Most touring cyclists don’t have Mexico City on their itineraries. Many avoid it entirely and some set up base in one of the smaller cities nearby from where they could take a bus into the metropolis. As mentioned in my previous post, I chose to bike in from the North and was positively surprised how smoothly it actually went. I hadn’t expected that I would eventually spend more than 3 weeks altogether in this city but I can’t deny that I was driven by a mix of comfort and curiosity.
Mexico City, much maligned in the past, has been cleaning up its act. Despite some really densely populated neighbourhoods, you find many great public spaces, a thriving culinary scene and amazing cultural exhibitions and concerts. I could still slap myself for missing out on a spectacular Metallica concert. A couple of months ago, I was already aware that they would be coming to Mexico City in early March but I did not expect that their visit would coincide with mine. So in the end, it was already too late to get any tickets. What a bummer. It would have been great to see them perform again.
Mexico City strictly manages its distance from any drug wars and other types of crimes usually common in cities of this size. It is easily visible how police presence increases massively when you approach the city center. Although it gives you the impression of being in a safe haven, it also raises questions whether that is really required. When you walk around, you see hundreds of policemen in combat gear killing boredom with their cellphone. I wonder if they would ever be ready in case real riots arose…
Many days I strolled through various downtown neighbourhoods to feel the vibes and to soak up the history of the city which has always been the center of Mexican culture even during pre-Hispanic days. One of of the must-sees is definitely the National Museum of Anthropology, a world-class exhibition dedicated to pre-Hispanic Mexico, ancestral civilisations, and contemporary cultures of the country. Everything is displayed extremely well, and the vast museum offers more than most people can absorb in a single visit.
Another fantastic sight, even if you just see it from the outside is the iconic Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of the Fine Arts) which was built in the early 20th century. This impressive white-marble palace is a prominent cultural center in Mexico City. It has hosted some of the most notable events in music, dance, theatre, opera and literature and has held important exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography. Consequently, the Palacio de Bellas Artes has been called the “Cathedral of Art in Mexico”.
When you think of Mexico City, many people picture streets with horrible traffic jamming for several kilometres. It’s pretty bad during rush hour but not any worse than in most Asian metropoles. It’s the typical organised chaos when impatient white color salarymen compete with street vendors, motorcyclists and bicyclists. So it helps to time your trips wisely. Generally, however, I would say the city still has quite a lot of really quiet neighbourhoods and lots of green space between the concrete blocks.
During my stay in Mexico City, I also went on some excursions to explore places around the city. Of course, I would not have wanted to miss out on Teotihuacán, an amazing ancient city located 40 km northeast of Mexico City, known today as one of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas. The city is thought to have been established around 100 BC and may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD.
Teotihuacán, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, is known for its two massive pyramids, the larger Pyramid of the Sun and the slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon, which only make you guess the astonishing technological might of the Teotihuacán civilization. The Pyramid of the Sun is the world’s third-largest pyramid, surpassed in size only by Egypt’s Cheops and the Pyramid of Cholula in the State of Puebla, Mexico. Its base is 222 m long on each side, and it’s now just over 70m high. The pyramid was cobbled together around 100 AD, from three million tonnes of stone, without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel.
Mexico City is located at an elevation between 2,200 m and 2,500 m and reaches up the hills into nearly all directions. Among the highest peaks in the region, the long-extinct volcano Nevado de Toluca is Mexico’s fourth-tallest peak (4,704 m). Its crater rim is quite accessible by road and only requires a relatively short hike, so I decided to escape the city for a day to enjoy some fresh air at high altitude. Up there it was a bit like being in a different world. No noise, hardly any people, and amazing views. However, I was still able to see the haze of the city. Due to Mexico City’s dry climate, the brownish cloud was certainly not just pollution but also quite a lot of dust. In any case you can’t deny that a city of this size in a basin surrounded by mountains faces a serious environmental challenge.
Another excursion I took, was a 5-day trip to the Caribbean part of Mexico. Flights from Mexico City are inexpensive, the beaches are famous, and I felt like having a change of scene for a few days. On February 15, I spontaneously boarded a flight to Cancún, one of Mexico’s most famous tourist destinations located on the northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.
After all, this region is a tale of two worlds. On one hand, there’s the glitzy hotel zone with private beaches, countless American restaurant franchises, and an unabashed party scene that attracts thousands of alcohol-craving U.S. college students during their annual spring break. All of that makes you feel like being in little Florida and has absolutely nothing to do with the real Mexico.
Then there’s the rest away from all the commercial establishments, which gives you a taste of local flavor at the undeveloped beaches or the ancient Maya sites away from the tourist zones. I also spent two days on Isla Mujeres, a small island, and briefly visited Playa del Carmen. Both left a much more civilised impression on me and boast some really beautiful beaches.
So overall, visiting the State of Quintana Roo (the state that comprises all of the above) is absolutely worth it. Nevertheless, you MUST manage your expectations and end up at the right location, whatever that means to you individually. Personally, I would not recommend Cancun itself as a destination, unless you don’t care skipping on the real Mexican food, the real Mexican people, and the real Mexican culture.
During these few days around Cancún, I again encountered quite a number of American and Asian tourists who have a complete misconception about the rest of Mexico. Most of them are clueless about the rest of the country. They believe it is nothing but dangerous and full of crime. I have been traveling across Mexico for almost four months, and all I can say is: Don’t believe the American “propaganda”.
Long story short: If you want to experience the real beauty of Mexico, don’t fly to Cancun but rather visit the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato or Oaxaca. They are amazing.
Eventually, I left Mexico City on March 5 to heard south and explore the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. At the time of writing this, I am already at the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca. I am well aware that I urgently need to catch up with stories about all those amazing things I experienced on my trip. I will try my best to tell you more about Puebla and Oaxaca soon.