Bam. A wall of sounds and smells, people and chaos assaulted our senses as we arrived. The air was heavy with pollution, hawkers aggressive and unrelenting, the language unfathomable … This was how I imagined our arrival in Mexico City to be, particularly after spending the last month as close as we could be to nature, breathing fresh mountain air, spending days with the only sound apart from ourselves being birds and waterfalls, in a country whose entire population is less than 1/5 that of the city we’ve just arrived in. Yet somehow, we seemed to ease into this bustling, sprawling, and hazy city of 20+ million without any trouble at all.
We arrived to Mexico City, via a long layover in LA, at around 6:30 a.m. After easy and seamless processing in the airport (if not overly efficient) we walked out of the safety of security into the main arrivals hall. With a few queries along the way, we found our way to the metro station, which I’d read conflicting reviews about the ease and safety of using. In actuality, the Mexico City metro is one of the easiest to navigate I’ve ever come across, and it costs a whopping 5 pesos a trip. It can get quite crowded, but even subsequent trips during early morning or evening busy hours weren’t an issue, and you’d generally be able to squeeze on with a backpack. (Tim’s is a very large backpack, with a tent strapped to the back.) We’d heard plenty of times that the metro is a haven for pickpockets, which I don’t doubt, but we never had any issues. At almost every stop, someone will board the train selling candy, household items, or – my personal favourite – pirated CD’s featuring either Mexican or classic American 90’s hits for 2 – 10 pesos (Complete with backpack speakers blaring a selection of the tunes). This adds to the energy of the place, but still manages to not feel overwhelming or aggressive, as sales are never pressured. Occasionally people will come along and place a prayer or a piece of candy directly on your lap, and then make a lap of the train car. If you keep it, you’re expected to pay, but you can simply hand it back when the person comes back around. One of the main benefits of the metro is that a trip, as I’d mentioned, is 5 pesos. This is regardless of where and how far you are travelling within the city. You can change as many times as you like, and the fare is still the same. So you simply buy a ticket to enter the metro, stick it in the turnstiles, and then carry on. Used to the Sydney system of needing a ticket to enter and exit the train system, both Tim and I stuck our tickets in, listened while the machine whirred and buzzed away, and stood there, waiting for a ticket to be spat out for us to grab. Luckily, there was no one behind us but a friendly security guard who waved us through. For future reference: you just put your ticket in and go straight through.
On a friend’s recommendation, we had chosen to stay in the area of Coyoacan, south of the city centre. It used to be a separate village from Mexico City, but the city has expanded to engulf it. Still, it maintains a quiet feel and a neighbourhood charm, and is generally quite safe. We spent two nights at a hostel there, and spent our time exploring the area, the city, and deciphering the local bus system. We felt quite proud of our successful navigation of a city bus, particularly after we ran into an American at the hostel, who spoke fluent Spanish, and couldn’t sort out how the buses worked.
Mexico City seems almost like a small country squashed into an area far too tiny. Different areas and neighbourhoods have distinct personalities, food, and levels of pollution. The morning we arrived, we took a reasonably quick nap and then boarded the metro into the city centre. We disembarked at the Zócalo – the base, the main square, the heart of Mexico City. This was more like it. Throngs of people flooded in every direction, impressive architecture and cathedrals surrounded, and there were too many sounds to focus on any in particular. I’d already picked up the habit of wearing my long, shoulder-strap purse to the front of my body rather than letting it bounce around behind me, and had precious little in there to steal anyways, but the central areas felt distinctly more like places you’d want to keep an eye on your stuff.
We set off through the square in a direction. In retrospect, it was the right direction. We headed down a busy, mainly (not entirely) pedestrian street, Calle Moneda. The sides of the roads were filled with hawkers and their wares, the stream of foot traffic dominated the sidewalks and the street, and it was all – rather frequently – interrupted by cars; motorbikes; and, most notably, police conducting rather low-exuberance raids on the vendors. In the two hours or so that we spent on the street, wandering up and back, testing out food, we saw the police rustle the hawkers from their perches twice. One man would ring the alarm that the police were on their way, and in approximately 30 seconds, the array of cheap sunglasses, clothes, and bags you had been browsing had disappeared. You looked up and down the street and they were gone, entirely, no trace of the furious trade in knock-off goods apparent. I’d seen this happen, with vigour, in a number of places before but it was still a bit of surprise to see the seamlessness of the operations. To be fair, it didn’t look as though the police were trying that hard to actually catch anybody.
Ah, the police. The police in Mexico City are an interesting matter. I’m sure it’s not news to anybody that Mexico has been a source of conflict in the last few years, and that its tourism industry has suffered greatly as a result. Mexico City has, apparently, managed to maintain a reasonably safe atmosphere during this time and is still seen as a safe place to visit (I’ll vouch for this). But the police presence is intense. Heavily armed police officers, often in groups of three or more, decorate most corners in the city centre. Around New Years Eve, this presence seemed to double. You could easily count fifteen officers with SWAT-level protection and force in a city block. This brings about mixed feelings in your average tourist (ahem, me). Normally police = safety, and to a certain point this was still quite true. I felt as though there was a small chance of any civilian attempting any sort of violent crime when any actions would clearly be dealt with immediately, and with force. Then there was the other part. The part that had heard all of the stories of corrupt police officers, both before visiting Mexico and during my time here, wondering … Would we be those tourists, the ones you hear about, forced into withdrawing a handful of cash from the nearest ATM in order to avoid greater consequences? We did not encounter any of this, not even the slightest sniff of it, in Mexico City. The general consensus, after a couple of days of acclimatisation, was the extra police made for a safer vibe, in general. This is perhaps unfounded and entirely sexist, but the large number of women in the police force put me more at ease as well. Somehow it seemed as though if a field traditionally dominated by men now represented women in such strong numbers, it would be moving forward in a number of ways.
We tried our hand at Mexican street food (go for the biggest line-ups, and learn how to say “no caliente, pro favor”, “not spicy, please” if you are adverse to a bit of heat on your tostadas, sandwiches, fruit … literally everything) admired some buildings that looked as though they were built by the same crew that constructed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and fought our way through the crowds, back onto the metro, and home.
The following day we managed to gather our wits and ourselves enough to manage a city bus trip to an area a bit further south where we had discovered that there were canals, the last remnants of the lake that Mexico City essentially was built on, (true) and kayaking through said canals (false). We spent the better part of the day getting ourselves there and back (successfully, I might add). I will go into detail about the Mexican public transport system another time.
And that brings us to the end of our time in Coyoacan, and also brings us to New Years Eve.
A Note on Currency in Mexico:
The official currency in Mexico is the peso (MXN; $). Everywhere will accept pesos, some places will also accept American dollars, but this is less common and tends to be in highly touristy areas. 1 USD = approximately 13 pesos (give or take, due to fluctuating exchange rates). For ease of calculation, plus factoring in ATM fees, foreign conversion fees, and the exchange rate our bank chooses to offer us, we’ve been saying that 1 USD = 10 pesos. This results with us ending up doing slightly better than we think we’re doing, which is always a nice feeling. So, if something I’m talking about costs 400 pesos, we say it costs roughly 40 American dollars (or Canadian, or Australian, really) for ease of figuring and to give us a little breathing room with the budget. In reality, according to xe.com’s currency ap, it is 30.84 USD, 33.61 CAD, and 34.31 AUD.