I still have many cities to visit. I’ve been to some pretty wonderful places, both in the U.S. and around the world. I’m thankful to have been able to see as much as I’ve seen and look forward to seeing more. Berlin and Istanbul and Barcelona and New York, London and Copenhagen and Ljubljana and Guadalajara and Washington, D.C. So many beautiful, electrifying places to see and experience (excited to add Accra to that list soon).
Maybe it’s the excitement of recent experience or the building sentiment and anticipatory nostalgia of almost being done with our Mexico posting, but at the moment, at least, I have to say a new Favorite City in the World has emerged for me: Mexico City. And I feel the need to spread the gospel of this beautiful place and its warm inhabitants.
While I’m not terribly fond of the kids’ school year stretching nearly to July, I do love the long breaks they get throughout the year: the three-week Christmas break, the last Fridays of the month off, the two-week spring break. We’re on week 2 of spring break now (ensconced in my parents’ home in Santa Fe, yet another lovely city I’ve had the opportunity to know) and I’m finding myself with an unusual amount of time to reflect and write. Week 1 was spent with Andrés and the kids in Mexico City and I can’t say enough good things about our experience there.
One thing that struck me about Mexico City is what an amazing blend of “old” and “new” worlds it is. I had to remind myself repeatedly that I was not in Europe but in Mexico. The streets and buildings of the city center felt far more like Europe to me than like anything I’d ever experienced in the U.S., Canada, or other places in Mexico (though, granted, my experience of other places in Mexico is still sadly limited). There are sidewalk cafes and cobbled streets. As Andrés and I sipped coffee and the kids nibbled waffles and fresh pastries I was reminded more by far of Budapest than of our temporary home of Ciudad Juárez. But there is a clear and omnipresent connection to the city’s pre-European past – most strikingly seen at one end of the central square, the Zócalo, where it’s possible to stand on a sidewalk with the city’s towering cathedral on one side and the ruins of the pre-Columbian Templo Mayor on the other.
One thing that was undeniably, recognizably Mexican was the warmth, pride, and generosity of the people we encountered. In all of my travels I have never met people more genuinely happy to welcome visitors and share their culture, their food, and their enthusiasm for life than the people I’ve come to know in Mexico. When Andrés asked a fellow customer for recommendations at a street food spot in Xochimilco, the man came over to us later to see if we had enjoyed the foods he had suggested – and seemed genuinely pleased that we had. When we were clearly perplexed by the purchase of fare cards for the light rail, a family we had casually chatted with in line ushered us over to the turnstile, used their card to let us onto the platform, and would not allow us to pay them back for our fares. Cab drivers acted as tour guides, telling us about their favorite sights and destinations, really with no expectation of earning anything in exchange for their knowledge.
We got ripped off, too (my rose-colored glasses are firmly in place, but I know nothing is perfect). We paid more than twice what we should have for our boat ride in Xochimilco and the touts were unapologetic about their scam. It was Good Friday, everyone was on vacation, and the boat launches were jammed with people. It was a great day to make some extra money and nobody, Mexican or foreign, was paying the “proper” set rate that day. The tour we took to see the pyramids at Teotihuacan was expensive and ran us through an overpriced tourist trap store and a mediocre (at best) restaurant where we were a captive audience for mediocre (at best) mariachis who knew most folks would still feel obliged to tip them reasonably well. But our guide was also incredibly knowledgeable and we learned things we would never had known had we gone on our own. It still felt like money well spent.
So I encourage everyone who can: visit Mexico City! Stay in the center. Take the metro (though at rush hour it’s kind of crazy). Eat the street food. Keep your wallet and phone in your front pockets (it is a huge city, after all) but don’t be carried away with worry. Enjoy the electric thrill of the crowds. Eat ice cream and churros. And go see Frida Kahlo’s house and then tell me about it: it’s the one great disappointment of our trip that, despite arriving well before it opened, the lines were already several blocks long and we did not get a chance to visit. Enjoy my new favorite city.