Mexico City: Everyone Seems to Love It, Except Us

(Melissa takes the pen on this post)

Everyone I’ve talked to about Mexico City has raved about it. Random travelers we meet recommend it. Everyone online—tourists, digital nomads like us, and the huge influx of people working remotely because of covid—apparently adores the place. Sure, it’s a bit loud, they say, but the food is absolutely amazing! There’s history, art, and architecture! There are more museums than in any other city! There’s glorious weather all year! It’s a great place for street photography!

With all that hype, how could we say no? So, when we were looking for somewhere in the Americas for a quick(ish) spring trip, we decided to spend three weeks in Mexico City. (In making that decision, I somehow neglected to remember that I hate huge cities in general and that Latin American cities can be particularly loud and crazy.)

The reality:

  • I got altitude sickness and had a constant headache for the first four days. Mexico City is at 7,300 feet; I forgot about that, too, when planning to visit the city.
  • Chris had intestinal problems that generally kept her in bed for the last 10 days. That seems to happen to her more often in Latin America than in Asia, for some reason, even though we eat street food in every country we visit.
Mexico City, seen here from our plane, is the world’s fifth-biggest metropolis
Skyscrapers and lower buildings in the Juarez district
The view from our apartment in the Juarez district
  • Twenty-two million people live in the Mexico City metro area; it’s the fifth-largest city in the world. There are at least 10 million cars. That is way more people and cars than I can handle. The noise, the traffic chaos, and the sheer number of pedestrians made being on the main streets stressful to the point of pain, and we couldn’t even escape it in our apartment (for reasons explained below).
  • The city’s historical center was mobbed with people, both locals (it’s the main business district) and many, many tourists. I generally felt overwhelmed when I was there. The opportunities for street photography were quite good, but I usually didn’t want to be out in the noise and chaos shooting photos.
People lined up in front of red stone Baroque church
Crowds in front of the tabernacle next to the cathedral in the historic center
  • Although Mexico City’s air pollution has improved massively over the past couple of decades (birds live here now!), it was still bad enough that we woke up in the morning thinking the world smelled like exhaust. I learned the interesting fact that fossil fuels don’t fully combust at high altitude, so vehicles produce more emissions. That problem, combined with intense sunlight and the city’s location in a bowl surrounded by mountains, makes the air pollution much worse than it might be otherwise.
  • It was much hotter when we were there in April than weather averages from previous years suggested it would be. We hate heat and weren’t really prepared for it, packing-wise. The heat made walking around doing tourist things much less pleasant than we’d expected, so we didn’t end up seeing as many sights as we’d planned to.
Children lying in the water in a park fountain
Kids cooling off in a city park during a very hot April
  • Since the city’s climate is (or used to be?) mild year-round, apartments generally don’t have heat or air conditioning. To keep cool(ish), we had to leave the windows in our AirBnB apartment open day and night. That meant there was no escape from the pollution and the street noise, even though our lovely, modern apartment (in the upscale district of Juarez) was nine stories up.
  • Besides all the usual city noises (rumbling trucks, rattling buses, police sirens, car alarms), Mexico City has frustrated drivers who honk incessantly. There are also endless recorded announcements blaring from megaphones on vehicles that cruise the streets trying to sell or buy things. Common ones in our neighborhood included food trucks announcing their products (“tamales Oaxaquenos, tamales dulces, tamales de mole”), the sharp whistle made by carts selling baked sweet potatoes, and the distinctive droning, sing-song announcement of the trucks that buy scrap metal and old appliances.

Frustrated by the overwhelmingness of the city, we debated going home early. But instead we decided to move to another AirBnB apartment in a quieter part of the city. The district of Condesa is one of the most wealthy and elite areas of central Mexico City. Along with the neighboring district of Roma, it’s where most expats and digital nomads live. Apartments there are very, very expensive by local standards (and a bit of a stretch for us).

Purple building with sidewalk cafe on the ground floor
A typical Condesa cafe (and the ever-present jumbles of wires)

Moving to Condesa helped a lot with the noise issue and gave us easier access to green parks and sidewalk cafes. On the downside, there was little street food around, the restaurants were expensive, and we were surrounded by gringos speaking English. The neighborhood seemed very livable as a place to hang out and do remote work, so I can understand its popularity. But we were feeling sick of the city by that point.

In spite of all the negatives, there were some things we really enjoyed in Mexico City:

  • The food was very good (as promised), especially the tacos al pastor and fresh juices. Chris loved starting the day with an omelet of chorizo and onions and a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Our favorite restaurant was Taqueria Orinoco, where we had lunch or dinner almost every other day.
Exterior of Taqueria Orinoco
Our favorite taco place
Big jugs of juice
The wonderful fresh juices of Mexico City
  • The National Museum of Anthropology was fascinating and hugely informative. Its amazing collection is so big that we couldn’t make it through the museum in two full days.
Large stone alter with cat head
A sacrificial alter of the Mexica (what the Aztecs called themselves) excavated in Mexico City
Big painted reproduction of a Mexica temple
A reproduction of part of a 15th- to 16th-century Mexica temple that stood in what is now Mexico City
  • There were beautiful purple jacaranda trees—a sign of spring in Mexico City—blooming everywhere. Like Washington D.C.’s cherry trees, the first jacarandas were gifts from the government of Japan (because cherry trees don’t do well in Mexico City’s climate).
Blooming purple tree in front of stone wall and blue sky

Overall, I far prefer Oaxaca and Merida to Mexico City. I like the food and colonial architecture better, and the noise/traffic/crowd issues are much more manageable. This trip was a good reminder that we tend to prefer small to mid-size cities. We really should only go to megacities briefly to see important sights—like national museums and famous cathedrals—before heading to the smaller, quieter places that better suit the way we like to live.  

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