When The New York Times picked Mexico City as No. 1 among 52 places to go in the world in 2016, I felt like doing a somersault.
Finally, my much beloved and unfairly maligned Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) — so deserving because of its remarkable history, culture, architecture, archeology, fashion, great food, and sophistication — was being recognized as a top tourist destination.
The World Tourism Organization Mexico recently named Mexico City the eighth most popular travel destination, garnering 35 million foreign visitors a year.
Yet many still consider Mexico City a dangerous place, fraught with robbers, drug lords, pickpockets, scammers, muggers, kidnappers, purse-snatchers and other sordid folk ready to take the unsuspecting visitor for a ride to who knows where.
I’ve been blogging about personal safety in Mexico over the years. It always comes up for me when someone says, You go to Mexico City? It’s not safe. Writing about it is my attempt to dispel the myth and misperception that around every corner lurks a bad hombre, ready to take advantage of the unsuspecting tourist.
That said, wherever I travel, in Ahmeddabad, Gujarat, India, downtown Durham, North Carolina, U.S.A., or Mexico City’s historic center, I remind myself to be alert — always.
Am I safe? The answer is based on the body’s emotional and biochemical response to real or imagined danger. Fear can be triggered simply by a brother or friend saying, Don’t go. It’s not safe. Fear can be based on lack of information or experience.
Fear of foreign travel is cultural: less than 50% of Americans hold a passport. Fear can freeze us and keep us from trying new experiences. One of my favorite sayings is, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Mexico City is a huge, 21-million-person megalopolis. I remember feeling uncomfortable, intimidated. It was a stretch to go there alone. But since then, I’ve traveled there frequently, solo and stayed a week or weekend with my sister, or my son, or friends.
I’ve walked back to my historic center hotel after dinner late into the night, alone.
Do I watch my back? Yes. Do I sling my cross-body handbag diagonally across the front of my torso? Yes. Do I walk along more populated and well-lit paths? Yes.
Have I been afraid? Rarely. When I am afraid, I confront my fear: is that person who doesn’t look or dress like me really a threat? And the answer is usually no.
In addition to writing about my own experiences, I surveyed some norteños who recently visited Mexico City. Most who responded were single women or those who went with a friend or spouse. They live in the U.S. and Canada.
For some it was their first visit. Others have been returning for decades. Plus, a few Mexicans added their comments — always good to get advice from insiders.
What did they say?
“I love Mexico City.”
Mary Cloos, from Portland, Oregon, says Mexico City is every bit as inspiring and interesting as New York City — for less than half the price. She doesn’t understand why Americans would describe it as dirty and scary. Mary says that anyone who appreciates art, culture, food, and warm, kind people should have Mexico City on their “must-see” list.
Kay Rayner from Toronto, Canada, has been traveling to Mexico City since 1992. She recalls being terrified during that first trip, knew nothing about traveling alone and spoke very poor Spanish.
But she jumped in, was reassured by locals, soaked in the color and street life and returns each year. She has learned more Spanish, too, and feels comfortable negotiating her way independently now.
As a student, Mary Anne Shaw from Concord, California, lived in Mexico City from 1968-1970. She notes how much everything has changed. There are more people and traffic can be unbearable.
Yet, what remains constant is the warmth and friendliness of Mexicans. There is so much to see and do there, and the city is so vast, that Mary Anne advises staying in more than one neighborhood if you are there for more than three days. She likes Coyoacán in order to be closer to the Frida Kahlo Museum. Then she moves to the zócalo area to see Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros murals. Mary Anne likes to eat Mexico City style, taking her main meal in mid-afternoon. Then she eats more lightly in the evening at a restaurant closer to her hotel.
I love her great tip about how to hire a reliable driver: if you like a particular taxi driver get his phone number and ask him to take you around. She also uses Uber and finds to be very reliable. So do I.
Which brings me to safety and transportation. Most who answered my survey say they take the regulated secure taxi service from the Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City to their hotel. (You buy tickets in the baggage claim area.) They use Uber or ask their hotel to arrange a taxi service to get around town. According to most, the Mexico City Metro is safe. Women traveling alone or in pairs like to use the women’s and children’s car at the front of the train.
Querétaro resident and photographer Hector Muñoz Huerta, a frequent visitor to Mexico City, advises not to travel by Metro during rush hour, when the cars are packed and pickpockets proliferate.
Jenny Brinitzer from Folsom, California, stays in the Condesa neighborhood and walks everywhere. “What’s not to like about Mexico City?” she asks. Jenny also loves the very clean Metro subway system adding, “New York City could learn a thing or two.”
She echoes others, suggesting that travelers can ask their hotel to arrange taxi airport pick-up if they are skittish. Jenny says, “To miss CDMX is to miss a lot. The art, the music, the history, the wonderful people of Mexico are all treasures. I would only add that Mexico City is huge. And just like in any major city one must be aware and use intelligence. I feel safer in Mexico than the U.S.”
“Our last visit to Mexico City was six years ago and we wanted to go back,” says Karen Nein, from Santa Fe, New Mexico. She and her husband recently went to Puebla and scheduled time in Mexico City before returning to the U.S.
They stayed in a small hotel near the zócalo, walked everywhere and returned to their hotel long after dark. She reports they both felt very secure. And they do their homework, mapping out a daily plan for where they want to go and what they want to see.
“We’ve traveled to many countries and we try to stay aware of our surroundings. I felt very secure here,” Karen says.
Mexico City is changed from a decade ago. You hear languages from around the world. Streets are populated with 20-somethings and retirees, families out for a stroll, couples hand-in-hand, eating an ice cream cone with the other hand. There is federal, municipal and private security presence throughout the historic center.
For financial security, first notify your bank that you are traveling and not to block your credit or debit card. You might also want to raise your daily withdrawal limits if you plan to pay cash for purchases. Ask your bank if they have a reciprocal agreement with a Mexican bank for lower or no international transaction fees.
The best exchange rates are direct through ATMs. You can find these at the airport and throughout the city. There are also casas de cambio, or currency exchange agencies, at the airport after you exit baggage claim.
Never turn away from an ATM before you put your cash and credit card away. Be discreet. Do not expose your money. Best to withdraw money from the ATM during the day.
Put your larger bills in a separate pouch or zippered section of your handbag. Keep smaller bills, coins and one credit card in an easier to access coin purse. You don’t want to show how much money you are carrying when you pay for things. If in doubt, leave large bills in your hotel room safe.
Men, never keep your billfold or passport in your back pocket.
You will need your passport to change dollars to pesos.
I always carry mine with me for official identification. Others recommend making and carrying a photocopy, while keeping the passport itself in the hotel room safe.
It stands to reason that we don’t want to call more attention to ourselves than necessary. We may never “blend in,” but we can take precautions to be less visible.
Women: leave your diamonds, emeralds, and rubies at home! Even the small ones! A simple wedding band will communicate your status. What about gold? Not on the streets, please.
Gail Barraco, who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, just returned from Mexico City, where she traveled on her own. She reports that a local woman from upscale Polanco said that when she leaves the neighborhood, she dresses down.
It’s difficult to be in Mexico without absorbing — and wearing — local color: intense blue, electric orange, vibrant red, day glow green, pineapple yellow.
Some travel sites recommend that by wearing black or darker colors we won’t stand out. That would not be my preference, but I do think about how much attention I might draw to myself as I meander around, and choose my clothing and accessories carefully.
All this advice brings us around to the importance of using our common sense, of developing cultural competency, learning to be considerate of local customs and dress. If we are loud, boisterous, difficult, bargain too hard or expect faster service than is customary, we draw attention.
Take a pulse of your own behavior and expectations as you navigate your way through Mexico City, or any part of the world, for that matter.
Is Spanish necessary?
A few words will go a long way. Thank you. Gracias. You are welcome. Por nada or de nada. Excuse me. Perdón or discúlpame. Please. Por favor. This is a very rudimentary start to showing courtesy and respect.
Jennie Heard, from Seattle, says she walks around in all parts of the city on her own with her “not great Spanish” on trips she takes several times a year to visit her son and daughter-in-law in Mexico City. “I’ve never been afraid and no one has ever hassled me,” she says.
In order to stay safe, try making a personal plan.
Outline your day, where you want to go and how you want to get there. Include how much money you will need for entry fees, transportation and meals.
Will you walk? What streets will you take? Will you taxi? Have you called in advance to reserve? How will you get back? If you take a private driver, will the car have seat belts? Yes, I hope so, and I recommend that you use them.
Will the driver wait or drop you off and return for you? If you take the Metro will you have exact change for the fare and know your route? If you want to travel spontaneously are you aware when neighborhoods change and become riskier? Did you take out emergency medical and evacuation insurance in the event of a catastrophe? I recommend it and require this of those who participate in my study tours.
Mexico City is booming. I love it because of its cultural variety, where indigenous roots converge with conquest and immigration waves from Spain, France, Italy, Germany and eastern Europe. This is an international city with a complex character.
My sister from Santa Cruz, California, is meeting me in CDMX for a long weekend in mid-May. This time we’ll stay in Condesa, walk, eat, explore and absorb. I know we will feel safe.
Favorite places in Mexico City, by neighborhood
• Catedral Metropolitana
• Colegio San Ildefonso
• Monument to the Revolution (take the elevator to the top)
• Museo Arte Popular
• Palacio Bellas Artes, Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros murals
• Palacio Nacional and Diego Rivera Murals
• Templo Mayor
• Chapultepec Park, Modern Art Museum
• Chapultepec Park, Museo Nacional de Antropología
• Chapultepec Park, Rufino Tamayo Museum
• Luis Barragan Home and Studio, near Chapultepec Park
• Museo Jumex, Polanco
• Museo Soumaya, Polanco
Coyoacán and nearby
• Casa Azul – Frida Kahlo Museum, Coyoacán
• Diego Rivera Museum and Studio, Anahuacalli, Coyoacán
• El Bazaar Sábado, San Jacinto #11, Amargura Street, San Ángel
• Museo Leon Trotsky, Coyoacán
• Museo Nacional de las Culturas Populares, Coyoacán
• Dolores Olmedo Museum for Frida Kahlo paintings, Xochimilco
• Floating Gardens of Xochimilco
• Plaza del Ángel Saturday/Sunday art/antique/flea market, Londres 161 and Hamburgo 150
Outside the City
• Teotihuacán Archeological Site, State de México
• Virgin of Guadalupe Basilica
Norma Schafer is a writer and photographer based in Oaxaca and contributor to the guidebook, Textile Fiestas of Mexico. She travels the country to explore its art and culture and offers study tours and workshops that investigate the textile traditions of weaving, natural dyeing and related handwork. Her bio, blog and website is at http://oaxacaculture.com.