I put in a solid three months of Spanish on DuoLingo. At 20 minutes a night, that’s 1,800 minutes of learning.
That’s the knowledge I brought with me to Mexico City, alongside Lori and our good friends Ryan and Bekki.
A whopping 6% fluency in the native language.
But the first time I spoke Spanish to a local and they responded like they knew what I was talking about…
Gotta tell ya, that’s a high point for this uncultured Oklahoma redneck Gringo. Mi encanta!
We spent five days in the Ciudad, or the #CDMX as they’re trying to brand it these days. It was the first grownups-only vacation Lori and I had taken in several years, and it exceeded every expectation I had.
So much so that I wrote up a thing or two I learned and experienced on the trip. Maybe you’ll go check it out as well.
A Gringo’s Guide to Mexico City
First, let me dispel the notion that Mexico City is a hotbed of crime, cartel violence, and anti-American sentiment.
It’s a big, big city. There are a lot of different dangers there, but they’re not all that different from the dangers you’ll find in NYC, LA or Chicago. Don’t wander around dark alleys and don’t do dress or act in a way to stick out and you’ll be fine in pretty much any city.
Everyone we met and talked with was incredibly friendly and muy patient with my poor Espanol. They asked us how our trip was going and what we thought of their city. Yes, they desperately wanted to sell us some stuff, but that’s fine.
Mexico is Cheap
Everything there is cheap. Partly because of the strength of the US dollar versus the peso, and partly because Mexico City does have a huge poor population, it’s just cheap to do business there.
An Uber across town is roughly $7. A meal with beer for one is around $6. A boatload of food from a street vendor is $2. A two-bedroom AirBnB in the heart of downtown is $60-$70 per night.
You can find ways to spend money at hotels and fine dining places if you want a more premium experience, but screw that.
Absorb the culture, don’t just transfer your comfort bubble across the continent.
Here’s what you should do, which I recommend because they’re the things my group did.
Sign up for a couple tours. Yes you’ll look like a tourist. But hey, you’re from the States and likely several inches taller, and several skin shades lighter or darker, than the locals. They’ll know you’re a tourist from a mile away, and won’t care.
First tour: The Eat Mexico Street Food Tour
It’s 3+ hours of walking through street carts and mercados, but well worth it.
Our guide, Adrian, showed us how and what to order at over a dozen vendors. We walked through crowded markets and learned about the history of the neighborhoods we were in.
My highlights: soaked sandwiches with papas y chorizo, queso oaxaca sandwiches, and authentic squash blossom burritos.
Also cool were the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods – which I’ll revisit shortly.
Is it safe to order food from street vendors in Mexico City? For the most part, yes.
These people own their stands and take great pride in them. Refrigeration isn’t always available so their ingredients are purchased on a daily basis from nearby markets.
Most tourists get sick from hotel restaurants and crappy American chains that rely on low-paid helpers and frozen ingredients.
If you really want to be safe, look for carts with a crowd.
Just don’t settle for Chili’s.
The Second Tour: Urban Adventure’s Mexico Nightlife Tour
It says nightlife because it involves a bar, some shots, and a restaurant jammed with dozens of mariachi groups.
But it’s a lucha libre tour. And it might have been the highlight of my visit.
So here’s how it goes. We met our tour guide, a lively fellow that we affectionately dubbed Steve because he looked and talked like Steve from Sex and the City. His real name was…Leon, I think.
Anyway, Steve had three jobs: introduce everyone in the tour to each other and build camaraderie, get us from bar to restaurant to lucha and back again in one piece, and most importantly, teach us how to chant profanities at the wrestlers.
So there we were in a little cantina, a couple hours before the wrestling began, drinking beers and loudly chanting the Mexican equivalent of asshole.
It was Lori and I, Ryan and Bekki, a Mexican couple our age with their American friend, a mother and daughter from Colombia, and another couple from Panama. People from all over the world, raising their hands in the air, wiggling their fingers, and exclaiming “PUTA” for the entire restaurant to enjoy.
And yes, once we got the lucha matches, we absolutely chanted all of them. Multiple times. But not at Steve’s favorite wrestler – Dragon Lee, who was indeed a badass.
I grew up watching wrestling. I appreciate the American style of big hairy dudes punching each other, I always loved the lucha libre style, with dudes like Rey Mysterio Jr and Juventud Guerrera flinging themselves around the ring and doing backflips into the crowd off the top rope.
Those guys weren’t here, but the quality was everything I expected and more. As Steve explained, the lucha style of wrestling has been in the region for hundreds of years. It’s characterized not by the athleticism of its participants, but also their humorous, jester-like hijinks.
(One of the matches pitted three regular luchadores against a trio led by a gentleman named Bárbaro Cavernario. Dressed like a Flintstones character, Barbaro kissed one of his tag team partners, which drew loud boos. Minutes before, that tag team partner had literally hurled a giant loogie in the air, most of which he caught. The crowd cheered that.)
You could buy two beers for about $2. Combined with the “Mexican Flag” tequila shots we had taken earlier on the tour, I was feeling no pain. But really, most of the credit goes to the wrestling. I cheered it like a little kid, and fit right in with the rest of the crowd.
Take the tour. They’ll even give you a mask, which if you adjust it just right, can fit over your eyeglasses. Not that I wore mine all night or anything.
Like any big city there are tours for just about anything, but sometimes the best thing to do is just get out and roam, whether on feet or via Uber.
Luckily for us we were next to a hotbed of discoveries, including the Palacio Nacional (dating back to the 1500s), which is across the street from the Catedral Metropolitana (also 1500s), which is next to the Templo Mayor (1300s).
In the midst of all these ancient buildings are modern places. You’ll find a cathedral that is literally leaning to the side and ready to tip over like a drunken stepdad, and right next to it is a modern restaurant constructed in 2010.
That’s what the city is like. It’s a real life Encyclopedia Brittanica, with history lessons intermingled with modernity.
Many of the buildings retain their original structure and influence. You can see French balconies, Spanish missions, and European castles.
Speaking of castles, we spent the better part of a day exploring Chapultepec Park and Castle. The Park is one of the largest in the world, and like Central Park, is a gigantic wilderness in the middle of urban sprawl. Tucked within the park are multiple sections, including an amusement park and Chapultepec Castle.
Built in 1785, the massive castle is the perfect example of something adults can do on a vacation that would otherwise drive their children insane.
Seriously, my kids would’ve jumped off the side of the cliff. But for Lori and I, it was several hours well spent. The castle is one of the centerpieces of Mexican history, including its independence and revolutions. From ornate bedroom and giant marble tubs to intact royal chariots, it’s a history nerd paradise.
(My big question: there’s a room for every activity. Lecture room. Smoking room. Dining room. Music room. Study room. Office. Gaming room. Meeting room. Did they actually use all these rooms? Or were there conversations like, “Ramon, I know you wish to lecture, but may we please stay in the smoking room? Or, perhaps I could put out my cigar and we could play cards in the gameroom while you lecture? WHY MUST WE WALK SO MUCH RAMON?”)
Roma y Condesa
After exploring Chapultepec, we wondered about a mile down the road to the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods.
These are what I never imagined I would find in Mexico City.
Both neighborhoods are quiet, with modern urban homes and a young, hipsterish population. We explored most of it on foot. There was a quiet coffee shop that may have been a private home, a loud cantina with live music and a patio, and Yuban, a modern restaurant with fancy cocktails and the best octopus I’ve ever had.
I’m a beer snob, so we used Yelp as our guide to help us find local craft beer joints. The best was FukuBao, a place next door to Yuban that served steamed buns and a handful of local (some homebrewed) beers. Ryan and I met and chatted up Agostine, the owner, and chatted about the glories of beer snobbery and why a saison is a close relative of a sour but he really needed to try a sour and so on.
The other great beer spot we found was on the ground floor of our apartment building, literally called The Beer Company. Again, I’ll go into the Mexican craft beer scene in a different piece, but just know that it’s there, and just like the US, it’s got some incredibly good stuff mixed in with some beers that don’t quite work.
But most of them work really, really well. If you were more entrepreneurial than I, you would head down to Mexico and make a boatload of money helping these craft breweries turn the tide against the Dos Equis and Coronas of the world.
Go to Mexico, You Guys
Honestly, this was my first out of coutnry experience. I’ve been to Cancun and other some other beach destinations, but this was my first experience in an area where the local don’t speak much English and there were few other gringos around.
It was wonderful. Not once did I feel threatened or unsafe. Though I will admit it felt weird to see all the eyes watching me…but I’m a pale bald dude with a tall blonde wife. Of course they’re going to stare.
All in all, I felt like I was treated better than if non-English speaking Mexican would be in one of our big cities. They were warm, gracious, and patient with us.
Treat it like any big city. Don’t go down dark alleys. Don’t dress or act in a way that draws attention to yourself.
In other words, forget about being an obnoxious American for a few days and humble yourself in the face of different people and ancient culture. It’s a damn blast.
I always say a good ethnic food experience can only be judged 24 hour after you dine. The same idea applies to trips. You’ll only know the toll it took until you’re home for a couple days.
We didn’t get sick in Mexico, but we also didn’t drink the local water (though we had plenty of drinks with ice). That being said we ate some sketchy stuff, with little blowback.
My stomach only met shaky ground after we got back home, and the effect was closer to “long weekend of drinking” than “food poisoning.” Two days of intestinal distress, followed by two days of a head cold.
And that was it. Small price to pay. A+ trip.
- There is a craft beer scene in Mexico. I’m going to write a separate piece about it later, but be encouraged, Beer Snobs: it’s a young, barely-going market, but there are some amazing beers down there.
- Avoid the market down below the Cathedral and Templo Mayor, unless you’re interested in dozens of fabric vendors and endless knockoff cartoon backpacks and hats.
- Mexicans love their Mezcal, a distilled liquor from the agave plant. We tried it a couple times and the strongest flavor we took away was band-aid. A little like absinthe, but maybe a bit worse. It was much better in the context of a massive beer margarita at La Cerveceria De Barrio Centro Historico next to our apartment complex.
- For those of you leaving the kiddos at home, break out your PokemonGo while down in Mexico. There are two regional Pokies there (Heracross and Corsula). If you catch those, your kids won’t give a damn you abandoned them for a few days.
- Speaking of smartphones, we were fortunate to have T-Mobile, who offers free data and calling in Mexico and Canada. We had near 4G speed the whole time at no additional cost.
- We cashed in our air miles for first class. Well worth it, but maybe more for the Sky Lounge experience than the seats themselves. SLC’s lounge is quiet and classy, whereas Mexico City’s is busy and literally has bottles of liquor hanging around for you to make drinks as you please. I might have indulged a bit at both spots.
- If you want to swim, be sure to bring a swim cap. They won’t let you swim in pools without a cap. Even if you’re bald. Lori says this is common of most lands south of the US.
- The BBV Bankmerica building has these colorful spiral staircases on each side of their building. I thought they were slides initially, but walking down a spiral staircase outside, 90 floors up, would still be neat.