I always knew I was going to dislike Mexico City. Everything I read before my trip foreshadowed an insipid megalopolis drowning in the sea of frou-frou restaurants, superfluous street art and über-rich neighborhoods that makes most American cities north of the Rio Grande unbearable to visit.
While I hoped going there myself would prove this assumption wrong—I hate putting my name on anything that could be perceived as a hit piece—I fell asleep my first night in Mexico City wishing I’d skipped it for Baja California or Oaxaca.
Mexico City: Downtown Disaster
I try to strike a balance between the tourist trail and the less-beaten path in my blog posts, but I generally begin my own time in a city with a visit to its most ubiquitous landmark. In Mexico City’s case this was Zócalo square, which was desecrated by the ugliest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen, and a massive plastic slide that made the plaza all but impossible to photograph.
Bothered but still bullish, I made my way westward along Avenida Cinco de Mayo toward the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is probably Mexico City’s other most-famous landmark. While not obscured by hideous decorations (well, unless you count the nearby Torre Latinoamericana, whose observation deck is inexplicably a no-DSLR zone), it was far less attractive in-person than it had appeared in photos, though I decided to reserve full judgment until after night fell.
In the interim I headed north to Plaza Garibaldi, where I expected to find mariachis strumming and singing, but instead found them bored and talking shit amongst themselves, to say nothing of the generally run-down condition of the square.
As the sun descended toward the horizon, I ascended to Café don Porfirio, which seemed to be the best place to marvel at the aforementioned performance hall. But I ended up leaving just seconds after arriving, as construction on the Sears department store below had all but obstructed any view of the now lit-up Palacio.
Disappointed, I retreated to my apartment in the famed La Condesa neighborhood, which I’d admittedly found charming upon my mid-day arrival from the airport and during my hurried check-in. Taking to the district’s streets in search of dinner, on the other hand, was nothing short of an exercise in soul-depletion.
In addition to the fact that nearly every person I walked past was white and speaking English, many of the restaurants my host had recommended were precisely the dens of condescension and pretentiousness that make me happy I left the US. Just as I conceded I’d be going to bed hungry, I happened upon a deserted taqueria, where I wolfed down a plate of conchinita pibil.
“Muy rico!” I answered the sweet, middle-aged waiter when he asked me how my meal tasted, wishing I could say the same, in my heart of hearts, about the rest of my experience in his city thus far.
Day Trips and Denouement
Being that I had only 48 hours in Mexico City before my planned excursion to see the monarch butterfly colony at Cerro Pelon, I’d always intended to wake up my second day without a definitive course of action. The aftertaste of Wednesday afternoon and evening was still quite rancid on Thursday morning, however, so I decided the safest bet would be to make a day trip to the pyramids to Teotihuacan.
This proved a satisfying choice, not only because my crack-of-dawn arrival at the historical site meant I had it almost to myself, but because a tacky tourist restaurant nearby served me perhaps the most satisfying plate of mole I’ve ever torn into. Arriving back to my Airbnb around noon, I faced a binary choice for the evening: Venture out of town again, this time to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco; or make a second attempt at appreciating the city center.
I ended up walking through door two, but rather than exploring the much-hyped districts of La Roma and Polanco (which I feared would be even more whitewashed than La Condesa), I decided to enjoy the view from Chapultepec Castle, before heading down Paseo de la Reforma to admire its skyscrapers (and El Ángel de la Independencia, the de-facto symbol of Mexico City) as day darkened into night.
Oddly, this proved to be my most fulfilling experience in the city-proper, which surprised many of my Instagram followers. “Sorry you weren’t blown away,” one wrote, as if leaving a comment in a guest book at a funeral.
(Yo también, mi amigo.)
The Bottom Line
I’ll admit that I didn’t devote enough time to Mexico City—hell, I didn’t even see any Frida-related sights—and although I arrived vowing to prove prevailing narratives about the city wrong, the cynical light they painted it in obscured my judgment. With this being said, I stand by my general conclusion—that Mexico City is vastly overrated—and imagine much of its positive reputation among Norteamericanos derives from how poorly-traveled they tend to be.
I plan to return to Mexico in the future, but while I can see myself making a second visit to delightful Guadalajara, there’s almost no chance I’ll give Mexico City another one.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.