Whenever I am in a new city by myself I try to get together with some people who really know the lay of the land. You can learn a lot from guidebooks, web searches, and tourism offices, but to get the real scoop it pays to spend time with someone who lives and works there year after year.
So when I was in Mexico City I connected with a few locals in my network and reached out to Jim Johnston, the author of the best advice book I found. It’s called Mexico City: an Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. You can buy it at Amazon and check out his blog for updates.
Mexico is one of those countries that has been the subject of many guidebooks that aren’t really guidebooks in the traditional sense and this one is a great example. It’s got great walking tours that would be as interesting to residents as they are to tourists and the walks really give you a feel for the neighborhoods. Johnston is not afraid to speak the unvarnished truth either, as in this quip about Mexican pastries: “Although the variety of shapes, sizes, and colors is impressive, you will find that most of it tastes pretty much the same.”
One big draw for me was the extensive information about street food and locals’ restaurants. I had just watched Anthony Bourdain’s Mexico City episode the week before coming and my mouth had been watering ever since. This guide helped me navigate the wide array of street food tempting me with its smells and led me to some of the best taco stands in the city. Sure, I gained a few pounds in the process since I was eating about five times a day, but well worth it!
I met Jim for lunch at a place in the Roma neighborhood that I never would have found or stopped in on my own. There we chatted over a big bowl of pozole, a pork/chicken and hominy stew that you can get in red or green versions. It comes with a plate of veggies and seasonings you can add to taste, in this case including slices of fresh avocado.
He filled me in on all kinds of things and gave me a key contact in Guanajuato, where I’m going to be for a month this summer. I learned a lot and it was nice not to eat alone on the run. Buy lunch or a few beers for a local in a new city. It’s always worth it.
In today’s connected world, it’s not hard to get together with a local resident anywhere. Use one of the hosting services to crash or just to meet up. Use LinkedIn, Facebook, or whatever other social network you like. Use message boards: if a local is posting on a travel message board, they’re obviously willing to help out visitors to their city.
The key is to get away from the tourism infrastructure of people trying to sell you something and professionals that you have paid to be a guide. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s their job, but just meeting a regular person who has lived there for a while can give you a whole different perspective. It will open up new experiences that aren’t in any guidebook, a guidebook usually written by a writer in a hurry who is just passing through.