Let me start by saying that I never imagined in a million years I would be titling a post this.
Before I left for Mexico City, I had some serious anxiety about it. I knew I had five days to fill, but I never would have chosen to spend them here if it wasn’t for it being the starting point on a two week Mexico tour I’d booked. After all, a lot of people only know the DF (District Federal) as a smoggy, overcrowded and dangerous metropolis, devoid of any culture or points of interest. Some of my Mexican friends even told me I had a lot of cojones to come here on my own.
Well, I don’t know about cajones, but I’m sure as hell glad I got on that plane. Because, as it turns out, Mexico City is fantastic.
I’ve fallen head over heels for this city, despite all my apprehension and low expectations. This place has charming neighborhoods, world-class museums, incredible food, fascinating history and millions of people passionate to share their beloved city’s energy with visitors. Sure, there are dangerous areas, like with most big cities, but as long as you avoid them and use a little common sense, you’ll have no problem enjoying all Mexico City has to offer. Yes, even if you are a woman traveling alone!
And if you don’t believe me, here are ten awesome things I discovered this week. I hope you’re as surprised as I was!
#1: Fantastic (and cheap!) Mexican food
Ok, so may be obvious, but I have to say it: Mexican food in Mexico is phenomenal.
I grew up in Texas and lived in LA for the last 11 years, and I thought I knew Mexican food. I didn’t. Sure, there are all the standards we know – tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas, empanadas – and I tried them all, mostly from street stands. They are not only better than the those I’ve had in the US, but also so000000 cheap! I had 4 tacos de canasta and a coke for $2. That’s a steal!
I also tried some traditional dishes that were new to me – pozole, a delicious pre-Columbian stew, and mole, a rich, sweet sauce that makes everything it touches taste divine. I also had chilaquiles for breakfast every morning, which are essentially tortilla quarters fried with salsa and shredded cheese on top. Mmmmmm. Can someone please let my favorite Mexican food place in LA know about those? Thanks.
The best thing I ate in Mexico City? A burrito from a street stand called Burro de Oro in Roma, just south of Plaza Rio de Janiero. It cost about $3 and had el pastor (spiced, sliced meat), mozzarella, zucchini and a variety of spices that were both sweet and bitingly hot. It’s obviously not traditional Mexican fare, but it was delicious.
And last, don’t forget the churros! I’ve loved these fried snacks since I was a kid at Six Flags, but someone needs to fly the 16 year olds that make ’em there down to see how it’s done. I had some in Coyoacán that I would have married if the law allowed.
#2: Bosque de Chapultepec
Chapultepec is the Central Park of Mexico City, but with bigger trees and more energy. Vibrant vendors line the paths, selling everything from spiced nuts to children’s toys to micheladas to the biggest cotton candy rolls I’ve ever seen.
The park is also home to several museums and I visited them all. In fact, I managed to spend over 8 hours in there in one day, wandering around, people watching, browsing museums and pretending like I wasn’t occasionally lost. I kept losing track of where I was while I was talking myself out of yet another roll of cotton candy.
#3: Clever Public Protests
On my very first day in the city, I stumbled upon a massive public demonstration in the square next to Palacio de las Bellas Artes. Now, the guy I met on the bus from the airport the day before warned me that there were always people protesting in the capital. There are so many protests that nobody bats an eyelash at them anymore.
This one, however, could not have grabbed my attention faster. Why?
Because it was made up of hundreds of naked people dancing emphatically, accompanied by a live band!
Now, I don’t know what these guys were protesting, or if people dancing naked in public by the hundreds is common here, but you have to give these people credit for originality. They definitely figured out a way to get people’s attention! Even the hundreds of police in riot gear surrounding the square were giggling. I swear I saw one officer fight off the urge to join in.
#4: Mural after Mural after Epic Mural
I’m not sure why, but Mexicans love their murals. They are everywhere – museums, public works, inside government buildings, and on the sides of libraries and theaters.
I don’t blame them, though. Mexico has been blessed with several famous painters in the last 100 years that adopted the medium in order to make political statements, relate their storied history, and educate the masses on a grand and glorious scale. David Alfaro Siqueiros is probably my favorite, followed closely by Diego Rivera (or Alfred Molina, as you may known him) and José Clemente Orozco.
I got a chance to check out several outstanding murals, including lovely ones by all three of those artists in the Palacio de las Bellas Artes. I also found the Diego Rivera mural on the side of the Olympic stadium and Juan O’Gorman’s fantastic piece wrapped around the library at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
#5: Charming Roma and Condesa
I’ll be honest, before I made it to these neighborhoods on my second day, I had started to like the city, but I wasn’t in love. I’d had some great street tacos my first day and wandered around the Zócalo (the main square) and historic district near my hotel, but I hadn’t seen anything that had given the city much character.
Then I wandered down to the Plaza Rio de Janiero and the surrounding streets in the Roma neighborhood, and then I fell in love. The noise and crowds of the Zócalo had given way to quiet, tree-lined avenues, gorgeous turn-of-the-century homes, and trendy restaurants. I started to see art galleries and some fantastic street art, and I realized I’d found the artists!
I loved exploring this neighborhood and adjacent Condesa, where I spotted several restaurants and watering holes I was dying to come back to. Clearly this is where the young, fun people live!
#5: Marvelous Mayan and Aztec artifacts in the Museo Nacional de Antropología.
Ever since I saw the movie Apocalypto (don’t judge), I’ve been fascinated by the pre-Columbian people of Central America, especially the Aztecs and the Mayans. These tribes of people grew massive empires, built enormous pyramids and temples and lived within complex religious and social structures, and they were some kick-ass artists to boot. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how the fucking Europeans could come in, see it, and decide to destroy it completely. The waste completely blows my mind.
So obviously, I loved this museum for giving the treasures from those doomed civilizations a place to be appreciated. It is one of the biggest museums in the world and is packed full of artifacts from all of Mexico’s history. Plus, most of the signs were in both English and Spanish, so the Art History major in me was thrilled.
#6: Adorable Coyoacán
This suburb about 40 minutes south of Mexico City is best known for being the home of the Frida Kahlo museum, but the town itself is worth visiting alone. The cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, the friendly people and the shady squares give it a character all it’s own.
The highlight was the Parish of San Juan Bautista church. Vibrant frescoes line the ceiling and the walls, drawing you in as soon as you enter. The central ceiling painting of the Last Supper moves with you as you walk down the main aisle. I won’t even post a picture – it is something that must be seen in person!
If you’ve been following me on social media at all, you may have noticed the thing I’ve been most excited about in Mexico is the mezcal.
What is mezcal? Well my fellow gringos, it is a spirit made from the agave plant, where tequila also comes from. It is smoky and wonderful and I highly recommend you immediately go to your local liquor store and pick up a bottle, if you can find it.
The problem is, being a woman traveling alone, I like to wait until I’m with a group before drinking any alcohol in questionable quantities. So I knew I’d have to wait until I made a friend before I could taste my beloved mezcal in it’s natural habitat – aka a mezcalería in Mexico.
Luckily, a friend in LA got me in touch with her buddy David, a Mexico City local who offered to take me out on the town.
We started with a shot of mezcal, which isn’t necessarily the way it is meant to be enjoyed, but why not? Then we met up with another friend of David’s who recommended a great mezcal spot in La Condesa, and we were off.
And what a fantastic spot! It was called Santo Mano and it might be my new happy place. It’s a hip mezcalería that makes it’s own mezcal and serves it in all kinds of different ways – chilled, in sipping glasses, as a “mezcalada”, and in some of the tastiest cocktails I’ve ever had.
I won’t tell you exactly how much I drank, because that might upset you. Just suffice it to say that I almost tried them all, until I realized it was 2am, my head was spinning from dancing and I remembered I wasn’t sure how I was going to get back to my hotel (thanks Uber!) The headache the next day was totally worth it.
#2: Frida Kahlo
I’ve been obsessing over Mexican painter and cultural icon Frida Kahlo since college, when I was first introduced to her visceral self-portraits. After reading about her, I dare you not to fall in love with her fierce, independent spirit and stunning beauty.
Because of this decade–old obsession, I carefully sought out several Frida spots in the city this week, including the Museo de Arte Moderno, where her most famous painting is housed, and the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, where her body was on display after her death.
But of course, the most important spot was the Frida Kahlo museum in Coyoacán, located in the infamous blue house where Frida was born, where she lived with her husband, painter Diego Rivera, where she painted and where she died. The house has been preserved exactly how it was left following her death in 1954.
Despite being the museum I was most excited to visit, I won’t lie……it was a bit of a letdown. It was outrageously crowded for one, and it seemed more touristy than I was expecting thanks to the obnoxious gift shop and the relatively expensive entrance fee. But I still enjoyed seeing Frida’s studio and replicating this famous picture of her and Diego on the balcony.
#10: The Canals of Xochimilco
As part of the tour that took me to Frida Kahlo’s house, I unexpectedly had my favorite experience of my entire time in Mexico City.
The canals in Xochimilco are one of the few remains of the complex water systems built to connect the settlements in the are (including the Aztecs). They connect several small lakes and surround chinampas, or floating artificial islands covered in gardens.
Nowadays, both tourists and locals alike hire brightly-colored boats and float down the canal, enjoying the views of the floating gardens, drinking cerveza and listening to mariachi music. There are small boats with vendors that float by, offering up shawls and trinkets. There are even boats outfitted with tiny kitchens! I ordered up some beef, rice and beans from one of them and sat back to enjoy the music and the sun.
It was a fantastic time, and I loved chatting with our tour guide, Geerman, about how much he loves Mexico City.
In fact, it seems that everyone here loves being in Mexico City. Including me, it turns out.
So the moral of the story here is this: don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. Don’t dismiss Mexico City – it may have a bad reputation, but it can thrill you 100 ways to Sunday.
If you only have the cojones to give it a chance.