Here we go - Mexico City is our first landing point on the way to the edge of the world. By Some US immigration related circumstances we were going to arrive to Mexico City separately - me from London, Oleg - from San Francisco. The adventures began even before arrival. Oleg got stuck on the way for a couple of days due to the volcanic ashes reported in Mexico City which happened to be a very selective condition since the ashes supposedly were there only for some less fortunate airlines. British Airways apparently were ashes immune so I successfully landed in Mexico City on July 5th 2013 and Oleg got to explore Atlanta, Georgia for a day.
Getting to the hostel in the historical center of the city took a while. Taxis are not that expensive (about $10-20) but it turned out I could only have $20 on arrival - the cash I had with me since the ATMs at the airport as if under conspiracy all tried to eat my Lithuanian credit card. So metro it was.
Mexico international airport gets a bit on your nerves - crowds of yelling and pushing people in the arrivals zone (obviously you can't arrive without all your family including 3rd cousins and 4th grandma's dog coming to the airport to meet you) No one speaks English and won't even try (pretty usual for Mexico City), there is such a phenomena as Starbucks without wifi, and the metro is literally hidden - the entrance is well camouflaged with vending carts and just people hanging out (quite typical as well) so some persistence helps.
Metro is an experience on its own. First thing that you start noticing after an hour in metro changing lines is that there are 0 people that are not Mexicans. Well, one if you counted me. So I got a lot of curious looks which I didn't know how to react to due to some pre conceptions about safety in Mexico. As it turned out later - there's really not much safety concern unless you want to get into trouble intentionally. As it also turned out - the police is your biggest safety concern as it seems like being robbed by police is quite common here and is perceived as a normal thing.
Metro system in DF (Mexico City the way locals call it) is pretty good and connects a lot of distant neighborhoods, and it's cheap (about $0.25) In the first couple of rides you may be amused by all the metro vendors - chicle (chewing gum) sellers are among quieter ones, the loud ones are CD sellers - it's basically a guy with huge backpack with loudspeakers in it who enters a metro cart and starts blasting anything from Celine Dion to local Mariachi bands - all for less than a dollar. And you know what - no matter how ridiculous the product might seem to you - people do buy stuff while riding in metro! Metro stations are fun as well - the design of all the route/direction signs reminds of the '80 in the Soviet Union, and the underground passages between lines are incredibly similar to those in the Baltics around '90 - it's basically a bazaar full of small kiosks, food carts and occasional policemen.
Rush hour in DF metro is something to try once and never again - the carts get so crowded that you can lift your feet off the floor and you'll still be hanging in the air in your position squeezed between people. A polite "Con permiso" ("with your permission") is what you'll usually hear before getting hit in the ribs with someone's elbow :)
During the first couple of days we stayed at a hostel in the historical center. Frankly, the center is not that impressive, but it's full of life and has lots of very local things to explore - local markets, shops, food places, cantinas (traditional Mexican daytime drinking and snacking establishments) We stayed near the crossing of Brazil & Cuba streets and Cuba street is definitely one of the party areas - if you're willing to see how locals party - go to one of the cantinas or tiny impossibly crowded bars with live music and order a big bottle of beer (a lot of locals drink beer right from this 1.5l glass bottles as if those were small elegant heinekens) Having drinks in places like these is cheap (big bottles go for about $4-5, tequila shots - about $3 depending of course on the tequila rank since as you might imagine there are rows and rows of different tequila brands available) As this areas is also the touristy one - keep aware of police, don't have open bottles of beer on the street even if they are in a bag and you're just bringing those to your hostel - it's enough reason for the police to start harassing you for money. But, later on we learned from the locals with whom we stayed that a) you don't give to police more than $5 if they harass you badly and won't let you alone, so don't think that you got yourself into big money problem should such an encounter occur, don't give them all your money b) you can also ask them to arrest you instead which they won't do as it's too much hassle, what they want is your gringo money, not law obedience. This is probably one of the most common and sad stories you hear from foreigners in Mexico - this is well illustrated by what our friend traveler said: I lived in DF for a year and I never had any trouble with locals even in some worse neighborhoods, all 3 times of my troubles were with the police who were harassing me for money.
After historical center we stayed in a neighborhood called Roma (or Roma Condesa since these neighborhoods are very close) The area is really hip and chill - tons of cafes, lounges, eateries, galleries, some cool small and big parks, cinema & art center and a pretty cool crowd (yeah, Mexican hipsters :)) Roma along the Alvaro Obregon street is full of action, but make sure to walk around the smaller inside streets - it's very green, cozy and chill. Our favorite area is around Tonala street - great vibe plus Cinema Tonala is a cool place to hangout (it's a small cinema with cafe + bar + live music)
This time we stayed at an AirBnB place in an amazing apartment with very cool and welcoming hosts - Natasha and Jorge. Natasha works for the local government and is in charge of controlling anything happening in the city, so she was basically a walking events calendar & venue catalog for us :)
It's easy to travel within the city (except the metro in rush hour) - there is a shared bicycles system (all you need to do is get the card at one of the ecobici offices and recharge it with some credit) and the taxis are quite cheap - about $3 for a 10 minute ride, so you can move from neighborhood to neighborhood quite easily and then walk around to explore.
Some other definite highlights for us were: Museum of Anthropology - it's huge and will get you really tired, but you can be sure you'll see the most of the culture of all the different indigenous people of nowaday Mexico, Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs being only few of them. Coyoacan - take the metro South and visit the town of Diego and Frida, Frida's Blue house and Trotskiy's house.
Take the metro a bit further South and visit the Museum of Contemporary Art on the campus of the University - we got to see some pretty interesting stuff about Chicanos & their movement in Mexico and the US. If you're into souvenirs or crafts - avoid the historical center - go to the crafts market Ciudadela - it has lots and lots of arts, crafts and souvenirs for hugely better prices than the historical center.
What else - ah, the people. "A Mexican" is a bit confusing and in my opinion often too loud of a term for all the people living in Mexico. Besides the fact that huge number of the population are either of Spanish origin, or indigenous people mixed with Spanish blood or simply assimilated to the point where they don't view themselves as descendants of indigenous people anymore, all those that do view themselves as say, Tzotzil or Zapotec - all those are divided even further into separate communities, regions and languages. The identity "Mexican" was widely enforced during the Nationalist movement and due to some interesting historical turns related to the indigenous communities the term "Mexican" in my opinion came out nowadays as something a bit crooked and not universally let's say "felt".
These are just some interesting details about the people called Mexicans, but in general everyone we met/meet are really nice and friendly folks - and no, they don't look like Mariachi in sombreros with tequila in one hand and guacamole in the other. As mentioned earlier - we felt very comfortable and safe everywhere we went, even though time to time there are news of some violence happening around the country.
What is a very pleasant difference from Southeast Asia is that practically no one will try to rip you off, prices are pretty much set and if you speak a bit of Spanish you won't have any problem getting the right price.
What is a bit more frustrating about Mexico is the food, or rather the local eating habits. The food itself is tasty and very different from Mexican food in for example US, but there's just too much of fried and deep fried elements in the meals, too much cheese and too big consumption of processed and fast food. Kids are seen everywhere chewing on their probably 3rd pack of chips plus numerous sodas, the adults are sadly overweight even in their twenties. This looks like a big problem in Mexico.
In general, DF feels much more relaxed than a lot of other big cities in the US, Europe or Asia, even though many locals say it's too chaotic for their taste. When first arriving to Mexico you might need a week or so to get accustomed to the local ways of doing things and some general quirks such as obsession with death, but with time and a little Spanish it feels pretty good and comfortable to be in Mexico.