The Other Mexico: 48 hours in Mexico City

All this week, Gadling will be bringing you coverage of the *other* Mexico. Beyond the margarita-fueled coastal tourist traps lie ancient ruins, colonial cities and culinary hot spots. So, leave your preconceived notions at home, and get ready to head south of the border to explore the other side of Mexico.

The statistics on Mexico City are impressive. Reportedly the fifth largest urban agglomeration in the world, the Distrito Federal (Federal District) or simply D.F. is an alpha global city home to nearly 20 million souls. It is the eighth richest city in the world, accounting for nearly 35% of Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Mexico City is also steeped in history. Founded by the Aztecs in 1325 as the floating island metropolis of Tenochtitlan, it was razed by the Spanish in 1521 and rebuilt as a major New World administrative center. In 1824, independence from Spain led to the official designation of the modern Federal District.

Yet despite this rich pedigree, a surprising number of foreigners imagine Mexico City to be nothing more than a narco-fueled criminal cesspool. And on that note, allow me to do a bit of much-need PR work by kicking off ’48 hours in Mexico City.’

%Gallery-120761%Truth be told, a lot can go wrong in Mexico City. But for the average tourist with a bit of street smarts, it’s all-together easy to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Besides, with so much history, culture and amazing street food on every corner, 48 hours in D.F. can change your perspective on the face of modern Mexico.

1) Visit the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. A quick, one-hour bus ride north of the city will bring you to a spectacular archaeological site that most people have never even heard of. Home to the 3rd largest pyramid in the world – the Pyramid of the Sun – Teotihuacan was first constructed in 100 BCE, and was the largest city (pop. 250,000+) in the pre-Colombian Americas until its downfall in the 8th century CE.

The origins of Teotihuacan are shrouded in mystery. Archaeological debate points to Olmec, Toltec, Zapotec and even Mayan influences. The subsequent Aztecs were mesmerized by the city, and often underwent pilgrimages along its perfectly laid-out Avenue of the Dead. Teotihuacan’s signature-style of talud-tablero or inward-sloping steps connected by rectangular reliefs influenced the later construction of Tenochtitlan.

2) Get a first-hand anthropological education. If Teotihuacan ignites your curiosity for ancient cultures, then pay a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA). Often regarded as one of the world’s best anthropology museums, the MNA showcases the stunning pre-Colombian heritage of Mexico and Central America. It is also located at the center of one of Mexico City’s largest expanses of green space.

First opened in 1964, the MNA is a modernist structure of more than twenty galleries that wrap around lush gardens. Some of the more famous exhibits include Aztec sun stones, Olmec giant heads, Mayan carved panels and a rather eerie amount of exhumed skeletons, jewel-adorned skulls and hand-carved accessories made from various human bones.

3) Eat your fill of street tacos. Alright, let’s not side-step the issue. Mexico doesn’t exactly top the food-safety list, and the infamous Montezuma’s Revenge (read as: travelers’ diarrhea) is not to be taken lightly. You’re going to want to stick to bottled water, and avoid raw vegetables and fruit you can’t peel.

But don’t deny yourself the pleasures of street tacos! Hand-pressed corn tortillas are fried in alleyways and on corners, and topped with everything from roasted pork and barbequed chicken to refried beans and fresh habanero peppers. Keep an eye out for exotics such as orange squash flowers and boiled cactus leaves.

4) Wander the colonial streets of the Centro Histórico. Mexico City is centered on one of the world’s largest city squares, namely the Zocalo. The surrounding 34-block area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprises the historical center. Gridded by the Spanish conquistadores, the Centro Histórico was literally built from the stones of Tenochtitlan.

Arguably one of the safest areas of Mexico City, the Centro Histórico bustles with frenetic energy both day and night. Here you can sip a cinnamon-infused cup of hot chocolate at an alfresco cafe while watching shoppers pass. Or, pair a martini glass full of ceviche with a cold cerveza while listening to chill-out music at a late-night lounge.

5) Immerse yourself in the lives of Diego & Frida. Artists aren’t particularly known for leading stable lives, but unfiltered creativity does stem from hard times. The passionate yet tortured lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo sprung to international attention following the 2002 biopic Frida starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina.

Want to see the murals of Mexican history that cemented the career of a young Diego Rivera? Visit the interior stairwells of the national palace that lines the Zocalo. Want to see the split abode that housed the tempestuous newlyweds? Visit the Museo Casa Estudio in the neighborhood of San Ángel. And of course, don’t miss the Blue House in Coyoacán where Frida lived as a child and later as an old woman.

Still think Mexico City is a black spot on the travel itinerary? Think again as one of the greatest cities in Latin America is relatively safe, extremely affordable and surprisingly tourist friendly. With that said, consider steering clear of the overhyped coastlines, and taking the time to discover what lies in the *other* Mexico.


Richest man in the world opens art museum in Mexico City

Carlos Slim is the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of over fifty billion U.S. dollars. He recently unveiled his new Soumaya Art Museum in Mexico City. The anchor shaped structure houses Slim’s personal art collection and includes works by Diego Rivera, Auguste Rodin, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Salvador Dali.

According to the AP, the Soumaya is named after Slim’s late wife and designed by his son-in-law, architect Fernando Romero. The curvy structure’s exterior is covered with over 16,000 hexagon shaped aluminum panels that glimmer radically in the Mexican sun. The massive interior is 183,000 square feet, providing plenty of space to peruse Slim’s collection. The art housed within the Soumaya will be a rotation of the billionaire’s personal art collection, which includes over 66,000 (!) pieces. The Soumaya opens to the public on March 29.Carlos Slim is the son of a Lebanese merchant and accumulated his wealth in the telecom industry. He owns the leading Internet service and cell phone providers in Mexico as well as over 80% of Mexican land lines. His wealth is about 4% of Mexico’s gross domestic product. The opening of the Soumaya to the Mexican public underlies his philosophy that culture and art should be accessible to all:

“I believe that we have to find means for all desirable things to be universally accessible. Culture. Entertainment. Sport. Communication. Health. Food. Housing. The fundamental things.”

The avant-garde Soumaya is located in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. Tuesday night was a soft opening media event and included guests such as Larry King, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and Nobel Laureate Garcia Marquez.

flickr image via vladimix

On the Aztec Trail in Mexico City

This piece was written by Red Room contributor Jim Johnston.

Although Mexico City gets a lot of notice these days for its trendy bars, hip hotels and chic art galleries, what makes this city really cool has been around for almost 700 years: The city was founded by the Aztecs in 1325, and although the Spanish conquistadores tried hard to erase the pagan past, the Aztec influence is alive and well.

The phone book lists nearly 800 Moctezumas, and you’ll see those tongue-twisting Nahuatl names everywhere: Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl, Nezahualcoyotl, Chapultepec. The basilica of La Vírgen de Guadalupe is built over an altar where Aztecs prayed to their mother goddess Tonantzín.. Fragments of the past turn up at building sites throughout town–even the metro has its own Aztec ruin, the temple of Ehecatl, god of wind, at the Pino Suarez station.


The best place to begin exploring Mexico City’s Aztec past is at the Zócalo, the vast open plaza which was once the ceremonial center of Aztec life. Ruins of the Templo Mayor, the main site of Aztec worship and sacrifice, were unearthed at the Zócalo in 1978 while electric cables were being installed. You can stroll through the ruins and visit the small museum here.

The Palacio Nacional, seat of national government, spans the entire east side of the Zócalo. Inside are murals glorifying Mexico’s Aztec past, painted between 1929 and 1945 by Diego Rivera. These seductively colored paintings depict daily life of the Aztecs before the conquest. One shows an Aztec market in full swing with the city of Tenotichtlán in the background. Fruits, vegetables and flowers are being sold, as well as woven straw mats, hand-made pottery, medicinal folk herbs, and of course, tortillas. It all looks much like any Mexican market today, except perhaps for the human arm one butcher offers for sale. To see a modern-day market not far removed from Rivera’s images, go to the Mercado Jamaica, one of the most colorful traditional markets in the city. It also houses the city’s dazzling wholesale flower market, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

[Photo credit: Flickr, Ireed76]

The most important Aztec art is found at the Museo de Antropología on Paseo de la Reforma in Chapultepec Park, a few miles west of the Centro Histórico. The Sala Mexica, at the far end of the central patio, contains the Aztec collection. One of the most compelling sculptures is a horrific mother figure, the great maternal monster, Coatlicue. In Aztec myth, Coatlicue was murdered by her 401 children. Her statue, over eight feet tall, looks like a snakeskin-covered tank mated with a Japanese super-hero. The Spanish were horrified by her and kept the statue out of sight. She is so mean and ugly that even the museum gift shop doesn’t carry a replica.


One of the most delightful ways to absorb Aztec culture is through its food. Tortillas, chiles, tamales, guacamole, pulque, atole, mole, tlacoyos, huitlacoche, nopales, pozole, chocolate and vanilla are just some of the foods you will easily encounter today that were eaten in pre-Hispanic times. Adventurous diners can seek out escamoles (ant eggs), chapulines (crispy fried crickets), or gusanos (worms of the maguey cactus) rolled up in a fresh tortilla and eaten live with salt and lime.

Street stalls carry on the Aztec food tradition in Mexico City. Throughout town- expecially around markets and metro stations–you’ll see women cooking over charcoal fires, making tlacoyos, which look like small flattened footballs made of blue corn. They are filled with beans or cheese, then cooked on a dry griddle, topped with chopped cactus, onions, cilantro, grated cheese and your choice of red or green salsa. Pre-Hispanic ingredients are found on menus in most Mexican restaurants. Ensalada de nopales, a salad of cooked cactus with onion and cilantro, has a slightly tangy flavor and crunchy-soft texture Huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn cobs with a delicate, mushroom-like taste, is used as a filling for quesadillas. Flor de calabaza are squash blossoms, used in soothing soups and quesadillas. Pozole, a thick soup made with hominy, was mentioned in the chronicles of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, an early Spanish missionary. He reported Moctezuma eating pozole that contained thigh meat from a sacrificed warrior. Today’s version is usually made with pork and garnished with lettuce, radishes, onion and oregano. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of Aztec- inspired foods are tamales, ground maize steamed in corn husks or banana leaves, which can be found at street stalls all over town in the early morning.

UNESCO declared the Centro Histórico of Mexico City a World Heritage site in 1987, while it was still reeling from the devastating earthquake of two years earlier. Recent investment in the Centro and Alameda areas of the city have made it a cleaner, safer and more vibrant place than ever. But amidst the rush to make Mexico modern, trendy and slick, those ancient artifacts keep popping up out of the ground, constant reminders of Mexico City’s glorious Aztec past, humbled but not vanquished.


Maps: The Tourist kiosk to the right of the Cathedral has excellent free maps of the major tourist areas. Guia Roji maps, sold at newsstands and at Sanborn’s, are the most comprehensive (also on-line at

Taxis: Registered sitio taxis are the safest way to travel around the city. You find them at most hotels and at designated spots around town marked with the word sitio. There are sitios on the Zócalo behind the Cathedral on the left side, and in front of the Anthropology Museum. At most sitios you can also hire a taxi by the hour, usually US$10 to $15 per hour. Always negotiate prices beforehand if there is no meter in order to avoid surprises. Get a card from the sitio-you can call them from anywhere in the city to come get you.

Metro: The metro is fast, efficient and cheap (3 pesos, less than 30 cents). Avoid rush hours (8-10am and 5-7pm) and you will be fine. The system is easy to figure out from maps in each station. Metro stop Auditorio on the no.7 line is about 5 blocks from the Museum of Anthropology. Metro Jamaica on the no.9 line is right in front of the market. The Zòcalo metro stop is on the no.2 line.

Bus: From the Centro and along Reforma, buses marked Auditorio take you to the Museum of Anthropology. Buses marked Metro Hidalgo or Zócalo head back to the Centro Histórico.


Hotel Gillow (Isabel la Catolica 17 at the corner of Cinco de Mayo, tel. 5512-2078). Just a block off the Zócalo, this comfortable place is a good deal, with doubles around US$50,). Rooms on the 6th floor have terraces. They don’t take reservations for terrace rooms, however, so asck when you check in. (

NH Hotel, (Palma 42, Centro Histórico, tel. 5130-1850) is a attractive modern hotel, well-located in the centro.

Camino Real Mexico (Mariano Escobedo 700, Colonia Anzures, tel. 5263-8888). Located near the entrance of Parque Chapultepec, this impressive hotel was designed by Ricardo Legorreta, one of Mexico’s leading architects, who was inspired by the vast pre-Aztec spaces of Teotihuacán. It has a fun big-hotel feel with flashy restaurants and bars, a swimming pool and peaceful garden. Doubles start at US$190 ($130 on weekends).


La Terraza del Zócalo. (#13 on the west side of the Zócalo-take the elevator to the 6th floor). Mexican food with comtemporary flair is served on a terrace overlooking the Zócalo. Open from noon till 8pm daily, till 3am on Fridays and Saturdays. (around US$30 for two without drinks)

Cafe Tacuba, (Calle Tacuba 28, near Bolivar, Centro, 5518-4950 or ?-2048, Traditional Mexican food in a charming tiled room. Open from 8am to 11:30pm daily, Sundays until 6pm. (around US$35 for two without drinks)

Restaurante Chon (Regina 160, Centro, 5542-0873, Exotic pre-Hispanic cuisine, dreary decor. Lunch only. Closed Sundays (around US$45 for two without drinks).

Pulquería Las Duelistas, (Aranda 30 near Ayuntamiento, Centro). A good place to try this fermented cactus-based drink.

Mercado Jamaica, located at the corner of Avenida Morelos and Congreso de la Union, a few miles southeast of the Zócalo, metro stop Jamaica on the #9 line. There is a taxi sitio behind the flower market.

A native New Yorker, Jim Johnston has lived in Mexico City since 1994. He is author of Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. Read his blog on Red Room.

[Photo credits: Flickr, su-lin; Flickr, sheeprus]

Ten wild cab rides that you’ll never forget

Everyone has their own way of immersing in a culture. Some jump in knees-deep into the food scene, massacring the local food blogs and munching their ways through every gastic adventure that they can find. Others enjoy the philosophical and soft-edged days of lounging in street side cafes, watching passers-by and drinking coffee in the early afternoon sun. Here at Gadling though, we prefer the good old cab ride.

It’s pretty surprising what you can pick up about a culture from the cabs, each driver with his own background, each car holding thousands of untold stories. Inspired by the works at the outstanding blog known as HACK, we’ve thus put together 10 of our favorite rides from around the planet below.

1. Cairo
One of the most fun and arguably scariest things about Cairo city life is the traffic. Here, traffic signals are rare and crosswalks are non-existant, meaning cars, taxis, trucks, people and donkeys are all jumbled into a free-for-all on the dusty Egyptian roads. It takes nerves of steel to brave these roads, which is why it’s so fun sitting shotgun in an experienced cabbie’s car. An average ride will involve darting through city traffic honking up a storm while barreling past 1960’s-era Fiats, diladapidated buildings and remnants of Cairo history, all for the grand sum of no more than 4USD.

2. Moscow/St Petersburg
The funny thing about cabs in Russia is that there really aren’t any. Instead, the majority of car service is provided by everyday residents looking for an extra few dollars of income. All you have to do to flag a car is hold your arm out low and wait for a passing vehicle to pull over — it could be the remnant of a cold-war era beater or a shiny new Volkswagon — then mutter your destination and you’re off to the races.

This could be a little unnerving for the first time hithchiker, which is why we recommend a few Stoli and tonics before trying your first time. Another handy tip: if you don’t speak Russian, take a photo of your destination and show the driver.

2b. Moscow at 5AM
Traffic is so thick in Moscow that it’s hard to ever really appreciate the passing city while gurgling through the congested streets. For a real taste of Russian ridesharing, try taking a cab to Domodedovo at 5AM when the streets are clear and when your car’s throttle can really open up. Roll down the windows and watch the amazing city of Moscow fly by as you get an uninterrupted view of the beautiful capital city.3. Tokyo
The most mindblowing thing about Tokyo cab rides is the cordiality. Approaching your target cab, the first thing that you’ll notice is that the door automatically opens and shuts for you — all controlled by the white-gloved driver. The rest of your ride is strangely reminiscent of a ride in a London taxi, with black, fancy leather and all the pomp and circumstance of a ride through Oxford Circus. Set that against the high-neon and non-stop glam of Tokyo and you’ve got yourself a formula for travel contrast bliss.

4. Bangkok via motorcycle taxi
Tuk-Tuks and taxi cabs are the mainstays of Bangkok public transportation, but if you really want to make progress then take a motorcycle taxi. You can pick them up at stations around the city and they’ll provide a helmet and the ride of your life — all you have to do is lean and and hold on tight.

5. Delhi via Tuk Tuk as told by Mike Barish

Plenty of places have pedicabs and rickshaws that cater mostly to tourists. They’re alternatives to cabs, but exist only to be kitchy. In India, however, the small cabs know as tuk tuks are commonly used by locals and tourists alike to navigate the incredible congested cities in the nation’s capital.

The tiny three-wheeled vehicles are as ubiquitous in Delhi as cows in the streets and the smells of spices in the air. They’re loud, mostly uncomfortable and expose you to the exhaust fumes from the trucks that suffocate the city’s highways.

All that said, tuk tuks are convenient and get you to where you’re going much quicker than walking. They cost a pittance (think $5 or less), can be found everywhere and usually idle on the side of the street, making it easy to approach and speak with the driver about the price. Once you get going, though, don’t expect to converse much. You’ll be lucky if you can still hear your own thoughts.

6. Enroute to Pudong Airport, Shanghai
The only thing slowing your cab driver down between downtown Shanghai and the international airport at city’s edge is the glaringly obvious radar banks over top of the highway. Imagine yourself comfortably crusing at 95 miles/hour on the People’s highway at 6AM when WHAM, the cabbie slams on the brakes and you slow to 45 for 2000 feet. Get a safe distance away and VRRroooooom, you’re pressed against the back of your seat on your way to the International Space Station once more.

7. Zambia as told by Willy Volk
After our bus from Livingston, Zambia, to Sesheke (a border crossing in the southwest of the country) choked and died, my friend and I sat in the scalding sun waiting for repairs. After about 90 minutes, an approaching pickup stopped when it saw potential passengers sprawled in the dust. Able to outbid the others for seats in the uncovered rear of his truck — we paid the equivalent of $2 each — we high-fived each other, jumped in the back, and sat down … on fifty-kilo bags of uncooked sweet potatoes.

For the next four hours — during which we covered maybe 100 kilometers — we rumbled, bumped, and jounced along southwestern Zambia’s dusty, desolate M10 “highway.” Cinnamon-colored dirt coated my skin and, together with the smoke from roadside fires, filled my nostrils. Bouncing over potholes as large as truck engines, we repeatedly flew in the air and landed hard on the solid, gnarled edges of the sweet potatoes. Bang, bang, bang: our asses smacked those unforgiving, rock-hard bags every 10 seconds for hours. Bang! When we were finally able to crawl out of our tortuous ride, we hobbled to the boat launch — Namibia’s immigration office lay on the other side of the Zambezi River — only to discover we’d missed the day’s final boat and had to be ferried across in a dugout canoe.

8. Technology touts in Taipei as told by Darren Murph
One of the unfortunate results of the broad information infrastructure in Taiwan is that streaming video is everywhere on the island, which means that more than a few cabbies are all-too-distracted by what’s going inside of the cab instead of outside. Darren recounts the full experience with photos over at Engadget.

9. Mexico City
They say tha cabs in Mexico City aren’t the safest in the world, but it’s just so hard to resist the cute little green Volkswagon Beetles that chortle through the street. Provided you have a good command over the Spanish language or at least a good idea of where you’re going, make sure to jump in the back seat of one of these vochos — there’s as much history in these taxis as there is in the city at large.

10. London
Sure, it’s cliche to tout the cultural value of the London taxicab, but there’s no question about it: it’s a rite of passage. From the iconic, black taxi styling to flip-down seats to the near-perfection of every London cabbie the experience is sure to please — just make sure you’ve got enough Sterling to make the trip, UK cabs are among the most expensive on the planet.

[Flickr image via Bruno. C.]

Report: Mexico City a rising tourism star

The newest list of North and Latin America travel hotspots is in — and it seems Mexico City tops the charts.

According to the folks over at, Mexico City experienced a 58 percent increase in tourists in 2009 over 2008– making it the fastest-growing travel destination. Other up-and-coming Latin American destinations include
Mariachi capital Guadalajara, Mexico (really?); cheap travel destination San Jose, Costa Rica; and Guatemala City, Guatemala, which filled out the remaining top four spots.

Los Angeles, CA; San Jose, CA; and Syracuse, NY experienced a zero increase in tourist visits, while around 80 cities, including Philadelphia, PA; Atlanta, GA and Washington, D.C., all saw a decrease in visits. The increase in foreign travel and decrease in domestic U.S. vacation getaways could speak to an increase in overall travel spending.

One surprise on the list? Despite a ubiquitous marketing campaign, Las Vegas saw a whopping -19 percent downturn in visitors in 2009. Perhaps what happens in Vegas … has lost its thrill for travelers.

[Photo by Flickr user gripso_banana_prune ]