Let’s talk about Mexico for a minute. In the United States, our neighbor to the south has become our favorite punching bag. Its shining and cosmopolitan capital, Mexico City, tends to get wrapped up in the generalizations.
In the U.S., we like to exploit Mexico for its great qualities and resources, and cut down the rest of it. We like our tacos al pastor and margaritas rimmed with salt, but don’t you dare ask me for my order in Spanish.
Common Perceptions of Mexico
It’s hard to escape reports about Mexico’s reputation for violence. That alone scares many people I know away from visiting. I’m certainly not planning a trip to a border town anytime soon.
The country’s reputation is deserved: It’s on the top 10 list of armed-conflict fatalities, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. But that statistic alone is misleading. Mexico has a high rate of violent crime, yes, but the majority of it – violence fueled by drug cartels – is concentrated in certain areas of the country. As of this posting, the U.S. Department of State has no travel advisory in effect for Ciudad de Mexico (which contains Mexico City, much like if Washington, DC were eventually granted statehood in the U.S.).
That’s not to say that crime doesn’t occur in Mexico City. But not traveling to Mexico City because of broader concerns about violence in other parts of Mexico would be like hearing that homicides have increased in Chicago and declaring you’ll never visit New York City.
So, What’s Mexico City Really Like?
Mexico City is the most populous city in the Western Hemisphere, and it is diverse in nearly every possible way: cultures, languages, incomes, industries, architecture – you name it.
I recently had the opportunity to explore the city for the first time. We mostly stuck to the beaten path – the upscale, the traditional, and the historical. We mixed with locals and tourists alike.
I found Mexico City to be sophisticated, gritty, expressive, and full of opportunity. Here’s why.
On its sophistication: Mexico City is re-emerging as a cultural destination on par with London, Berlin, and New York. It’s not that the city hasn’t been a cultural destination in the past, but it’s received renewed attention over the last few years as it has become safer for tourists, had favorable exchange rates, and received greater recognition for its world-class design, cuisine, art, and shopping. The New York Times even ranked Mexico City as its #1 destination in the world in 2016 – a strong endorsement of the city’s increasing relevance and continued global influence.
On its grittiness: Frankly, I saw little that I would consider uncomfortable or unsavory during my four days in the city (but what tourist actually sees the “real” side of any city when they visit?). For the most part, Mexico City appeared like any other city with some high-end, manicured neighborhoods and some run-down working-class sections.
Our host did point out the slums as we drove out to the ruins at Teotihuacan. Our group had commented on the bright homes that dotted the hilly landscape. He told us that the government had distributed buckets of paint to the residents of the slums so they could make their houses look more attractive to those passing by. They became a colorful collection of homes on the hills outside of the city, cleverly transforming them from what they had always been: miles and miles of concrete eyesores marring the landscape.
On its expression: My eyes were glued to the car window each day as we drove by the modern architecture, street art, and memorials that decorate Mexico City. The city was famously home to Frida Kahló and Diego Rivera, and served as a historical incubator for experimental artistic movements. Mexico City continues to have a thriving arts scene that’s evolved over the last century from the many nationalities and cultures that influenced the city.
Today, Mexico City is a global arts and culture destination. The city plays host to high-end art fairs each year that attract the most well-traveled buyers from around the world. For those who want a keepsake of their own, the weekend market stalls in San Ángel (a mixture of art, furniture, textiles, clothing, and jewelry) showcase local talent at reasonable price points.
Also, the diversity of artistic and cultural expression is notable. I went from watching a Lucha Libre one night to strolling through a large hacienda filled with Diego Rivera originals. There is truly something for everyone in Mexico City.
On its opportunity: Hundreds of construction cranes visible from the elevated freeways signal Mexico City’s resurgence. Industry remains strong in the city, bolstered by strong food and beverage, electronics, service, and tourism sectors. An emerging middle class and increasingly wealthy top income bracket are spending more and attracting more development (though there is huge income disparity in the country, similar to the trends in the United States and other economies). At one point, we drove by the Estadio Azteca, the soccer stadium that doubles as an American football field when the NFL sends a game south of the border each year. What more evidence of the promise of the market does any American need?
To me, the best way to measure my impressions of a city is to think about whether I would want to go back to explore more of it instead of seeing someplace new.
That doesn’t happen often – I get too distracted by intriguing new places. London hasn’t been on my list since I first visited in 2011 (no offense, Londoners – I did truly enjoy your city).
Mexico City, however, is a city that I yearn to visit again. Soon.
There was so much I didn’t do – the Museo Soumaya, the Casa Azul – that I could easily fill another four or five days of touring. I have a strong appetite to return and dive deeper into the city, and to see more of Mexico as a country.
Visiting Mexico City was also an important reminder to me to not let stereotypes and generalizations keep me from experiencing something for myself. Many concerns, particularly about safety in Mexico, are completely valid. Others are simply not true. It’s important for each of us to do our own research using reputable sources to assess whether or not we should visit a certain country or area. If I had relied on stereotypes, I never would have had my eyes opened to this incredible city.
I can’t wait to go back.