We are not city people. We are drawn to quaint towns, beachside villas, adventurous activities, relaxed vibes. When we go on vacation, we do not go to Rome or Paris or New York City; we go to Playa Gigante in Nicaragua, Baños in Ecuador, or Vik in Iceland.
So naturally, the most populated city in North America, with over 20 million humans (in the urban area), has never been on the list. A few friends went, and they raved about it, but it still wasn’t on the list. Then a few more friends went, and spent an entire evening talking about how wonderful it was. OK, maybe if we just happen to be in the area, we’ll stay a day or two.
When the 3rd set of people came back enamored, we let ourselves be convinced. Mexico City was officially on the list. And it did not take long before the opportunity emerged for a visit. Mexico city is an almost unavoidable layover when traveling to Tapachula (where Halcyon has been hanging out) from…well, pretty much anywhere. So we booked our flights home from Seattle with a deliberate 2-day pit stop.
Most conveniently, our flight schedule landed us in the heart of Mexico during their Dia de los Muertos celebrations. This holiday brings families and friends together all over Mexico to honor and celebrate their ancestors. It is a celebration full of color, laughter, marigolds, sweet breads, intricate makeup, elaborate costumes and family gatherings.
We arrived on the evening of the 31st and, after an uncomfortably long customs line but a curiously absent customs procedure, were suddenly spit out of the airport into the humid night air. Avoiding the harassing taxi drivers, we piled into our Uber and sped off into the night… No, there is no speeding off anywhere in Mexico City. There is only inching and honking and swerving and honking and braking (and honking). We crept along the jammed up streets straight into the middle of the historical district.
As often is the case traveling to new places that speak different languages, it took a bit of effort to settle in. But eventually we got the security guard notified, apartment located, key code deciphered, bedroom discovered, bags dropped, and water chugged. Then we took off in search of a late dinner.
We stepped out of the 100-year old apartment building to a cacophony of thumping base, exasperated car horns, distant sirens and exuberant laughter. There were humans everywhere. There were people dressed up, eating tacos, sitting on stoops, buying peanuts, playing music, meeting friends, climbing trees, strolling by.
Eventually, we found ourselves at a quaint courtyard restaurant with 250 types of mescal and unbelievably good mole. By the time we were done with drinks and then dinner and then dessert and then drinks, it was pouring down rain. But that did not seem to stop the street fiesta. So we strolled along the streets with everyone else, getting drenched and letting our senses be overwhelmed.
Maybe my favorite thing about this holiday, Dia de los Muertos, is that it is not defined by a single night, too quickly over after months of costume making and anticipation. This is a weeks-long festival, punctuated by 3 nights of revelry. The following day, everywhere we went, we saw Catrina artwork, women selling colorful skulls and masks, and workers dressed up with painted faced.
We explored the parks, walked for miles along bustling streets and went to an impressive (and free) history museum. Then we climbed on the top deck of a double-decker tour bus, a risky adventure in a city draped with tangles of live wires and low hanging branches, and saw the trendy neighborhoods and never-ending gridlock from above while we rested our weary legs.
By the time our bus inched back into the historic district, the fiesta was ramping up. We headed to the Zocalo (the main square) and I got my face painted for the true Dia de los Muertos experience.
Our legs were still surprisingly weary and it was most certainly happy hour, so with yelp’s assistance, we found a fancy restaurant on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in town for a drink. We sipped margaritas and gazed down at two large plazas connected by a 10-block pedestrian street, swarming with people, 41 floors below us. It was time to dive in to the festivities, street-level.
We strolled the streets of old town with mouths agape. Thousands of people ambled along the sidewalks and avenues. Children, up and still happy well past an American bedtime, donned ornate costumes and carried plastic orange pumpkin baskets, asking for pesos and dulces. Young men, dressed as terrifying zombies and skeletons, lumbered towards groups of girls, eliciting satisfying screams every time. A drumming group set up mid-avenue, bottlenecking foot traffic to a crushing standstill while they performed an energetic and impressive set.
It felt like the whole country had emerged to participate in this festive energetic amorphous parade, ambling between the squares with friends admiring the costumes and decorations.
On our last morning, I finally figured out why our legs felt like we’d climbed a mountain after walking the flat streets for a few hours. Mexico city is deceptively flat, but it rests on an old lakebed 7,350 feet above sea level! Our poor sea level bodies were unaccustomed to the elevation. But we had just one more morning, so we ignored the whining from our quads, and went walking through the city once again.
Celebrations continued. There was a ceremony honoring deceased relatives, kids dressing up and painting their faces for round three, and colorful skull decorations all over town. As we begrudgingly wandered back towards our room to collect luggage and find an uber, we passed “El Museo de la Tortura”, and were so sad we didn’t have time to stop in for a look. Next time, Mexico City, next time.
This bustling hustling city has somehow wormed its way into our hearts. Be careful; it will do the same to you.
Our top 10 MUST SEE recommendations for your Mexico City stay (because now it’s on your list, and we went there for 2 days so we are experts):
- We loved staying in the heart of the historic district, though the streets are certainly loud all night so if you’re a light sleeper, bring some ear plugs
- Stop in for a European café experience at Da Silva Pasteleria complete with delicious coffee and locally baked sweet treats
- Treat yourself to a phenomenal dinner and a mescal tasting at Azul Historico (they have 250 kinds of mezcal). It’s in a quiet courtyard with trees and lights, very romantical.
- Head to Miralto for a sunset cocktail (that’s the one on the 41st floor overlooking the city)
- Eat Mole at Café de Tacuba – the building is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s some of the best mole we’ve had anywhere. Period.
- Wander through Chapultepec park – it’s one of the biggest parks in the western hemisphere. Great in the afternoon as it’s shaded and much cooler than the city streets.
- Walk through the archeological museum inside the park (when we visited, there was a mayan exhibit that was free and really amazing)
- Stroll up and down the foot-traffic only promenade between the Zocalo (main square) and Alameda Central (another awesome square)
- Hop on (and hop off!) a bus to see more of the city – we went with Turibus. It’s about $7 and well worth it
- Go to the museum of torture! We didn’t have time to go, we walked by it just as we were headed to the airport, but it just looked so intriguing. So now you must go, and take pictures, and tell us all about it.