Static like a human statue, I was standing at the locked turnstile, holding an empty metro card trying to figure out how to get to the airport with no money in my pocket. As the rush hour crowd was crossing me in all directions, I felt lost and scared. Seemingly out of nowhere, a woman suddenly touched my shoulder and scanned her worn and tattered card to let me into the station. This is the moment I felt at home in Mexico City.
Mexico City is the capital of Mexico with a population of over 9 million, is the home to the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world.
The Federal District is also the seat of the powers of the Union and is considered as one of the largest financial centers in the continent.
Before I left for this sprawling metropolis, my friends, worried about the negative attention Mexico seems to get in the media, expressed their concerns. “Are you traveling to Mexico City alone?” asked one of my closest friends before the departure. “Do you know how dangerous the city is?”
I was aware of the criminality in Mexico City, but as a traveler I didn’t want this to stop me from experiencing the rich culture of “deh eh-feh,” as the locals refer to the Distrito Federal.
Still, I had my alarm bells ready to go off.
After doing some pre-departure research in the comfort of my home in Los Angeles, I felt one of my initial challenges would be finding a legal taxi once arrived at Aeropuerto Internacional de México. The airport is littered with illegal taxi drivers looking to pick up unsuspecting tourists.
I remember reading that it is strongly recommended that you look for taxis with big signs on top of the car, transportation terrestre written on doors and a visible license showing the picture and name of the driver. Once at the airport, the unofficial drivers will wave at you and follow you around trying desperately to get you into their vehicle. While the unofficial cabs usually are run by men just looking to make some money for giving a ride in their personal car, there have been cases where tourists have been taken to abandoned areas and robbed of their credit cards and belongings.
This made me feel anxious.
What was I thinking? A small young woman trying to explore a massive city portrayed as a hotbed of criminal activity? Will I ever make it back? These were few of the questions that popped up in my head.
The day of my departure arrived.
As I started walking toward the check-in desk of the International terminal of LAX, I knew from that moment, everything was on me. All of the planning, all of my hesitation and fears, it was all behind me.
As the exit doors of Mexico City’s airport opened, I expected a massive and frantic crowd on the other side ready to grab my luggage and trick me into their car to take me somewhere to robbed me of everything. Yet, to my surprise, nobody was there. Not a single soul trying to prey on the petite Caucasian girl with the lost look on her face.
I kept walking, feeling confused and uncertain when I reached the cab legal stands inside the airport.
After some negotiation, I ended up booking a ride to the hotel for 165 pesos. “Hola, Av. 16 de Septiembre en el Centro por favor,” I said to the taxi driver with my fingers crossed, still not convinced a legal taxi driver wouldn’t rob me too.
After rushing in the traffic jam of a sunny morning in April, the Gran Hotel Mexico City concierge opened my cab door and escorted me inside the hotel.
While admiring the historical Art Nouveau style of the Tiffany stained-glass ceiling towers, Louis XV- style chandelier and gilded open elevators in the lobby, I checked-in.
The hotel, much like the rest of Mexico City, is rich with history. The building wasn’t always a hotel, nor was it even built for the purpose of housing travelers.
The building was built in 1899 for a merchant name Jose Teresa. Originally, it was known as the Merchantile Center. The building was an example of how Mexico was modernizing its building techniques. At the end of the 19th Century, Mexico adopted iron and concrete in their construction, and the Merchantile Center was one of the first examples of this new technique.
Inside my room on the 4th floor of the majestic hotel, I started settling in when a forceful and unexpected knock hit my door. My alarm bells fear skyrocket. Even in this luxurious hotel, my anxiety about what I had read about Mexico was in the forefront of my mind.
Looking through the eyehole shyly, I saw two young men dressed in white holding a silver plate.
I opened the door and received a welcome treat composed by strawberry, chocolate, and whipped cream. I started to realize that the only way I could open my mind to experience all of what Mexico City has to offer was if I let go of any fears that I had.
After finishing up the sweat plate, I was ready to explore the city.
I immediately headed to one of the most recognizable locations in Mexico City, the Plaza de la Constitución, or El Zócalo as it’s known locally. There is a reason why this is one of the most popular gathering places in Mexico City, as it is a gigantic and impressive place. El Zócalo has welcomed visiting Heads of States, hosted military and independence parades, and is the central location for many Mexican religious events, such as Holy Week.
After leaving El Zocalo, I was headed to Palacio Bellas Artes, or Palace of Fine Arts, where only two days later, the funeral of Nobel Prize in Literature Gabriel García Márquez would be held. To locals and visitors alike, this exquisite building is known as the cultural center of Mexico City. While the building’s first stones were laid in 1904, political instability, and financial issues kept the building from being completed until 1934. Since it’s opening, the building has housed some of the most notable events in Mexican arts, from music and theater to painting and photography. In 1987, the “Cathedral of Art in Mexico” was declared an artistic monument by UNESCO.
In awe of the beauty and architectonical variety surrounding me, I stumbled on a drain and fell down violently on my hands and knees.
Immediately, four locals were asking if I was ok. They helped me get back on my feet while retrieving my sunglasses and a few other items scattered on the street.
As the hours kept progressing, I continued to feel more comfortable with exploring this city that seemed much smaller than it really is. I walked with a smile on my face and felt an excitement for seeing the beautiful side of Mexico City. I had fallen for the city. In more ways than one.
Mexico City was an amazing location for documentary-travel photography. As I walked aimlessly through the streets, getting lost in the energy of Mexico City, I captured scenes of children playing in the water fountains of Alameda Park, local celebrations of Mexican tradition, mariachi bands singing, vendors selling bananas frittas and much more.
After my quick four days exploring the city, I couldn’t stop looking at these scenes on my flight back to Los Angeles.
Vivid in my memory was the humanity of the people I met, from the 85-year-old grandma next to me on the hot air balloon flying over the Teotihuacan Pyramids, to taxi drivers, police officers, street vendors, hotel personnel, waiters and most of all, the everyday citizens that I crossed paths with.
2As a traveler, I want to believe in the kindness of people even if we are reminded differently almost every day by the media. There are two sides to every story, and I saw the other side of Mexico City. The one I was led to believe didn’t exist.
Having said that it doesn’t mean someone should be naïve, especially when traveling to an unfamiliar area. Still, it is important to explore the world with a positive attitude, carrying as little prejudice as possible.
“Miss, did you travel alone?” the immigration officer at the airport asked suspiciously.
I did. And it was an incredible experience that I will never forget.
Mexico City Travel Information
When to go:
Because of its consistently pleasant weather, it is possible to travel to Mexico City at any time of the year. The coldest and, consequently, most smog-infested months are December and January while the warmest months are April and May. However, the climate is fairly mild all year around.
How to get there:
Non-stop round trip flights from Los Angeles will set you back about $350, whereas JFK out of New York is not much more expensive, where you can find a variety of flights for around $450.
Travel Photographers should not miss:
– Stroll through the Centro Histórico, the city’s historic downtown.
– Walk around the trendy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, lined with cafés, galleries, and bars.
– Get your hands dirty having lunch at Taquería Tlaquepaque on Av Independencia 4, Colonia Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06000.
– Walk through Chapultapec Park.
– Go up the 43rd floor of Torre Latino.
– Go to Plaza Garibaldi and to hear some amazing Mariachi music.
– Wander around and get lost.