Planning a Trip to Mexico City: Europe without the Jet Lag

Fuente de la Diana Cazadora (Diana Fountain) on the Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City (c) Renee M. Wilmeth
Fuente de la Diana Cazadora (Diana Fountain) on the Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City

I was first in Mexico City when I was 12 years old.  My parents were part of a group of private pilots who flew together touring Mexico over the Christmas and New Year holidays. A friend of theirs, a former airline pilot from Guadalajara, arranged the trip and served as private guide and local fixer.  At the time, I really had no appreciation for spending do much time in a foreign country, even though we were in villages where Americans had never been.  Every day we loaded up the Cessna 310 and I put my nose in a book stopping only to climb pyramids in jungles and go to the beach.

I hadn’t thought of visiting Mexico City in years, but it seemed like in the past year or two, it’s been in the air.  Magazine after magazine had featured articles on the art, the chefs, and food scene from street food to fine dining, so it wasn’t a challenge to schedule our annual girl’s trip of food and wine lovers to give it a try. We decided it was time to visit this city hitting every food and wine “must do” list with three of the world’s 50 Best Restaurants.

We had a fantastic trip and left more undone than done, but the trip left me very excited about returning this city that most of us in the US don’t think too much about.  It was very European, nearly Spanish, and felt like going to Europe without the 8-hour flight and the jet lag.  It’s a world class city — third largest in the world! —  not yet inundated with American tourists and featuring terrific hotels, world class museums, historical heritage, and a rich culture.

Last January, we had 4 fantastic sunny days in the 70s and time for a great morning walking through Chapultepec Park. We had a private guide for a morning climbing pyramids with a historian at Teotihuacan, terrific lunches  at Fonda Fina and Contramar, and great dinners at Quintonil, Pujol, and Biko.  (Will post our itinerary soon. )  I have to give a shout out to one of out party, the fab Becky Lukovic at Bella Travel Planning who is not only one of my best girlfriends but an incredible luxury travel pro who made our arrangements.

Since I hadn’t been to Mexico in a while, I discovered a few useful tips that might help you have a successful trip to Mexico City if you’re planning one. Plus, a few answers to questions that came up for me as we researched in prepping for our 4-day food fest!

1. Plan for an international destination.  Mexico City is as far from Cancun or Puerto Vallerta as Las Vegas’ Paris Paris is from the real thing.  This is authentic Mexico and you’ll find people don’t all speak English, so plan like you would for a visit to Spain.  In fact, plan for a visit to a foreign country with your passport, medical insurance, and international “kit”. You’ll fill out full customs forms for entry (something you don’t do for tourist destinations) and re-enter the US as you would from Europe. (Global Entry is your friend.)

Sunshines over ancient pyramid symbols at Mexico Teotihuacan Ancient Illumination copyright
The feathered serpent was a part of the balance of early culture. Land and sea, water and air, earth and sky. Teotihuacan

2.  Embrace the peso. The peso has a reasonable exchange rate and US dollars aren’t generally accepted (except  for tipping), so unlike vacation Mexico, you’ll want to pick up pesos from an ATM. Use a reputable big bank machine — I generally find the ones at airports reliable. The symbol for the peso is what we call a dollar sign, so don’t have a heart attack when you look at menus ($48 for a shrimp taco?!)  or your hotel bill that’s $12,000 … pesos.  (About $600 US.)  Also, note that a few higher end hotels and restaurants list prices in US dollars so keep an eye out when you book.

3. Hire a driver.  The easiest and safest way to get around is with a private driver.  At the very last, you will want a professional driver to pick you up at the airport and navigate the city to your hotel.  You will also want to hire a driver to take you to and from dinner reservations. (Most private drivers understand security and how to avoid common criminal traps.)  Yes, there is Uber in Mexico City, but it’s one thing I’ve heard you should be careful about.  Taxis should be OK, but why worry?  Need a recommendation for a driver to handle your trip?  Talk to your travel professional or hotel concierge.  You might even find your hotel has a private car that can take your where you need to go free of charge.

4. Stay in a reputable hotel.  Worried about security?  Stick to a quality hotel and you won’t have any problems. Yes, I know AirBNB is a thing in Mexico City and I might try it if I was more familiar with the neighborhoods or spoke better Spanish, but for now, I’ll stick with the St. Regis Mexico City. (The Four Seasons is great, too!)

St. Regis Mexico City
St. Regis Mexico City by the Diana Fountain on the Paseo de la Reforma.

5. Make restaurant reservations in advance. I know some people like to just wing it when it comes to meals and activities.  But for me, I want to try the restaurants everyone talks about.  Pujol!  Contramar!  Quintonil!  All require reservations and a little advance planning.  You can reserve on your own, but if you find you’re having a little difficulty getting through, don’t hesitate to ask your hotel’s concierge to assist. They know the managers at these restaurants and can help out. (That said, don’t ask them to pull strings at the last minute — nobody wants that guest and even they won’t/can’t work miracles.)  Pro tip: If your concierge helps out with reservations or car service, tip them at the end of your stay. It’s just a classy thing to do.

6. Breakfasts are a must in Mexico.  Just as brunch is a culture in cities like New Orleans, breakfast is a spectacle in Mexico. Every morning, we were greeted by fresh juices in an array of bright colors from red to yellow to orange to bright green, followed by traditional Mexican sweet breads, and an enormous buffet of fruits (some unidentifiable to me), and hot Mexican and American foods.  I tended to stick to the Mexican options — tamales, mole, and crispy chicken fried treats.  While you’ll want to plan lunches (because who wants to lose a food opportunity?), plan for enjoying the amazing breakfast options, and then go walk off those calories.  (Pro tip:  Can’t stop craving that amazing green juice at the St. Regis breakfast once you return home?  A call to the hotel concierge will yield you the recipe if you ask nicely.  Caveat: You might not be able to find all of the fruits you need to make it north of the border!)

7.  Sundays are family day.  We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and the hotel featured spa water and canapes for check in.  By Saturday, the registration desk featured big jars of candy and steps for little people. Cupcakes and doughnuts appeared on the breakfast buffet and on Sunday, the lobby of the St. Regis had transformed into a kid-friendly area with arts and crafts. I asked staff about the change and they reminded me that in Mexico, Sundays are for enjoying the day with your family and children. So, it’s no surprise that the Paseo de la Reforma — a main roadway through the city and Chapultepec Park — closes to road traffic on Sundays. The park is one of the most outstanding features of the city and home to the world famous National Anthropologie Museum, the National Historical Museum (aka Maximilian’s Palace), and Modern Art Museum, and much more.

8. Don’t sweat the weather … or traffic.  Traffic and weather were two issues I’d heard people express concern about. We were there in January, a typically warm and clear time of year.  Temperature inversions happen and trap pollution in the mountain basin that’s home to CDMX.  There’s nothing to be done but to suffer through — and then the breeze blows and one morning you wake up to a beautiful, clear morning.  Traffic is also something people had warned me about. It was another reason we were happy to have a private driver. He was able to best know the timing for getting to and from the airport as well as to evening plans on time.

9.  Last but not least, safety.  Every single woman on our trip emailed me directly to ask if I had concerns about safety.  I didn’t, but I can see where some would based on media reports.  Research helped answer some questions and my general conclusion was that — like any other city — as long as we were smart, stayed aware of our surroundings, and followed good travel practices, we’d be fine.  We stayed in a high security hotel,  we didn’t take cabs or Uber, and didn’t visit street markets or areas where we’d stick out clearly as foreigners.  The city feels very European, and next time, I’ll be a bit more adventurous, but we never had any concerns.

If you’re still not convinced you should give Mexico City a try, check out this blog post from Anthony Bourdain for his program Parts Unknown.  Then check out the episode. (It’s on Netflix.)  It’s a love letter to the city and incredibly informative about the how citizens view drugs, crime, and culture.

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