in Travel/Experience

Mexico City May 2014 Summary

Mexico City! Or Mexico Deh-efay (DF), as they say locally, standing for Distrito Federal, since the area is its own legal standing rather like Washington DC’s. It’s as truly Mexican as you can get, yet was drastically different from the other parts of our southern neighbor that I have visited – namely Tijuana and Monterrey. Whether it was the efficient public transit, less aggressive touts, or European style streets, DF is its own animal.

It is a loud, crowded, dirty animal. But it has its own charm. Despite the seething masses of humanity that fill the metro trains to bursting from 7 am to late at night, most citizens are polite in regards to space, and don’t stare too much at the gringos. We stuck out pretty bad, given my refusal to wear long pants as is the style (it’s hot, but not a single person wears shorts, wtf!?) and my travelmate Elly’s blonde hair. But all that meant was that we received a lot of attention from the myriad touts, street sellers, or restaurant owners looking to snag our pesos. We never had trouble with personal safety, despite it being a common conversation topic among the locals we talked to.

And safety is a big thing. The law lets you ignore red lights after 7 pm if need be, in order to keep you moving and not be surrounded by hoodlums. The metro has specific station areas and cars that are reserved for women and children only. Police are highly visible on almost every street corner – indeed, I believe I saw more uniformed policemen on this trip that I have anywhere else, including the Barcelona riots. They were reassuring to my paranoid gringo self, but our local friends told us they don’t feel the same because they are often corrupt. All I know is they have super snazzy uniforms with impressive mustaches and returned several of my smiles.

The safety issue is tied up with that of money, and leads to a phenomenon that was more obvious to me the more I probed it. On previous trips to Baja California I noticed (as young males do) that there were hardly any good looking young women visible anywhere – mostly older people, or young haggard looking mothers. My personal taste in beauty aside, these people look like the archetypical poor Mexican worker or street vendor – not like anyone I associate with in the States, white or brown.

Yet here in DF we found a few good looking people of both genders, although exclusively through our Couchsurfing contacts and within the fancier restaurants and clubs that  the former brought us to. Within these establishments, I could be fooled into thinking I was in a fancy American suburb, what with the cutesy wall paintings, the cleverly designed menus, and the fashionable fellow customers. Every time I stepped back out on the the dirty curb to be assaulted by vendors it was like a reality check – don’t forget that you’re in Mexico!

Our local CS friends corroborated this – they stay in their houses or rich suburbs for the most part, only going downtown for specific attractions with friends. There are two Mexicos – the poor, dirty, loud one you see walking around the streets, and the rich, clean, fashionable one you brush into through friends or by paying the cover. We would never have seen the latter if it weren’t for Couchsurfing.

Then again, one could say the same about America – the cash strapped backpacker visiting San Diego isn’t going to meet me or Elly while he walks the dirty streets downtown or buses to the local attractions. Our socioeconomic status shields us just like theirs does, only our streets aren’t quite as mean or dirty as Mexico’s. This led to an amusing quote by Elly after we decided not to go inside an expensive dinner place we had been recommended – “The problem with high class ladies is that they only recommend you high class places”.

Anyway, socioeconomic musings aside, we woke up early Thursday morning and headed across the San Ysidro border thanks to a Tijuana airport shuttle. I was familiar with this route from my previous solo trip to Monterrey, and it was a lot less intimidating the second time around with a companion. Together we could live in our own little English bubble, and present a united front of confusion to the world rather than one nervous gringo. We had brought our mini skateboards, with visions of skating all around DF’s many boroughs, but security wouldn’t let us carry them on, and the charge for checking was too steep, so Elly had to sacrifice hers to the airport authorities. I checked mine on and somehow didn’t get charged, but they did wrap it in a million layers of blue plastic. Okay.

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Our first day was spent wandering around downtown, checking out the central square Zocalo (3rd largest in the world after Beijing and Moscow) and trying delicious street tacos. We rendezvoused at our Couchhost Jesus Alejandro’s place at night and encountered his small friendly apartment full of artists. Jesus, (or Chuy, as he is more often called) is a sound engineer, while his flatmates are photographers, musicians, or film guys. One of them is dating Mexico’s 3rd Top Model from last season, who I was completely unable to recognize on the episode itself. Elly bonded with Chuy over music, they let us sleep in, and in general it was a great couch host.

I used their wifi to download just about every scrap of info about DF there is, and armed with that we set out the next day for some museums. While at the Diego Riviera Mural Museum, we ran into Arturo, an older guy with few teeth but a vast understanding of art who told us about every single square foot of Diego’s intricate murals. I hadn’t known much about the painter before, but after Arturo’s engrossing lectures (complete with pantomime) I was hooked. His work is subversive, meticulous, metaphorical, and so much more. We were treated t a rundown of “Dream of A Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park“, which skewered corrupt Mexican politics, and “Man, Controller of the Universe” which was commissioned for the Rockefeller building but destroyed because it included a positive portrayal of Vladimir Lenin. Riviera then repainted it back home, and included JD himself drunk with prostitute in retort (left, between the wings). Honestly, the piece and its backstory are incredible, check it out.

Thankfully, when we departed Arturo didn’t ask for money, as I was dreading him to do. The guy just liked art, and enjoyed helping us learn. It exposed another traveler musing – how our being gringos irrevocably shapes the interaction we have within developing countries. You become suspicious of anyone who tries to help you even a little bit, as they will often turn around right afterwards and demand money in return. It’s a sad reality that reduces human interaction to a commercial transaction. In American, most interactions with tour guides or food vendors are by default commercial, yet sometimes you can evolve to playful banter or flirting. Whereas here, any extra frosting on top makes you worried that they’re trying to make an extra buck off you somehow. I want to pay you what you deserve, dude, but I also want to have an honest relationship!

Next up was Plaza Garibaldi, a square wheres literally dozens of mariachis roam around practicing their instruments. We drank pulque at La Hermosa Hortensia – a sweet Aztec alcoholic drink that I highly recommend trying. Beware, it’s stronger than it tastes!

Next up we went down to Coyoacan, one of the more trendy neighborhoods mentioned earlier, where Frida Kahlo, Diego, and Leon Trotsky all lived in during their times in the city. The Frida Kahlo Museum and the Museum of Popular Art weren’t impressive to me, but the vibrant nightlife clogging the neighborhood certainly was. Some recommended local spots include La Bipolar, Coyoacana, Celestina Caballo, and Los DanzantesTostadas Coyoacan in the middle of the local market is a must visit – delicious and huge!

We met up with Blanca, an acquaintance I met in Ibiza, and her sister, both beautiful examples of ‘high class ladies’. Chatting with them over ‘gusano‘ (strong alcohol brewed with insects in it) brought back my dormant Spanish skills, and as the weekend went on I found myself thinking in the language again, which is a relief.

Blanca’s sister knew the owner of a nearby nightclub called Bulldog, which is a huge hard rock club housed in a the lobby of a former train station. The place is impressive – a band setup stage sticks out over the dancefloor, and there are three floors of additional space to one side. We got a table for free complete with an attendant who would keep your glasses full, which is the first time I’ve ever been a VIP in my my life. Now I understand why nightlife can be enjoyable – if you drop enough money for a table, at least. The owner Richie was quite the character – a lithe 45 year old body lined with tattoos and topped by a kind face. He bonded with Elly over motorcycles.

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The next day we bussed out to Teotihuacan, site of some of the largest pyramids in Latin America. The towering Pyramids of the Sun and Moon are the only truly intact remnants of the city, although there are some pretty cool smaller dragon sculptures that are well preserved. Its location as a common tourist destination meant that every twenty yards there was a wizened old man with a large hat trying to sell you Aztec knick knacks for less than a dollar. I don’t know how they make enough for a living on those prices and low customer acquisition rate. Many of them had these tiger shaped kazoo things that sounds like a jaguar roar, which was very unsettling coming from all directions. Elly commented that it’d be more fun if traffic police in the city used those instead of whistles.

After bussing back we checked out the huge city park Chapultepec, which boasts multiple lakes, a castle, and many acres of forest. Easy to get lost in there, but it’s a nice peaceful retreat from the chaotic city. Next door are the bohemian neighborhoods of Condesa and La Roma, which are the best parts of DF in my opinion. Hipster bars, street art, and a safe family friendly atmosphere all make them required stops on any visit. We checked out El Escullo, (a local ceverceria) El Parnita, (a creative taco shop) and finally settled on Chuchito Perez, a hip three story bar, to meet up with Couchsurfer Laura for drinks.

All I knew of Laura at the time was that she was wearing a yellow dress, which I informed the bouncer, who used his earpiece to tell all the other waiters. Turns out she wasn’t wearing a yellow dress, which meant Elly, I, and a small army of waiters in suits trouped up and down the 3 stories whispering urgently in their earpieces “Where’s the women in the yellow dress?”

Finally she found us and we settled into an enjoyable conversation with her and her friends about Mexico, safety, cultural differences, and minute spanish lessons. They encouraged us to accompany them to a nearby discoteca (which apparently nobody says anymore, now all the cool kids say ‘anthro), but we demurred and got back early so as not to wake Chuy in the middle of the night.

Next up was Xochimilco, a colorful suburb about an hour south of DF that boasts several canals through which colorful boats are available to show you around, for a price. The first guy we came to claimed he could get us a deal of 1,500 pesos, which was far more than anything we’d ever encountered in DF. Yeah right. Armed with knowledge of an ‘official price’ of 350 pesos per hour, we found someone else and negotiated an hour and a half along with beers for 500. Ugh, haggling.

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Once the owner of the boat took the money and left us with the two teenagers who pushed it around using long wooden shafts and the riverbed, things went better. We befriended them using Spanish and our beers, and chitchatted about their life. They even let us pole the boat too, which was just as hard as it looked. All around us were super colorful boats with similar faces, filled with families and friends eating or drinking and taking in the scene. Some boats are floating taco shops, or bars, or filled with mariachis who you can pay to board your own and sing, which is hilarious. Overall it’s a worthwhile experience, but make sure you come with friends and prepared to haggle.

After that we checked out Azul Historico, a fancy place near downtown that my mother would love, and ate at Cafe Tacuba, which was similarly upscale but a little more authentically Mexican. Laura tipped us off via text (we would strategically pop in at cafes or restaurants to get wifi in order to Whatsapp others) to a Luchador match going on a block away at Arena Coliseo, and we  finished dinner quickly in order to catch the spectacle.

And spectacle it was. Sweaty large men in masks, luchador girls in skimpy clothing bringing out the round numbers, and a coliseum full of avid fans yelling obscenities at the wrestlers. Their actual moves were as fake as you’d think, but I was impressed by their gymnastic skills. Many times they’ll use the rubber ring borders to their advantage, flinging themselves up, over, and off the floor and into their opponents’ faces or necks. That they do it without any injuries truly is talent, though I have no doubt any MMA participant could take these guys out in a second.

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We saw a 3 on 3 match, with hilarious overblown entrances replete with fur robes and a team of twins, as well as the ‘championship’ between La Sombra and El Rey Escorpio. In the 3 on 3 one of the keys managed to take on of the others’ mask off in an execution style manner, and immediately afterwards the unmasked guy rolled into a fetal ball to keep his face hidden. Meanwhile the other guy held the mask up to the crowd like a severed head, and tied it to his crotch in order to thrust offensively. Hilarious.

On our last day in town we took a long, very unAmerican bus ride out to Desierto de Los Leones, a national park near the city. On our first bus of many within that journey, I managed to snag an actual seat within the crowded vehicle, but had to give it up repeatedly as a seemingly endless line of old, disabled, or pregnant people streamed on and off at stops. Forget People of Walmart – we need a People of DF buses!

Once we got out of the city limits the crowd lessened, and we focused instead on being worried for the driver as he manhandled the huge clutch to hurl the bus forward into the other lane to pass cars, slow down to ease over speed bumps, and generally cut corners way closer than comfortable. Mexico autentico!

Once at the end of the bus line, we transferred to a small blue Volwagen beetle taxi driven by Raul in order to do the last leg to the park itself. Raul was a friendly man who used to work in Chicago whose conversation and ardent desire to friend us on Facebook aroused the aforementioned worry of hustling, but turned out he’s just a nice guy. He dropped us off and promised to return in a few hours for pickup.

That left us free to wander around the Park, which is a mountainous forest centered around a fortress like convent and a few hermit houses. We did some hiking, some ruin climbing, and some river watching. It was nice to see Mexican wilderness rather than Mexican urban wasteland – I think that hike was the only time all trip where we didn’t see another person for more than half an hour, much less a couple hundred.

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Raul showed up for pickup with two other people already in his bug, which made for a stuffed bumpy ride back with Elly on my lap while he bumped 80s love songs out of his souped up stereo. Chalk up another authentic Mexico point.

After that we met up with Couchsurfer Alicia for dinner at a hip Condesa bookstore/cafe named El Pendulo. She had to dip out due to a family emergency 20 minutes in, but was still able to tell us how she is learning Russian online from guys she met on Tinder in Cancun. Elly commented that Mexican online friendships seem to be more common than back home, and I theorized that this could be due to the fact that the streets aren’t safe at night. If you can’t go out for fear of hoodlums, better to stay in and socialize virtually. Who knows.

Overall, a great trip, and far less worrisome than I thought it’d be. I’d recommend DF to anybody, just make sure you’re okay with everything being dirty and filled with too many people, many of whom are trying to get you to buy tcotchkes. But it’s not as dangerous as you’re led to believe, and there’s plenty of fun and meaningful Mexican relationships to be had if you know where to look (hint: not the streets). Vayate!