Quick, what’s your impression of Mexico City? Edgy, perhaps. A foodie town. A solid getaway spot, good for a week at least. Or perhaps no. Maybe you were thinking something else.
In his travel book To Hellholes And Back, author Chuck Thompson sets out to visit bad destinations and write about them, choosing three places considered, at least by him, to be hellholes. His choices are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, and Mexico City. The DR of Congo is a tough place, sure, but I was shocked at his other two choices. One could choose a slum in India or Mexico City, a particular area, but he was considering the whole. I’ll let others defend poor India, but the whole of Mexico City is far from a hellhole.
I live in the United States, where a large percentage of the population looks down on Mexico, and not just because they’re south of us. Americans vacation in Cancun, but that’s because it happens to be a beach and pretty much for no other reason. We also love Mexican food, which to us is always cheap and involves different forms of wrapping protein in a tortilla and smothering it with salsa and cheese.
Regardless of the appeal various Mexican spots have, people don’t think about Mexico City in particular as a destination. It’s not so much that the city has a negative reputation; it’s that it doesn’t have much of any other reputation. Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, a metropolitan area close to 21 million. There must be something to do there, some cool areas to hang.
Mexico City used to be officially called “Mexico, DF”, meaning District Federale. Now its official name is simply “Ciudad de Mexico”, sometimes abbreviated CDMX. But if you say “el D.F.” to anyone there, they’ll get it.
Mexico City (I’ll call it MC from now on, in an attempt to be on a nickname-basis) has a handful of canonical attractions, sights to see such as the central square, the main cathedral, the palace of fine arts. But there are attractions that are wholly Mexican, and some excellent neighborhoods in which to perform some serious hanging out. Any web site or blog post can give you a list of attractions, that’s too easy, and I’ll never write a post like that. But to see a city you’ve got to know some hang-out spots, some neat neighborhoods where you can wander around. And you should know the food.
Mexico City is worth visiting just for things like this
Let me start with a few attractions in particular that will give you the flavor of Mexico, then quickly move on to what makes a city fun.
Downtown, right on that main central square called the Zócalo, after you finish gawking at the large cathedral, head into the National Palace, a peaceful and pleasant building in its own right, but also home to amazing murals by Diego Rivera. This artist knew how to capture the mood and times of Mexico, in a folk art meets fine art style. After that, head to next-door Templo Mayor, an old Aztec temple, right right right there downtown, and if you like that, made plans for an easy day-trip just out of town to the pyramids of Tenochtitlán. You don’t find sites like these in the Americas very often.
Then, jump on the amazingly well-run and super cheap subway system towards Chapultepec Park to visit the National Museum of Anthropology, one of the best I’ve seen in the world. If you didn’t know how full of culture Mexico is, this will tell you. For those that think Mexican culture is Spanish culture, this will correct that impression. The museum includes details and archaeological finds from current and extinct Native American Indian cultures in a remarkable setting worthy of these people.
Part of the Anthropology Museum is open air, making it seem like the jungle
And then go eat. The city is brilliant for food, at affordable prices. Mexican food is complex and richly flavored. Street food and food stands in MC are especially a joy.
A good way to explore the food is by heading to a market such as La Merced, probably the biggest. The best way to enter La Merced is through its dedicated subway station, where you’ll come up right inside. If you’re walking up to it from the outside, there are unofficial market tents all around the exterior that you’ll need to push through.
Wander through, but my ultimate goal is always the one long side lined with food stands. You will find it. The center section, right around the subway stairs, has some extremely informal sit-down food, but the one side with the food stands, where you crowd around the counters, is more fun and you get to see more of what they’re making. At least walk through.
Eating at the market
Let’s gawk at what to eat. Pancita, bright red soups full of tripe and chilis. Caldo de gallina, another soup, made from hen. Chilaquiles, a layer of tortillas soaked in a tomatillo salsa then covered in various proteins and cheese. Tacos of course, some made from cabeza, the meat from the head of a cow, others from every other part of some animal. Huaraches, an oval flatbread made from corn masa, thicker than a tortilla, made by hand and topped with whatever. If you’re not into animal parts, these are a good veggie option. Similar is tlacoyos, also thick corn masa but thicker, more torpedo-shaped, and often stuffed instead of just topped.
Now that you feel better, and some sites are out of the way, let’s head to three almost-adjacent and somewhat central neighborhoods to do some serious hanging out. Too often, city guides focus on the attractions, the sites, the cathedrals and museums. Fair enough, but you need to see the city, you need to spend time exploring interesting neighborhoods that will tell you what’s going on now. Plus, you can eat more.
The first area is Zona Rosa, where I’ve stayed in several places. It’s somewhat of an old business district that grew out of its function, though it’s still the main financial district (the stock exchange is here). One can tell it’s still a businessman hotel area by all the strip clubs around, their irritating touts always calling out to me (“Eh! Table dance?”) as I pass. Wankers. But fret not, it’s also the gay district, centered on Calle Amberes. I made the mistake of booking a flophouse on that street once, and I stayed just one evening. No, not being judgmental, just couldn’t handle the all-night thumping music from the nightclubs. In general, it’s a good nightlife district for all, just be aware what type of establishment you’re entering.
The pedestrian Calle Genova was one of my main hangouts during some stays there, as it’s full of attractive, casual, and affordable drinking spots and lots of food, many places open to the street. The entire area is quite vibrant, but many people will tell you it’s not quite what it was.
Cooking blue things on the street
I feel the Zona Rosa is a great place for street food, better than the other two areas below. It has stand-alone vendors and a few food cart clusters. One cart I frequented frequently had ceviche, served on tostadas. Open-air ceviche, sitting in the sun, seemed at first not a good idea to me, and is a perfect example of getting lucky. The friendly man piled on fish and a bit of slaw and avocado, then directed me to the hot sauces sitting on the front shelf. Eating near-raw fish on the street, how brainless. It was so good that I kept coming back.
Travelers to Mexico often go through three food realization stages: (1) Thinking that Mexicans eat tacos all the time. (2) Realizing that Mexican food is damn so much more than tacos and only ignorant people think that they eat tacos all the time and why initially was I so culturally unaware, thinking that? (3) Realizing that yes, Mexicans really yes they really do eat tacos all the time.
Another option is the huaraches, the ovals handmade from corn masa, then topped with whatever. Those made with blue corn masa should be sought out—you can tell a street vendor who makes these by her blue hands. They’ll have a large round griddle cooking them and tubs full of things to throw on top. Ask them what’s in the tubs, or just point. I wound up eating lots of cactus flowers, and I’m very happy about it.
The Zona Rosa is named thus (“Pink Zone”) because it’s certainly not bad enough be a red light district, but eh not quite pure either. Interesting place but just a bit too sordid to be always comfortable, though I never ran into trouble there.
The Roma neighborhood is south of Zona Rosa, walking distance but not a short walk. Roma is a rapidly gentrifying area, but I like it a lot because it still has a scruffy grittiness to it. The architecture is surprisingly eclectic, and people are friendly here. It’s a sprawling area, and people refer to the north or south part.
When in Roma, do as the Romas do. (I’m sorry) Go to the new market, the aptly named Mercado Roma, where sixty or so vendors sell traditional food, such as a torta sandwich, but also some trendy fusion, such as a squid torta. Tour buses sit out front.
Roma is becoming known for shopping, mostly for independent boutiques, and lately also known for its new restaurants that, like the market, are mixing it up. Roma has scores of coffee shops about, and where they are, the hipsters are to be found as well. If you just want to get a flavor of the place, stroll along busy Avenida Álvaro Obregón.
Night scene in Roma
Roma’s nightlife is a bit weird. I stumbled across two very traditional dance places, not much for youngsters, but somewhat like salsa meets ballroom. One is called San Luis Club, where people seem to go as couples, but everyone asks everyone else’s date to dance. Another well-known place is Mama Rumba, more for salsa. They have dance lessons earlier in the evening, and the drinks are priced reasonably.
If you want to just drink with the crowds, head to the second floor of the Mercado Roma I mentioned above, which is a beer garden. Mexico in general isn’t much into craft beer, oh but Roma is.
My favorite place to eat here is Con Sabor a Tixtla, for their stuffed chilis in a sauce of pineapple, banana, chiltepines, onion, garlic, and tomato, or with a dark, amazingly complex mole sauce. Their soups are great as well, and they change day by day.
Finally, the richest part of MC, Condesa. If Roma is nouveau-hipster, Condesa is fashion and tree-lined streets. It’s places like the tranquil Parque Mexico, surrounded by the Avenida Ámsterdam, an awfully nice walk. It’s plenty of shops and a million restaurants, an area you can return repeatedly and mine for more fun.
I like Zona Rosa and Roma for being edgy and a bit dodgy. I don’t like my cities too pure or predictable. Condesa however, is a needed area, as sometimes you need a conventional, pleasant place. A good concentration of places in Condesa is around the junction of Michoacán, Atlixco and Vicente Suárez, and surrounding streets. This is an area for strolling, and I don’t often use the word “strolling”. Amble, meander, or saunter around Condesa and you’ll find things. It’s just pleasant.
The shops you find in Condesa continually surprise. One was a tiny gourmet tamale joint, so enticing. My experience with tamales is rather limited, but I had always found them boring. This one had traditional tamales and experimental ones, such as curry favors. I ordered one with salsa verde and green cactus strips. After tasting, I realized the secret is just like any pizza or sushi—make the starch great and then add the flavor. Delicious.
The store for El Santo
Nearby was a store dedicated to Lucha Libre, the Mexican-style wrestling that’s more about the show than the physical aspects. Entering, the super nice and cute shopgirl explained to me that no, it’s not about all wrestlers, it’s only dedicated to one, the best one, the greatest the world has ever seen–El Santo, the Saint. His reign was in the 1970s, ages ago, and he’s long since dead, but it’s like running across a store dedicated to Bruce Lee; he has the type of appeal that grows larger after death, until no one could ever touch him. That’s what I love about traveling–you encounter a legendary someone you’ve never heard of.
Next we ducked into a store called Pier 39, with its vintage clothing, cool handbags, and various tchotchke. Near that was a design store called Crossing Borders, with one of the coolest pieces of art I’ve ever seen. It was a wooden cross hanging on the wall with a sting leading down to the ground. On the string, using it as an escape route, was a little statue of Jesus, climbing down the wall. Still in his loincloth and thorn crown. I’d buy it, but where would I display it?
Fish tacos at El Pescadito
I’ve eaten wonderful Italian food in Condesa, but my favorite place is El Pescadito, a very casual place with some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever had. Many of their choices involve shredded pink marlin combined with something else, such as fried squid or a chili relleno, but you can get straight shrimp and other seafood. You finish the taco, adding whatever other toppings you want. Each taco is massive, and a mere two of them will do you for dinner.
For nightlife, Condesa is easy, real easy. The party will probably find you. It’s more expensive than other areas, but rather accessible. The corner of Nuevo Leon and Laredo streets is a good focus, with a half-dozen spots around you, such as La Pata Negra, where you can lay a base earlier on the ground floor and later head upstairs, where the beautiful people are. The Mojito Room is a good bet for weekdays, especially salsa on Wednesdays. Also here is Capicua, young and fashionable.
Go back to the center of the city, near the Palace of Fine Arts, and walk north for a few blocks until you get to Plaza Garibaldi. This is often people’s final call for the evening. The walk to the plaza is past some seriously sleazy strip bars and other place that you certainly shouldn’t enter, but you’ll be okay if you just head to the plaza. There, roving mariachi bands, in full wonderful costume, flit around the large open square looking for people to sing to. Give them a big tip (I don’t know how much; I never did it) and they will go absolutely full out to entertain you for a song or two.
It seems mostly couples who pay for a song, but of course it’s out in the open and other people crowd around to also experience the show. Cheap, solitary souls such as me can just hang out and then run over to listen once a band starts going off.
Plaza Garibaldi is one place you should watch yourself. People get drunk there, and pickpockets are a problem.
One side of the square holds many informal restaurants with simple food, almost like a market hall, with some outside seating and much more inside. The bands even follow people inside, as there’s no escaping la musica.