Counterfeit banknotes, super-playgrounds and a lot of food – our week in Mexico

Mexico was added as a destination on our journey very much at the last minute. We had originally planned to fly direct from Costa Rica to Canada but for a variety of reasons we decided to opt for a route that would give us a week in Mexico City. We’d heard from a friend that it was a great place to visit and although many link the country with an incredibly violent drugs war and high levels of crime, from our research (which was admittedly just a couple of minutes on the FCO website) we were comfortable spending some time in the capital.

We landed on the evening of 26th March in slightly chaotic circumstances. Towards the end of our flight we had started to read some interactive books to Amber on the iPad. What we didn’t expect was for the interactive nature of the books to induce a significant bout of travel sickness for all of us, but none so much as poor little Amber. As we made our final approach, she decided to show everyone what she’d just had for dinner, proceeding to vomit profusely over both of us. Fellow passengers around us were incredibly considerate as we became ‘that’ family, proffering tissue packets and toilet rolls (which Claire tried to return afterwards, only to be met with polite refusals).

Amber was understandably upset and as is the way with a toddler, anger and frustration followed the tears, manifesting itself in a point blank refusal to allow us to change her trousers. So, not only were we ‘that’ family with the vomiting baby on a plane, but we were also ‘that’ family with the vomiting and crying baby wearing only a nappy, the very last in a long queue waiting to get through Mexican immigration.

It was a tough start but the following morning everything was soon forgotten as we started to take in our new surroundings. We were staying in the Condesa neighbourhood and it soon became one of our favourite places in the entire trip so far. Firstly the climate generally in Mexico City is wonderful – warm, sunny days and cooler evenings thanks to the elevated altitude (the city is situated at 2,200m above sea level). La Condesa itself was filled with tree-lined avenues, wonderful parks and a plethora of cafes, bars and restaurants.

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Inside Parque Mexico in the brilliant Condesa neighbourhood

And finally, after some nine months of travelling, we had arrived in a place where the cost of living was actually quite cheap. Thanks to Brexit and the weaker pound, before we even left the UK our trip had overnight became some 20% more expensive. On top of that whether we were in Brazil, Argentina, Chile or Uruguay the cost of living was much higher than we had assumed, particularly when it came to food. But Mexico, much to our surprise, was significantly cheaper, whether that be food in the supermarket, the wonderful street food on every corner or the price of a beer (pretty much the three things we spent our money on, aside from flights and accommodation). Shame we were only there for a week, the shortest stay out of any of the countries we had been to so far.

Mexico City is massive, by population (21 million) it’s the sixth biggest city in the world. It is also clearly of significant historical and cultural importance. With only a week in the city, and indeed the country, we knew we had to plan our time properly to get the most out of it (bearing in mind we would obviously also need to allocate sufficient time to Amber’s daytime naps and playground visits). On top of that we also needed to fit in an appointment at the British Embassy so I could get my second emergency passport (following the unfortunate theft of my passport in Santiago), allowing onward travel to Canada and the UK. As such we focussed our planning around the two pillars of what makes Mexico City great – its food and its culture. What follows is a run down of our highlights:

Parque Mexico

As parents of a toddler we spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing the merits of playgrounds. Our analysis can cover the angle of the slides, the amount of rotation in the swings, what surface is used underfoot, how well behaved the local children are, amongst other topics. We believe that in Parque Mexico we found the greatest playground we had seen on the trip so far. So dumbstruck were we that Claire immediately counted all the slides, coming to a grand total of 30. It was a dream.

The park itself was wonderful as well, with tree lined paths, friendly dogs (for the most part – in Mexico unlike many parts of South America people seemed to actually care about their dogs well-being), and surrounded by trendy bars and cafes. It became the perfect spot to pop into before and after the touristy things we were doing in our day.

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Paradise in Parque Mexico

National Museum of Anthropology

Unlike playgrounds, museums can be a more challenging affair with a toddler in tow. And although interest may be too strong a word, Amber had definitely demonstrated a certain tolerance to being dragged around historical artifacts a few times before. So we trundled her off to Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, by all accounts the single museum in Mexico City that should not be missed.

Containing a vast collection of exhibits covering all the great pre-Columbian civilisations, it most notably covers the Mayans and Aztecs. While we didn’t have the luxury of time to fully immerse ourselves in the finer details – an hour was sadly small fry in a museum of such grandeur – we did get a taste of the country’s ancient culture, traditions and rich history.

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Very important Old Things in the National Museum of Anthropology

Teotihuacan

This flavour was further enhanced when visiting the great pyramids of Teotihuacan just north of the city. About an hour’s drive (50km) outside of Mexico City lies the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, which at its peak (said to be during the first half of the first millenium AD) was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. It is now the site of the most architecturally significant example of Mesoamerican pyramids, and as such was a must-see.

Alongside the massive Pyramid of the Sun (the third largest pyramid in the world) was the smaller but no less impressive Pyramid of the Moon, both linked by the ominously named Avenue of the Dead. In addition to the pyramids, the site was full of well preserved living quarters, other town buildings and tombs. It was stunning, with views extending into the surrounding hills. And – more so than some other archaeological sites we have been to (where reverting to my natural philistine state I typically watch the clock while Claire gets very excited)  – it really was possible to imagine life here around 1,500 years ago.

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The view of the Pyramid of the Sun (top left) from the Pyramid of the Moon. The Avenue of the Dead (top centre) links the two

The only sour note on that day was realising we had become unwitting victims of some of the crime that the country is notorious for. Upon returning home and trying to pay our driver we were informed that the 500 peso note (about £20) we were trying to use was a fake (upon closer inspection it wasn’t even a good one). Despite having been given to us by a bank cash machine, without our receipt there was nothing we could do expect take the hit. Apparently there are just 71 fake bank notes in Mexico for every million in circulation, so maybe we should feel lucky to have been stung.

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Spot the fake (answer below)

Mercado Roma

Back in the city and just a few minutes walk from our accommodation was the Mercado Roma, a relatively new cavernous warehouse complex filled with street food stalls, bars and restaurants. It was the first place we visited upon arrival and we were immediately able to get a taste of Mexican food culture. We enjoyed fresh tortillas with a variety of meats alongside zingy guacomole, accompanied by a couple of micheladas (a beer served with lime and spices served in a salt rimmed glass – yes please). Despite a slightly overbearing waitress continually shouting at us (“algo mas?” – something more?) it was a great way to start our stay.

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The usual set up for Leeson meals out – beer, food, a horse and a truck

El Hildaguense

Having sampled the Mercado Roma and a number of street food outlets we wanted to also round off our food experience of the city with a restaurant trip. After a quick search we struck gold – not only was El Hildaguense rated as one of best restaurants in the city with its fine line of barbecued meats but it also had a play area for children. The opportunity to eat meat and drink beer in relative peace without having to read another Julia Donaldson book and otherwise entertain a fidgety toddler was too tempting to resist.

However it wasn’t long before both Claire and I found ourselves in the ball pit with Amber. And despite eating our body weight in tacos and tortillas over the previous few days we could still, just about, fit down slides and tunnels clearly built for people half our size. Eventually though, with the play area creaking and at risk of collapse, we retired to our table and enjoyed another fine meal primarily made up of meat. Lovely, smoky, juicy, barbecued meat.

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Not built for adults

Centro Historico

There are a few consistent themes in all of the Latin American cities we have visited on our trip. Unpleasant dogs, lots of traffic and the forewarning of high levels of petty crime are just a few. Another, more positive theme, is the presence of a historical centre showcasing a city’s grand colonial style architecture.

Mexico City was no exception with its own historic centre being of particular significance. The area is dominated by the vast open space of Zocalo, the city’s main square and one of the world’s biggest. It was formerly the main ceremonial centre of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (I will admit now that these little nuggets of information are plagiarised with pride from Wikipedia – at the time we are generally far too busy looking after a toddler to actually appreciate the historical and cultural context of the places we visit). Just a few hundred metres from the square lies Templo Mayor, once the centre of the universe according to Aztec legend. Clearly, this is a heavyweight part of the world.

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Mexico Metropolitan Cathedral in Zocalo square

A short walk north from here took us to Plaza Garibaldi, known for being the epicentre of Mexico City’s mariachi scene. Mariachi bands play here all day, tempting visitors with a dance and serenading couples in exchange for tips. Fortunately for Claire and I, whose experience of dancing in Latin America comprises a frankly disastrous salsa lesson in Cuba (at the risk of TMI, my hips just don’t rotate like they should), the bands were only just starting to warm up. As such we were left in peace to discover both the Museum of Tequila and Mezcal and its adjoining bar, which happened to be located on the edge of the square.

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Bunny after one too many tequila shots at the Mezcal and Tequila Museum

Coyoacan

Situated about 30 minutes drive to the south from our apartment was the area of Coyoacan which at its heart contains its own historic centre as well as a large indoor market. We visited early on a Sunday morning so missed the place at its most bustling. However it was still great to see another part of Mexico City filled with tree lined squares, colonial architecture and a peaceful, relaxed vibe. I was also able to sample mollettes which are innocently described as Mexican toast. What they don’t tell you is this means big chunks of toasted baguette covered in cheese, chorizo, chillies, tomatoes and salsa. They were absolutely superb in a artery narrowing, life-expectancy reducing, anti-clean eating, wonderful way. Overall Coyoacan was a peaceful and relaxing way to spend our final morning in Mexico City, and indeed our final morning in Latin America generally.

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A slightly unusual fountain in tranquil Coyoacan

Mexico facts and figures 

  • Mexico’s national language – Spanish
  • How we got by – after the luxury of having our friend take on most of the speaking duties in Costa Rica, it was back into the trenches. That said I was pretty proud of the standard I had got to, which although by no means good, was sufficient to perform the basics… “tiene salsa picante por favor” being one of my most commonly used phrases
  • Number of kms travelled – only around 100km, primarily made up of the round trip to Teotihuacan
  • Different types of transportation used – taxis only
  • Beer brands consumed – it was a joy to be in the land of some world class beer brands including Corona, Modelo and Sol
  • Beers brands favoured – Modelo Especial served in the michelada style. Zing.
  • Bottles of wine consumed – None
  • Favourite animals – Mexicans actually appeared to take care of their dogs so we had a welcome breather from being relentlessly attacked – as such the well groomed dogs being paraded around Parque Mexico were our favourites and made Amber in particular very happy
  • Least favourite animals – Well cared for dogs, no strays – it was paradise and we really didn’t encounter any unwelcome beasts
  • Country highlights – the atmosphere and sense of history at both Teotihuacan and the Museum of Anthropology; the food; the micheladas; not to mention the entire area of Condesa which was simply a beautiful neighbourhood to stay in
  • Most treasured moments – Certainly not dragging Amber through immigration in just a nappy. Standing on top of the Pyramid of the Sun admiring the view; Amber being given a unicorn balloon by a kind lady in the hairdressers; seeing THAT playground in Parque Mexico for the first time; breakfast in one of the many cafes around Condesa with the sun shining; a fresh breeze and a happy family
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Our final photo in Latin America

Answer: The fake bank note in the photo is the bottom one.

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