Know Before You Go: Mexico City

I spent the long Memorial Day weekend in Mexico City this year, and in four short days I fell in love with the place. I was lucky because I visited with my parents, who had both visited CDMX before and knew what was up with the area, getting around, attractions to visit, etc. My mom is also Mexican and lived in the country for a while when she was younger, so she was able to lend much of her own experiences and knowledge to our trip. Plus she was the best translator! Overall, this city is very tourist friendly and easy to navigate in all aspects. But there are a few things to be aware of, so here is my Know Before You Go: Mexico City edition!

1. Yes, Mexico is safe.

Don’t listen to the people who advise you to steer clear of the entire country “because the cartels!” or whatever. Mexico City has a lower crime rate than Washington DC. I felt completely safe during our trip, and as long as you exercise common precautions (such as not flaunting the amount of cash you have on your person, not keeping your cell phone in your back pocket when walking around, etc.), you’ll be just fine.

2. Steer clear of tap water and Montezuma’s Revenge…

Mexico suffers from a myriad of water quality problems. The most notable of which are the inadequate water treatment facilities and outdated water delivery infrastructure. This means most of the potable water delivered to Mexican households carries unspecified impurities, including bacteria that can make you sick. Along with this, the problem is also in the old, rusty pipes, which introduce impurities into the water that can make it unsafe for drinking.

As much as I, one of the biggest anti single-use plastic people you’ll ever meet, hate the idea of relying on bottled water, I do not want to get sick. When I visited Guadalajara in 2015 on family business/a trip to buy my wedding dress, I opened my mouth in the shower and drank some of the water. I developed a full-on case of Montezuma’s Revenge that night. [Yes, just like in the Sex and the City movie, IT ACTUALLY HAPPENS, Y’ALL.] I’ve learned my lesson and I exercise more caution. During this trip to CDMX, my family and I bought large bottles (like 2-3 gallons) of water and filled reusable bottles with that water. That way we were able to cut down on plastic, but still stay hydrated and healthy.

As for the ice… Most restaurants and resorts serve purified ice, so it’s totally safe to drink your cocktail or soda with ease. A quick way to tell if the ice is purified is to look for a cylinder shape with a hole in the middle.

3. The weather is very pleasant!

We visited at the end of May, so basically the beginning of the summer season. The temperatures were in the mid to high 80s, but so pleasant! There was virtually no humidity, which made this Houston transplant so happy! The sun can be pretty brutal, but in the city where there’s plenty of shade and we were very comfortable. The warmest we got was at the pyramids in Teotihuacan. There were no trees or buildings to provide shade and not a cloud in the sky, and with the climbing we were doing we got hot very fast.

Bonus tip: Since the weather is so temperate many buildings do not have air conditioning. Our Airbnb did not have AC, but when we booked we made sure they would provide tower fans for tour rooms, which kept our rooms at comfortable temperatures through the night. I absolutely hate the heat, but I was fine with the fans running. If you don’t think you can handle the lack of AC, just be sure to check the details and book a place that does have it!

Sweatin’ it up at the pyramids

4. Do not rent a car.

I thought Houston drivers were bad, but I have never in my travels through 32 different countries experienced crazy driving like in CDMX. We Ubered everywhere since it was so cheap, and just seeing how people zoomed across ten lanes of traffic with no signal and turned right/left from whichever lanes they desired on the regular was enough to make me feel thankful I don’t have to drive there. I also noticed that many four-way intersections have no stop or yield signs, so I’m honestly not sure if right of way is a thing. I was amazed at how cars just seemed to know when it was their turn. Thinking about driving in that city gives me real anxiety, so due to the availability of public transportation and the affordability of Uber, I’d advise you skip out on the rental car for sure.

5. Cash is king.

Self-explanatory. At the beginning of the trip, I withdrew a couple thousand pesos and used that to pay for everything. Food, souvenirs, tips for the Uber drivers, etc. The only time I swiped my card during this entire trip was when I took money out of the ATM.

Bonus tip: The $ sign denotes pesos in Mexico. When you see a dish on the menu that’s $200, that means 200 pesos (about $10), so don’t freak out when you see those prices!

At the Mercado De Artesanias La Ciudadela, my favorite place to buy souvenirs and Mexican goods.

6. It’s super affordable!

As I mentioned before Uber rides ran us about $5-7USD for a 20-30 minute ride across town. We ate breakfast at a really cute and trendy cafe in Condesa that charged us approximately $20 for breakfast for four people plus coffees and a fruit plate. And you can get nice Airbnbs in the trendiest colonias (neighborhoods) for less than $60USD per night. This is one of the most affordable places we have traveled to yet!

7. Exercise caution with street food.

My abuela never ever let my mom and her siblings eat street food, so that sentiment was passed down to my mom, and then to me. And I can proudly say I’ve never had food poisoning from any of my trips to Mexico! I have a few friends who have tried tacos from street vendors and suffered the consequences, so while I used to think that this precaution was a little much, I’m a firm believer now. There are exceptions of course. Sprinkled around the city, there are reputable vendors who won’t make you sick, but just be sure to do your research before you eat. One street food vendor I highly recommend (and can vouch for) is La Esquina del Chilaquil!

A trustworthy street food vendor with a line down the street block

8. Foreign tourists are everywhere.

When I went to Guadalajara a few years ago, I never saw one tourist. Or at least, any obvious ones. It’s much less so a tourist city. So I was kind of surprised when I saw how many Americans there were in CDMX, especially in the colonias of Condesa and Roma. This is nice because more museums and restaurants have bilingual staff to assist people who don’t speak Spanish. And if you’re a safety in numbers person, it may make you feel safe and reassured that you are walking the streets of the city with other foreign tourists.

But don’t let that turn you off to the city if you’re travel hipster and prefer off the beaten path destinations. The city is so large you can definitely escape the tourist hotspots in favor of the more local spots for the authentic experience. In my opinion, CDMX is the right amount of touristy. Somewhere between the all-inclusive resorts that are their own islands in absence of Mexican culture and the tiny little rural villages that never see tourists in their lives, and in all the right ways.

9. Tips are customary, with a few exceptions.

A 10% tip on food and drinks is customary in Mexico, with the exception of street food vendors. You can leave the coins on the table or bar just as you would in the US. The cost of the metered taxis is all-inclusive, so you do not have to tip. And of course, you can tip your Uber drivers in cash or via the app.

At the Soumaya, the best museum open on Mondays.

10. Basically everything is closed on Monday.

If a part of your trip falls on a Monday, just be aware that many attractions are closed. Save attractions like the Pyramids at Teotihuacan or the Museo Soumaya for a Monday, since they will be open. Just be aware! I was planning on visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropología on the Monday of our trip, but irresponsibly did not check the operating days and hours. So I ended up missing out on it completely.

11. Don’t flush your toilet paper.

A good rule of thumb is if you see a wastebasket next to the toilet, you’re expected to place your used toilet paper in it. Due to the infrastructure of their pipes and such, this is the norm in Mexico. So don’t be like me and clog the toilet in your Airbnb on the first day of your trip.

12. Brush up on your Spanish.

Learn some phrases that will actually come in handy. Such as: con permiso (excuse me), la cuenta por favor (the check please), or ¿cuánto cuesta? (how much does this cost?)

Vendors and such who speak English can be few and far between. And it’s always nice to know enough of the local language to be polite.

Smog over the city from a distance.

13. Pollution is a big issue.

Air pollution in Mexico City was so bad at one point that children were coloring pictures of a grey sky, and not a blue one. Because of its geographic location in a valley surrounded by mountains compiled with the large number of cars traveling its streets, smog is a big problem the region faces. But with government programs that encourage bike-riding and limit the number of days motorists can take to the streets, longtime residents say the pollution problem is much better than it used to be. If you have asthma or any other condition that may be worsened by high amounts of air pollution, take the proper precautions to keep yourself healthy during your stay.
Along with air pollution, I noticed that litter is a big issue as well. When you visit, please do your part and help make the city a little cleaner by properly disposing of your waste instead of tossing it on the ground.

14. There are so many green spaces in the city!

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of parks and tree-lined walking trails in the city. There were so many people out walking their dogs in the parks and children playing on their playgrounds, it just made me so happy to see people utilizing and enjoying their green spaces. One must-do park in the city is the Bosque de Chapultepec, one of the largest urban parks in the western hemisphere. At 1,695 acres, it dwarfs Central Park (which is only 843 acres). One of my favorite places in the city was Avenida Amsterdam. In the early 20th century in Condesa, there was a horseracing track called the Hipódromo. Its oval shape where horses used to run is still defined, but in the form of a walking trail lined with trees and other greenery.

Love this beautiful city!

I hope y’all get the chance to visit Mexico City soon! It’s a breathtaking and vibrant place that is, in my opinion, so underrated. Good luck planning, and happy wanderlusting!

To view more of my content on Mexico, visit my Mexico index page.

1 Comment

  • Donna Meyer

    Excellent tips for a trip to CDMS, Katy. I love the city. And the green spaces! I loved Avenida Amsterdam so much, I walked the entire ring and then wrote a post about it on my blog.

    June 9, 2018 at 10:55 pm Reply
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