Down in Mexico, Day 1: Getting Acquainted with Mexico City

Flash Forward: Teotihuacan (click to enlarge)

October 29, 2013: The time had finally come to embark upon my first ever solo trip to another country. I chose Mexico because I’ve always wanted to visit the pyramids of Mesoamerica, and I found a tour that would take me to several pyramid sites across Mexico. I’d come a long way in just a few years—before my first Eurotrip in 2007 I had never visited another country (unless you count Niagara Falls, Canada) and I hadn’t flown on an airplane since my senior class trip to Disney World in 1989. Three Eurotrips and a trip to South America later, I had developed the confidence to not only fly solo, but to travel solo in a foreign country, so I was not nervous at all about my trip. My wife and family, on the other hand, were concerned about me being alone in Mexico City because of its reputation, but in reality, it is no less safe than any major American city as long as you stick to the good parts (hell, there are plenty of U.S. cities in which I would feel considerably less safe than in Mexico City).

For this trip I decided to try packing for the entire nine days in just a carry-on. I liked the idea of being able to breeze through check-in without having to wait in the baggage-check line and, after landing, not having to wait at the luggage carousel for my checked bag (not to mention eliminating any worry about lost luggage). It was tough to fit everything in the carry-on and personal item tote bag (especially with the size of my camera bag) but I managed. The hardest part was cramming all of the 3 oz liquid items into the tiny quart bag the TSA allows you (don’t even get me started on how ridiculous the whole liquid restriction rule is). Normally I would check most of my liquid items, but that was not an option this time, so I had to get creative, and also leave some items behind like sunscreen, which I figured I could buy down there, though that was not meant to be (more on that later).

Another downside to the carry-on strategy is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for souvenirs, though I’m not a big souvenir buyer anyway, so it didn’t really impact me. Overall, I think the carry-on was the right decision for this trip—it forced me to pack lighter but also allowed me to travel leaner. For a longer trip, or one that would require more different types of clothing, I would still bring a larger checked bag.

I had booked a very early flight because I didn’t want to waste my first day in Mexico City. Unfortunately, this meant waking up just a couple of hours after my usual bed time to catch a 5 a.m. train to the airport. It was worth it, though, because the train was mostly empty and I breezed through check-in and security at the airport. Like last year, I chose to fly out of Newark. It’s a very convenient location if you live near a train station because the train takes you to a monorail that drops you off directly at your gate.  It’s so much easier than trying to get to JFK (and the security lines are ten times shorter).

For my United Airlines flights I sprung for the premium economy seats with extra legroom (an extra $70 for the flight down and an extra $40 for the flight back). Some people might not think the extra fee is worth it for a relatively short flight, but I was glad I did it—both of my flights were very comfortable. On my flight down I sat right behind first class, and the middle seat was unoccupied, giving me even more room to stretch out. On a side note, it’s an interesting feeling when you’re sitting right behind first class and the flight attendant closes the curtain in front of you—I tweeted at the time that I felt like Kay at the end of The Godfather.

When I arrived in Mexico City, the driver affiliated with my tour company was waiting for me holding up a sign with my name on it. He watched my bags so I could exchange some cash and then we were off to my hotel. I chose the deluxe package for my tour (a treat to myself after spending four days in the wilderness on the Inca Trail last year), so my hotels were pretty nice. The first one was the Galeria Plaza, one of the taller buildings in the Zona Rosa section of the city, complete with doormen and a pool on the roof.

View from my hotel room.

When I checked in there was a bit of a problem with the staff claiming that my breakfast was not included (all breakfasts were supposed to be included with my package). It took some time and back-and-forth communication with my tour company, but it eventually got straightened out (though I would only end up eating one breakfast anyway). Because of the mix-up, however, I didn’t want to end up with any unforeseen charges on my bill, so I chose not to leave a credit card number with the front desk. The downside of this was that they would not give me a key to the mini-bar in my room. I wasn’t planning on using it anyway, but I usually like to place drinks I purchase in the fridge to keep them cold. Oh well, not a huge deal. A slightly bigger deal was the fact that they did not have a key for my room safe, so I either had to leave my valuables with the front desk or take my chances by leaving them in the room (I chose the latter, with a locked suitcase).

Anyway, after settling in I went for my first walk around the city. One thing I noticed off the bat was the ubiquity of VW bugs. I knew they had a lot of them in Mexico, but I was still amazed at the sheer volume. If you were to play the famous ‘punch the buggie’ game here, someone would end up in the hospital. 🙂 Another thing I realized was that New York City has nothing on Mexico City when it comes to drivers leaning on their horns. It’s a constant cacophony of horn blowing, and not for any particular reason; just sitting at a light the horns frequently blare away.

My first order of business was to look for something to eat, so in a pedestrian mall down the street from my hotel I had my first authentic tacos at an outdoor café, drenched in hot salsa and cilantro (Mmmm) and accompanied by a large beer.

Statue at entrance to pedestrian mall.

After lunch I walked around some more and came across the monument pictured below. I decided not to venture up to the monument because traffic at the circle was insane and there was no apparent pedestrian crossing, so basically you take your life in your hands if you choose to cross to the monument.

(click to enlarge)

Following this detour I made my way back to the hotel, first stopping at a convenience store right across the street to buy some bottles of water (I would return to this store several times during my stay because the water was so much cheaper than what they were charging at the hotel). I decided to check out the hotel’s rooftop pool. It was pretty cool, but I never ended up using it since it closed at 6 p.m. and I was usually out on excursions all day.

Pool on the roof of my hotel.

View of the monument statue from the roof of my hotel. (click to enlarge)

That evening I went to dinner at a charming restaurant called El Refugio, which had been recommended on the Wikitravel web site (I’ve gotten some good tips from that site for my various travels; it’s a valuable resource). I had a nice steak dish with an interesting lemonade drink that had a bunch of chia seeds in it. The waiter warned me about the hot peppers that came with my dish and then seemed stunned that I ate all of them without blinking an eye—I guess he thought I was one of those wimpy Americans who consider mild Ortega taco sauce too spicy. 🙂

El Refugio restaurant.

El Refugio interior.

After dinner I returned to the monument on the circle. I figured since it was now later in the evening I would have a better chance of crossing to it. Little did I know that traffic in Mexico City never dies down. I managed to get across but getting back was an ordeal. I thought I had judged when I could cross, but suddenly when the light changed, all of the cars started coming from the opposite direction! A traffic circle that goes in both directions? Definitely the wackiest circle I’d ever seen. Here are a few photos from my treacherous journey to the monument:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

From this angle the cherub seems to be pointing at the building. (click to enlarge)

I finally managed to cross back over from the monument and returned to the hotel. I was pretty beat after being up since 4 a.m. and I had an early pickup the next morning for my guided tour around the city (which would include visits to Xochimilco and the Museum of Anthropology), so it was off to bed, visions of floating gardens and ancient relics dancing in my head.

View more of my photos from Mexico

Mexico City lights viewed from my hotel room.

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Writer, traveler, photographer, hiker, film/TV addict, amateur chef, casual gamer, and occasional tennis & saxophone player . . . in real life I do web design.

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Posted in Mexico, North America
12 comments on “Down in Mexico, Day 1: Getting Acquainted with Mexico City
  1. Mom says:

    Loved this and YES, your family…..Mom…..was worried about you alone in Mexico City but I think more so climbing Machu Picchu! Don’t think I would ever have crossed that circle. Well written Michael 🙂

  2. alliblair says:

    Hey Michael! Good stuff. I know what you mean of the excessive and needless honking…. Cairo was the same. 😉

  3. I’m glad you survived the experience of visiting Mexico’s capital. In my experience as a local, the average Mexican really HATES going to the Distrito Federal because of the intense traffic jams and the intense human contact at the Metro.

    • Michael Rappa says:

      It was definitely an interesting experience and I’m glad I saw it. In my next post I’ll be talking about how it took us two hours to drive from the center of the city to the Floating Gardens because of the traffic. 🙂

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