mexico city view

The Magical Chaos of Mexico City

I used to hang out at Lenora’s house before school and smell the fresh tortillas her mother made every morning. The delicious scent lingered in my hair and clothing while I sat in class…hungry, and day-dreaming about tacos.

In a Southern California middle school I was the minority—most of my friends were like Lenora, not me. Later in Texas, if I hadn’t been close to my match-making friend, Juan, I would never have met my husband of 13 years, Mr. H.

The top 3 states with the largest Hispanic populations in the United States are New Mexico, California, and Texas. I lived in two of them. Throughout my life, I was immersed in the Mexican culture by default. Yet, there were so many things I didn’t understand.

Why did men always sell oranges on the street while we were sitting at a stoplight? Why did all of my friend’s mothers decorate their homes with those candles in glass jars with religious decals? Why have I been welcomed as part of the family with all of those friends? Why is the food so damn good?

Over time these curiosities built up—as did the many misconceptions which unfortunately are so dominant in the United States on the other side of the border, the fence, the wall.

mexico city cafe

I had been to Mexico before. Like most American tourists, I played it safe back in 2007 in one of the party beach towns…Playa del Carmen.

Another time was back in elementary school, when we went to San Felipe to play baseball with the kids there then camped on the beach overnight. I still remember seeing the grunion runs, how shiny and magnificent it all was. I also still remember crossing the border in the school bus, how stern and terrifying it all was.

A few years ago, I decided to put Mexico City on my wanderlust list. It was high up there, so Mr. H and I decided to go. We had planned a trip to Holbox Island to visit my wonderful blogger friend, Julie, and we decided to bookend it with two places we were very curious about: Mexico City and Cuba.

canals in mexico city

When we left for Mexico City and made the usual “we’re traveling to…” status update on Facebook, the reactions by family and friends were very similar: “Be safe!” and “Be careful!”

I’ve traveled to a fair amount of places over the years, and never have I seen such worried reactions as a send-off. Like us, my family and many of my friends had never been to Mexico City. They only knew what they had heard or read.

It’s because of what we don’t know about another place that makes us fear. Travel is the best remedy for any of us who fear the unknown. That’s why we chose to see Mexico City, a city with over 20 million people, for ourselves.

mexico city museum

I had the pleasure of being connected with a local, Mariana, through a friend/client of ours, Sada. She knew Mariana and I would hit it off, because we were both yogis and marketers around the same age.

(The world isn’t so different, is it?)

tacos in mexico city

Mr. H and I met Mariana for some proper tacos al Pastor, where we grilled her about the real Mexico City.

It was our first night in the city, and we had yet to see visions of drug cartels roaming the streets, with ammo strapped across their chests like beauty pageant queen sashes. Because that doesn’t actually exist inside Mexico City.

mexico city tacos al pastor

When I told Mariana about the safety concerns so many Americans have, she completely understood. In fact, she said the same thing Mr. H and I always say about being in a city: “Yeah, it’s a city.”

We have plenty of cities in America with plenty of problems. You’re not going to walk around the worst neighborhood in Los Angeles by yourself at night. So, why do that in Mexico City In the end, Mr. H and I didn’t have any problems while we were there.

As we ate our way through most of Mexico City, the days passed quickly. We left no tacos unturned and found culinary treasures everywhere.

Even when you’ve only eaten ten minutes ago, mouth-watering scents smack you in the face while you’re hustling down the street. And, you ignore your tightening waistband to pull over at a nearby street food vendor to eat again.

mexico city street food scene

I managed to skip this rather exotic cuisine…

eating bugs in mexico city

…or, so I thought.

I found out later I had already eaten a healthy portion of bugs, since crushed up grasshoppers or crickets mixed with chili powder and salt rimmed the glasses of mezcal cocktails I enjoyed throughout the week.

Despite the bug appetizers and Facebook warnings I read before boarding the plane, I survived the magical chaos of Mexico City and learned so much about the culture and people I lived side by side with most of my life.

mexico city canals

You know, there is something so magnificent when you’re standing before Diego Rivera’s fresco, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Alameda.

In 1985 a terrible earthquake in Mexico City killed thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of buildings—including the very hotel with Diego’s masterpiece inside. The painting survived, completely intact with a few cracks.

diego rivera mexico city

You can stare at Dream of a Sunday Afternoon for hours, but you’ll only catch a glimpse of the magic bursting through the colors. That was how I felt when I left Mexico City. Like I only scratched the surface, and I wanted more. And, I knew then that one day I would be back.

There are no easy answers. That’s why it’s so crucial for us to experience people, places, and cultures for ourselves. Even Mexico City won’t last forever. Like Venice, it’s sinking. And…there are earthquakes.

mexico city things to do

As with any place in the world, my experience in Mexico City won’t be the same as someone else’s. I went with a thirst for knowledge, to gain a better understanding of a culture and its people, one that was a part of me in so many ways. I went with a sense of adventure, not with fear.

I think that’s important for all of us, especially when we judge a place without truly knowing it. What we hear and read are one thing. What we see for ourselves is another story…most often, a better one.

fountain in coyoacan

A note…I visited Mexico City in May 2017. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit a few months later in September, killing over 200 in the city and more in the surrounding area. My travel publications about Mexico City were delayed out of respect.

In case you missed it in December, here is my piece on Intrepid Travel…

The Surprises and Delights of Visiting Mexico CityUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de México

24 thoughts on “The Magical Chaos of Mexico City

  1. It sounds like a wonderful trip Britt. I’ve only really ever heard bad things about Mexico city, in terms of violence and drugs, so it wouldn’t be somewhere I’d have thought of visiting, so it’s good to get another point of view.

    1. It was such an awesome time, Andrea! We hear a lot of bad things about Mexico City, for sure! Don’t think I’ve ever heard anything good about it, except from a few travelers (Letizia, being one of them). That was why I took the risk.

  2. As I’ve mentioned previously, I do so want to go to Mexico City, if for nothing else than to see my dear friend Reta and The Blue House, but I know there is oh, so much more 🙂 “It’s a city” pretty much covers it. Thanks for sharing more of your trip, Britt.

    1. You should go, Joey! It is a very reasonable trip, actually. Plane tickets weren’t bad—even from Portland. Once you’re there—especially with the exchange rate—your dollars will go far. We took Ubers for only a few dollars that would have cost an arm and a leg here. Definitely worth going for the culture and food!

  3. How wonderful you got to experience this. It’s easy to let fear dictate our travel destinations, but we risk missing out on so much that way. Not sure I’ll be making any trips to Mexico in the near future, but I enjoyed seeing it through your eyes very much.

  4. Ever so glad that you could discover and enjoy the beauties of Mexico City! Traveling is such an eye-opener that it should be mandatory, don’t you think? How else do you truly meet people and immerse yourself in a culture? Books and pictures are fine, but your words here and the actual experience of living locally is much more fulfilling.
    Thanks for the tour!

    1. Haha, TOTALLY agree that travel should be mandatory! Everyone works too much in the U.S., so mandatory vacations would be great. Although, that probably isn’t something companies want. Another reason to work for yourself! 😉

  5. My husband and I spent our honeymoon in Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. We were isolated from “true” Mexico as we opted to stay at an all-inclusive resort, but that choice was dictated by funds, not fear. 🙂 I want to travel more, after the kids are in college or have started their own families, and Mexico would be on the list.

    1. Same here. We went to Playa (which is awesome!) but it isn’t the real deal.

      Kate, I have some good reads for you for when you’re ready to explore more of the true Mexico. I wrote these articles for VIVA Lifestyle and Travel last year and did a bunch of research on colonial towns and the magical villages. Some of these places are definitely on my list.

      Colonial towns –

      Magical villages –

    1. I know! Exploring strange new places is the best. We all have ideas in our heads about what to expect and then we’re often surprised by what we find. That’s why travel is so important.

  6. Sounds like you had a fabulous time, Britt. I haven’t been to Mexico City, except for the airport, right? Like so many other people. I was always headed to Zihuatanejo. But it’s on our list of amazing culture/history-steeped places to go. We just haven’t had the time to travel as much in recent years, with other family commitments coming first. Our friends who are foodies here, came back with gustatory tales as well as those related to music and art. And the people? Well, so family-oriented. Wonderful. Cheers to another life experience!

  7. Your travel posts are also so much fun and informative! You always have a fresh, unique and painfully honest perspective which I really thoroughly enjoy. Plus as you often mention, it helps to have friends who make recommendations to help pave the way to more rewarding travel experiences. Your stories about Italy, Mexico and Cuba were awesome. I hugely look forward to reading about this year’s adventures!

    1. I chuckled at “painfully honest” but I love that! You can count on me. 🙂

      My blogging friend, Letizia (I think you know her), was the one that really got me thinking about Mexico City. It does help to know people that travel to places and come back with fresh perspectives. That’s why it’s so important for people to share their experiences—especially when off the beaten path.

  8. As usual, your gorgeous pictures and personal experience of a place revealed so much about who you are.

    You travel with an open heart and mind — the only 2 essentials we need to bring with us when we see new places.

    Great post, Britt. xox

    1. Thanks, Roy! Travel blogs are a great way to see the world, aren’t they? We’ll be heading to Northern Europe in a couple of weeks, so expect more travel fun in the near future. 🙂

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