I moved from the Midwest to Austin 33 years ago. An old college-era friend from New York soon suggested we meet up in Mexico City. I said, “But why? There are so many cooler cities to see.” After more visits, I have now become enamored with this great city, but I often find my friends reacting as I did 30 years ago.
Mexico City has perhaps become the most important city for you to visit if you have not already done so, especially if you live in Texas. It is certainly one of the world’s great cities, and in my opinion the one that is the least known by the average American relative to its importance to us and our country. Why do I say this?
1. The importance of Mexico to the future of the United States
No other country on earth will have as much bearing on our success as Mexico over the next 100 years. For starters, well over half of our population growth between now and 2050 will be Hispanic, largely Mexican-American, as we become a “white minority” nation. The United States will increasingly become a Latin nation. These projections assume relatively low immigration: the key factor is the birth rate of the people already in the US.
Today Mexico is the 15th largest economy on earth according to most rankings. Forecasters expect it to be 12th by 2030, surpassing Spain, Australia, and South Korea and almost catching Russia and Italy. With its large and youthful population, Mexico is becoming a manufacturing Mecca, with easy cheap transport into the world’s largest market, the US. Mexico is already the 4th largest automobile exporter in the world, and rising fast with new production capacity coming onstream.
In 2014, Mexico was the second largest buyer of American exported goods, at $240 billion, behind only Canada, twice as important as China, and about as important as the European Union combined. Mexico was the third largest provider of imports to the US, at $294 billion, behind only China and Canada, and again the equal of the European Union. The United States and Mexico are wedded at the hip, and that will only become more true in the future.
2. Mexico City is the beating heart of the nation
Many emerging nations from Thailand to Argentina have what is called a primate city – a city that dominates the country and dwarfs the other cities. The United States has never known this phenomenon – the New York urban area is only about one-third larger than runner-up Los Angeles and represents less than 7% of the US population. Mexico City represents 16% of the population of Mexico, and is at least four times the size of either Guadalajara or Monterrey, Mexico’s next most important cities. This is a true primate city. At an urban area population estimated at 20.1 million, Mexico City is the world’s 12th largest, and one of the big three in this hemisphere, alongside New York (9th) and Sao Paulo (11th).
For all these reasons, Mexico City is very important to our future and that of our children. Understanding the Mexican society and economy should be top priorities of most thinking Americans. But beyond this importance lies one of the world’s great cities.
Before I go further, let me address safety head-on. I have travelled to 44 countries, and found security concerns consistently overstated. Yes, there are thieves and pickpockets in most any big city, and bad things can happen anywhere. But in that context, I have walked and driven around Mexico City and find it to be much safer than say Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, or New Orleans. As a white American, I felt extremely safe. Most of the Mexican drug-driven violence is directed at other drug lords or at the Mexican people caught in the middle. With very rare exceptions, no one is out looking to rile American authorities or citizens.
As in most countries, violence is localized. I was mugged multiple times going to college and in my first job, in Chicago and New York City in the 1970s. Never in my travels have I been in as dangerous a place as those two cities in that troubled era. A few miles away, in my home state of Indiana, or in the suburbs of New York, crime rates were even then among the lowest in the nation.
Monterrey has had an increase in crime, though I recently drove around the city by myself without any issues or concerns. On the other hand, the beautiful cities of Queretaro, Merida, and Oaxaca are relatively crime-free. I have found the Lonely Planet and other travel forums the best source for specific country and city safety information, backstopped by the reports on the US State Department website, which cover Mexico in detail. My own experience in recent years, and reports from friends in the last few months, tell me there is little reason to worry about a visit to Mexico City. Certainly the neighborhoods I have walked are sweet and safe.
So why, in addition to being economically and politically important to the US, is Mexico City such a cool city?
I stay in very nice hotels for $30-50 per night, in the best locations. For $100-200 you can go luxury, though some of the international luxury chains charge more. Entrees at one of the city’s finest and most historic restaurants, with outstanding service, ranged from $10 to $15. Middle market restaurants can go as low as $3-5 for a decent lunch. Among the world’s great cities, these prices are remarkable.
Mexico City’s location high on a plateau surrounded by mountains gives it an “eternal spring.” Typical days are in the 70s, and the summers never approach Texas’ burning heat. The city has a long history of polluted skies but the situation is much improved. I have not been bothered by pollution in the last few years. Check your favorite weather website or travel guides to see what it is like today, or at any time of the year.
5. People and Commerce
People and commerce – how could I separate the two? Mexico City has over 400,000 street sellers, of every stripe and variety. The city throbs with life day and night, from the trendiest clubs to the Mariachi bands of Plaza Garibaldi. I am a book lover. Few US cities can compare with the diversity of newsstands and bookstores, new and used, found throughout the city. When I return to Austin, which I deeply love, I cannot help but think, in comparison with Mexico City, “things change slowly here in Austin, and everything is sterile.” Nothing is sterile in Mexico City! None of the great Asian or African cities I have visited exceeds it in color and vibrancy. The people are among the friendliest and most helpful that I have ever met in a big city, though as in other countries, the smaller cities are even friendlier.
Nestled between volcanoes and historic cities, like most Latin American cities (including Miami), Mexico City is a living garden. Surrounded by giant palm trees, flowers bloom year-round. There is a public park every few blocks, full of art and statuary. There are few streets in the Americas as beautiful as the Paseo de la Reforma, which closes to cars on Sundays so bicyclists and families can take over (they have one of the biggest bicycle sharing systems I have ever seen). With plenty of benches, Mexico City is also an ideal city for a walker like me.
Mexico City was as old as Austin is today when Austin was founded. And that does not include Tenochtitlan, the amazing Aztec capital, a city of lakes and irrigation that preceded the Spanish colonial capital. On my last visit I stayed near the Alameda Park in the heart of the historic city: it was created in 1592 but is livelier today than ever. The Metropolitan Cathedral, which sits on the Zocalo, one of the world’s largest urban plazas, was begun in 1573. It is the largest cathedral in the western hemisphere. Right behind it, dive deep into Aztec ruins. The entire Centro Historico – central historic district – has undergone tremendous restoration, including new hotels in beautiful old buildings.
According to most reports, no city on earth has more museums than Mexico City. There were 27 within a half mile walk of my hotel. And these are not trivial museums. They cover every imaginable topic – the anthropology museum is one of the world’s largest, all the way down to exhibits about money and torture. Many are in stunning historic settings. I am a museum lover, and have found the entire nation of Mexico full of great museums, particularly art museums. They also know how to design museums and present art as well as any nation I know. The performing arts from symphonies and jazz to modern and indigenous dance pervade the nation. All are a bargain by US standards.
9. Art, Architecture, and Design
For many years I thought Italy, one of my favorite nations, was the most artistic nation on earth. After several visits to both, and many other countries, I now believe Mexico is the most artistic (though other Latin nations are also impressive). What is unique about Latin America is that the art is alive, it is current, it is happening now. And it is not just the upper-class art we see so much of in America, with its fads and critics. In Mexico, murals, painting, sculpture, and photography are everywhere to be seen, in the most modest of homes and the greatest of hotels and clubs, in the poor neighborhoods and the rich. Their use of color in architecture, which seems almost banned in the US and Europe, alone makes Mexico a unique experience. The murals themselves are worth the trip.
That only leaves food, and all I can say is delicious….diverse….affordable. Whether you seek the cuisines of the world or a great steak, or just a hand-rolled taco or quick breakfast, some of the best meals I have ever had were in Mexico City. While it does not have quite the overheated food city reputation of Lima, Peru, it is considered by most critics one of the world’s great food cities.
Whether it be to better understand the future of the United States, or just enjoy Mexican hospitality and culture, I urge you to get to Mexico City as soon as you can, and explore it for yourself! My favorite neighborhoods include the Centro Historico and adjacent Alameda Central, the Zona Rosa tourist and business district, and the conjoined Roma and Condesa neighborhoods (the hip “Brooklyn” of Mexico City). Many luxury homes and hotels are in the upscale Polanco area, and the new city of Santa Fe is booming. Like any great city, you could spend a lifetime exploring Mexico City and still not know every nook and cranny.
Resources for Mexico City
The best way to get to know Mexico City and its people and vibe is to spend four minutes watching this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3I17uqtQq-w
The current best travel guide for the city is: Moon Mexico City (Moon Handbooks).
For the overall country of Mexico – full of other delights like Morelia, Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Queretaro – this is the “bible”: Lonely Planet Mexico (Travel Guide).
The best map is this one. Unfortunately Amazon does not do a good job stocking maps; any good Barnes & Noble or independent bookstore should have a newer edition in stock, for a much lower price. Laminated Mexico City Map by Borch.
To understand the city and its people, it is hard to beat this one: First Stop in the New World.
To know where to eat, the best little book: Good Food in Mexico City: Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining.
If you want to really understand and visit the colonial cities of Mexico and their great works of art, this is the book: Colonial Mexico: A Guide to Historic Districts and Towns.
Lastly, you will find plenty of good information and research on Mexican politics and economics at this great site: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/program/mexico-institute
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