Sunset Zicatela Beach
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SHE ROAMS ABOUT

Puerto Escondido, Oax., Mexico

 

Most travel professionals and avid travellers alike, will agree that the best way to kick off a city stay is with an orientation tour. I have lived in and travelled many of the world’s largest and liveliest cities so believe me when I say there is a right way and a wrong way to experience every city. One of my favourite ways to start off on the right foot is by taking a walking tour guided by locals. Most major cities around the world will offer something like this in various forms such as private guided tours, foodie tours, bar crawls, etc., but my recommendation to get started is to find free walking tours. Naturally, when I booked my trip to Mexico City, that’s the first thing I looked for.


Ashlea, She Roams About Outside the Frida Kahlo Museum


Representing any business as offering a service for free always sounds a bit too good to be true so I want to explain why a company would choose to do this and why it’s so great for travellers when they do. The business model for a free walking tour is really simple: Offer the tour for free to entice people to book, then do such a great job they’ll want to pay for your service anyway. It’s a win-win!


It is important to realize that free walking tours are not charitable enterprises. These are cash businesses that allow the customer to determine the value of the tour for themselves, rather than paying a set ticket amount. Because of this, guides typically go above and beyond to provide an outstanding experience and earn the best possible tip from each tour. Another reason why I love these tours is because it gives you a chance to chat with a local guide and get recommendations on things like where to eat, where to find the best coffee and other local tips that may be buried deep in the internet.


Mexico City, known locally as CDMX, is actually the largest city in North America with a population of around nine million people as of 2021 and a history dating back almost 700 years. Trying to blindly explore a city of this scale, on your own without prior experience is just not a good use of time. In fact, the most common mistake people make when visiting Mexico City is that they don’t allow enough time. Not realizing the expansiveness of the city geographically, the traffic factor and the fact that there is such an array of things to do and see, can leave travellers wishing they had planned better. Free walking tours are a great way to fast-track orientation and get local opinions on how to spend your time.


Estacion Mexico, Free Walking Tours Mexico City


While there are several companies that offer free walking tours in Mexico City, I opted for a local company called Estacion Mexico who I found through a Youtube video and had excellent reviews online. Estacion Mexico offer a variety of tours covering various areas of the city including Roma -Condesa, Coyoacan, Chapultepec and Centro Historico [Historic Downtown]. They also offer paid tours to Teotihuacan and Lucha Libre. All tours run twice daily, rain or shine and are offered in both Spanish and English. It is important to note that the Spanish and English tours, although they run at the same time, are separate groups. Of the four free walking tours of Mexico City that Estacion Mexico offer, I took three during my time there: Roma-Condesa, Centro Historico and Coyoacan.


Admittedly, I was somewhat apprehensive about exploring Mexico City as a solo female traveler. Mexico has an unfair and inaccurate reputation for danger and violence and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My free walking tour of Roma-Condesa was about to allay all those fears.


Pedestrian Walkway, Roma Norte, Mexico City


The tour meets at the north-west corner of Avenida Cuahtemoc and Puebla. I was greeted by two friendly locals in hard-to-miss hot pinks t-shirts holding even harder to miss hot pink umbrellas. We waited a few minutes and then divided off into our English-speaking group of four. Our tour guide was Javier, a Mexico City local with an infectious passion for his hometown. Having lived in the US on and off since childhood, Javier’s English was near perfect, clear and easy to understand. He had a warm ease about him that encouraged conversation throughout the group and dispelled any of the awkwardness that comes with being thrust into a group setting with strangers.


Rectoria San Francisco Javier, La Romita, Mexico City


We headed off down an unsuspecting laneway with Javier at the helm until we came upon our first stop, a historic church tucked away off a busy thoroughfare. It was here that Javier explained the barrio we were in, why it was unique and gave context to some of the history of the area before embarking on a meandering trail through the beautiful neighbourhoods of Roma and Condesa.


The tour offers something for everyone. As we wandered trustingly through the streets of Roma and Condesa Javier made a point to get to know each member of the group. I am a foodie so he made sure to point out the best places to eat, another member of the group wanted to know where the best clubs were, another enjoyed street food, and another liked architecture. Effortlessly, our trusty guide catered to each of our individual interests, all the while teaching us about the culture and history we were experiencing and helping us plan how we should spend our remaining time in Mexico City.


Sights from Roma Norte and Condesa, Mexico City


After around two and a half hours we found ourselves at the Parque Mexico, a large and lively community space. To call Parque Mexico a “park” would be a gross understatement. It features towering palm trees, hanging egg chairs for reading, space to roller skate and play games, food vendors and WiFi. During the tour we had each compiled a list of places to revisit; beautiful parks, ornate churches, quirky museums, enticing cafes, the list goes on.

I slipped a generous tip in the woven bag and turned to look at Mexico City with new eyes. No longer daunting, I was seeing the city for what it truly was, historic, diverse, surprising, and full of possibility. Javier and Estacion Mexico had made me feel not only safe, but welcome here.


Parque Mexico, Condesa, Mexico City


The next two days went in a blink and then I was back at the airport for a flight to Oaxaca but Mexico City had stolen my heart. I flew back three weeks later to spend another two weeks using Roma as my base and the love affair continued. Had I not have been introduced to this city by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic local guide I’m not sure I would have ventured much further than a few blocks radius from my accommodation. Instead, here I was sipping cocktails in a hidden jazz bar, devouring Manchego lava cake in a buzzing restaurant, and happily spending my pesos at an artisan bazaar. I can’t wait to get back for my next visit.


-Ashlea

She Roams About

The state of Oaxaca is widely regarded as the cultural centre of Mexico. Often overlooked by tourists in favour of the glitz and glam of the Yucatan, Oaxaca is an incredible place to get a taste of “The Real Mexico”; and where better to start than the city itself, Oaxaca City, also called Oaxaca de Juárez. Best known as the home of Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), it can be difficult to know what to do in Oaxaca City when the festival isn’t in full swing so here are my top picks to explore Oaxaca City.



Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Oaxaca City


1. Monte Alban, Archeological Zone

2. Mezcal

3. Mole at Los Danzantes

4. Shopping for Handmade Goods

5. A Few Things to Know Before You Go


Monte Alban Archeological Zone


It would be an actual sin to visit Oaxaca City and not visit Monte Alban. Monte Alban is a very important [and impressive] Pre-Columbian archeological site that dates back to the 6th century BC. I’ve visited many archeological sites all over the world and few compare to this one. The sheer size of the site is astounding and what we visit today only represents 10% of the original site.


Archeology Team Working at Monte Alban, Oaxaca


Many sources say to just grab a taxi and have a wander around but I don’t recommend that. In the days of Covid the site is actually limited to only 400 entrants a day. Taxi drivers will be happy to take you up the mountain but a line of vehicles forms before the site opens every day so you will either find yourself running up a metre or standing on a very hot, very steep hill amidst the vehicles waiting for access.


Hector the Private Guide Explaining the Boundaries of the Site, Monte Alban, Oaxaca


I decided to book a local guide on a private tour which cost $1,200 pesos [$55USD/$70CAD] for two people. This included a private English-speaking driver in a modern air conditioned SUV, entrance to the site and Hector, our certified guide. The Mexican government takes their history very seriously, so they offer a licensing program for tour guides that requires guides to prove extensive knowledge about history and historic sites before they are able to hold tours. Hector has been guiding at Monte Alban since the early 90s and there was nothing he didn’t know. You will spend an hour being guided around the spectacular site and then you’ll have another hour or so to explore on your own before being returned to the city. Make sure you bring water and sunglasses because it gets hot on the mountain during the day.

Mezcal


A trip to Oaxaca is never complete without trying some mezcal. Although mezcal is made from agave it is not tequila, it doesn’t taste like tequila and unlike tequila, you don’t take it in shots. Also known as “the Elixir of the Gods” this unusual liquor was born in Oaxaca and more than 70% of the global supply comes from this state. In Oaxaca City bars that specialize in this drink, known as Mezcalerías, can be found just about anywhere and they usually have something for everyone. Whether you prefer your drinks fruity, sweet, salty or tart, or even just neat there is a drink for you.

Mezcal Cocktail with Grasshopper Salt


If you are interested in really finding your feet with mezcal a great place to start is Mezcaloteca. This intimate spot is by reservation only, they have limited hours and they do book up a week or two in advance, so you’ll want to plan ahead. You can choose tastings of 3 – 5 mezcals and the experience lasts about an hour. There are many flavour profiles within mezcal so a tasting is a great way to figure out which speed is right for you. Tastings range from $320 – $410 pesos [$15USD/$19CAD - $19USD/$25CAD] per person and this includes a bottle of water.


For a bit of a more social experience check out Expendio Tradición. The extensive mezcal and cocktails menu gives lots of opportunity to experiment with mezcal. The vibe almost feels like a cool, modern speakeasy with a modern twist and they offer lots of great Mexican dishes to snack on.


Expendio Tradición, Oaxaca City


If you find yourself out near the Oaxacan Coast you’ll want to make sure you take a tour with Puerto Mezcal Tours. A tasting includes 10 varietals and roundtrip transportation, check out the full experience here.


Mole at Los Danzantes


If there is one food that defines this region, is it definitely mole [pronounced MO-leh]. Oaxaca is actually referred to as “the land of the seven moles” so when I was heading to Oaxaca, I made it a mission to have a mole tasting. Mole is one of the most important dishes in Mexican cuisine. The name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua people, the largest indigenous group in Mexico and it literally means “sauce”. A simple name, for a complex dish. Traditionally it can up to a few days to make a mole and each family or cook has their own unique blend of ingredients so you could probably have a mole a day and never taste them all. Before visiting, I did a lot of research about where to eat in Oaxaca City and where to find the best mole and I feel confident when I say Los Danzantes is where you want to be.


Los Danzantes, Oaxaca City


Los Danzantes is just unlike any other restaurant I’ve visited. They seem to tread the line between fervent tradition and the avant-garde with ease. The restaurant itself is a large, rustic, stone patio with a tented roof. Birds fly freely over the walls and wander the floor of the restaurant, accompanied by warnings to please not feed them.


The menu ranges from octopus to pork shank and everything in between but I came here for the Degustación de Cinco Moles Oaxaqueños [Tasting of Five Oaxacan Moles]. You choose your protein from the list, I opted for grilled organic chicken breast and it comes beautifully presented with five small pots of mole. This dish is actually intended to be a sharing platter but since I ordered it as my main meal they offer to bring me some tortillas to make little mole tacos, which I happily did. The five moles included are mole amarillo [yellow mole], rojo [red mole], chichilo, negro [black or chocolate mole] and manchamanteles [tablecloth stainer mole – no, really it means tablecloth stainer].


Degustación de Cinco Moles Oaxaqueños | Tasting of Five Oaxacan Moles,

Los Danzantes, Oaxaca City


This wasn’t just a meal, this was an activity. When my lovely server explained what each of the moles were I had an idea of which ones I would like and which ones I’d probably only taste once but I was wrong. This is a flavour rollercoaster and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in food.


Shopping for Handmade Goods


My final pick for spending time in Oaxaca City is doing some shopping. As I travelled around Mexico I would visit different mercados [markets] and almost everything I picked up and purchased actually came from Oaxaca. The merchants are quick to show the difference between something handmade and something machine made to demonstrate the quality that comes from the crafts of this region. Items are produced by families, women, indigenous groups, charities and even in some cases prisoners, as a means of boosting their economy and bringing money into the hands of the individuals who live in Oaxaca. The quality of what they produce is indisputable and travelling around Mexico it became easy to spot the Oaxacan products in the mercados because the standard is so high. In addition to handmade goods, Oaxaca is also a great place to find silver products. Mexico produces over 80% of the world’s silver supply and the variety of what you can find here is dizzying and for really reasonable prices.


Silver Rose Ring


I recommend starting at the Mercado de Artesanias [Artisan Market] just a few blocks from the Zócalo [town square], this market is great for handmade clothing, linens, bags, etc. When you’re done here make your way to 20 de Noviembre and head back in the direction of the Zócalo. Along the way you’ll find the Mercado 20 de Noviembre which is a local food market and then the Mercado Benito Juárez which has everything you could think of. Inside, the market is a maze of rows upon rows of merchants selling anything you could be looking for and outside the streets are lined with even more vendors. The merchants here are a little bit pushier than what I found in other parts of the country so be prepared to say “no gracias” hundreds of times. This is also somewhere you can haggle on price, especially for larger items like handbags and hats. The merchants were often quick to discount themselves and begin the barter process. It is a common misconception that it’s the norm to barter in Mexican markets. Most places list their prices and function as a regular store would but in Oaxaca it was more common to negotiate on price. With that being said, Mexico much like the rest of the world has taken a hit during the pandemic so while it is culturally acceptable to barter a bit, I would encourage you to find a price you think is mutually fair, rather than just driving the price down as far as you can. After all, these people are just trying to make a living.


Handmade Bags at the Mercado, Oaxaca


A Few Things To Know Before You Go


Oaxaca City has been and remains to be an important centre in Mexico and this includes politically. When I look at pictures of Oaxaca City I see the colourful banners and charming vibrant buildings and while this is true there is another side to it. For the last few years, the Zócalo has been home to encampments of a well-known displaced indigenous group. This means the centre of the town is filled with makeshift tents, political signage and unfortunately the main square is used as the bathroom for the encampments. There is also an apparent political charge behind the street art which can be found on walls all over the city and it is not uncommon to see political demonstrations. For example, during my time there the garbage collectors had gone on strike resulting in mountains of waste on every street corner. This is also a place to be conscious of how you dress, especially the ladies, as they are more conservative and some places will actually refuse entry for exposed knees, shoulders and cleavage.


Street Art, Oaxaca City


Compared to other parts of Mexico I would not encourage walking around Oaxaca City at night especially if you are a woman or travelling alone. There are a few strips that are quiet bustling and well-lit but much of the city and bars close down before midnight and it’s a good idea to be at your accommodation rather than wandering around. Oaxaca City is an interesting and vibrant place however this was the only place where I was followed [in broad daylight] and felt any amount of danger during my time in Mexico. I do not say this to deter you but rather to encourage you to manage your expectations and exercise additional caution and awareness of your surroundings while exploring this interesting place.



-Ashlea

She Roams About

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

Mexico is one of those countries that has a reputation that precedes it. When you think of Mexico you often think of beaches, tacos and tequila but unfortunately people also associate it with drugs, crime and danger. When I told people I was planning an extended trip to Mexico the number one response I got was “Be careful.”. So after six weeks in Mexico and over two weeks in Mexico City I think it’s time to address the top question: Is Mexico City Safe?


Museo Nacional de Antropología, CDMX


Expectation:


When I was planning my trip to Mexico I initially only set aside three nights in Mexico City, or as the locals call it CDMX. I figured because my flight had to land there anyways, I would take a look around but I didn’t think it was somewhere I really wanted to spend time. Due to a last-minute flight change with Aeromexico I ended up losing my first night in CDMX and arriving at 5am. The panic started almost instantly upon entering the terminal.


I had done some research in advance about the best way to get to my accommodation. I had booked a serviced apartment from Casai in the neighbourhood of Roma Norte. From what I had read, Ubers are reasonably priced and readily available and if that failed there were authorized taxis inside the terminal that were priced flat-rate by zone. When I exited into the main arrivals hall it was still very much nighttime outside and I was greeted by a wall of male drivers staring at me. Scanning the arrivals hall there was no obvious indication as to where Ubers would be so I asked an airport employee. This was when I realized that people in Mexico really don’t speak any English and I really didn’t speak Spanish at that time. I’m not talking about fluency either, I’m talking about any form of basic English. During my time in Mexico I would say probably less than 10% of all the people I encountered understood or spoke any English at all so I was fortunate to pick up Spanish quite quickly. After a very brief and awkward non-conversation about Ubers I found myself at the authorized taxi kiosk.


I had heard, like most people, that Mexico really wasn’t safe for foreigners. Now here I was, stood in the taxi bay, sticking out like a sore thumb having to open my bag and my wallet, exposing my laptop, tablet, phone and money to about 15 people who were all watching me. I was given a ticket to give to the taxi driver and loaded into a car by an enthusiastic older porter and then we were off.


Taxi drivers in Mexico are a bit like taxi drivers anywhere, they know their town and city and they don’t use GPS. I hadn’t considered this at the time of booking but I had selected an unmarked apartment in a tiny historical corner of Roma Norte, up a poorly lit, dead end back lane. The taxi driver got us to the general neighbourhood using the address I’d provided but neither of us knew where it really was and neither of us could tell the other that. Luckily, the previous day I had done a Google Street View walk from my apartment to a nearby café and I recognized the end of the lane. I got into the apartment, climbed into bed and told myself it would look different in the daylight.


View from the Apartment, CDMX


Reality:


And it did. With two hours of sleep under my belt it was time to join the free walking tour of Roma and Condesa I had previously booked. The meeting point was about a 3-minute walk from my apartment and this was when my perspective on Mexico really changed.

At this point, I had travelled to almost 40 countries and hundreds of cities and I felt more safe in CDMX than I’ve felt at times in London, Paris, New York and Barcelona, to name a few. I can honestly say that in all the time I was in Mexico I never once felt watched, threatened, stood too close to or unwelcome.


Safety Measures:


One of the reasons why CDMX feels so safe is because it actually is. A few years ago the city appointed a female mayor and her perspective on safety in the city brought forth a lot of change. For example, the city has introduced measures such as CCTV cameras in most neighbourhoods as well as panic buttons on streetlights that connect directly to the police. If you push the panic button they instantly know where you are, can look for you on the CCTV cameras, dispatch police to be with you in a matter of minutes and can communicate with you through a two-way radio. They also launched a CDMX app for your phone which has the panic button built-in as well as a way to hail city authorized taxis and track public transport to get you moving safely.


As a female in the city, you get a little special treatment when it comes to public transport. Women are welcome to ride on any train or bus but there are also designated trains and areas on transport that are for women only. The city also focused on installing plenty of lighting on the streets as well as in the many green spaces to improve safety at night for pedestrians. And finally, there is good, free WiFi provided by the city almost everywhere you would go so you are almost always connected to the internet. From a practical standpoint CDMX is doing a great deal more than a lot of other cities. I live in Toronto, Canada and we actually don’t have any of the safety measures in place that CDMX does.


Couples Dancing, Plaza Rio de Janeiro, Roma Norte, CDMX


Cultural Norms:


Another reason why CDMX feels so safe is because of the people and the culture. En masse Mexicans are a very proud and respectful people, and that attitude extends to those around them, whether you’re local or not. In fact, it actually took a bit of getting used to because where I live most people go through life looking straight ahead and ignoring those around them. For example, if you enter into a restaurant in Mexico and people are already sitting at a table they will say hello to you and they’ll say goodbye when they leave. People will also greet you when you enter most establishments and thank you when you leave.


Shoe Care Vendor, Roma Norte, CDMX


One of the things I had prepared myself for was avoiding scams and having to haggle but I found this to be a huge overreaction. Most places, including markets have prices listed or on signs and the vendors are incredibly helpful, offering sizes, colours, options but without pressure to purchase. One afternoon I decided to purchase some shoelaces from a street vendor. I asked him how much they were, and he said $20 pesos, so I picked out my pair of shoelaces and handed him $40 pesos, thinking he meant $20 pesos per lace. It was actually $20 pesos per pair and although he could have very easily doubled his money on me, he handed me back my change with a chuckle.


Even the poor community, operate with such respect. People very rarely beg unlike what I’m used to in North America. Instead of this they offer something in exchange such as selling small items or playing some music. This is very normal in Mexico and you could find yourself approached ten or twenty times a day, even when inside restaurants and cafes. Many Mexicans do donate to these people and if they do not they simply thank them with a smile and the person moves on to the next table. Almost every business, no matter how small operates with a great deal of pride.


Busy Shopping Street, Centro Histórico, CDMX


This pride even stretches to the streets which are spotlessly clean. CDMX actually removed most of the garbage cans from the streets because they found that they would fill up and overflow but when they removed them people were so reluctant to litter that they would carry their garbage with them until they found somewhere suitable to dispose of it.

This is not a place where you need to hide your phone or wear a money belt. People walk around everyday with smart phones and smart watches without fear. In restaurants they actually provide bag trees which are little, short coat racks that sit beside your table where you can put your belongings, bags, jackets so they are off the floor and right in your eyeline.

Trust Your Gut:


I’m not going to say that you are free to roam the streets of Mexico, leaving a trail of hundred-dollar bills behind you and you’ll be fine, but Mexico truly is not a place to be feared. Like any city, CDMX has rougher neighbourhoods and some unsavoury people but the city is so huge it’s very unlikely you would be near them. As with anywhere in the world you need to trust your gut and intuition, however that speaks to you. If you find yourself somewhere you think you shouldn’t be then leave.


Palacio de Bellas Artes, CDMX


By the end of my three days in CDMX I had fallen so deeply in love with it that I booked a flight back for another two weeks. It’s this really interesting blend of European architecture and Mexican culture that makes it feel so unique. CDMX and Mexico in general have so much to offer in terms of history, culture and unforgettable experiences. This false reputation of being “unsafe” is standing in the way of so many people exploring this incredible part of the world.


So however you want to ask the question: Is Mexico City safe? The answer is yes. Regardless of where you come from, what you look like or who you are, everyone is welcome.



-Ashlea

She Roams About