Over the holidays, my mother and I planned to Mexico City, which may seem like an odd choice for a sustainable traveler. In terms of the environment, Mexico City is actually a very unsustainable place and it’s problems with pollution and water are well publicized. In case you don’t know much about their environmental problems, Mexico City is the 27th worst country in the world for air pollution. Since it is situated in a valley at 2,240 meters above sea level, there’s less oxygen at this altitude and its diesel fuels can’t burn out properly, leading to a high amount of soot particles. Even being there for just a week, I found that my nose was stuffy all the time and that I had to shower a lot more frequently. If you’re interested in learning more about Mexico City’s problems with air pollution, this site has some useful information for travelers.
In addition, Mexico City was built very unsustainably, causing a water crisis that is making Mexico City shrink. When the Aztecs inhabited the region, the city was built on a island. As the population exploded over the last one hundred years, modern infrastructure drained out all the water, causing the city to sink. So now, Mexico City sits on very loose soil, which makes it especially dangerous during earthquakes. You can actually see some buildings, such as the old cathedral at the Basilica de Guadalupe, tilting. The NY Times wrote a very extensive article on how climate change will exacerbate these issues, if you’d like to read about it.
So why did my mother and I choose Mexico City? Because the cultural heritage of this city is amazing. Mexico City has 150 museums, the second largest amount after Paris. In addition, the ruins are well preserved and the traditional foods are some of the best in the world. From the moment I landed here, I felt a magnetic pulse that mesmerized me, and as I got to know it, I felt completely inspired by their mestizo pride.
Mexico City has a great metro system. It’s very extensive and trains come frequently. It’s also very cheap, costing just 5 pesos, or 26 cents, for a one way ticket The different routes are both color and symbol coordinated to help you figure out where you are going. The trains can be extremely crowded during peak hours and I personally like to avoid those times. They also have women and children specific trains, which I appreciated because no matter where I am in the world, sexual harassment on public transportation is all too frequent. Just look for signs on the platforms that indicate ‘mujeres’ or ‘hombres’.
This is Mexico City’s bike sharing program that is available for both residents and tourists. There are bike stations throughout the city where you can rent an unlimited amount of bikes for 45 minute intervals. You can register yourself for one day, 3 days, one week, or one year.
Where to Stay
While in Mexico City, I stayed in two different locations. First, I booked a hostel room at Hostel Home in the hipster neighborhood of Roma. The hostel is owned by locals and has a quiet, but social atmosphere. I really recommended it, but be aware that it books out at least a week in advance.
Personally I preferred this neighborhood because it’s peaceful yet full of cafes, restaurants, art galleries, locally owned shops, taco trucks, bars and clubs. My first day there, I spent many hours slowly traveling around and soaking up the vibes. If you end up staying at Hostel Home, I really recommend eating at the nearby taco truck (exit right, go right at the corner, then walk to the end of the block). The owners are very friendly and the tacos are super spicy.
When I met up with my mother, we stayed at a very beautiful and famous hotel called the Gran Hotel which is located right at the Zocalo in the Centro Historico. The building used to be a department store and was the site of Mexico’s first elevator and electrical lights. The ceiling is made of stained glass by Tiffany’s is absolutely incredibly. This hotel is also featured in the James Bond film Specter. The location is great in the sense that it is close to many of the major sites, but it gets extremely crowded, especially during the holidays.
What to do
Frida Kahlo Museum – Casa Azul
For me, the Frida Kahlo Museum was the number one destination on my list. Frida Kahlo is not only a fantastic artist, she is also an icon of feminism. Her paintings tackle difficult subjects such as infertility, miscarriage, heartbreak, pain, and disabilities. During her life, she was openly bisexual, defied female beauty standards, was politically active and challenged gender stereotypes. How can you not admire her?
From the moment you enter her home, you are immersed in her world. This was the place where she was born, lived, worked and died. Before she passed away, she and her equally famous husband, Diego Rivera, had decided that one day their home would be transformed into a museum. On display, you will see her artwork, personal items, and clothing. On site, there is also a cafeteria and bookstore.
The museum is located in the neighborhood of Coyoacan, which is quite charming itself. Afterwards, I recommend going to the local market, shops and restaurants.
The museum is closed on Mondays (like all museums in Mexico City). It’s hours are Tuesdays 10 am – 5:30 pm, Wednesdays 11 am – 5:30 pm, Thursdays – Sundays 10 am – 5:30 pm. I highly suggest buying tickets ahead of time as the lines are very long and slow. Entering the museum can be a little bit confusing. If you buy a ticket ahead of time, it is for a specific time. So, if you arrive exactly at that time, you can just walk right in. However, if you arrive a half hour before, you’ll have to queue up in the shorter line to the left of the building. Those who don’t have a ticket, have to queue up in the longer line on the right hand side of the building. Backpacks need to be checked in. There’s a small fee for taking photos.
Diego Rivera Murals
I personally fell in love with Diego Rivera’s work while studying Latin American Studies in college. He is one of the world’s best muralists and one of Mexico’s most famous artists. Stylistically, his murals featured simple lines and rich colors, but it’s the subjects of his work that capture me. They embodied social inequality; industry and technology, the daily life of locals, the human relationship with nature; and the history and fate of Mexico. If you want to understand Mexican culture, simply study his murals.
At the Palacio Nacional, you find some of his most famous and beautiful pieces, depicting the history of Mexico from the legend of Quetzalcoatl to the class struggles of the 1900s. Walking up the left hand stairway, you’ll find a depiction of his wife, Frida Kahlo. This is a government building, so you’ll have to check in your back and provide a photo ID (a driver’s license is fine). Entrance is free. Opening hours are Tuesday – Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.
At Bellas Artes, you’ll discover Rivera’s most controversial piece. While in New York, Rivera was commission to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center, called Man at the Crossroads, which featured scenes from science, industry, politics and history. The Rockefellers, however, were not pleased at the inclusion of Lenin in the mural. When Rivera refused to remove him, the Rockefellers cancelled the mural and destroyed it. Afterwards, he recreated it here. Like all museums in Mexico City, it is closed on Mondays. Opening hours are Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 am to 6 pm. Tickets to the museum cost 60 pesos.
The Secretariat of Public Education boasts the most extensive collection of Diego Rivera’s works, which fill the entire building. This was my favorite place to view his works because there were about a third of the people compared to Bellas Artes and the Palacio Nacional. The theme of the pieces here center around Mexican workers and the Mexican Revolution. Fans of the movie Frida will recognize the building. The entrance is free but since it is a government building, you will have to sign in and check in your backpack. It is open to the public on weekdays only.
Located 48 km northeast of Mexico City, the ruins of Teotihuacan are of one of the largest ancient cities of the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins were built by hand during the 2nd century and eventually abandoned in the 7th century. It was later re-discovered by the Aztecs who thought the city had been created to the gods. They would make pilgrimages to the city and excavated objects that were then deposited as offerings in the Templo Mayor of their capital city, Tenochtitlan.
Highlights of Teotihuacan:
Quetzalpapalotl Palace – This building probably served as the residence of Teotihuacan’s elite. It was named “beautiful butterfly” after the carved columns that define the building’s central courtyard.
Pyramid of the Moon – This pyramid holds a strategic position in the overall layout of the city as the starting point of the main road, the Avenue of the Dead. It is thought to have been a site for public ceremonies.
Avenue of the Dead – This is the main road in Teotihuacan. According to historians, when the Aztecs saw this street with its mounds on either sides, they believed that the mounds were tombs, so they named it the Avenue of the Dead. There is no evidence of what the original inhabitants called this road.
Pyramid of the Sun – This is the largest pre-Hispanic building of ancient times. The top of the pyramid was once crowned by a temple where religious rites were conducted. Originally it was thought to worship the sun god but a new interpretation claims that it actually honored the water god, Tlaloc. Evidence supporting this claim includes a ten-foot wide moat around the pyramid’s base, child burials at the corners of the building, and a cave beneath it. All of these are characteristics of offerings to Tlaloc.
My main piece of advice is to go early. First of all because you the beat crowds. Secondly because it gets extremely hot around 11 am. Be sure to bring water and sunscreen. You don’t necessarily need hiking boots, but I do advise wearing shoes with a good grip on the bottom. There are bathrooms both inside and outside the park. My mother and I hired a taxi to take us there and pick us up, but there are also options of taking either a public bus or a tour bus (these also include a stop to the Basilica of Guadalupe). The park is open everyday from 9 am to 5 pm. Cost is 70 pesos per person.
Museo de Templo Mayor – Tenochtitlan
Tenochtitlan was an Aztec city that flourished between 1325 and 1521. Built on an island on Lake Texcoco, it had a system of canals that supplied hundreds of thousands of people who lived here. In 1521, the Spanish conquistador largely destroyed it. Materials from the ruins were used to build the nearby Cathedral. The majority of it, however, was built over by modern-day Mexico City.
In 1978, workers laying electrical cables accidentally discovered the Templo Mayor, two blocks from the Zocalo, next to the Cathedral and the metro station. Since this find, ongoing excavation and research is happening everywhere in Mexico City – in alleys, patios, back lots and even tattoo parlors. When city workers repave a street, archaeologists are there, standing by to retrieve ceramic shards, bones, and any other artifacts.
You can visit the most largely excavated site today. Technically, you don’t even have to go inside to see it, as a portion of it is visible, but I recommend that you do. As you enter, there are two different museums and an extensive walkway around the site. The museum at the end of the walkway is very impressive, with a huge collection of artifacts and information about the Aztecs and their capital. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm. Entrance is 70 pesos. You also have to check in your backpack.
Enjoying local cuisine is one of the many ways you can authentically experience a culture. Mexico has a rich culinary tradition and eating their foods had to be my favorite thing to do. If you’d like to try street food, I recommend getting the tacos, tortas (sandwiches), chapulines (crickets), and tlayuda (a thin, toasted tortilla covered with beans, Oaxaca cheese, lettuce, salsa and more). Below are some of my favorite restaurants.
El Moro – This place is crowded with locals and the occasional tourist, all indulging in fresh churros and hot chocolate. Best place for a sweet snack.
Limosneros – This restaurant is high end Mexican cuisine at a good price. For fun, my mother and I had the escamoles, which are ant eggs. It wasn’t too bad, I recommend it if you’re curious and an adventurous eater. Both the duck and carnitas tacos were good.
Azul Historico – This restaurant was my favorite. It’s located in a courtyard and all the trees are decked out in blue lights. There’s an extensive mezcal list, which comes served in a wooden bowl. Try the mole enchiladas and the tres leches for dessert.
Cafe Tacuba – This is where you’ll find some of the most traditional dishes in all of Mexico City. It was founded in 1912 in a section of an old convent. At night, there’s live mariachi music.
Da Silva Bakery – This is a cute cafe with breakfast and lunch menus. I had the chilaquiles almost everyday here. Their coffee is nice and strong too.