By Churpa Rogers
Flying into Mexico City always feels like descending into the coliseum. You never know what’ll be coming at you, or whether you’re a spectator or part of the show. This trip I was particularly wary, as I haven’t been to the Big Enchilada since the escalation of the drug wars.
When I was a kid my parents used to take me on buying trips to the capitol. We’d hit up the labyrinthine markets for Guerrero masks, and stay at our favorite hotel right off of Garibaldi square. These trips were exciting, but beset with haggling and harassment, from shady cab drivers to gropers in the subway.
It may be my imagination, but Mexico City has a different tenor these days. I’m not claiming it’s safe, but El Monstruo is definitely well-organized and relatively easy to deal with, as far as metropolises go. Official cab stands at the airport ensure that you’ll get a fair price, traffic signals are functional, the subway is efficient, and, on the whole, people are polite, if disinterested. In the past ten years I’ve noticed that D.F. is the one place in Mexico where you are almost guaranteed anonymity—no one seems impressed or interested in gringo cachet; the hiss of “Guerra!” doesn’t accompany my every footfall. That said, when I made a point to engage with people, I found them to be totally polite and bien chido. Another plus: as my friend Chelsea marveled, no one tried to sell us anything the entire time we were there.
The steps the government has taken to make the city easy for foreigners and the general courtesy of the populace do nothing to mar the fantastically crazy spectacle that makes the city well worth your visit: a day in El Centro Historico offers a thousand marvels. Baroque stonework drips from every artifice, yet the street level is a glorious Mexican mishmash: smoky taquerias with sizzling spits of delectable carne al pastor rub shoulders with fancy department stores and old world gentlemen’s clubs. And of course that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
I detected no signs of violence, but the police presence was intense: I probably saw a hundred cops on my first day in town, and security is rigorous at bus stations and federal buildings. That said, la policia seemed fairly relaxed. Wandering the Alameda, Chelsea and I encountered a line of cops in full riot gear standing guard at the east end of the park. Despite their outfits, they seemed blasé: they stood about chatting with shields down and didn’t give us, or anyone else, a second glance. Meanwhile the denizens of El Monstruo ignored the police presence and went about their business: hawking and buying tacos, jugos, and refrescos; reading in the patchy grass; necking passionately on park benches.
While the police population is significantly larger than I remembered, the gringo population has dwindled to an anemic trickle of backpackers, students, and expats. Most of the tourists at our hotel were Mexican, and we saw only a few Americans and Canadians in the cafes and bars. Granted, I try to stay off the beaten part of the gringo path, but I’m usually not quite that successful! I chatted with a portly cab driver, who said, “People are scared to come to Mexico City, but it’s not dangerous,” he said, narrowly missing a motorcycle and cheerfully laying on the horn. I told him I’d pass that on to my gringo friends. “Yes,” he said with enthusiasm, “Tell them Mexico City is bien padre y muy chingon!”