed up from rush hour, which at this point, they should just call it rush day. I don’t think it was ever low traffic when we were downtown. We heard some sounds in the distance as we finished our cones. Was that horns and voices? We turned follow the sounds, which was a great decision. We’d found mariachi plaza! About a dozen small mariachis in full dress milled about the square. All you had to do was talk to them, negotiate a song or two and pay a fee. The band leader would call the songs to the others, sometimes a brief huddle was in order to sort out unknown parts. To my untrained ear, it all sounded pretty much the same. Upbeat with lots of aaaaahhhhhhhs or somber and morose with mourning horns.
Next to the mariachi plaza was a food court. Small operations right next to each other serving sometimes the same foods, others specializing in unique foods. You would walk by a couple places selling meat tacos next to seafood options. The food stall line stretched a long ways and each person would smile and try to get you to buy their food. We walked the length of the place hoping to find something cool, but ended up eating at the first option, which was also the largest. The rational of our choice being that the food court owners hopefully would put the best option first. I ordered goat tacos so I could say I’d had them.
Goat was on most menus that I saw, very common option in Mexico. It was very tasty, a pork/chicken like flavor and texture. The tacos here are just meat, you had to ask for onion and cilantro, but that would the only options they might have. On the table sat four bowls of salsas of all spice levels and colors. They varied in flavor and heat, but most of them were not spicy at all.
We took in some more sites on the way back to our hostel. We stopped in at the hostel bar and I had a couple beers. My friends didn’t drink so we all talked with the bartenders and other workers milling about the bar. I tried some Spanish on them, they laughed. We all laughed a lot that night. Mexico City is a lot of fun.