Mexico City: On Surprises, Street Food, and Savoring the Moment

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Palacio de Bellas Artes

When I initially bought a one-way ticket to Mexico City, reactions were mixed. Well-intentioned family members warned that it was a dangerous and dirty place, while friends who had been there raved of the culture, food, and vibe of the city. My mother practically begged me to change my flight to go to Europe (big thanks to U.S. news for all the fear mongering about Mexico), but something had been calling me there for months and I was done ignoring it. Being a voracious consumer of all things travel-related, I knew that Mexico City was quickly becoming a hotspot for social entrepreneurship, foodies, and A-list travel bloggers. Armed with my camera and a long to-do list, I decided to suspend all expectations and plunge head-first into my first real solo trip abroad.

I spent my first day in Mexico City doing what I usually do when I first arrive in a new place: a free walking tour. Mexico City is comprised of many neighborhoods (known as colonias) that are spread out over a huge swath of land (much of which used to be a lake). Many of these neighborhoods were originally separate towns or even small cities, but have since been incorporated to form the larger city. The walking tour covered the historic center, which is also the spot of the original Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (famously where Cortes and the Spaniards ruthlessly conquered the Aztec empire). There are still ruins from the ancient city in the historic center, including remains of the major temple complex. There is something magical and sad and awe-inspiring to wander around the centro, a geographical point where two completely distinct worlds met and clashed for the first time. It was a time in history that changed the entire trajectory of the future, and standing there among Spanish-constructed buildings staring at an ancient Aztec temple, I felt equal parts inconsequential and grateful to be alive. 

The next few days followed a strict schedule of eating, exploring, and more eating, with an occasional workout or few hours of actual work or writing thrown in to balance out both my calorie bank and my actual bank account. 

When I was able to pry myself away from food long enough to visit attractions, I would say that my favorites were the Frida Kahlo Museum and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which houses a few famous Diego Rivera murals and was running an exhibit on the relationship between Rivera and Picasso when I visited. As one of the most museum-rich cities in the world, there was absolutely no way to hit even the all the major sites in my four days there, and I'm embarrassed to admit that this anthropologist didn't even make it to the world-famous National Museum of Anthropology. Bonus travel tip: missing something that you really want to see *on purpose* gives you the perfect excuse to book a flight back as soon as possible. 

Although I started out with a long list of museums and cultural spots to hit, I often found myself wandering for hours in the various neighborhoods. Each colonia is so distinct architecturally and culturally that they truly felt like completely different towns. I won't pretend to have even scratched the surface of the city or its complex array of colonias, but among the most popular and touristic, my favorites were Coyoacan and Roma Norte. Coyoacan is the neighborhood that Cortes founded originally as a separate village for the Spaniards. It boasts colonial architecture, large plazas, and an upscale vibe, while Roma Norte feels a bit more young and - dare I say it - hipster, with large tree lined avenues and a variety of boutiques, bars, and restaurants that any respectable Brooklyn-dweller would be happy to frequent. 

They were mainly just impressed that I only cried *a little* at their hottest salsa

They were mainly just impressed that I only cried *a little* at their hottest salsa

No account of Mexico City would be complete without a mention of the food. Oh, the food. If only I could explain in mere words how life-changing it was. Huaraches. Tacos. Fresh lime. Holy guacamole. The most picante of all salsas. I was warned by several people prior to visiting that eating street food in Mexico City was a short-sighted decision: trading five minutes of intense culinary pleasure for days of agony. However, as a stubborn *yet reasonable* person, I chose to follow the advice of every single other person in Mexico City and go for it. 

This is the point where I make the most obvious yet seemingly necessary parallel between eating street food and making the decision to travel to Mexico alone (to the possible detriment of my mother's heart health). Well-seasoned travelers know that both of these activities are perfectly safe. In fact, many of the friends I met in hostels wouldn't even understand the intense fear that some Americans have of solo international travel (especially to Mexico), but it's there and it's real. But we all know that our best and most memorable moments don't come from sitting at home and slurping canned soup. Life changing memories are made when we step into the unknown and pray to the Aztec gods that we don't get food poisoning from that extra spicy taco on the street corner. And even if we do, I'm here to tell you that it's still worth it. 

Mexico City was full of surprises. It was at the same time gritty and clean, full of foliage and teeming with people. Of course there are places in the city to avoid (as in all cities), but my experiences with the Mexican people and culture contradicted nearly every news report I've seen on the city. Everyone was welcoming and gracious, the city was vibrant and colorful and alive, and the history and culture were equal to any major European city I've ever visited. 

I will forever remember these first few days in Mexico - alone but not lonely, overwhelmed in the best possible way, hungry for more. In our everyday lives we are constantly tethered to an identity, a sense of self that is bound to friends and family, work, a home, or even a language. Too often we go through our everyday lives just taking these identities for granted, assuming that who we are in this moment is who we will be forever, when in fact we have the ability to actively choose an identity, to intentionally decide who we are are and why. Cutting those ties to everything familiar was simultaneously liberating and emboldening for me. When we travel alone, we're completely detached from that identity, free to feel and sense and be whatever and whoever.

So to Mexico City, I say thank you. Thank you for reminding me that life is messy and unpredictable and complex, but that embracing the chaos and savoring the unknown is the most direct route to feeling unabashedly alive.