Today’s guest post is from Lydia Carey, an American expat who has spent many years living in Mexico. She’s the author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma. Take it away Lydia!
If you haven’t been to Mexico City yet you are behind the times, and not just the New York Times that named it their #1 place to visit in 2016. Mexico City is modern, exciting metropolis with old-world architecture and walkable neighborhoods. It’s a chaotic mess and a wonderland of sites and smells. It entices travelers with a deluge of eating, drinking and hotel options for all price ranges.
Book even a few months in advance and you can find cheap flights to Mexico City from most major US cities: Chicago for $250, New York for $350 and Houston for less than $200! Prices like these make flying down for a long holiday weekend totally within the realm of possibility.
Here’s how to travel (right) on a budget in Mexico City:
The public transportation system in Mexico City, while not fancy, is extremely efficient and far-reaching. The metro, which will take you to most any neighborhood in the city costs 5 pesos a ticket (about 27 cents US). The trick is to avoid peak hours (7am to 9am and 6:30pm to 9pm), which in a city of 26 million are unbearably crowded. The metrobus system also works great but you have to purchase a metro card in advance (available at ticket windows in most regular metro stations) so it’s not super convenient for tourists.
Taxis, although they have what I consider an undeserved and outdated reputation for being dangerous, can be annoying because cabbies often get lost (combine a massive metropolis with hundreds of streets with the same name). If you are going to a well-known location (a museum or hotel) you should have no problem, just make sure they have a taxi meter (taxímetro in spanish) and turn it on when you get in the car. For those who’d rather not deal with it, Mexico now has Uber, whose prices are only a few pesos higher. Hotels can also also call you “sitio” cabs, which have a higher base rate.
Metro: 5 pesos
Metrobus: 6 pesos (but you need a card in advance, which is free)
Street Taxis: 20 -50 pesos (the base price goes up from 8 pesos to 13 pesos in the evening, usually around 9pm)
Sitio Taxis: 30 – 80 pesos
Uber: 20- 100 pesos (depending on time of day)
Bike rental: free with an ID on Sundays around Paseo de la Reforma
Eating and Drinking
There are a wide range of eating and drinking options in Mexico City, but I find that most mid-range places tend toward mediocre. The high and the low are more reliable. Your best bet for cheap and incredibly delicious eats is street food. Take a tour to get your bearings or simply seek out the crowds. While there is no silver bullet to not getting sick, street stands are not as scary as people make them out to be. Look for a place that’s busy and looks clean. A good sign is if there is a separate person collecting money or someone taking money with a plastic bag over their hand. Definitely go for things that are being made fresh in front of you (women rolling dough into gorditas or tlacoyos or meat cooked immediately upon order) instead of anything that looks like it’s been sitting around. Even the simplest of stands will introduce your taste buds to a world of new flavors.
High-end dining in Mexico City is worth the splurge. Stay in a cheap Airbnb and eat street food most of the time but hit at least a few of the delicious higher-end restaurants. In comparison to places in the United States and Europe these restaurants will still be a bargain. Pujol, Azul Historico, Astrid y Gaston, Sud77, Maximo Bistrot, and Los Danzantes are all good choices for dinner, Dulcinea, Cocina Conchita, Contramar, and Nico’s are all fantastic for lunch.
There are lots of great bars in the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods that have mid-range prices for alcohol. Mexican mezcal and craft beer are the most worthy libations to drink these days. Most excellent Mexican wines are from boutique vineyards that you will only find at high-end restaurants. Mainstream Mexican wines like LA Cetto and Santo Tomas are just not worth your pesos. Exquisite tequila is also hard to find in Mexico City; unless you are at a high-end bar you are likely to find only the biggest commercial names available.
Staying and Sleeping
There are a handful of backpacker hostels downtown where you can make your dollar stretch but your best option in Mexico City for cheap housing is Airbnb. Airbnb has exploded in Mexico and apartments run anywhere from 30 to 500 usd a night. Staying in a neighborhood off the main drag is a great way to get to know the city and all of the main Airbnb neighborhoods are small enough that you can walk to cafes and shops nearby. La Juarez, La Roma, Condesa and Polanco are all overflowing with options. Most hotels on the city’s main boulevard – Reforma Avenue – are monsters and most of the decent ones range from $100 upward. Smaller, high-end boutique hotels can be found throughout the city’s trendiest neighborhoods.
Shopping in Mexico City
There are several craft markets in the city where you can pick up souvenirs for your trip back but don’t plan on purchasing a new wardrobe on the cheap. Clothing and shoes can be just as expensive as the United States and Europe, although as the exchange continues to drop, prices continue to get more appealing for visitors.
If you’re cooking at home you’ll find the best produce, meat and fish in local markets as opposed to supermarkets, all reasonably priced. In addition, markets are a great place to buy local salsas and jams as take-home gifts and most have a handful of comida corrida stands that offer a set three-course lunch for a cheap price (around 5USD) – same rules apply as for street food stands in selecting your lunch spot. For grocery stores, the Superama, City Market, and Chedraui are higher-end while Sumesa and Bodega Aurora are on the lower end (both in prices and quality). There are also a handful of very high-end boutique shops (with lots of imported goods) and a smattering of organic grocery stores.
Most museums in the city charge 50-65 pesos entrance fees ($3-6 depending on current exchange rates) but the last Wednesday of every month is Noche de los Museos – a citywide program to encourage museum-going – when most entries are free and museums host special programs and events. Walking tours are the big thing these days in Mexico City, from taco tours to photography tours to street art tours, the prices start at around $30 and go up to just under $100 per person.
You can hire a personal guide or driver to take you to Xochimilco or Teotihuacan outside of the city, or join a group tour, but these places are also easily reached on public transportation for a fraction of the price. Buses leave to Teotihuacan every 15 minutes from the City’s Terminal Norte (or the Northern bus terminal) and you can get out to Xochimilco or Coyoacán on the metro and light-rail train. If you do the Xochimilco canals on your own, don’t get scammed, the official government prices listed at the docks (usually around 350 pesos) are per RIDE not per person.
Checking out a show or concert in Mexico City is likely to be only slightly cheaper than in your home country, but the movies are a fraction of the price (around $5) and ones from the USA or England will be in English with Spanish subtitles unless it’s a movie for children.
Whatever your budget, a trip to Mexico City is far less expensive than in most attractive capital cities of the world and should be in your travel plans this year—exchange rates this good are bound to be temporary.
Lydia Carey is a writer and translator living full time in Mexico City. Her new book, Mexico City Streets: La Roma, is a fascinating guide for tourists and locals alike to one of the city’s most artistic and eclectic neighborhoods: Colonia Roma. It’s available in Kindle and paperback versions.
All photos by Lydia Carey except subway and Xochimilco shots by Tim Leffel.