Poem 18: I put the mysterious compass on the table...

I put the mysterous compass on the table 
the needles were spinning rapidly in both 
directions
because the universe is lost, 
the universe hit its head
and falls whistling through
white hot stars, blind
stars, people, and animals,
all bang their heads
statues of saints slip off the back
of flatbed trucks, tumble endlessly
into the void, they fall frozen in
their tears and prayer-clasped hands
flesh too falls from me, i am ashed out
and dissolved with a whirling spoon
into some black vinegar, put into a vial
a man keeps in his coatpocket, he looks down
drunk, desperate, scratches indecepherable
lines on the muck with a stick
and has no idea where to go,
for the vital human compass, the heart,
with its arterial concert, and small
understanding, is pulsing, spinning,
forever lost in its slow self loathing
and well-regulated movement


--David Stokes

Big Land City Guide: Mexico City


This post is dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico City, who prays over all souls in El D.F. 

Mexico City (called D.F. by the locals) is a stunning city. For the last four years I have lived in the city during the winter months and I am proud to be an honorary chilango. I have written this guide to the city in the hopes that it is as complete and honest an account of things you should know to make your trip to DF better.

Snapshot of Mexico City 

Mexico's capital is a city of immense energy and a crumbling glamour. Everywhere endless varieties of things are for sale under little stalls (puestos), marching bands wander past even on little residential streets, clowns and fire-breathers stand at street corners, twisting jacaranda trees bloom purple and rain down their confetti of lavender flowers all over parked old Volkswagen Beetles and Mexico City's strange earthquake-creased sidewalks. Most of the buildings are covered with cracks and you can see the volcano Popocatépetl, to the southeast of the city, endlessly breathing out a silhouette of ash.

Everywhere in DF you will feel the differences between the rich the middle class and the poor, the indigenous and the colonial, who despite living in very different circumstances, rub shoulders with each other in the city centre. The city constantly brings together different identities and possibilities, where tradition and culture are possessed by the poor and the wealthy alike, mixing moods and styles. The people are incredibly friendly and full of warmth. Less people know English than I initially imagined, but thankfully the people are so kind and so used to visitors that only a very basic knowledge of Spanish is needed to feel like you can get by in the city.
  
And while Mexico City in total is a huge sprawling megalopolis with probably close to 21 million people (making it the tenth largest metro area by population in the world), the city that people visit is merely the inner hub of that huge wheel. This inner hub isn't really so crowded or overwhelming. It isn't truly connected to the other, vastly poorer outer ring of the city. In fact it's easier to go to another touristy town from Mexico City centre than it is to commute from the poor areas of Mexico City to the centre. This hub city is really just the 'nice parts' of town, like those we visit in any place we go as tourists. This inner hub is very safe, and absolutely overflowing with incredible trees, parks, museums, and pretty buildings (few of which exist in the poor areas). But despite mixing the rich and poor on a daily basis, it is certainly a bubble kept alive by favoring this sector of the city. {This is not to say that the outer areas are uninteresting or unworthy of attention; just that few visitors really see them, and that's totally by design of the city government. I had the pleasure of living for a few months in Ajusco - out of city centre by about an hour and a half of dense urban mountain roads, though not really that deep into the beast tbh - and I found life there to be very nice. I paid about $10 CAD a week for a bare bones room. The view over the city was incredible. And I could go to the city if I wanted, or take a bus in front of the house to a beautiful rural town about 20 minutes up the mountain, for hiking.}

DF is beautiful and spiritual, but definitely not the easiest place in the world to live, and I think a lot of people who might otherwise be charmed by it's art galleries and historic buildings would find it hard to settle down. The city is also really challenging for the elderly and anyone dealing with mobility issues.

Many of the following tips - or rules as I'm referring to them (they are my rules for myself here) - have to do with making some of the chaotic aspects of the city easier to manage. If you are only coming here for a few days and going to be basically hanging out in Polanco and Condesa, then you will probably not even feel much of the need. But anyone who stays here longer will definitely soon make up their own list of tips for surviving in el D.F.


Rule #1: Always carry extra toilet paper and always carry an emergency 10 peso to access the bathroom

Using the bathroom in Mexico City can be tough because many bathrooms are a bit rough. The thing is that you will most likely be using the bathrooms here a lot, because of the high rate of food poisoning. This is a fact of life for a foreigner in Mexico, and in my experience it is the worst aspect of my otherwise charmed life here in Mexico. There's a hilarious Guardian article ("Using public toilets all over Mexico City completely changed the way I viewed it") about this, and I remember reading it before I came and thinking that it was pretty quirky; now, it's all to real, and like reading a page from my own autobiography.

Often you need to pay between 5 and 7 pesos to enter the bathroom. An attendant will hand you a comically small amount of toilet paper. Somehow everyone is getting by with 3-4 sheets. But believe me you'll be happy you brought extra. Or, let's say you are visiting a public library or museum, and you go to the bathroom, only to realize while you're in the stall that it doesn't have any paper. Many public buildings simply never have TP or even soap (special shout out to the otherwise amazing Biblioteca de Mexico!). This is why you need to always have your own TP. And never spend your emergency bathroom 10 pesos. Due to the large denomination bills in Mexico, you will always be running out of change and  No matter how much you want to use that 10 pesos You will need it. Some washrooms don't have an attendant but a turnstile that requires change. Don't be surprised if a toilet doesn't have a seat; in this case you just sit on the ceramic part. These are very common in bus stations and public baños.


Rule #2: Throw toilet paper into the 'basura', not the toilet; and don't be surprised if a toilet has no water to flush

The plumbing in Mexico City (and the rest of Mexico) isn't very robust. Hence it's common practice to throw your used TP into a wastebasket beside the toilet. The women of Mexico have (mostly) mastered the art of throwing their TP used-side down. The men not so much. If a toilet doesn't flush when you press the lever that usually means that they are flushing it by pouring a bucket into the bowl. Ask for water. Often you will wash your hands using water from a bucket too.


Rule #3: Don't eat the street food? Don't Eat The Street Food!  

Lots of people are worried about the crime in Mexico. Realistically I think they should be more worried about food poisoning. This is a more common terror, and it makes Mexico sometimes a land where you live in fear, desperately hoping that that last bite doesn't bring you great agony and destroy your plans for the week. Nothing has caused me more discomfort and despair in Mexico than the food poisoing, which seems to be an ailment particular to DF.

The street food is everywhere and looks amazing. And yes I've had delicious, utterly tasty street food. Regardless of whether I tried to eat it all the time to acclimatize myself to it, or avoided it save for very infrequent, oh-just-this-once nibblings, both has led to terrible food poisoning.

If you are here for only a short time and illness would totally ruin your stay, then don't eat the street food at all. All the normal advice you hear, like how you should only eat at a busy place, and make sure you can see how the food is being prepared and handled, applies, though again be very careful and you are better off to avoid it altogether. I have gotten the most sick from street food, but I've also gotten sick from food from restaurants that offered food prepared not much differently than street food. I've never been sick from any homemade food or food someone has served me in their house. And most of the food that has made me sick has come from places and dishes that weren't truly exceptional looking or tasting; generally the first bite wasn't amazing and I should have just stopped. But some of my food poisoning has come from delicious food.

The food poisoning I've had usually has an onset of 2 to 5 hours after the meal. 10 hours and I think you are in the clear. I've so far only gotten sick from food with meat in it. The illness is characterized by intense abdominal pain and vomiting and diarrhea. The intense pain and repeated vomiting usually passes after one very painful utterly delirious day or night. However, almost worse (and much more disruptive to your life) is the lingering problem of intermittent diarrhea and abdominal pain that can continue for 1 to 3 weeks. This makes even quick trips to the grocery store an exercise in worry, pain, and embarrassment. I think it's reasonable to pack a pair of adult diapers. I also always have a plastic bag in my knapsack, in case of sudden vomiting. My Mexican girlfriend laughs at me for this but I don't care. I'd rather wear a diaper than have an accident on a public bus. Mexicans tend not to get the food poisoning and do not understand the experience.

Absolutely avoid any risky food if you have any travel plans (bus, plane) in the next day. You do not want to get on a plane or a bus and discover you have diarrhea while on a bumpy 9 hour bus ride in a bus that doesn't have a bathroom and is careening around mountain roads at night in Guerrero. 

So basically, admire the street food. Be envious of the street food. But really, it's only for Mexicans. It's there national treasure, their genetics blesses them with this, but it's probably not for you.

(The one thing that I think is pretty safe is fruit cut-up on the street, where you can see the guy wearing gloves and using a clean-looking knife to cut up watermelon or oranges or jicama, etc. Also I've never been sick from orange juice freshly pressed in front of me on the street. The abundance of fruit street food is amazing and I stick to this much safer type of street food. Also the hot early morning beverages like 'atole' and the foods like churros and the chilaquiles seem to be pretty safe.)


Rule #4: Pay attention: keep one eye on the uneven ground; keep another looking for low hanging wires and other things

Due to decades of earthquakes and lack of maintenance, Mexico City's sideways are incredibly cracked, creased, upheaved, and riddled with holes. Even in fancy neighborhoods the ground is uneven and you'll need to keep an eye on making sure you don't trip or fall into a hole. Mexico City also has a lot of hanging wires to watch out for, as well as lots of low hanging roofs, especially of street stalls - puestos. If you don't pay attention you will walk into a wire, a hole, or the edge of a puesto.

Rule #5: Be mindful of pickpockets

I've never been pickpocketted but my friend who had just arrived to see me had his phone stolen on the second day. We were walking in the historic center, a few blocks north of the zocalo, and the sidewalks were crowded. At a street corner while waiting for the light to change a group of short women suddenly mobbed around my friend and then dispersed. His phone was gone with them, lifted from his pants pocket. To avoid pickpockets I tend to stand directly on the curb at streetcorners, walk fast through busy streets, and I have also attached zippers to my pants pockets, though a safety pin works too. The historic centre and on buses are the places you need to be most mindful of this.


Rule #6: Avoid Travelling on Public Transit at Rush Hour

Mexico City has a very extensive network of buses and subways, and they are incredibly cheap to use - only 6 pesos per ride. But they are crowded. At rush hours (8-10am; 4-7pm) so crowded that you may get carried into a bus or subway by a mass of people pushing and shoving behind you. This becomes especially intense and dangerous the further you are from the wealthy centre of the city; outlying subway stations often have people so packed together that you move as a herd, and will be unable to move forward or back or get out of the crush. My bag was once stripped off my back by the crowd in this manner, and my coat too, which ended up on the subway tracks. But the buses and subways are pretty chill at off peak hours. At all times people go up and down the subways and try to sell stuff, including beggars who often seem to be in serious states of distress.

Outside of rush hours the buses and subways are quite managable.

Also note that the metro buses and the subways have special cars at the front of the vehicle exclusively for the use of women, the elderly, the disabled, and children. Often there is a barrier guarded by a police officer making sure only eligible passengers get on, and these cars are often labeled with pink. 


Rule #7: Bring a small umbrella

When it rains in Mexico City (usually in the afternoon, between 3 and 7) it really rains. Sometimes it hails, and a hailstorm here can last for 20-30 minutes.

Note on Earthquakes 

Mexico City sits near a fault line and on top of very soggy soil that increases the amount of energy transfered into buildings during earthquakes. The famous 1985 earthquake killed untold thousands. Thankfully, after that disaster, the city is one of only 2 major cities in the world to have installed an earthquake early warning system. The alarms will go off if an earthquake's seismic wave is heading towards the city. When an alarm goes off you have between 20 and 60 seconds to get out of your building and find saftey in the street. The alarm is a loud tone followed by the words 'Alerta Sismica Alerta Sismica'.

In general, for people who want to avoid earthquakes at all costs, the buildings built on hillsides and on rocky highland and volcanic soils tend to be barely affected (many of these areas are to the south of the city). The worst affected are those near the old city, Roma, Condesa, and thereabouts, which was built on the old lakebed. 

Note on Police Corruption and Bribes

If you do anything at all out of the ordinary in your enviroment you might have trouble with the police. The police

Note on Sexism and Street Harassment 

An unfortunate reality of life in DF is the behavior of many men in the city towards women. Leering and wolf whistling is common. I have seen many a taxi cab driver slow my ride down just so he can keep ogling a woman on the street. Some men go further and either grope women while in the perennially crowded buses or daytime streets. My girlfriend chooses to avoid wearing skirts or revealing clothing in the city due to all these behaviors. Obviously people who do wear those clothes are not looking for those behaviors or responsible in any way for them. But this is just a head's up about the situation here.


Note on D.F. Fashion 

Nobody wears shorts in DF, but otherwise the city is very diverse in it's style. A guy passes on a motorbike with a t-shirt that says A.C.I.D.  Many cholo looks. I just saw one cholo guy in a paisely patterned sweater and a purple ska plaid hat. A t-shirt that reads BLACK and has small text in English explaining the virtues of the color, how it signifies night and mourning and hiddenness. A guy on the subway wearing totally normal clothing but one hand is in a black glove covered with silver spikes. You can get away with wearing any combination of patterns and fabrics and logos on your clothes. But don't wear shorts.



Note on Love in DF (i.e. PDA) 

Everyone, young, and especially, old, couples make out in public in DF. Be ready to see teenagers making out, young couples making out, and again, especially, older couples, making out, on buses, in parks, in the subway, etc.

Note on People and Children Who Come Into Restaurants and Try and Sell You Stuff 

Most likely this happens all over the world, but in DF don't be surprised if a very young child comes up to your table at a restaurant, even very late at night, and wants to sell you some candy, galetas, or other sweets. D.F. is also a city where if you want to buy a cigarette you may find yourself buying one from a child.

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A Few of My Favorite Things To Do In DF

1. One of my favorite things to do here is to go for a walk quite early in the morning, as Mexico City is a morning city, a giantess awakening from 5am to 11am, and there are stunning views of the sun rising behind the volcano Popocatépetl and lots of street vendors selling delicious atole from metal carts and young boys selling churros from baskets.

2. Xochimilco ('Sochi - milco') is one of the coolest places on the planet and you must check it out if you are in DF. Everyone needs to try the colorful trajinero boat trips through Xochimilco, but I also recommend the parts of this area that you can access via bridges (such as here: https://goo.gl/maps/hP2qcHkEpwVNHpCS7 and then past where the google map shows, the satellite view is useful) and absolutely cool is one of the many hand-ferries that you can take across the canals (there's a cool one here: https://goo.gl/maps/6ST2wzxMiLemkZPNA )

3. The Biblioteca de Mexico and the surrounding parks/squares and streets are some of my favourite in the city. You can have an amazing pambazo (a crema, lettuce, and potato sandwhich with an achiote sauce on the bread) here. You really need to have a pambazo in Mexico City, they are addictive. Many of the places in Roberto Bolaño's 'Savage Detectives' are modelled after places in this area. Check out the Cerveceria Vizcaya for a very interesting drinking establishment (thanks to Hamish for showing me this place). 

4. I love to look at all the many little shrines to saints and Jesus placed everywhere all over DF. One of my absolute favorites is 'the Virgin of the Metro'. The story is this: a subway worker’s child noticed that a water stain on the floor of Mexico City’s bustling Hidalgo Metro station bore a miraculous likeness to the nation’s most powerful religious symbol, the beloved Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. Thousands of Mexico’s faithful then flocked to see the subway tile, jostling with millions of commuters in the modern fluorescence of the downtown station to offer roses and coins, rub the stain for blessings or kneel, gape and weep over it in awe. The scene confounded subway officials, who hired 25 guards to control the crowds, fenced off the spot and pasted up displays declaring, “It is not a miracle.” The portion of the tile with the apparation has since been removed from the floor of the subway and now stands outside in a special shrine. 

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Good restaurants in Mexico City

#1: "Tortas Al Fuego" (aka 'the Sonora place')
Open 24 hours
Located beside Metrobus Sonora

I've never had the tortas here and the name of the restaurant is a bit of a misnomer, since they have a tonne of food options and everything is amazing and the prices are the best in the city. My girlfriend and I have eaten here countless times and it is our favorite place in the city. It's not fancy but it's very clean and the service is good and we usually sit upstairs by the window so don't steal our spot! It's also open 24 hours (!).

Try an agua de fresa as your drink, the sopa de tortilla or the sopa de pollo or the frijoles charros (all are amazing with a bit of lime, really I would often come here and just order like 4 soups as my dinner...), the enchiladas verde or mole (these are served only until 8pm), the costanza de res (a steak, and a bargain at 55 pesos, with chilaquiles! also served till 8pm), the alambres, and the 33 peso order of 5 tacos al pastor (notice the enormous trumpo of meat roasting outside). These tacos are definitely the cheapest good quality tacos in Mexico.

The seafood options at the restaurant are really good though not as consistent. I like the ceviche de camaron. Everything here is a bargain.

Pro tip: the sidewalk outside the restaurant has these Mexican pinball gambling games, and somehow, miraculously, they actually pay out serious money... I once put in a 5 peso coin, totally randomly played the pinball and just hit buttons blindly, and the machine began to spit out almost 100 pesos worth of coins! A machine started giving me free money, on the street, in Mexico. I couldn't believe it. That 100 pesos buys a lot of food at Tortas al Fuego. Try your luck.


#2: Potzollcalli
Various locations

I've only had one thing here but it's so good. It's the pozole de Jalisco (Rojo), a truly delicious soup, that also comes in a delicious chilangro verde option. The best part: it's already a good deal at 100 pesos, but on Thursdays this soup is 2 for 1. There's a knack though to getting the full extent of the flavor of this soup, which is sort of the Mexican cousin to Vietnamese pho, which also is all about how you garnish and accrutrament it.

First is too add lots of the onion, radish, lettuce, and lime that they bring each order with on a platter. Then crumble up the chicaron and avocado they bring. Then add the salsa de ajo (the salsa with burnt garlic in it). Then enjoy that perfect soup.

I have no idea if anything else here is any good. One time I had a milkshake here and it was pretty bad. Also the cakes here look really good and they display them like treasures in a glass fridge near the entrance, but whenever I've had them I've been disappointed.

#3: El Turix, in Polanco;
      Cobá, in Napoles

Two different options for amazing Yucatan food.

El Turix is a hole in the wall in Polanco, and it may be the only hole in the wall in tony Polanco. Certainly it's the only cheap food I've ever had in that neighborhood, and it's the only iconic restaurant there. You absolutely must go to this restaurant if you are in Polanco, it's an essential stop.

Coba is a local chain I think and doesn't have the absolutely realness of El Turix, but the food is almost as good, and they do have more variety. And tables. It's actually a really comfy, cute and casually elegant spot, though it's not really a hip place at all. Try a panucho de cochinita, or a panucho de lomitas, which are both really tasty. For fun you can try the panucho of shark, 'cazon', which sounds more exciting than it tastes, since it just tastes like any white fish.

Cobá has an amazing 2 for 1 tacos and panuchos deal on Mondays all day. That's the day to go.

#4: Mercado de San Pedro de los Pinos

The stall here with the green chairs is great. It's across from a candy merchant. The only mercado stall I trust for this type of food. Try the tacos de bistec con queso. Or the pambazo de papas con toda (lettuce, onion, and cremá). There's another stall here with a great flan, and another stall with great seafood. Everything else is sorta ok but not nearly as good as the stall with green high top chairs.

I will also here make a special shout out to the pambazo. Try a pambazo. I didn't fall in love on my first pambazo. But I am now in love with pambazos. It will happen.

#5: Dhaka Biriyani 
Calle Kansas 13, Naples, 03810 Mexico City: Closes 9PM

This place is amazing. By far the best Bangledeshi / Indian food I've had in Mexico City. Truly a great restaurant. The prices are fair and reasonable and the portions are very satisfying. The flavors are totally perfect. And the guys who run the restaurant are very nice. I really recommend this place! Can not wait to go back!

#6: Ka Won Seng Jia Wang Cheng 
and Yi Pin Ju

These are the two best Chinese restuarants that I've tried in DF. They are very good. Just make sure you ask the waiter if the meat has bones or not (one thing I ordered was mostly bone...). But absolutely amazing food. Avoid going to most Chinese places in DF, and especially avoid the buffet Chinese places. At Yi Pin Ju you can pay with Visa, but only cash at Ka Won Seng.

#7: The various fruit stalls and carts around the city

#8: Tiangias Nuevo York for the mixcote

#9: Ojo de Agua 

A popular and very posh looking place with very good juices. My favourite was the agua horchata de coco.

#10: Pasteleria Alcazar Quintana Roo

A comfortable and very simple coffee shop chain in the city. Good coffee, cheap, and elegant surroundings.

#11: La Mascota

This is a bar (a cantina) where they serve botanas - little snacks or small meals - free with your order of beer. The beer is about 70 pesos which is about 50 pesos more than usual but they will serve you tacos or carnitas or stranger offerings of your choice from the daily menu, like pigs feet or soup oxtail soup. A very charming and old world sort of place. You can also pay by Visa.

#12: Cantina la potosina

Another cantina, this one doesnt serve botanas (they will give you peanuts though). Just a very old school and charming spot, definitely few tourists come by here.





One of the ubiquitous pinball gambling machines in DF