Guidebook with a Twist - Mexico City

by Greg Lewry

Think you’re a travel buff? Then answer this one.  Which city has the highest number of museums located within its fair walls? Nope, it’s not New York. London’s close, but not quite. Paris? You’re a little far off actually. The answer is in fact Mexico City. With over 150 halls of history ranging from national history to famous artists, Mexico City is a museum addict’s dream. But if you were to think that glass cabinets, stuffed animals and audio tours are all that the Mexican capital has to offer, then you’d be sorely wrong.

Lucha Libre, an entertaining and fun way to spend your Friday night in Mexico City.
Lucha Libre, an entertaining and fun way to spend your Friday night in Mexico City. Photo by Greg Lewry

Accordion players on the streets, peanut sellers on the subway, discos on the rooftops and street food vendors on the sidewalk selling juicy corn-on-the-cobs smothered with melted butter and dripping chili sauce. Tight rope walking on the line between chaos and calamity, Mexico City buzzes with energy powerful enough to keep its twenty million plus population moving night and day. In fact, the only place that you will find a little peace and quiet is in one of the museums. 

If you’re going to visit just one, it’s got to be the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. One of the world’s greats, it will wrap its educational tentacles around your head and will not let go until you absorb every culture and tribe that has ever called Mexican land its abode. This process will take at least five hours – the place is huge. For less than five bucks, you get everything you will ever need to know about the peoples, past and present, of Mexico. Ever noticed the eagle eating the snake on the flag of Mexico? We’ll leave you to find out the explanation for that one when you’re at the museum. 

Next it’s time to limber up for some Lucha Libre – Mexican wresting, or, as it may appear to you, hench guys wearing spandex and sporting questionable hair styles going to elaborate lengths to pin their opponent to the floor of a boxing ring. Audacious acrobatics, bikini-clad showgirls, and punches so fake that the reaction happens around a week later are all part of a fun Friday night out at the Arena Mexico. Tickets are cheap as tortilla chips and you’re guaranteed a laugh, even if it is at the expense of the balding tub of lard that waddles into the ring and plants his chubby cheeks on his opponent’s face. Mexicans get right behind their favorite wrestlers by wearing colorful masks that are on sale from umbrella stalls outside the arena. Grab a mask, a few tacos and settle down for some feigned machismo. 

You’ve had museums and macho-men, now it’s time to zip along to the heart of this Mexican megapolis on board the world’s cheapest metro system. For less than a shiny American quarter (3 pesos) you can travel anywhere along the system’s 12 lines to nearly 200 stations. The system was designed with the illiterate in mind so every line is numbered and color-coded and every station has its own symbol that represents its historical name. Traveling on a metro system really could not be simpler, safer nor swifter than in Mexico City. 

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

Zocalo (on the blue number 2 line) is the city’s piece de resistance, one of the largest public squares in the world and thus a prime place for people-watching whilst sipping on an ice-cold Corona. You’ll see everything from hawkers scouring passers-by for any hint of interest in their ‘authentic’ Mexican souvenirs to enraged citizens standing atop milk crates to vent their fury at the incumbent government. This is where it has all happened since the days of the Aztecs. 

Standing tall whilst tourists scurry around her feet trying to take the perfect photograph, the city’s cathedral looks out over the Zocalo and keeps the city on time with her bells ringing out across the densely packed avenues that serve the city like arteries feeding a pumping heart. It took over 200 years to complete the seat of Catholicism in Mexico, but now it sits pretty amongst the department stores, fast food chain stores, and hostels of Mexico City’s center. 

Yes, hostels. Smack bang in the center of this mighty city a wide variety of inexpensive lodgings can be found. The huge Hostel Mundo Joven is situated right behind the cathedral and has unbeatable views of the Zocalo from its sixth floor terrace bar. Exclusive to guests, the bar will serve you a 20 peso beer or can whip up a chocolate cocktail (yes, indeed) for your delectation. 

Just down from the road by the pedestrian-only thoroughfare Calle Regina lies the eponymous Hostel Regina, a stylish home of mezzanines and balconies for the weary traveler. Wake up refreshed and slip into the café next door for the free breakfast. Prices for a dorm bed hover around the $15 mark at both of these establishments and private rooms can be procured at a significantly higher cost. 

Mexico City is just one of those places. The reputation of a giant global city with the feel of a tight-knit community, its attractions demand more attention than you could ever afford and so you slip away guiltily from its charms, promising to revisit if ever luck affords you the chance. Get up close and personal with it, you’ll have no choice if you ever travel on the congested metro at rush hour, and take in the frenetic energy of 20 million people trying to make living from whatever their minds dream up. The blind man shuffling down the metro carriage strumming a guitar whilst mumbling tunefully and the grandmother selling her fistful of lollipops by the station entrance are just two examples of how much it takes to live in this prosperous yet also poverty afflicted city. No matter where you go in the city, you’ll rub shoulders with both ends of the Mexican success story. It is what makes this city so compelling.

Paseo de la reforma, Mexico City

Paseo de la reforma, Mexico City