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Mexico City public transit

What do you think about public transit in Mexico City??

I received a random email yesterday from the Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (a.k.a. the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness). Take a look at the text below:

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Dear Julie,

I work for the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), a local think-tank focused on issues of competitiveness. I’m currently involved in a project about urban mobility in DF and its suburbs. One of the channels through which mass transit and mobility affect the local economy is tourism. I ran a quick search of “mass transit DF tourism” and found your blog. Although you are not/ were not a tourist, I think you might have a few ideas as to how the local mass transit system can better serve the needs of foreign visitors. Obviously our initial premise is that more people would come to DF, and stay longer, if mass transit was more “foreigner-friendly”. If you could share some thoughts on this topic, we would be very grateful indeed. I have not been able to find any surveys or field studies about what foreign tourists think of Mexico City’s transit and how that affects their sight-seeing patterns.

Best regards,

(name withheld to protect the innocent)

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Needless to say, I was flattered to be viewed as a possible resource for any organization who falls into the category of think-tanks! And while I certainly have some ideas of how to improve public transit in Mexico City, I figured– why not also solicit feedback from my loyal readers??  (That’s you, Mom & Dad.)

Anyway, if you’re part of the majority of my readers who either live in or have visited Mexico City, please take a minute & leave a comment below. Mexico City is trying to polish itself up for you folks!  Help it help you, people. :) If you have any hot suggestions of how mass transit here might be improved to make life easier for tourists, please let me know & I shall pass it along to the investigator at the Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad. Perhaps on your next trip to DF, you will see your brilliance implemented & will be able to tell all your kids about the time you consulted for a think-tank. (pro bono) 😉  Thanks much!

Navigating the Mexico City Airport

I recently received a reader request (yay!) for an overview on what happens when you get off the plane in the Mexico City Airport, so I thought I would share a few tips I’ve gathered thus far from my trips.

Airport Code: MEX
Possible Aliases: Benito Juarez International Airport, or AICM (Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México)
Website: http://www.aicm.com.mx/ or for English click http://www.aicm.com.mx/home_en.php
Location: Here’s a map from Streets and Trips showing where the Airport is located (blue circle) in comparison to some of the more popular neighborhoods (red circles). Also highlighted in purple squares are a couple of the main roads taxis use to get to/from the airport from the west side of the city (i.e. going to/from Polanco).

Location of Mexico City Airport

Location of Mexico City Airport (click image to enlarge)

Metro Stop: Terminal Aerea on the yellow line #5.

Map of Terminals: Check out this wild-though-slightly-confusing interactive map.

Terminals: There are two Terminals, 1 and 2.  Unfortunately it is not as simple as one is the domestic, one is the international terminal. International flights arrive into both terminals. You can see the full list by airline here on the AICM website, or here is a quick list of the big names:

  • Aeromexico: #2
  • American: #1
  • British Airways/Air Canada/Air France: #1
  • Continental: #2
  • Delta: #2
  • Mexicana/Mexicana Click: #1
  • Northwest: #2
  • United: #1
  • US Airways: #1

What happens when I arrive on an international flight into Mexico City? (I will answer this from the perspective of Terminal 1, since that is where I have flown into from the States. The process should be the same for Terminal 2, but I imagine the layout is slightly different.)

After you get off the plane, you’ll walk through the main area of the terminal & follow the signs downstairs towards customs/immigration. First you’ll go through Immigration, where you’ll turn in the immigration form that you likely received on the plane. Note: US citizens need a passport to travel to Mexico as of June 2009. Only note-to-self here is don’t be talking on your cell phone in the immigration area.

Next you’ll pick up any checked luggage you had at the baggage claim. IMPORTANT LUGGAGE NOTE FOR BOTH TERMINALS: MEX is the only airport I’ve been to that actually checks to see if your luggage claim ticket matches the luggage tags on your bag before you leave the baggage area. This is true for both domestic & international flights. So make it easy on yourself & be sure you save that little claim ticket that you received when checking-in your bag before your flight!!

To leave the baggage claim area, you’ll pass through Customs, where you’ll hand over your import declaration form & you’ll put all of your bags on a belt through another scanner. Then you press a button & either get a green light or red light, signifying whether you can continue on your way (green) or customs is going to search your bags (red).

Yay, now you’ve made it past all the checkpoints. Next step: getting a taxi. When you exit the secured area of Terminal 1 after customs, turn and walk to your right. Below is another map showing the path you’ll take.

The red line shows the path through Terminal 1 in the Mexico City airport from Immigration to Baggage Claim to Customs to taxis

The red line shows the path through Terminal 1 in the Mexico City airport from Immigration to Baggage Claim to Customs to taxis

Getting a taxi at the Mexico City airport:

Your next task is to find a taxi. You will be fine if you go to one of the stands inside the airport terminal. There are several authorized taxi companies (see list here) and the prices are set based on a system of which “zone” you are going to. Approach one of the stands and tell them the address to which you’re headed, including the colonia (or the name of the neighborhood). IMPORTANT NOTE FOR NOT WASTING MONEY ON A AIRPORT TAXI: Ask for a sedan taxi. Otherwise, they will charge you for an SUV (or ejecutivo) taxi, which is $300 pesos instead of <$200 pesos to go to most colonias. That said, if you are with a group of more than 2 people with large luggage, you may want to consider the SUV/ejecutivo taxis simply from a space/comfort perspective… The sedan taxis generally don’t have a ton of space in their trunk for crazy-big American-sized suitcases, and leg room can be limited if you are stuffing 4 passengers into one car.

I have never had a taxi stand try to screw with me on the price to get to my address once we got past the sedan vs. SUV topic. However, if you want to check what the price should be, this taxi company website lets you type in your colonia destination & tells you what the price should be for that zone. (Note: some colonias span 2 zones & that website won’t tell you which specific zone your address is in.)

For any future visitors of ours, our apartment building is in Zona 6 of Polanco, so I just ask the taxi stand for “un sedan a Polanco, zona seis”, which is $190 pesos.

If you have pesos, you can pay in cash; if not, most of the taxi stands take credit cards & I consider it safe to use one there. (Just make sure your credit card operator is aware of your trip to Mexico & is expecting to see purchases from Mexico, so your card doesn’t get denied.) The taxi stand will give you a receipt with two parts, and then you walk outside where the taxis lurk. At this point, a random dude will usually try to grab your luggage out of your hand to drag it the 100 feet to the taxi area. Feel free to resist this effort if you don’t want to give him a tip (and believe me, he WILL pressure you into giving him a tip of maybe $5-10 pesos).

There should be another gentleman standing outside who will look at your taxi receipt & point you in the direction of the taxis from the company you chose (again, multiple taxi companies operate here). You can usually figure this out as well by matching the colors/logo on your receipt with the colors/logo on the taxi.  When you get in the taxi, the driver will keep half of the receipt & you’ll get the other half. Now is when I tell the driver the specific address I am going to (the people at the stand indoors don’t really care, other than to make sure you’re paying the right price for the right zone). Once you arrive at your destination, you don’t need to tip the taxi driver since you’re in the spendier, safe sitio-type taxis (I never do). However, you can give him a few pesos if you feel like he was über-helpful with your luggage or tolerated you trying to chat with him in Spanglish for 30 minutes.

And that’s it! You’ve made it from airplane to the taxi without issue!

Other random Q&A:

I have family/friends flying into the Mexico City airport; should I pick them up or is it safe to have them use the airport taxis? As my parents and brother can now attest, I am a big advocate of visitors just getting one of the taxis at the airport. There is no negotiating required, they are safe, and they are fast. We initially tried sending a taxista to meet our visitors at the airport, but finding an obvious place to meet/ensuring said taxista arrived on time was not as easy as we hoped. As friend Emily can attest (who we decided to pick up because we thought Saturday afternoon would be “easy” to grab her from the airport & head directly to a neighborhood down south), our trip to the airport took at least an hour due to traffic/accident blocking a key lane of traffic, and then it took us about 2 hours to get to our destination because we didn’t realize the eastern half of the city is under construction. Alternatively, I estimate it would have taken her <30 minutes to get to our house via airport taxi.

What if I want to go on a fool’s mission to pick someone up at the airport? There is fairly cheap parking available outside of both terminals, and finding the parking garage entrance is even pretty well marked! Check out aforementioned map to suss out where the parking is.

How long does it take to check in for a flight at the Mexico City airport/what is security like? In our experience, the larger Mexican airlines are extremely efficient/quick getting people checked-in (i.e. Aeromexico & Mexicana). It should take you <30 minutes to get checked in & go through the loosest security checkpoint ever. When we have flown US airlines back to the US, however, it has taken about an hour to get checked in (due to minimal # of staff trying to check in 3 int’l flights at once), so plan accordingly.

The main security checkpoint at the airport is almost a non-issue and typically quite fast. I’ve had no issues with liquids, only with the nail file portion of a nail clippers I had, which the security woman simply broke off from the nail clippers (which had been through about a zillion other flights without issue, than you very much). On international flights to the US, you will have the “US-style” security check at your gate right before you board. That is where they will check to make sure you comply with the US liquids rules of <3oz. Also FYI, you can’t even bring unopened bottles of water onto the plane for flights to the US, even if you just bought it at the store right next to your gate.

Should I take the metro to get to the airport? I can’t really speak to this since I’ve never tried it. However, I can offer the commentary that I would probably not feel very comfortable taking the metro to the Mexico City airport if I was dragging any measurable amount of luggage. The metro can be pretty busy/packed depending upon the time/day you are on it, so it may make me a bit nervous to try & monitor a combination of backpack/purse/carry-on/big suitcase while surrounded by a crush of people. I would also factor in how many subway-line changes you have to make from your starting point to get to the airport. From our house, 3 different lines are required & I imagine it would take easily an hour+ door-to-door, plus getting fairly sweaty before you board a multi-hour international flight. That said, if you’ve tried it & it was super-easy, please advise!!

How do I transfer between terminals?

Conveniently, the airport has an AirTrain (aka AeroTren) that will zip you between the terminals. Rumor has it that it runs between 5AM and 10PM & the ride takes about 5 minutes. Just look for signs with a train-looking icon & follow those. Also, this website has a great summary of going from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 via the AirTrain.

UPDATE–> looks like the above link is dead (thanks for the alert, Kire!), but there is some commentary on this page regarding the Aerotren. The salient points are basically:

  • “To take the Aerotrén from T-1: take the moving staircase by Sala D (1st floor), turn left and walk to the middle of the bridge, from there you can take the trip to T-2.”
  • The Aerotrén leaves from T-2 on the first floor: access is to the left of the check-in desks, at the entrance to the ‘dedo sur – southern finger’ – of T-2.”   (info courtesy www.aeropuertosmexico.com)

Readers, please holler if you have any additional guidance that I’ve missed or further questions that I’ve overlooked!

UPDATE #2–>> Check out my new post to discover a good meeting point if you are meeting friends or family inside Terminal 1 at the Mexico City airport.  (There are two doors from which people arriving on international flights can leave the secured area, so it’s nice to have a meeting point just in case you aren’t clear which door they will be exiting.)

What Not to Wear… to a Mexican market

This past weekend, we decided to check our Mercado Sonora and Mercado de la Merced here in Mexico City. Mercardo Sonora is known as the “Witches Market”, meaning that its vendors proffer a wide variety of goods that tend to fall under the “potions” category (perhaps optimistically). So lots of incense, herbal/folk remedies, images of saints to pray to, lucky charms, etc.  Mercardo de la Merced is one of the largest wholesale/retail markets in Mexico City, with aisle after aisle of fruit, veg, grain, party invitations, clothing, and really anything else your little heart desires.

Saturday was a gorgeous day (after a bit of unseasonally crap rainy/cold weather the previous weekend), so I felt like taking advantage of the warm temps by wearing a skirt & sandals. And one of my favorite Threadless t-shirts. (Those of you who know me, know that my inept wardrobe basically consists solely of t-shirts from http://www.threadless.com.) This was before we decided to go check out the weirdo witchcraft market, located in arguable not the ‘best’ neighborhood in D.F….  (Point of reference: in recounting my latest market trip to my boss on Monday, we discussed how perhaps I should begin sending him emails with our plans for Saturday so he would know where to start searching for me if I don’t show up to work on Monday.)

Anyway, John felt a photo was merited to document for all my readers “What Not to Wear to a Not-Super-Touristy Market in Mexico City If You Want to Remotely Blend In”.

Ways to identify yourself as a foreigner

Ways to identify yourself as a foreigner

 Tips:

  1. Wear a skirt  (women generally wear pants here to avoid harassment)
  2. Wear sandals  (even during the summer months, I rarely saw any Mexicans wearing sandals…probably because you don’t necessarily want what’s on the streets to subsequently be on your bare feet)
  3. Be 6’2, or within 6 inches of that  (everytime I ride the elevator at work, I awkwardly note that usually I am at least a head higher than my elevator-mates)
  4. Travel with someone else who’s 6’2  (I’m sure I would totally blend in if it were not for John)
  5. Have blonde hair  (not so common here)
  6. Wear t-shirt with images representative of the Communist Party on it  (I’m not a communist, people; the shirt just has communists AT at a party… see, it’s totally different)
  7. Stop and take photo on the pedestrian walkway over the busy street between the two markets 

All of that said, we were harassed no more than usual at the market and enjoyed wandering around the numerous “one vegetable only” stands at Mercado Merced (i.e., if they had a store name, it would be “All Avocados” or “Totally Tomatoes”).  Mercardo Sonora, however, was a different story– the distinctive feature of this market was the animal section.  Here, we found wire crate after wire crate filled with puppies, bunnies, birds, roosters, chicks, you name it.  The condition of the animals was certainly offputting enough, but selfishly, all I could think while walking through the overwhelming stench of animals-in-close-quarters was the completely irrational thought of “If I was going to get the bird flu somewhere, this is it.” I think this first popped to mind when I saw a glimmer of sunlight peeking through the roof, which highlighted the disturbing amount of particulate in the air for our breathing enjoyment…

A view from the pedestrian walkway down along the side of the Mercado de la Merced

A view from the pedestrian walkway down along the side of the Mercado de la Merced

In summary, I would not necessarily rush to Merced or Sonora– Merced is interesting for its size, but not particularly differentiated in its offerings. With Sonora, there is certainly a treasure trove of odd folklore medicines, charms, and amulets, but it is difficult to discern much meaning from merely walking by. I think if you are fluent in Spanish & interested in chatting at length with the vendors, Sonora could be an interesting experience. Barring that, I would not put it on the top of the must-do list (but to be fair, I was skeeved-out by the animal section)…  If nothing else, both are easy to get to via the metro– the Merced stop on the pink line deposits you literally *inside* the market to make for easy exploring. And of course, we did continue our exploratory food trend with huaraches at one of the stalls in Merced!!

We had huaraches for lunch inside Merced... yet another food stall victory with no problems!!

We had huaraches for lunch inside Merced... yet another food stall victory with no problems!!

My singing taxi driver

I take a lot more taxis around Mexico City than I ever did in DC, and each taxi trip here begets the question of “to chat or not to chat”. (And by extension, “to practice my Spanish or not”) You can pretty much tell as soon as you get in whether the taxi driver is going to be the chatty/friendly type or not, but sometimes one misgauges.

For instance, Friday morning I hopped in my cab to work and the first few minutes were pretty quiet, save for the standard commentary about the weather (cold). I was a little sleepy, and hence hoping for a silent ride that would allow me to do my trademarked “head bobbing in-and-out of consciousness”. But then we exchanged a few more pleasantries regarding how long I’d been living in Mexico, what did I think of it, whether I liked the music, whether I liked mariachi music specifically. It all seemed innocent enough, but little did I know that my elderly taxi driver had a master plan.

After confirming that yes, I like mariachi music, he informed me that he happened to have a tape AT THIS VERY MOMENT in his car with this type of music, with a song that talks about a muchacha bonita (pretty girl), and conveniently, it even has him singing! Now I wasn’t so sure that I followed that last part correctly in Spanish, but I was entertained and so heartily consented to the tape being played. It was all cued up right at the start of “Muchacha Bonita” (in fact the name of the song). As I listened carefully to what seemed to be a rather poorly mastered tape, I realized that I was hearing the song w/its standard lyrics PLUS my taxi driver’s warbly-but-on-pitch voice dubbed over it. Classic.

I was then treated to three additional songs, each a bit more advanced in that the normal singer was completely replaced with my taxi driver singing. For these, I was also treated to him singing along in the taxi! The only time this concerned me were the occasional instances where he seemed to be so into the song that his eyes appeared to close as he looked towards the heavens to belt out his tunes. (Luckily, this usually coincided with us being stopped at traffic lights.)  He paused between a couple of the songs to inform me that he was not a professional singer, but he just really enjoyed singing. :) During another lull, I inquired how he made these tapes. Apparently he owns a special dual tape deck with a microphone which allows him to create these works of magic in his very home. I was duly impressed with his resourcefulness and dedication to his craft.

Finally, the time came to part ways as we reached our final destination– my office. To his additional credit as a taxi driver, he was one of the few cabbies I’ve ridden with who knew the correct route to end up directly in front of my office door (due to some trickiness with ‘no left turns allowed’ on the major street I work on). He inquired my name & assured me what a pleasure it was to have me in his taxi this morning. I responded with a “¿Como se llama?” as well, and he turned around, introduced himself as Salvador and shook my hand, informing me he was at my service. I must say, it is hard to have too bad of a day when it starts off with a private vocal performance & unabashed flattery.

I close with the lyrics from my first taxi cab serenade, along with my loose translation:

Muchacha bonita, bonita bonita  
con todas las fuerzas que tengo en el alma
con toda mi vida te voy a adorar.
        Pretty girl, pretty pretty
        with all the forces that I have in my soul
        with all my life I’m going to adore you.


Muchacha bonita, bonita bonita
en todas las noches que duerma
te juro que siempre te voy a soñar.
        Pretty girl, pretty pretty
        in all the nights that I sleep
        I swear to you that always I’m going to dream of you.


Te quiero y me quieres
te extraño y me extrañas
y sé que cuando andas solita
le pides al cielo volverme a mirar.
        
I love you and you love me
        I surprise you and you surprise me
        and I know that when you want alone
        you ask to the sky to return me to watch.  

 

Por eso te quiero
muchacha bonita
por eso ante Dios
te prometo que nunca
te voy a olvidar
         For this, I love you
         pretty girl
         For this, before God
         I promise you that never
         will I forget you. 
 

 

Public transport in Mexico City: overall, thumbs up

In hopes of someday helping a visitor to Mexico City, here’s my three-weeks-in assessment of the public transit options around here. Positives: plentiful & very cheap. Negatives: busy & usually warm. Major caveat: I have not yet tried the Metro/Metrobus during rush hour on a week day (7-9AM, 6-9PM), and don’t know that I would rush to do so… My assumption is it will closely emulate a can of sardines in an oven.

The Metro is not actually as confusing as this map looks

The Metro is not actually as confusing as this map looks

Mexico City Metro: A ticket to go anywhere in the network is $2 pesos (about 20 cents), dirt cheap. Purchase little paper tickets from the manned windows inside the station. The stations I’ve been in thus far have been very clean & well lit, and the trains have been the same. Both have similarly been pretty warm (not stifling, but I was definitely getting my sweat on). Everything is really well marked, and multi-line stations have plenty of signage (directing you towards the last station on the Metro line, so make a note-to-self of the final station on the line that you’re looking for). During the week, the first car on each train is set aside for “women & children only”, a nice option for ladies traveling solo.

  • Act like a local by: putting your metro ticket into the turnstile upside down (black strip up) or it won’t work.
  • Interesting facts: the Metro wasn’t damaged by the 8.1-scale 1985 earthquake, because its structures are rectangles rather than arches…. each station has a distinctive logo as well as a name, because the illiteracy rate was so high when it was first built (1969)

Metrobus: Almost as hot of a bargain, at $4.50 pesos per ride. However, there’s an $8 peso ‘deposit’ for the plastic, rechargable Metrobus card, so it actually costs you $12.50. This extended bus has one route: its own lane running north/south down the median of a lengthy portion of Avenida Insurgentes (aka “the longest urban avenue in the world”). It’s handy for getting down to spots like San Angel & UNAM. Most stops are named after the cross street that intersects Insurgentes, but a few are named after other landmarks, etc., so take a look at a map in advance. Buy tickets at machines outside of the turnstiles at the stations.

  • Act like a local by: as soon as the machine spits out your plastic card, stick it back in the slot above to actually charge it with $$.
  • Interesting facts: the Metrobus replaced 372 other buses when it opened in 2005…. it carries over 260,000 passengers daily 
Transit + circus ride all in one

Transit + circus ride all in one

Peseros/Micros: I have yet to find a website with a secret decoder ring for these micro-buses/VW buses that roam the streets of Mexico City. These puppies range in appearance from something like the one at the right to much sketchier looking ones. They generally cost $3 or $4 pesos, depending upon the route/quality of the bus, and you just pay the driver when you board. They have a fixed route, going towards the destination posted on their windshield. The peseros will pick up any passengers that flag them down along their route, so they can be a bit slow.

  • Act like a local by: riding on these, period. And, by pressing the red button near the back door to indicate you want to get off at the next street.
  • Interesting facts: if you sit in the very back seats, you will be in for the jostling of your life & are virtually guaranteed to get airborne, courtesy Mexico City’s many potholes….the peseros got their name because they originally cost only $1 peso per ride
John was excited by this pesero whose driver is apparently a Vikings fan

John was excited by this pesero whose driver is apparently a Vikings fan

Taxis: Besides “don’t drink the water”, the other best known advice about Mexico City is “don’t take the libre taxis”. There are basically two types of taxis: the libre taxis (often -but not exclusively- green/white VW bugs or red/white), and the sitio radio taxis (some will say sitio on the side, but others are unmarked). In a nutshell, you can hail the libre taxis on the street & they are cheaper, but are more dangerous. The sitio taxis can only be hailed at a sitio taxi stand or by calling the sitio taxi dispatcher on the phone; they cost more but are safer. Libre cabs use meters, whereas some sitios have meters, but others have a fixed price between two points which you should confirm as soon as you get in the cab.

The “express kidnappings” you may have heard about in Mexico City (where thugs jump into the taxi with you, rob you & take you to various ATMs to empty out your bank account) seem to only happen in libre taxis; according to the US Embassy, they don’t have any documented incidences of people having problems in sitio cabs. Anecodtally, some folks who have lived here for a while take libres if a) it’s daytime, b) they are with multiple people, and c) they know the route the taxi should be taking. Barring that, you’ll be better off keeping the phone numbers of a few sitio stands with you & calling them when you need a taxi; make sure you ask for a description of the car/license # when you call, so you know you’re getting into the taxi you called. (Sometimes libres monitor the radio transmissions of the sitios and try to beat the sitios to their fare.)

  • Act like a local by: knowing exactly where you’re going (bring a map into the cab if it’s somewhere a bit off the beaten track) and speaking enough Spanish to the cab drivers to not get ripped off
  • Interesting facts: there are over 250,000 registered cabs in Mexico City… the sitios seem to be less risky because their drivers make more money (higher fares) & are vaguely monitored (they rent space at the taxi stand where they lurk) 

Ok that’s all my hot insight for the time being, but will add more commentary as I experience it!

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