By Lori Kackenmeister
Rotating in a slow, deliberate pace, the turmeric colored conical stacks of raw meat known as al pastor have been burned into my memories of Mexico City. It’s nearly impossible to walk down a block without seeing at least one of these giants, spinning slowly on their spits as if trying to escape the brutal warmth of the heat lamps next to which they have been carefully positioned, destined to roast with a crown of pineapple set to satiate the appetites of locals and tourists alike.
For a vegetarian leaning pescatarian like myself the site of all this street meat was visceral and unforgettable offering a stark contrast to our somewhat sanitized San Francisco lives and a preliminary glimpse at the cultural richness the city has to offer.
A sprawling metropolis encompassing over five hundred square miles and made up of approximately 350 neighborhoods, or colonias, a trip to Mexico City can spur anxiety in even the most seasoned travelers. With a population of nearly nine million (edging out NYC for the title of most populous city in North America), there should be no doubt the city is brimming with life and action. Chris and I spent five days exploring Distro Federal (D.F.), as it is known by locals, in late spring of 2016. It felt like the right amount of time for first time visitors trying to get just a taste of what this behemoth has to offer.
A city of this magnitude can take months, or even years, to fully wrap one’s head around. Knowing that most of our readers won’t have months to spend exploring, we’re sharing some of our favorites to give you a glimpse into what you CAN (and IMO should) see and do, even with a limited amount of time in D.F.
There are several things that a first time visitor should be aware while planning a trip to Mexico City.
You can’t drink the water. It’s not potable. Not only is drinking tap water a risky idea, but you should also avoid using it for other basic necessities like brushing your teeth. Also, stay away from fresh, raw fruits and vegetables unless washing and preparing yourself using bottled water. Unfortunately, however tempted you may be, this also means we recommend against sampling the fresh juices and agua frescas that are abundant throughout the city unless you can confirm the water source’s cleanliness. (Tip: Keep a bottle of drinkable water near the sink as a reminder for brushing. Also, don’t make the rookie mistake of forgetting about ice, which can ravage your tummy, too.)
Safety: While we never uncomfortable during our stay, you should always exercise your best judgement - be alert and follow your instinct. Keep phones and cameras discreet and keep wallets secure. Leave any gaudy or expensive jewelry at home; you want to fit in, not stand out as a tourist.
Charging up: You’re still in North America, so no adapter or converter is needed in D.F. (Tip: To learn more about when, where and why you may need an adapter, converter or transformer, check out this great article REI published on the topic.)
Currency conversion: At the time of writing this article, the exchange rate was one US dollar for 18.65 Mexican pesos. We recommend taking out cash at an ATM upon landing in the city. There are a handful of banks that do not charge (or will reimburse) for international ATM fees. Check with your bank in advance, but typically even if you do incur a fee it will be nominal.
Accommodations & Getting Around
Neighborhoods: There are a plethora to choose from, but we were drawn to Roma Norte, known for it’s central location, great restaurants and cool bars - earning a reputation as the young, hip place to stay. Other options include La Condesa - a bit more manicured with tree lined streets and a more relaxed vibe, or Polanco, the most diverse and wealthiest neighborhood in the city; if fine dining, museums and shopping are your thing, this is your neighborhood.
Where to stay: Boutique hotels and western chains abound, but for a more authentic experience it’s hard to beat Airbnb. We found a great private room above an art museum for less than $50/night.
Public transportation: The metro is fast, efficient and the cheapest way to get around. At just five pesos (around $.40) for a one way fare, you can’t go wrong. (Tip: Be prepared to pay in cash. There is usually a small line to get to the teller, so plan an extra couple of minutes if you don’t already have your ticket in hand. You can also purchase multiple tickets in a single transaction to save any future waiting.)
Taxis: It is generally not advisable to hail a taxi on the street. Taxi stands are considered safe and there are some scattered throughout the city, but we found them difficult to find outside of the airport. Alternatively, Uber is a pervasive and affordable option if you are connected to wifi or have an international data plan.
Mexico City is not known for being vegetarian friendly, but with a little planning we were always satisfied and even found a few favorites along the way.
Mercado Roma: Upscale and urban this modern market holds its own against the likes of markets in San Francisco or New York. With plenty of variety and a focus on fresh items, Mercado Roma is a great option for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, including when you’re with a group or not quite sure what you want. (Tip: Check out the mezzanine for great bottled cold-pressed juices. One sip and you’ll forget about all of the street juices you’ve missed out on.)
Pan Comido: This unassuming spot in Roma Norte is a solid, comforting option. The menu consists of standard cafe fare like sandwiches and soups, but the simple fresh ingredients prepared with care by the friendly staff are both flavorful and soul satisfying. Just what the doctor ordered for the travel weary or, like us, after recovering from a bout of mild food poisoning. (...I told someone not to eat that tomato!) The veggie lasagna and veggie panini were standouts, although they are not the typical flavors of Mexico City.
Forever Vegano: A fast casual play on pan-American flavors, this vegan spot also offers a handful of traditionally inspired dishes served up without animal products. With locations in Roma and Polanco it is convenient and easily accessible. While the cauliflower tacos were not the healthiest option, these deep fried treats were by far our favorites - they’re listed as an appetizer, but we’d recommend foregoing other options and considering them as a main. (Note: An order consists of two medium sized tacos.)
Pandaria Rosetta: Two words: cardamom roll. Do not miss the opportunity to visit this small local bakery, with locations in Roma and Juarez. It’s commonly regarded as one of the top bakeries in Mexico City and the cardamom roll holds up to this claim. Grab one from the Roma location and head to nearby Plaza Rio de Janeiro and take-in the scenes of the lively neighborhood.
La Cerveceria de Barrio: While we got the feeling this may be Mexico City’s answer to Ruby Tuesday’s, we went on a recommendation and were pleasantly surprised. Vegetarian options are minimal, but there are are a plethora of pescatarian options to choose from. The tuna tostada, with rare slices of tuna and avocado, and grilled marlin tacos were fresh and flavorful. Despite its name, however, this is not the spot to sample a variety of Mexican beers. The selection is minimal but does include some widely available Mexican standards like Indio, Bohemia, and Sol. (Tip: Choose ‘oscura’ if you want the dark version of a beer, ‘claro’ for the light.)
MiMu: This simple ice cream bar was located just down the street from our Airbnb in Roma Norte, and the fact that we didn’t discover it until one of our last days was both a blessing (for our waists) and a crime (for our tastebuds). While we can’t speak for the full suite of flavors, the cardamom was bold and delicious without being overpowering. More similar in consistency to gelato than ice cream, the small cup was just the right size to share and satisfy two sweet tooths.
Bosque de Chapultepec: The largest urban park in the west, Chapultepec is more than twice the size of Central Park and boasts ten museums, a zoo, a lake, the national cemetery, and what feels like boundless forested area right in the heart of the metropolis. Visit on a weekend and you’ll get a sense of the massive number of people who pour into the park for an outdoor reprieve.
Teotihuacan: Located roughly 25 miles northeast of D.F., approximately one hour by bus, a trip to these ruins is worth the time and effort it takes to get there. Buses can be caught at both the Potrero and Terminal Autobuses del Norte metro stops for MX$92 round trip. Buses leave on 20 minute intervals and are easy to find; just make sure you have cash and look for buses that say “Piramides”. There is a fee of MX$64 to enter the grounds that includes access to the museum, but we recommend spending your time climbing the pyramids and exploring the grounds. (Tip: Bring lots of water, sunblock, and snacks. The heat is brutal and the most convenient restaurant, near the bus stop, is underwhelming at best.)
Lucha Libre: A cultural must-do, watching the luchadores (Mexican style wrestling) was by far our most memorable Mexico City experience. Drama, theatre, showmanship, and comedy all rolled into one sweaty, freshly-shaven show. The taunts and cheers of the crowd add to the fun and create a uniquely Mexican experience. (Tip: Buy same day tickets at Arena Mexico and save on Ticketmaster fees; we sat front row center of a Sunday show for tickets that were less than $10 USD per person.)
Alameda Central: This beautiful urban park is bustling with activity and provides a welcomed change of scenery if you are spending the day exploring the nearby museums. On the day we visited the city opera was being projected on large screens, providing a cultural high note (literally) to passersby. The park also offers free WiFi, which can be indispensable when planning your next move. Also, consider visiting nearby Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes to see Diego Rivera’s Man, Controller of the Universe. (Note: Entry is MX$60 per person plus a small additional fee to bring a camera. You must check your bag prior to entering the galleries, so leave valuables at home.)