Mexico City: The first four days

Day 1: Arrival

After a 5:30 am arrival time, we had expected to drag our luggage through the streets for several hours waiting for our apartment to be ready for check-in, but our kind AirBnB host made the apartment available to us by 6:00 am. We thought we might need to wait at the airport for shops to be open as we had two tasks to take care of before we left. By the time we had our bags in hand and had cleared immigration, everything seemed to be open for business.

Guided by trusty blog posts, we tried to withdraw pesos at a bank machine, but it didn’t work (for us and several others). Since USD exchange rates are very good at the airport (which we knew ahead), and we had USD with us, we checked the rates at several of the many exchange kiosks and caught one just as they were increasing the rates on their sign. Yay us! The second stop was to pick up a Telcel SIM card for each of our phones, add credit to it and then purchase an Amigos Sin Limite package. All in Español, of course. We didn’t find the Telcel store that we had read about but were able to complete our transaction with the help of a very patient employee at a very tiny OXXO shop and a stop for coffee where I could take my time working through the steps to load up our phones. Success!

Our next task was to summon an Uber driver to take us to our Airbnb. Getting one was a breeze now that we had cell phone data. Getting from the airport to our Airbnb was a little more complicated. We ended up paying about three times the original estimate provided by Uber and taking about twice as long (1 1/2 hours) to get there. Taxi drivers were staging a protest (against Uber and other companies like it according to our driver) by completely filling up major roads with their pink and white taxis and causing complete mayhem in the traffic. Every time our driver thought he had a shortcut to bypass the problems he either ran into traffic or street markets also blocking roads. We got there eventually. Even with the triple charge, it still only cost us about $30 CAD.

We settled into our apartment and then headed out for a walk to the grocery store to pick up some basics for a light lunch and breakfast the next day. A nap to catch up on some of the sleep we had lost on our non-sleeping red-eye flight, another walk about the neighbourhood and a quick dinner, and we were ready for a good night’s sleep.

Day 2: EcoBici and Bosque de Chapultepec

Our Airbnb is quite close to the huge Bosque de Chapultapec (Chapultepec Park or Forest), complete with markets, lakes, and castle.

We walked to an EcoBici stand (EcoBici is the main bike-sharing program in Mexico City), registered on a screen right there, and picked up two bikes. As a foreigner, you have the option of purchasing one, three, or seven days. Since we knew we wouldn’t use bikes every day, we opted for one-day passes for each of us (104 pesos, or about $7.00 CAD per person). This gave us 24 hours of unlimited use as long as each trip was less than 45 minutes. We used the EcoBici app to plan our rides between parking spots and set a timer to make sure we didn’t exceed the allowed time.

Across the park from where we were staying is the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology). Though many say it is a top visitor site, they also warn that it can be an all-day (or more) activity. We will try to fit it in later in the week.

A must-see in the park is the Castillo de Chapultapec (Chapultapec Castle). We paid our entrance fee and walked over to the gate. A guard checked our pack–they are looking for food and drink, and you are allowed neither. You must drink your water on the way up the hill to the castle or empty it at the top before going through the second gate. Alternatively, there are lockers at the bottom where you can stow your pack with food and drink intact.

The castle is interesting and you can ogle 360° views of the city, which was a great way for us to get our bearings.

Day 3: Centro Historico walking tour and riding the metro

We booked a free walking tour, which forced us to use the Metro system to get to the starting point. It was super easy and incredibly cheap. Our closest station was only a few minutes’ walk away. Ticket stations (taquilas), where you purchase individual tickets, are well marked as you enter the station. You purchase by the ride and not by distance, so it’s easy to buy tickets. Dos por favor for the two of us and hand over 10 pesos (or more–they provide change). Five pesos a person is the equivalent of about 35 cents CAD. As long as you stay inside the system, you can transfer to other lines on the same ticket.

We picked quite an eventful day for our tour. We arrived at our meeting–a monument in Parque Alameda Central–about 15 minutes early. All was quiet, but there were hoards of police officers standing around drinking coffee, eating breakfast, or just chatting. A huge television screen was set up in front of the monument and the screen displayed an image of a man with the caption José José. Our guide explained that José José was a famous singer, recently deceased, and today was his memorial at the Plaza de Bellas Artes, which is positioned at one end of the park. He said that people were lined up to view the ashes.

As we began our tour and walked toward Belles Artes, we saw masses of people in well-organized lines that snaked through the plaza, many layers deep. Though visiting this beautiful building is normally the beginning of the tour, we could only see it from the outside, above the heads of the masses, and marvel at the thousands of people who were willing to wait around for hours to pay their last respects.

Our guide, Hermes, who works for Strawberry Tours, spent 20 years in Maryland and then came home. His English is excellent and, as a historian with a passion for his homeland, he provided excellent insight into the history of the city and some of the buildings we walked by. As we were the only ones who registered for the English tour, we had Hermes all to ourselves.

We left the crowds of the José José memorial behind and wandered through the streets with Hermes telling stories and providing background about many of the buildings and streets. One stop was the old, ornate and enormous post office.

In Plaza de la Constitución (or Zócalo, as it is commonly known), we came upon a completely different type of crowd from the Jose Jose mourners. The plaza is bordered by Catedral Metropolitana, the Palacio Nacional, and the National Supreme Court. Taxis were lined up many deep all along the road in front of the palace–a continuation of the protest that we ran into on our way in from the airport.

The center of the plaza was dominated by an assortment of huge white tents, making viewing of the surrounding buildings difficult. Hermes explained that a giant book festival was being set up, ready to begin in a couple of days. Books and reading are very important to Mexicans, Hermes told us, thus the size of this celebratory event.

Down the side of the palace, the street was flanked by blue tarped kiosks and other vendors, and each one seemed to be shouting the names of their products at the top of their voices, and repeatedly. Since the palace is the house of the federal government, I hope their offices are all on inside walls and not bordering this market street. Otherwise, I can’t imagine that they could get anything done with that cacophony in the background.

In the same area, just around the corner from the palace were the ruins and museum of Templo Mayor, the center of the universe according to Aztec legend. Part of the ruins are visible from the street, but you pay to enter the museum. Our tour ended here.

Starving, we headed back to a taqueria that Hermes had pointed out, stopping to pick up an amuse-bouche of homemade passion fruit sorbet, which we had tasted earlier with our guide.

Once rested and sated we headed back to the plaza, planning to visit at least a couple of the sites we had seen. We first stopped in the cathedral.

EcoBici bike stand on a historic street

Our next visit was the palace. It is free to enter (no hats, no food or drink to be consumed inside, backpacks and bags must be checked, ID such as a driver’s licence is traded for tourist passes and picked up at the exit). Most interesting in the palace are the many murals by Diego Rivera.

Day 4: Centro Historico again

Our guide, Hermes, had pointed out several museums that we thought might be worth visiting, there were a couple of restaurants we wanted to try, and we hoped that we might be able to see Palacio de Bellas Artes without a crowd in front. So we repeated our Metro journey and headed back to Centro Historico. This time, we were able to see our meeting place, free of police, guards, and a giant screen, which blocked it the day before.

Hermes had pointed out China Town, almost across from Belles Artes, and we walked through it. If you need to buy lighting of any kind, this is the place to go. Otherwise, not much to see.

Bellas Artes was free of the crowds as well. We were able to see this beautiful building clearly and walk inside, though we didn’t go up to the gallery (70 pesos). We did, however, go across the street to the Sears building and up to the 8th floor where an outdoor patio coffee shop offers a gorgeous view.

On our way to the Plaza de la Constitución (Zocoló), we walked by an artistic presentation in support of women’s health, wandered into a temporary art exhibit about world peace, and stopped to take a photo of one of the ubiquitous organ grinders. Though my initial reaction was to drop a coin into their hats if they would stop playing (the incessant out-of-tune-off-beat waling on top of vendor yelling was a lot to take), the story behind them was interesting as Hermes told it, but varies depending on the source. Read more about the organilleros here.

We also stopped into a popular art exhibit, Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular Mexicano, which Hermes had said was worth a visit. We agree.

Though Zocoló was still full of tents and would be throughout our whole stay, we wandered around the perimeter so we could get a good look at the structures.

For lunch, we returned to a restaurant that Hermes had walked us through the day before. It is a Sandborns chain restaurant (founded in 1903 in Mexico) in a beautiful building that created a warm ambience.


TripBits

We found several blog posts by other travelers that really helped us with the logistics of Mexico City. Sharing the wealth by providing links below.

Museums and castles

  • Chapultapec Castle: 70 pesos ($5 CAD)
  • Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular Mexicano, 20 añose: At Palacio de Cultura Citibanamex – Palacio de Iturbide, Madero 17, Centro Histórico. The exhibit opened in September and runs until May 2020. Free entry (leave your packs at the door).

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