A Weekend in Mexico City… Part 1: Arrival and the Subway

Mexico City… dare I ask what comes to mind when you think of this mega-city, with a population of close to 9 million people?  If you are like many Americans who use Google, then I suspect that you have concerns directly related to the safety of travel.  After all, when I enter “is m” into my Google search window, this is what Google thinks Boston residents are likely to be searching for:

A Google Prediction for “is m…”

mexicogoogle

Without commenting on how many repressed men/women in the New England area are apparently questioning their private activities, it is fascinating to see just how concerned Americans are about travel to Mexico.  It makes sense given how frequently we see news about murders as part of the drug trade in Mexico, such as here, or here.  However, Mexico City (also known as the Distrito Federal) has been consistently reported to be a very safe place for tourists.  Interestingly, the Forbes article states that Mexico City “has a murder rate of 22 per 100,000 people, which is comparable to Philadelphia’s 21.5 per 100,000 and far below Detroit’s 54.58 per 100,000.”

Since Annalisa and I would not hesitate to visit the City of Brotherly Love (or the Motor City, for that matter), we figured that this would make for a great use of our Southwest Companion Pass and were eager for a weekend in Mexico City.  The flights from Boston were uneventful, with a layover in San Antonio at an underwhelming Four Points property that I would not recommend.  Our arrival into Mexico City gave us a sense of just how polluted the air was.  Because of its unique geography (high elevation in a valley) and massive population, it has been described as one of the most polluted urban areas in the world.

A Hazy (But Beautiful) Welcome to Mexico City

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Our introduction to the disorganization of this fabulous city took place as soon as we deplaned and tried to clear customs.  Despite anticipating a longer queue than in airports in the United States, the lineup was phenomenally long.  It snaked 7 times around, and was over 500 people deep when we arrived.

The Lineup at Customs in Mexico City

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We initially had plans to explore Mexico City following our arrival into MEX at 1:50PM… sadly, our “tourist” view for the next 3 hours (!) of our lives was an alternating picture of this very sweaty guy’s back with and without his backpack.  (Did I forget to mention that the customs hall at the Mexico City Airport did not have adequate air conditioning?).  There were only 4 customs agents working the entire time that we were waiting, despite there being over 10 windows sitting unused.  What was very inefficient and frustrating was that the Mexican citizen lineup was empty some of the time that we were waiting, and those agents just sat there and waited for more Mexican citizens to arrive instead of processing any of the non-Mexican citizens.

The Consequences of Limited A/C and 500+ People Waiting for 2.5 Hours

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When we finally cleared customs, it was almost 5:00PM!  Now we had to tackle the Mexico City Subway system during rush hour.  One of the more challenging aspects of planning this trip was trying to figure out how to get from the airport to the closest subway.  Of course, Google was of minimal help.  In fact, during my searches of how to find the subway entrance, I read more about how confusing it was than any practical guide!  Plus, all I kept reading about was how potentially unsafe the subway system was.  I greatly respect companies such as Frommer’s (and have even met Arthur Frommer at a travel convention), but when they publish text that says “safety concerns have made [public transportation] less comfortable options for travelers,” I know that many travelers will choose to take taxis or rent a car and miss out on a true travel experience vital to the lives of the residents of Mexico City.  Our experiences (including Annalisa, who is a Nervous Nellie by nature) were completely positive.  If anything, we felt that we were more likely to lose our wallets on the Paris Metro System!  To help guide you to Terminal Aerea, on Line 5, which is the closest subway station to MEX:

Landside Location of Terminal Aerea at Aeropuerto Internacional de Mexico

mexicocityairportsubway

The majority of international flights will arrive at Terminal 1.  Landside of Terminal 1 is highlighted by the red line above.

Once you exit customs, you can orient yourself by walking out the airport doors.  You will want to turn left and walk towards the red star seen above.  The red star is where a taxi stand is located, and is adjacent to the Terminal Aerea stop.

The walk to Terminal Aerea is poorly signed.  The walk from international customs was not a short one (0.5 miles?).  Follow the crowd walking on the sidewalk, and you will wrap around the taxi stand and see the downstairs entrance to the Metro on your left hand side.

Contrary to some online reports, there were no clear bans on bringing luggage onto the subway.  However, during rush hour, it can get crowded, so your primary concern would be how cumbersome it may be.

The subway system does not provide you with a metro map, so consider printing out a map (below).

Despite how convoluted the map for the subway system appears, it truly was a relatively easy system to navigate.  Like the subway systems of most major world cities, some transfer points can be confusing and you will likely catch the subway going the wrong way at least once.  But that’s part of the experience!  The Mexico City subway fare was a mere 5 pesos, which is the equivalent to about $0.30 USD.  That is not a typo: it cost 30 cents a ride.  Imagine getting from LGA or JFK into downtown Manhattan, or from LAX into downtown Los Angeles for 30 cents!  Alternatively, we considered an Uber ride from the airport, but that priced out at 250 pesos and would not have been nearly the travel experience we wanted.

Subway System Map

Mexico_City_metro

One of the most memorable parts of the Mexico City subway experience was the proliferation of vendors hawking everything (and I mean everything).  We saw toothpaste, chocolates, headphones, pens, bubble makers, and mixtape CDs being sold during our stay.  If you ride the subway even a few times, the seller’s hollering “5 peso 5 peso 5 peso!” will be ringing in your ear!

Selling His Personal Mixtape (Playing at Max Volume on His Backpack Boombox)

subwaysale

A trip to a new city wouldn’t be completely without me completely embarrassing myself.  Being in a rush, caught up in a crowd, and having failed Intro to Spanish more times than I care to share, I blew by the sign below:

If You Can Read This, You’re Smarter Than Me

onlywomenchildrensign

During rush hour, the Mexico City subway system has a creative way to insure the well-being of women and children who are traveling in a system that carries over 5 million passengers a day (meaning that it gets very busy).  In case you are too lazy to put the sign above into Google Translate, it reads: only women and children under 12 years of age.  Despite being neither a woman, nor a child under 12 years of age, Annalisa and I ran blindly onto a subway car that was about to depart the station.  After a few minutes, we both looked at each other and wondered why I was the only man on that car.  Of course, we didn’t put 2 and 2 together until I crossed the bright orange barrier exiting the station upon our arrival at our destination, and saw the first subway car that men were allowed to ride on:

The Subway Car That Allowed Males During Rush Hour

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Oops.

Despite this awkward start to the trip, we absolutely loved the city.  More to come, including a trip to Arena México and Teotihuacán!

 


About the author: Eric is a young professional living in Boston, MA with his wife, Annalisa.  We try to balance work/life responsibilities with a desire to travel as much as possible.  To make this work, we take weekend trips to domestic and international destinations, trying to maximize our $/points while seeing the best tourist attractions and local favorites.  How much can you can pack into A Weekend In Mexico City?

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  1. great report —

    I’d be interested in exactly what line you took to get into the city, how easy it was to buy a subway ticket — did you get a card with value on it or buy a single card every time — and how did you convert dollars to pesos and what was your conversion rate (black market versus standard $1 = 16 pesos)

    • Thanks Michael.

      Like most travelers heading into the heart of Mexico City, we took Line 5 from Terminal Aerea towards Pantitlan. A transfer at Pantitlan to Line 1 (towards Observatorio) will get you in the right direction towards many tourist attractions.

      Buying a subway ticket was a breeze. Every station has a ticket counter where you can buy a single use paper ticket. It seemed like a large number of locals used this option, rather than purchasing a multi-use card. We chose to buy a ticket every time because the little paper tickets were easy to lose in your pocket, and we were too lazy to figure out the multi-use card.

      We converted our USD to pesos state-side at a local bank with standard conversion rates. $100 USD got 2 people very comfortably through a 48 hour trip (including activities). I suppose if we were converting a larger sum, we would have tried harder to get a more advantageous rate, but things were so cheap in Mexico City that we didn’t need to think too hard about this one.

      • @Eric “A transfer at Pantitlan to Line 1 (towards Observatorio) will get you in the right direction towards many tourist attractions.”

        No!

        That’s a rookie mistake. Transfer at Oceanía and again at San Lázaro. Don’t change at Pantitlán unless you really have to (e.g. to take the Brown Line).

        There are some good suggestions below from Maria. Don’t do what Steve did and stay in Santa Fe — don’t go there at all. Do follow his advice about the Ballet Folklórico.

        • Owen –

          Hmm… my logic for avoiding your proposed transit itinerary was to avoid lugging bags across 2 separate transfers. It felt like transferring 1x was easier in terms of the bags and ease. Was I in error?

          • I’ve done both those transfers — and all the likely variations — with and without luggage. Pantitlán is the busiest train station in the hemisphere and particularly nightmarish with bags. The Pink Line subway diverts the long way to get there and takes quite a while longer than making one extra transfer.

            Now that I don’t live on the Brown Line, I never transfer at Pantitlán but often make the double transfer through Oceanía and San Lázaro. Metro trains run very often so you won’t wait long even on off hours. The transfer through Sán Lázaro involves walking and both have stairs, but it beats Pantitlán.

            If you have multiple heavy bags, consider paying the outrageous airport taxi prices (US$15 to most touristy areas). There’s a lot of room for comfortable travel on the slowish Metrobus 4 Line but it suffers badly from serving both terminals since there’s no good route between them except on the tarmac.

    • Mexico does not have a “black market” for buying and selling Pesos. People can buy and sell the peso freely — this isn’t Argentina or Venezuela.

      As for the Metro, there’s no discount for buying more than one ride at a time. So just buy single tickets.

  2. I agree with the other comments. I’d like to see more detail on the tickets. Where and how to buy them. I have a trip there in October and worry about those long custom lines. Seems really bad.

    Oh and I wouldn’t feel bad for the women’s only car. You did travel with a women. I doubt they would expect you to separate into different cars? Maybe? Don’t know.

    • DaninMCI –

      See above for purchasing the subway tickets. It really was very easy – just say a number and hand the ticket agent your pesos and you’re on your way. The tickets are single use, and where they are to be inserted at the turnstile is obvious.

      And unfortunately, I was the only male in that car…

  3. I have had to transit through MEX and can agree customs is a nightmare. They have no landside transit facilities (at least in T2 where delta, aeromexico & LAN lives) so it really is crucial to pad your connections especially when on separate tickets.

  4. Just to clarify, there are two terminals at this airport: Terminal 2 handles Aeromexico, Delta, LAN, Copa, and Mexican regional carrier Aeromar. Every other airline uses Terminal 1.

    And has been mentioned, if you’ve got a connection that requires a change of terminal, yes, it’s a pain. The train that connects the two terminals is ONLY for passengers (that is, when it’s actually working and not down for maintenance), and it’s outside security. So there’s no staying airside.

    Re: The Metro, I use it to/from the airport, so long as I’m traveling light. But if you have to change lines at Pantitlan station, it’s awful. Connecting from one line to anther, you’re faced with a long walk, bottlenecks and large stairways. It’s not a place for a roller suitcase, as I learned some time ago! Otherwise, do use the Metro for getting around the city — at five pesos, you can’t beat the price.

    • Phil –

      I couldn’t agree more about the PITA transfer at Pantitlan station. However, despite the headache of the walk with luggage (maybe 5-7 minutes?), it was a far better choice for us than facing Mexico City rush hour traffic. Even from the airplane, we could see the gigantic traffic jams on the roadways. I’d personally choose 5 minutes of dragging my luggage over 50 minutes of sitting in the backseat of a car, but that’s just me!

  5. Just did my first visit to Mex. City. Was due to arrive at 3 pm, but my flight was cancelled and a rebook put me instead at midnight. After reading your immigration experience I guess the late arrival was worth it, a 3 minute wait and I was out. Words to the wise: Hike from T-1 gates to immigration is quite long. I took authorized and affordable (given the great exchange rate) cabs and avoided the subway and the diesel-choked, particulate/chemical laden air. Highly recommend the Hyatt Regency Polanco and the Hilton Reforma. Safe locations, staff very friendly and helpful. Stayed Santa Fe, newer, good hotels, but a boring business area. A private air conditioned sedan and driver/guide arragned by Hilton to Teotihuacan cost $100.00 for six hours, included expressway tolls, park entrance, car parking fees. It was worth every penny/peso! It conserved my energy as well. A one-day rental with full insurance (a must in corrupt ridden Mexico) would be $85.00 plus gas, plus site parking, plus navigating the roads and exhausting oneself from the drive. I was able to be driven from A-B around Teotihuacan gate entrances vice the high altitude, sun searing hikes according to my schedule. In three hours I did the grounds/pyramids and museum, no lunch as I wanted to avoid D.F. traffic hell. Left at 9:30 am and was in Santa Fe section by 3:30 pm. A conurbation of 22 millions, it’s a must do city, but 3 days is enough and then I needed to get out of the soup bowl.P.S. A must is the Museo Anthropologica and Ballet Folklorico.

  6. Travelled to Paris in May and to Mexico City (DF) in July. I felt much more secure in Mexico City! We took the metro in MX, found it to be an easy, safe and efficient way to get around the city. Also took Uber taxis within the city, they were extremely cheap compared to Uber fares in France, Spain and in the U.S. The customs hall situation needs remedy, we had the same experience but only waited one hour to get through, had fewer aircraft arriving at the same time. We visited for six days, I recommend the San Angel Saturday market, the Museum of Anthropology, Dolores Olmedo Museum, the Casa Azul (Frida Kahlo’s home), Xochimilco (floating gardens) with a guide, Palacio de Bellas Artes (Diego Rivera murals) and the Templo Mayor Museum. Don’t miss artisan chocolates at Que Bo! Absolutely delicious.

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