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By Francesca de Luca
Contrary to its reputation for being dirty, crowded and dangerous, Mexico City has an incredibly rich history, an impressive art scene, a dynamic street culture and some of the best food in the world. But it’s also one of the biggest and most populated cities in the world and it can take a while to get used to, so follow our travel tips to ease your way in! With our guide to Mexico City’s essential tips, you’ll be exploring like a local in no time.
All ATMs accepts international cards so withdrawing cash shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The ATMs can be found in all the banks, as well as malls and convenience stores. This is usually the easiest and cheapest way to get Mexican “pesos” (MXN$) considering the usually bad deals offered at money exchangers sites. You can pay by card at almost any bar and restaurant however it is extremely important to have “effectivo” (cash) all the time as street and market vendors, and public transports haven’t upgraded to the card system. The use of small bills and loose change in Mexico is much more prevalent than many countries so make sure to break your 500 pesos note before you try and purchase anything, or use it only on large purchases of around 250 pesos and above. Believe me, you don’t want to miss out on the chance to buy yummy food or beautiful crafts because you don’t have the right change!
The public transport system in Mexico City is chaotic and crowded but very affordable, and using it will certainly give you a taste of local life. The metro system is efficient and a ride costs only 5 pesos, making it one of the cheapest in the world. If you prefer open air, use the eco-friendly Metro bus or the “trolleybus”– each own with their own route that usually follows the city’s big arteries. If you’re adventurous enough, try a “pesero” (the old and noisy micro bus that reaches every corner of the city and originally cost a flat fee of one “peso” per ride, hence the name). As there are no proper stops, you can just hail one down once you have read the destinations on the bus front window’s plaque or heard the driver’s assistant shouting them out. If using public transport, avoid rush hours (7:30-10:00 am and 5:30-8:30 pm). The crowd would be too heavy for somebody not used to it! If you want to move around more comfortably, use an Uber or a “sitio taxis” from authorised cab ranks, rather than calling one on the street. While in the cab, always make sure that your driver is using their taximetro to ensure you pay the correct fare.
Despite Mexico City’s reputation, visiting it is perfectly fine and I would actually say that it’s crazy not to stop in this special and rich place if you come to Mexico. Of course, being a city of over 20 million people, it has its crime but it is really no different from being in another capital! Like anywhere else, you need to be careful in overcrowded places – like tubes and markets - as there are some expert pick-pocketers around. Just remain alert while out and about and you can totally enjoy your sightseeing. It’s recommended to keep jewellery to a minimum — no flashy earrings or designer watches— and carry your camera in a bag rather than slung round your neck. You don't want to wander into a bad neighbourhood (Tepito, Doctores, etc.), so check where you're going before you go and you will be fine! At night, don’t walk around empty and dark streets, and take an Uber home.
The market is still at the heart of Mexicans’ life and an important part of the culture, so when you visit the city’s markets, first of all remember to take it slow slow so you can truly soak up the atmosphere. Rare is the occasion when you can only find one stall selling a particular product, so make sure to browse when visiting a Mexican market. This will allow you to find out the different prices as well as see the true range of products on offer. If you don’t want to get flat rejected, be ready to pay with small bills, as vendors will never accept a 500 pesos bill. Attempting some Spanish, at least the basics, would be very polite and much appreciated, as vendors don’t usually speak a world of English.
It would also help to haggle, but I would recommend only on higher priced, souvenir-type products, rather than fresh food items. Plus, if a price seems too high, simply walk away and the vendor will often give you a new, lower value. With their colours and variety of products, markets are more than worthy of a photograph, however make sure to ask for permission if you want to include the vendor in it. While you can definitely visit a market alone, visiting it with a local or a friend would help you with choices and prices and, as for most things, it will be more fun!
Benito Juárez airport is the only airport of the capital and is well within the city limits, about 11km east of the “Centro Histórico”, the historical centre. The best and cheapest option to go from or to the airport is calling an Uber. There is a free Wi-Fi at the airport or you can use that of a airport’s coffee shop or simply buy a Mexican SIM card straightaway. However, if you have connection problems, you can also book a “taxi autorizado” (authorized taxi) from one of the official airport taxi booths with regulated and visible fares. If you’re approached inside the terminal and offered a taxi, simply reply with a “no, gracias” and walk away as those people will only try and rip you off. If you want to blend in with locals, you are travelling light and it is not peak hour, you can use the tube. The journey to the centre takes roughly 40 minutes and costs only 5 pesos.
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