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3 Days in Mexico City, Pt. 1: Culture and Etiquette Guide

An arial view overlooking the square of Palacio de Bellas Artes

Mexico City (often referred to as CDMX, which stands for Ciudad de México), is a loud, bustling, smoggy, enormous, beautiful, and incredible place. Visiting a city that boasts of more than 20 million residents can feel daunting, so I will tell you now: three days is not nearly enough time to see this city. But should you have the opportunity to visit, even for just a few days, I highly recommend that you do!

Mexico City is nothing short of amazing. The very fact that I had to make my three day visit into a two-part series should speaks volumes. The city feels endless in it’s tessellation of monuments, museums, artists, cultures, and people. It is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere: it has the fourth highest number of theaters in the world after New York, London, and Toronto. CDMX also has the most museums in the world. Most of which, incredibly enough, are free on Sundays!

Years ago, I had struck up a conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop about traveling. I told him about my love for France, and he told me how he had just returned from Mexico: “If you love Paris, then you will love Mexico City” he told me. He described the art, the people, and nightlife. “I have never seen so much art in my life! It’s the Paris of Mexico.” Ever since that conversation, I was determined to visit.

My 3 Days in Mexico City travel guide is in two parts: this first portion will provide tips and tricks for your stay while in the city, including social etiquette to keep in mind while traveling. The second part will be what I was able to see and do while visiting, which will hopefully give you a great starting reference for your own CDMX adventure!

3 Days in Mexico City, Pt. 1 

Joe and I made plans to visit to visit Mexico City for my birthday, while in Paris earlier this year. Celebrating my birthday in Mexico was something I had wanted to do for quite some time, and I knew if I told him my plans, my chances of actually doing it would increase ten-fold.

For my flight, I traveled via InterJet, and upon my return I had a 16 hour layover in Guadalajara, the airline’s hub. (Airlines will often do this in their ‘hub cities’ in efforts to encourage tourism. It worked! I spent a day and night in the city and loved it.) Flying InterJet was...an experience. Things are done differently with this airline, but honestly I would fly with them again - especially now that I know what to expect. The best thing I can say about the airline is that they have the most legroom I have seen in Coach. Also the planes I flew didn’t have a First Class - which was refreshing in its own way.

Leaving the airport
When arriving to the airport you will go through customs and receive a temporary 180 day visa, known as the FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple). Do not lose this! It is advised to keep it handy while traveling throughout the country. I didn’t want to carry my visa and passport on me, so I took photos of both on my phone and “carried” them with me that way.

When exiting the airport, you can choose to take an Uber, or use one of the taxi services: I elected for the taxi service. You can do this by going to one of the kiosks in T1 or T2 by the baggage claim area. You give the receptionist your address, pre-pay, and receive a QR coded ticket and go outside. You will then be escorted to an available taxi, and safely on your way.

For your safety: do not hail a taxi curbside. Instead use the kiosks within the airport, and only use the official authorized Mexico City taxis which are yellow and black, or pink and white. Or use Uber. A taxi will cost you about $200 - $300 MX peso (or about $10-$15 USD).

Remember your manners 
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but during my first couple of hours in CDMX, I forgot my manners. Or rather, I just used my traditional, non-Southern United States manners...and I was quickly corrected ( and rightfully so). CDMX residents are warm and friendly, and are happy and willing to point you in the right direction, and even strike up a friendly conversation with you. It is important to remember that it is a large metropolitan city with its own customs and culture: Mexico City is also one of the most cultured cities in the world.

Often in the United States media and because of its politics, Mexico is treated as a second-hand version of the US, and that simply isn’t true. The country of Mexico deserves just as much respect and attention to foreign customs, culture and etiquette as any other country that is visited. Simple tips to remember: Always greet someone before addressing them (“Buenos dias”), ask their pardon when asking a question, and thank them for their time. Also: always use ‘¿mande?’ (pardon) when asking “what?” not ‘¿que?’ it’s more polite and will be better received.

Download Google Maps before arriving. You can use Google Maps off-line, and bookmark favorite places. Simply type in the address of where you’d like to go, and receive walking/driving directions. Google will also save your reservation location so that you will always know the way home.

Getting around
One cute and admirable thing that I noticed my first day in the city was the slower pace of walking that the residents have here. In Paris and New York, people walk fast. In those cities, if you aren’t prepared to move on the sidewalk, be prepared to move over and out of the way. In Mexico City, residents move about at a notably slower pace.

This may explain the timeliness of the city too: if you have friends in the city and plan to meet up for drinks, dinner, etc., do not expect a prompt, on-time arrival. It’s not unusual for people to show up 15 - 20 minutes late, regularly. This isn’t because of thoughtlessness, or carelessness it’s...just a different way of life. (Plus when you consider the traffic that is within Mexico City, you will have a better understanding of why it may be nearly impossible to be on time, anywhere, ever.)

I have heard it been said that Mexico City isn't the most walkable of places - this is hard to estimate as a whole because the city is huge. Instead, it's more accurate to say that there are neighborhoods that are more walkable than others: Centro Historico & Zocalo, Roma & Condesa, and Juarez & Colonia Cuauhtémoc are all very walkable neighborhoods. However, if you are not already within these areas, and wish to get to another part of the city, you will quickly discover that you will need public transportation.

That being said, be sure to download Uber, and use it to get everywhere: Uber is so cheap in CDMX!! I’m talking $3-$5USD per trip. Uber is also incredibly safe to use in CDMX because cash is never exchanged, and you can share your trip with a friend, who can follow along on your journey via the app. If you want to really move around like the locals, download the DiDi app, which is hot on the trail of Uber, and quickly gaining traction. While Joe and I were shocked at the cheap rides, locals told us that it was expensive compared to DiDi.

Get connected
WiFi is everywhere. Even more so than Paris. I don’t have or use an international phone plan, so I rely on WiFi. Mexico City was amazing in that it was incredibly easy to connect almost everywhere we went. Just open your phone and look for free available  public WiFi - be sure to not open any banking apps, though.

Don’t flush the toilet paper It may feel counterintuitive, but there is no flushing of the paper. Mexico City is the oldest city in the Americas - it was founded in the 1300's! In addition to 20+million residents, the plumbing system can only handle so much. Don't flush: that’s what the little trash can next to the toilet is for!

¿Mande? While over 600,000 USA expats live in CDMX (the largest concentration of Americans outside the US), not everyone speaks English. As a matter a fact, most residents don’t. Please remember - this is a foreign country! Brush up on your Spanish, download a translator, and be prepared to dive right in!

The Spanish is different: I studied Spanish in high school, and my ex-boyfriend of nine years is fluent in the language - so imagine my surprise when I heard words and common phrases in Spanish that were different than I was accustomed to. Also, the accent is different too. I learned on this trip that the Spanish spoken in CDMX isn’t the Peninsular Spanish that I was taught in high school, nor was it Castellano - it was something different. Not being fluent in Spanish this is hard for me to explain, but again, residents are friendly and will work with you, and are happy to correct you, if you ask for feedback.

Clean your plate if you can! Much like in France, if you do not finish what is on your plate, you will be questioned about it, or a comment will be made. Unlike France, however, asking for a to-go box for the remainder of your meal is totally acceptable. I found the potions surprisingly large in CDMX, so bring your appetite! Mexico has some of the best cuisine and restaurant talent in the world, with access to top ingredients. Do yourself a favor and research ahead what restaurants are worth a visit.

Speaking of food: Visit the street vendors! This is the best way to discover new ingredients, and get an authentic everyday meal. Being a foreigner you will be overcharged, but that’s ok - you’ll still pay only $2-$3 in USD, max. Joe and I purchased two agua frescas (which where incredibly large, and made with fresh fruit), a sope and a quesadilla both made to order and stuffed with three ingredients each and paid a total of $6USD for everything.

About the water: This wasn’t an issue for me. I drank the water served in restaurants, and used regular faucet water to brush my teeth. However the AirBnb may have had a filtration system. If you keep an eye out, you will notice all the water jug delivery trucks on the streets in the morning. Sticking to bottled water, or filtered water didn’t take a lot of energy, as it seems the locals buy purified water for their homes, and restaurants automatically serve purified/filtered water. However: yes, you should stick with purified or filtered water and not drink from the tap.

And the very most important: Make friends! Making friends while traveling is one of the most rewarding things. Your new friends can teach you so many things about yourself, their culture, and direct your to great food and drink spots, and teach you fun new words too!

I hope you enjoyed this post - read my 3 days in Mexico City Part 2 here!
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