11 Essential Things to Know Before you Visit Mexico City
We just returned from our trip to Mexico City and let me just say upfront, this was one of my favourite places I've ever visited. The city wove a spell around me, unlike anything I've ever experienced before. Mexico City is on the top of almost all the 'Best Places to Visit in 2019' lists and we wanted to get out there to see it for ourselves! There was SO much I learned after spending a week in Mexico's capital and I wanted to share with you the most helpful tips I learned so you can plan your trip to visit this incredible place ASAP!
1. Don't believe everything you hear about the crime
There is so much out there in the media about Mexico which is either just plain untrue, exaggerated or even just circumstantial. Sure there is crime, but there is crime in any big city. I think shows like 'Narcos' and everything being said in the US media about Mexico has vastly influenced people's opinion about Mexico, instead of doing the real research about safety for themselves. Although other areas of Mexico are under travel advisories and warnings, Mexico City is not under any travel restrictions. What we learnt when visiting is that crime in the city, especially that related to tourism (IE. pick-pocketing, financial kidnapping and taxi scams) has been vastly reduced over the years. Crime in Mexico is, unfortunately for the country, more gang-related, and therefore there is less petty theft. So if you stick to areas of town you know aren't a problem, you shouldn't experience any issues. We never felt unsafe and the increased police presence throughout the city, enforced by their new president, always makes you feel at ease. I felt much more unsafe in Barcelona than I ever did in Mexico City.
That doesn't mean you should travel without a care in the world. Keep your wits about you, be mindful of your surroundings and always keep an eye on valuable items. We spent some time researching which areas to avoid and the safest areas to stay in so our night time activities would occur in areas with the least amount of crime. Places like La Condesa, Roma, Juarez, Polanco, Coyoacan and San Rafael are amazing neighbourhoods to explore day or night, even alone. While the historic centre is great to visit during the day, at night everything closes down and it's a bit of dead zone, so even if its safe, it does feel a bit eerie. Areas like Tepito, Doctores, Ciudad Neza, and Iztapalapa should be avoided, just like you probably have areas in your own hometowns which you avoid as well.
2. The Altitude
Mexico City is located at an altitude of 2,240 meters (7,350 ft)! That's over 600 meters more than in Denver which sits at an altitude of 1,560 meters! But what does this really mean? Many people don't even consider the altitude when choosing Mexico City as a destination and some of them are never any the wiser. For other people, they might experience altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can range from something as subtle as feeling more tired than usual to full to on bouts of severe exhaustion, nausea, headaches and vertigo. As someone who has experienced severe migraines and vertigo before in their life, I wanted nothing to do with this altitude sickness. While there is no way to know if you'll be at risk (there is no correlation between altitude sickness and physical fitness for instance) there are some things you can do to prevent it if you're worried. One is just to ensure that you're properly hydrated before landing, avoiding salty food, eating carbs and maybe avoid excess alcohol for the first few days.
I went ahead and visited my local travel doctor and got a prescription for Acetazolamide, which is used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. My doctor said it wasn't absolutely necessary since the altitude is just below the number where you'd usually prescribe the medication but if I was worried it was a pretty cheap prescription to get so I went ahead and got it, mainly for peace of mind. I am happy to report I felt zero symptoms of altitude sickness while I was in Mexico City. I didn't even find it difficult to do moderate exercise. My husband felt a bit tired but that was the extent of his symptoms. The best thing is to know what to expect, how to prevent it and what to do if you get sick. If you do get sick, REST is BEST! Sleep it off and in a day you'll have acclimatized to the altitude and you'll be ready to take on the city.
3. Street Food is Delicious, but do keep away from the water
Mexico City has some of the best food I’ve eaten anywhere in the world. And did I avoid eating on the streets? No, I did not. Street food is just as delicious as some of the food I got in fancy restaurants and avoiding this iconic piece of Mexican cuisine would be like visiting Paris and not eating a baguette. And while street food is delicious, you do need to be careful about what you’re eating and who you’re eating it from. If you’re choosing to get anything to drink from a street vendor make sure it’s always without ice. You can ask for no ice by simply saying 'sin hielo'. If you’re looking to get an 'Agua Fresca' (freshly made drinks made with water and fruit) or a smoothie, make sure you ask them if it’s made with purified water or 'Agua Pura'. If you see bottles of purified water behind the counter you’ll be fine. But if you see any water coming directly from a pail of water in an unidentified container I would skip it altogether.
Unpurified water is one of the most common ways that people get sick in Mexico City. And it's not just drinking the water which can get you sick. Eating raw food which has been washed in unpurified water is another big culprit. Now, you might be wondering, "does this mean I can’t eat anything that has been cooked?" The simple answer is no. If you wanted to be super safe you could probably get away with doing this sure. But you’d be missing out on lots of delicious things. Something which I was concerned about was tacos with raw cilantro and onions as well as guacamole. I took the risk and went ahead and ate all this and was totally fine but never excepted anything with raw lettuce for instance since I knew that lettuce is almost always washed in water before serving.
A popular street treat is sold all over the place are containers of fresh fruits. In most cases these fruits have been peeled or had their outer casing removed with a knife and are totally fine to eat since no water was involved with them at all. I would make sure that the fruit hasn’t been sitting out too long since this might expose the food to disease-carrying insects and airborne bacteria. It’s always good to ask for a fresh sliced mango, pineapple or papaya instead one that has been sitting out in the sun.
Another tip for eating street food and not getting sick is to try to eat what the locals eat. Searching for something that is very Americanized might mean it’s actually quite unpopular with the locals and therefore not very fresh. Look for long lines, study what the locals are ordering, and just go for it! You probably won’t get sick and even if you don't know what you ordered, street food in Mexico is so cheap it’s always worth trying something new! Also be sure to eat when the locals eat. If the locals are eating at noon, try to match their schedule. Even if it means lining up, you know you’ll get the freshest food. One piece of advice that you might hear all the time is to avoid sauces. This is because most sauces are kept at room temperature meaning they’re more susceptible to bacteria. But if you’re visiting Mexico you’ll know that sauces are everything! Salsa isn't just that tomato-based condiment you find in the US. 'Salsa' actually just means 'sauce' in Spanish so it's a term for everything from pico de gallo to guacamole, and trust me they're all delicious and all need to be sampled. My best piece of advice for avoiding getting sick with sauces is just to take a good look at it and see if it looks fresh or looks a bit off. The smaller the container it's in, the better. Because that means they're replenishing it more frequently, either with a large container kept in the fridge, or made a new batch fresh.
In the end, you could follow all this advice and more and you still might end up getting sick just by pure coincidence. Although having travellers diarrhea might be pretty awful in the moment, it would be an even greater waste to go to a country like Mexico and not sample some of their amazing local cuisine. So what do you do if you do get sick? It’s always worth visiting a travel doctor before you leave for vacation. They'll make sure that all your shots are up-to-date and also give you some medication which can help prevent travellers diarrhea. This means that even if you happen to ingest a little bit of bacteria you might be able to handle it better than if you had not had this medication. It's a touch pricey but especially if you’re visiting for a longer period of time I highly recommend it. Your doctor might also prescribe you some prescription diarrhea medication as well as some rehydration tablets to help you recover should you get sick. I also always carry with me at some probiotics, digestive enzymes, activated charcoal and some ginger tea with me too if I'm travelling somewhere where there's a risk of getting sick to my stomach. I didn’t end up having to use any of this but it’s always worth having on hand should the worst occur.
4. Buildings are a virtual living rainbow of colours
Before arriving in Mexico City, I had heard about all the colourful buildings and streets which cover the landscape. But I never really understood just how astoundingly vivid it could be until I saw it for myself. Even when we were flying into the city, I peered out of the airplane window and was mesmerized by how bright and eccentric the buildings looked, even from high above. It looks like a kind of patchwork quilt of colours and patterns. Everywhere you go, even in some of the poorer neighbourhoods, you’ll see fantastical coloured buildings, incredible hand-painted typography, artistic murals on every street corner and even the cars and buses are just as vibrant as a city around it. An artists’ collective known as the German Crew even transformed the working-class “barrio” of Las Palmitas into a giant, colorful mural in an effort to change its gritty image. And it worked! There was a reduction in crime in those areas as people felt more pride in their neighbourhood and actively wanted to make it a better place to live. It’s amazing what a little bit of colour can do. You can wander the streets for hours and hours and never get sick of seeing these unbelievable paintings along the way. When planning a trip sometimes you’re so focused on visiting sites in museums or famous landmarks you forget that a simple wander down a few side streets to be just as meaningful.
5. Ubers are convenient, cheap and clean
If you're one of those people that is really concerned about safety, one of the greatest inventions to calm your mind is Uber! Uber moved into Mexico City only a few years ago but it’s value to both tourists and locals alike is unmatched. Taxis are notorious for either changing their fares along the way to unsuspecting tourists or even in some very rare cases there would be a taxi kidnapping. This is when a taxi driver would drive you to a location and basically just force you to pay an exorbitant sum to get you to where you really wanted to go. Although those cases are rare, it was definitely a scar on the face of Mexico City which often made tourists more wary of visiting. Uber solves a myriad of these problems. You know exactly what you’re going to pay upfront. Also, you don't need to worry about the language barrier since you can input the address yourself. We took Ubers absolutely everywhere, from door to door and had nothing but incredible experiences. We would chat with the drivers who spoke some English and even try our best to chat with the drivers who didn’t. They were always so kind and in a city where the traffic is as hectic as Mexico City we felt they were all great drivers. The cars were clean and some even offered us a charging station for phones and a bottle of water to enjoy along the way. The traffic in Mexico City is just as bad as you hear but don't let that detract you from enjoying the city. Traffic, when you’re in an Uber, is actually a bonus since you’re able to enjoy all the things you’ll see along the way as you drive. It was like a free sightseeing bus tour. Just make sure to leave with plenty of wiggle room as traffic can come out of nowhere. And if you’re wondering about the price, it’s super cheap! Most of our rides were around less than $4 USD. Even from the airport, our trip was less than $15 USD. While the metro in Mexico City is incredibly cheap, around $.30 US, there are differing opinions about its safety. I’m sure some people have no issues but some people might feel a little bit uncomfortable not only just with the safety issues but with the sheer amount of people who ride metro each day, there are over 3.86 million riders EVERY DAY! So if you’re like me and you like to enjoy the scenery around you as you travel, I highly recommend installing the UBER app and using it while you’re visiting the city. If you never downloaded Uber use my referral code to get a free ride!
6. IT'S SO GREEN!
Something I heard over and over before visiting Mexico city was about the pollution. And look, there is pollution. Every day we were there when I checked the weather app and there was definitely a high level of smog in the air. Even when we flew into the city, we could see the smog as we cruised down from the clouds. So, with all that smog and pollution, what I didn’t expect to see in Mexico City was all this greenery. Everywhere we seemed to go they were palm trees as high as the eye could see, lush tropical plants sprawling out over everything, covering not only just the parks but the side streets, the avenues and even on street corners. The poured off the tops of buildings and decorated the balconies of hundreds of apartment buildings. Mexico City is home to Chapultepec park, the largest city park in the western hemisphere, measuring over 686 hectares! They call this park the lungs of the city which my plan is oxygen to the valley of Mexico. I was worried that the air in the city would feel heavy and polluted but I found it to be completely the opposite. And most of the places in the city that we went to the air felt fresh and walking in the shade of the trees during the hottest time of the day you never felt uncomfortable.
7. People are so Friendly!
For a country that often gets associated with crime and violence, I have to say, everyone I met or interacted with was nothing but kind, happy and helpful. People went out of their way at times to help us out, be it with directions or even navigating a menu we couldn't read. We attended a Lucha Libre show and a party member with us dropped their phone down the seat risers and couldn't retrieve it. At the end of the show when people saw us looking under the seats and trying to reach it, dozens of them joined in to help us out and in the end, disassembled the risers for us just to ensure she got her phone back. It was a really sweet show of support from a bunch of strangers that cement my love for the Mexican people.
8. The city really is THAT BIG
Mexico City is ranked 12th largest city in the world, with over 8.8 million people living within its borders. It's just two spots under New York City. Having been to the #1 spot on this list, Tokyo, we felt very prepared for the density and size but for anyone who hasn't visited one of these megacities, prepare yourself. In busy areas the crush of people can be a bit overwhelming but its all about finding those side streets, away from the main drags, where you can easily escape the crowds without going too far out of the way. But in the relaxing districts like Condesa or Roma, it's so peaceful and quiet you can't even believe its not a tiny small town. One of the best ways to deal with a city this large is to ensure you plan out your days by neighbourhood, so you're not running from one end of the city to another, which at busy times of the day can take over an hour to get from end to end.
9. Learn Spanish!
Despite being a country so close to both Canada and the United States, most people in Mexico City do not speak English. Other cities in Mexico where you'll find a lot of tourist resorts have a large population of English speakers but Mexico City has remained rather insular with its language, and rightly so. I'm visiting a foreign country and should be learning their language not the other way around. Spanish is fairly simple to speak and also to learn, especially compared to my experience with learning Japanese or even Danish. Even if you just learn a few key phrases, that goes a long way with the locals as it shows them respect for their language and culture. Google translate works really well if you have access to the internet or a roaming package. Either type what you want translated or use the camera function to easily translate most menus.
10. Always carry Tissues & Hand sanitizer
Ok, this is a weird one but I thought it needed to be discussed. One of the things which throws some people for a loop when visiting Mexico is the toilet situation. Most toilets in Mexico City require you to throw the toilet paper in a wastepaper basket, not down the toilet. It seems odd when you're used to flushing but it's important you don't as its really bad for their plumbing. Another thing which is important to know is most public toilets sometimes lack toilet paper all together so it's a good idea to keep some kleenex in your bag at all times. Also, since the water isn't potable and could contain bacteria, I would almost always use hand sanitizer after using the restroom. We had travel sized hand sanitizer on us at all times for these cases. They both take up so little room in your travel pack so it's a good idea to put those on your packing list!
I have so much more to say about Mexico City and can't wait to post all about the different places we explored, culinary delights we ate and other exciting adventures we took while visiting this amazing city! If you have any questions about Mexico City you want answered let me know! I feel like since I've been back I've been the unofficial ambassador to this country, inspiring all my friends to go visit ASAP!