As our trip neared its end, Austin and I found ourselves on yet another long bus ride. This one was headed for the capitol – Mexico City, commonly referred to as D.F. (Districto Federal), and home to the airport we required to get our feet back on American soil.
I had heard a lot of things about D.F. before arriving. The media told me it was crime-ridden, to never get into a taxi or else you’ll be held up and robbed. Some of the travelers we encountered told us it was so crowded that they took buses straight to Puebla from the airport to avoid it. Like many crowded, dangerous places, I assumed it’d be dirty as well. But as we stepped out of the car and onto the main square for the first time, I quickly came to an important realization –
I needed to forget everything I’d heard about Mexico City.
It wasn’t dangerous, at least not to the extent I was lead to believe. It wasn’t dirty, not even close. And… okay, so it was crowded. But it was also the final days of Semana Santa, arguably one of the country’s most important holidays, and all of Mexico was on spring break.
The bottom line is: I found Mexico City to be absolutely enchanting.
Austin and I stayed in a hostel located two blocks from the Zocalo in the city’s historic center. Interestingly (and luckily) this is where most of the budget accommodations are located. And it really couldn’t have been more beautiful. Unlike most of the colonial cities we had visited, Mexico City is built in a grand European style. The large, tall buildings were richly ornamented with elaborate stone carvings and metal accents that made me sometimes feel I was in Madrid rather than Mexico.
And the public amenities are some of the best I’ve seen in any city in the world. For one, there’s the subway: the second largest in North America. It’s surprisingly clean and very easy to navigate, in addition to being super fun to ride and extremely efficient.
Then there are the public spaces. On our first and only full day in the city, we made our way over to El Bosque de Chapultepec, a sort of Central Park area in the city. The park was crowded with Mexican tourists, but the green space wasn’t lost on me. Between the vendors, clowns, monuments, and playgrounds were thousands of large, beautiful trees breathing air into a city so large it could otherwise easily smother you (el bosque does mean ‘the forest,’ after all). Even with the crowds we felt safe and found the park to be surprisingly clean.
After a walk across the park we headed to the Anthropology Museum and continued to be blown away. We spent almost all day in the amazing place, our mouths falling open as treasure after treasure appeared in front of us. Much to my delight, the very first room we entered – marked ‘northern cultures’ – included a display on the Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon and specifically spoke about Mesa Verde. After so long away, I immediately felt closer to home. I smiled stupidly for a long time at that case.
The museum included artifacts and overviews of every ancient and modern culture that probably ever existed in Mexico. I especially loved how it devoted a large amount of its rooms to the modern indigenous peoples and their varying cultures and traditions – something I knew very little about before this trip but have since been happily (and sometimes, not so happily) enlightened.
Hours after we started our tour we emerged bleary eyed and ready for our next adventure: food. Predictably, the food in D.F. is international and amazing. During our time there we feasted on tacos al pastor, steak cordon bleu, some amazing chocolate cake, and of course plenty of fine beer and mezcals. But it was our first meal in the city, fresh off the bus, that was my favorite.
Hosteria Santo Domingo is said to be the oldest restaurant in Mexico City, and I ordered their specialty – Chile en Nogada. Soon I found myself sitting in front of a massive green chili stuffed with ground meat, raisins, and nuts, covered in a sweet white sauce (I believe walnuts are involved) and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. YUM.
On our last night in D.F. we discovered thousands of people on bicycles riding through the city. In addition to all the Semana Santa celebrations going on on this Easter Eve, this demonstration had been staged to encourage more biking in order to lesson traffic and pollution in the city. People of all ages, shapes, and sizes rode merrily through the streets to show their support. Meanwhile, one spirited tune kept repeating itself in my head.
Yes, I thought to myself, what a dirty, dangerous place.