Travelers will get so much more out of Mexico City travel with a quick history refresh and knowing a few key things in advance. Perhaps that’s why you’re reading this.
We’ve been multiple times as a family and it is one of our favorite destinations. This is partially because my husband studied Mesoamerican history at Harvard and can add an insane amount of color to nearly everything we do in the D.F. (And, that’s why I had him write the majority of this post.) Aztec civilization is woven into so many things, from the Templo Mayor in the middle of the city to the twisted history of the nunnery-turned-touristy restaurant we lunched at. It’s things like the latter that add a lot more flavor, if you will, to Mexico City travel.
The Aztec Legacy Is Visible Today (Important)
Once Mesoamerican history enters a child’s textbooks, it’s an ideal time to consider a trip to Mexico City.
Aztec legacy is by far probably one of the most overlooked aspects of Mexico City travel and very much reason to go, if you know what to look for. Here’s a quick summary.
Mexico City Was a Lake
Modern Mexico City, one the largest cities in the world by population, is located on the site of the former Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan. When Hernà¡n Cortés arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlan was virtually an island city in the middle of a large lake. Yes, most of Mexico City was a lake that was called Lake Texcoco.
From the island, the Aztecs constructed causeways through the lake and to the mainland. One of their aqueducts ran fresh water from a lakeside spring.
Chapultepec Park Was the Spring
The site of that lakeside spring is today part of Chapultepec Park, the Central Park of Mexico City. The name of the park is from the Aztec language, not the Spanish language, and means “Grasshopper Hill.” The cartoon mascot of the park today is a grasshopper. Today, this park is also one of Mexico City’s top attractions with its Zoo, lake recreation, vendor stalls to shop and Anthropology Museum.
The vast lake disappeared over the subsequent several hundred years. Long story short, this was mostly due to artificial drainage. Lake Texcoco’s levels would often flood the city; it was underwater for a good five years after a flood in 1639. Channels and a tunnel emptied water into the Pà¡nuco River, but flooding did not truly get under control until fifty years ago.
Draining Lake Texcoco has had some environmental consequences. Soft lake sediments underlie most of Mexico City which is why the city has sunk about 10 feet in the last decade and why earthquakes here can be so devastating.
Xochimilco Is More Than a Boat Ride
Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the last remnants of Lake Texcoco. A trajinera (flat-bottomed boat) excursion here is one of the best things to do in Mexico City. Local families hire trajineras for special occasions and parties with friends, passing through the famous canals perhaps to the tune of a mariachi band.
While there are various routes to take on a trajinera, some pass by chinampas, another remnant of Aztec civilization. Tenochtitlan did not have arable land, so the Aztecs created it. Chinampas are artificial islands formed by woven mats underneath the water’s surface that are staked into the ground to build a fence. Mud and aquatic vegetation fill the space between the fence until topsoil appears above water level. Crops grown on the chinampas included maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, and chilies. Today in Xochimilco, you might see these same crops in addition to tules (used for woven mats), flowers and more.
Sacrifices and More in the City Center
The central square of modern Mexico City, perhaps its primary tourist destination, is today called the Zà³calo. Five hundred years ago, the Zà³calo was the ceremonial center of the Aztec capital. Here, atop their grandest temple, the Templo Mayor, Aztec priests sacrificed tens of thousands of human beings over time.
The Zà³calo is now the site of Constitution Square (and a public ice rink in the winter, as we saw recently), as well as the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral (which was built in sections starting in 1573).
Immediately adjacent to the Cathedral lies the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor. You should most definitely tour the site and visit the museum.
The Food Is Awesome (Maybe Skip the Water)
One of the stereotypical fears American tourists visiting Mexico have is probably of drinking water. Fear not. Just follow a few easy guidelines. Drink bottled water, soda or beer, and not tap water. Perhaps also skip salad, fruit or anything that could be washed with water before it hits the table.
More upscale restaurants and hotels make ice typically from purified water. We have no problem sipping drinks with ice in these situations. The risk-averse may want to ask first if the water is purified or avoid it.
Bottled water is available on seemingly every street corner in Mexico City, and is very reasonably priced.
Tourist Pricing Exists
Walk into an OXO, 7-Eleven and other brick-and-mortar shops, and you’ll see goods at a fixed price. Street vendors and outdoor markets are a different story. That same bottled water may cost 3x in Chapultepec Park.
In the larger tourist markets, it’s common for people to negotiate price. A wise move would be to visit several vendors first. You’ll inevitably note a fluctuation that will allow you to (hopefully) mentally determine a fair price. But, this is even another reason to blend in.
General Safety (and Three Markets to Avoid)
Frequently when we advocate Mexico City travel, especially as a family with a young daughter, other Americans seem very surprised. Safety becomes less of an issue, as it does in any city, when you stay on the beaten path. We’ve never felt unsafe at any point during Mexico City travel but we are not risk takers. We take private tours organized by our luxury hotel concierge and use hotel drivers (more on this below). It is good practice to check the State Department’s website for travel warnings before you go.
However, there are three prominent markets in Mexico City visitors are advised to avoid. One is Mexico City’s largest market, La Merced, which seems like a natural tourist attraction since it’s also commonly featured on television. La Merced is rumored to be controlled by gangs. Also on this list are Tepito, a barrio where there is another open-air market (7 out of 10 counterfeit products purchased in Mexico are reputed to pass through here—it’s also a haven for robbery), and La Lagunilla, yet another of Mexico City’s largest markets. We’ve never been to any of them.
So, where does one go trinket shopping? La Ciudadela is a good option. Stay tuned for a post about what it’s like.
In addition, leave your valuables at home or in the hotel safe. The less you look like a tourist in Mexico City and many other places around the world, the better. Carry only copies of your ID. The one exception is that we were not allowed into Palacio de Bellas Artes because one of us needed a physical ID.
Museums Close on Mondays
If planning a long weekend in Mexico City make sure that any museum or attraction you’d like to visit is open on Mondays. The good news is that Teotihuacan is open on Mondays so you can always go there.
See also: Why You Must Take Kids to Teotihuacan
It’s Not an Early City
What I mean by this is that things really don’t get moving in Mexico City until midday. Vendors at markets and Chapultepec Park, for example, will not all be open until noon or even a bit later, even if opening hours say 10:00 a.m. That being said, getting to Templo Mayor and other attractions right when they open (likely around 10:00 a.m.) will lessen the risk of crowds.
In addition, lunch is later than it typically is here in California. A number of restaurants do not serve it until 1:00 p.m. so be sure to check hours and plan meals accordingly especially if traveling with kids who are used to eating early.
Air Pollution Is Improved (Still a Ways to Go)
In 1992, the United Nations apparently named Mexico City “the most polluted city on the planet,” and it’s one of the issues people ask us about every time we visit. Maybe it’s luck, but we’ve experienced mostly blue skies during our last few visits.
That being said, pollution is still an issue, and the city has had news-worthy smog in recent years. From Chapultepec Castle, located on Chapultepec Hill, I could see smog hovering over the city on our last day. So, while air pollution has improved, you might still see it. Frankly, what I saw was no worse than Los Angeles.
Traffic Is Horrible
Mexico City has some of the worst traffic congestion in the world. For this reason, we try to walk whenever possible while in Mexico City, as a result. Like any city, the traffic subsides at all the typical, inconvenient times. Mexico City is enormous, and the attractions are spread out. Go knowing you’ll experience traffic. Pack snacks and load up the tunes.
Getting Around Is Easy
Traffic aside, transportation in Mexico City was notably easier during our last trip.
If you need to take a car in Mexico City, Uber works very well, including to and from the airport. Note that Uber Black cars run the gamut from older Ford Explorers to new Suburbans. The cost, given the exchange rate at the time of this writing, is very low by United States standards. We only took Uber black so can’t speak for other classes of Uber service.
The Mexico City Metro officially titled in Spanish the “Sistema de Transporte Colectivo,” or STC, is widely regarded as an excellent way to get around a high-traffic city like Mexico City. It can be both cheaper and quicker than a cab or Uber, because of the street traffic. It is the second largest subway in North America (after New York City), and so it runs to many destinations convenient for tourists and locals alike. If you elect to take the Metro, the general suggestion is to avoid rush hour and to be very mindful of your belongings. I’ve been told to avoid taking from the airport into the city as your luggage may be a target.
Exercise caution when taking a taxi. Make sure they are authorized taxis, especially from the airport. We have never used a taxi in Mexico City because for years they (except for authorized taxis) were not regarded as safe. Truthfully, with Uber, we don’t find a need for taxis though many people do. Another safer tourist practice is to avoid hailing them from the street.
One of the reasons why we stay at Four Seasons Hotel Mexico City is because they have a fleet of cars available for guests at all times. There is always a car waiting outside the lobby with an English speaking driver who can often double as a tour guide (for frankly much less than booking a formal tour). The cost of taking these cars is only slightly more than Uber Black, they are consistently clean, and the drivers are excellent (important as my daughter can get car sick). This is what we did 80% of the time during our last trip.
Tipping is common in Mexico City, in the same general situations as it would be common and expected in the United States. In Mexico, a 10-15% tip is the going rate. Be aware that servers may ask for a tip amount at the same time you pass them a credit card. And, tips may need to be paid in cash even though the restaurants may accept credit cards.
Carry Small Bills
Credit cards are standard, but paper currency is used very frequently in Mexico City. Have cash with you at all times as many restaurants and vendors accept only cash. It’s helpful to carry several notes that are no bigger than 100 pesos. We found that bills higher than that (including the 200 peso note) can be hard for vendors to change when purchasing small things. It has also been our experience that the ATMs in Mexico City prefer to dispense 500 Peso notes. We make a point to change them at the hotel’s front desk before going out.
Spanish Language Skills Are Helpful (Or Use an App)
English is common but not universally spoken in Mexico City, even at tourist sites and restaurants that cater to tourists.
In that same vein, English language menus are not always available at restaurants there either, even touristy ones. Our experience has been that someone nearby almost always speaks some English, whether a member of staff or otherwise. People are very willing to help out. If someone in your party speaks at least a little bit of Spanish, that will make your visit smoother. Or, be sure to download a translation app. You can also pop simple phrases into Google for translation.
What are your tips for Mexico City travel?