Mexico City, districto federal, or DF for short. What an incredible city! It really has everything you could want and a bit more. Of all the cities I’ve visited, and granted it’s not yet a huge number, DF is among the top 3 with NYC and Montreal. This city really is quite incredible. In fact, it’s the only city aside from the other 2 I’ve mentioned in which I feel like I could live quite happily. Of course, no city is perfect and each has its issues, so I’ll go ahead and list those first before I get into why I love DF and what there is to do here.
1. It’s chaotic and dirty. This is clearly a relative con, and it depends what you want to compare it to, and definitey not all of DF is dirty, though most of it is certainly chaotic. Outside of the more upper middle class areas (Condessa, Roma, Zocalo, Polanco, Coyoacan), the municipal headquarters and city center, the rest of DF can be quite dirty. There’s a chronic lack of garbage cans around. In fact, it’s rare to see any at all, so it’s no surprise that garbage piles up on sidewalks and in streets. However, DF employs armies, literally 10s of thousands of workers who sweep the streets on what appears to be a daily basis. I highly doubt this is the case everywhere, but I was impressed by the efforts.
2. No real recycling. A follow-up to the above. In addition to the lack of garbage cans is a lack of recycling infrastructure. It appears there’s no real official recycling program here. That being said, very often when you do manage to locate a municipal garbage can, it’s often divided into organic and non-organic. I don’t know if this means there’s a composting program or not but I found that interesting. As for recycling, don’t count on it. However, unofficially there are also heaps of people who essentially making a living triaging garbage to find the recyclable items for resale. This includes aluminum, plastic and glass. How effective it is, I can’t say, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. But for a city this big, it’s really quite a shame they don’t have the required infrastructure.
3. Sexual harassment. Unfortunately, all too often I’ve heard from women that they have been followed, or groped on the metro, or cat-called. And the more exotic (which here means, blue eyes, blond, fair skin), the worse it is. While women in groups or with men have fewer issues, if any, solo female travelers in DF seem to bring this up quite a bit. It’s both scary and frustrating, particularly for them.
4. Cops and guns. DF also employs a massive army of cops. I can’t imagine how many cops there actually are in this city. More than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. While I haven’t had any issues with them myself, just the fact there are so many is a bit off-putting. In certain areas, they line the sidewalks, heavily armed, behind riot shields, “protecting” the nearby banks and shops. On Paseo de la Reforma for example, heading east towards the city center (Zocalo) I must have seen over a hundred cops, across maybe 20 blocks, each standing about 50 feet apart, each behind a riot shield with a shotgun or other. Why so many would be required I can’t say, but this is something you just have to accept. (note: according to some sources, Mexico has the 6th largest police force on the planet, and that for a country of only 122 million)
5. Overcrowded public transport. DF’s public transport system (called the CDMX) is pretty impressive for a developing nation, and make no mistake, despite certain highly developed areas of DF and Mexico, it’s still a developing nation. It is composed officially of a metro which is both above and below ground, a metro-bus which is a 2 car bus, a tram system, and regular buses. The system is pretty effective, many buses have dedicated lanes, there are 12 metro lines, and buses seem to cover the entire city. But, the system is overcrowded. Often metros or buses are so crowded the doors can’t close. And it’s not uncommon to have to wait for a few buses to pass before you can find one that has enough space for you to get on. All in all though, the system works pretty well and is incredibly cheap, costing 6 pesos per ride, or around .50$ CDN or .35$ USD.
6. Corruption. This isn’t something you see outright, but the level of corruption in DF and Mexico on the whole has left scars on the Mexican psyche. It comes up rather quickly in conversations with the locals. It’s just a fact and can’t be escaped most say. And like everywhere, it helps some and hurts most, stifling competition and restricting opportunities. And it bleeds into every day things, and also encourages cab drivers and street vendors for example to try and overcharge foreigners. Of course, it also allows for negotiation which isn’t something you find in most developed nations.
7. Internet reliability. While there is wide coverage in the city and wifi almost everywhere, the reliability of the networks is rather poor across the board. When it works well, you can expect up to 20mbps peak downloads and 3-4 in uploads, but don’t expect that on a regular basis, and in fact a lot of the time you can hardly connect at all. It’s a bit of an issue and must have massive consequences on productivity and the economy as a whole. But this, as well as some of the other techno-infrastructural cons, are growing pains. In time, they’ll all be overcome, hopefully.
8. The cold. You might, like me, think that everywhere in Mexico is warm. Not so. DF is up in the mountains, essentially in a plateaued valley and it gets cold. Sure, not snow cold, but cold enough that you need to wear a sweater almost every day, and even often in the summer. I was there from early August to the end of September and there were very few days where I could walk around all day with a t-shirt and I don’t know if there were more than 4 or 5 nights where I didn’t need a sweater. Sure, early afternoons are generally warm, but come 5pm if I didn’t have a backup plan, it got uncomfortable. And often, even with a sweater, I was still cold. Winter, things get even worse apparently. So, while I love the city, the climate is a definite turn-off. One of the reasons I left Montreal was the brutal cold. In fact, I’d say it was the primary reason, so living somewhere that’s warm is definitely high on my priority list.
1. Public transport. While it is overcrowded, as I mentioned, it works rather well and moreover, just the fact a city has a reliable system is something to be proud of.
2. Healthcare for all. Apparently, and I haven’t confirmed this with my own research, DF, and I assume therefore all of Mexico has a social healthcare system. It’s not perfect, and it’s tiered, with 3 tiers from what I’ve heard, 1 for public workers, one for the general population, and one for the poor. Again I can’t corroborate this, but found it interesting. I can’t either say how it works, and I was told it’s not completely free, which is no surprise, but the fact that it has one, is still quite cool.
3. Infrastructure. Again, compared to many developed nation cities, DF falls short, but it’s infrastructure is nonetheless impressive. It’s certainly better than I expected and good enough to make this feel like a viable home. Whether it’s sewage, communications, or transport, you’ll find DF to be a city that can accommodate you quite well and provide most of the comforts of home, provided of course you can deal with Spanish.
4. Culture. I won’t go into this too much here as I’ve written about it elsewhere in this blog, but Mexican culture, including its art, languages, and food is beautiful. And DF brings all of it into one place. If it can be found in Mexico, you’ll find it in DF and you’ll find it for cheap. That includes its numerous museums, archaeological sites, and events. It also includes a propensity for populace protests of all kinds which is a huge part of the city’s culture. And of course, DF has a great night life and tons of traditional activities.
5. Global reach. DF is clearly the economic powerhouse of the country and it’s quite obvious. The buildings, the concentration of banks, the number of expats and foreigners living and working here all point to a robust economy. Additionally DF has the rest of the world on offer in terms of restaurants, bars, clubs. It’s pretty metropolitan in places, and offers up massive variety in terms of people, neighborhoods, and entertainment.
6. Food. This deserves its own bullet point. While it does fall under culture, DF has a crazy amount of cheap food on offer. From small restaurants, to global chains, to street food, you can find it all here. And depending on the neighborhood and how adventurous you are, you can find it for prices that don’t seem to make any sense. Tacos, tortas, enchiladas, pozoles, frijoles, moles, the list goes on. Rich, decadent, tasty, awesomely spicy food on almost every street corner. It’s paradise for those on a budget (when you can get a whole meal for $3CDN and even less in USD), but can get tiring after a while, because while Mexico boasts a huge number of different dishes, the variety of different flavors is a bit on the low side. Of course compared to American cuisine or British, certainly not, but compared to say India, France and others, it’s certainly on the lower side. But the good thing is, if you get tired of tacos, well, the rest of the world’s dishes are never far away.
7. History. Few major cities in the world are so connected to such a distant past as DF is. The city is literally built over previous iterations dating back to the Aztecs, as early as 1325, it’s estimated. And because of this, new constructions and underground maintenance operations regularly strike archaeologically significant artifacts and ancient structures. Parts of the city were once marshland and lakes but were terra-formed by ancient populations. They literally created floating islands to grow their crops on, and eventually these got bigger and created a mesh that eventually replaced lake with city. Of course, not all of the city is like that, but there are still remnants of that which can be found in a popular tourist destination called Xochimilco. Just outside the city are massive pyramids and even in the city center, Zocalo, excavations have uncovered complex urban structures. Historical influences from the pre-columbian era, to the Spanish colonial period, the Mexican revolution and up to today can be found everywhere in DF, and it imbues the city with just a bit of extra uniqueness.
8. People. Mexicans, are coooool. Really, really good people. Obviously this is a generalization but one I’m comfortable making. Mexicans in general have been sweet. Though not particularly overtly warm, they aren’t hard to crack at all. This is the same in DF, but you have here also something different; education and worldliness which you are less likely to find elsewhere in Mexico. The people in DF are pretty easy to talk to, though you’ll require Spanish for this for the most part. Furthermore, you’ll find the culture easy to deal with, and the values similar to other western cultures. So, be prepared to meet some locals and enjoy what the city has to offer. No better way to do it.