Getting around Mexico City

Traveling within Mexico City can possibly be the most daunting part of visiting or living here. Besides the massive amount of people (23 million in the metropolitan area), the city is spread out far in every direction. Getting from one end to the other takes about 2 hours without the traffic that the city is infamous for. I’m lucky to live quite close to my work and my commute takes 40 minutes door to door. Germán is not so lucky – his commute is upwards of 1½ hours one way and requires a combination of walking, three metro lines and biking or a bus at the end. If you’re here as a tourist and can choose when you use what type of transportation it can actually be somewhat pleasant and can give you a deeper look into the local culture. So here are your options along with some pros and cons to consider when choosing how to get around.

 

Car

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Image from http://www.conciertosmx.com/trafico-cdmx/

Whether you are driving or taking a taxi/Uber, the most important thing to consider with a car is the traffic. On a Friday before a long weekend that also corresponds to a quincena (paydays are every 15th and 30th of the month – so are called quincenas since quince means fifteen) the city will be packed with cars trying to leave the city and inadvertently getting on the highway at this time probably means sitting in the car for a half hour just to get off at the next exit. So check out Google Maps before getting a taxi, around rush hour as it’s very probable that driving somewhere will take you longer than in metro.

In terms of street taxis vs. Uber/Lyft/Cabify, the ride hailing services win due to security concerns. Street taxis have been known to rob or even kidnap passengers so it’s not a good idea as a foreigner to hail a taxi off the street. Plus, most of the time they are more expensive than an Uber, which will cost you anywhere from $2 to $8. An exception to this are taxi sitios, basically a collective that you can call and schedule a taxi pickup. These taxis will have the sitio information painted on the rear window and use radios to stay in touch with the dispatcher and are considered safe. If you don’t have cell service then pretty much any place you are at can call a taxi for you from one of these sitios.

 

Metro

If there’s a ton of traffic or you want to experience the authentic CDMX commute, then the metro is the best option to get to most areas of the city. It costs 5 pesos (or 25 cents) per ride so it’s used extensively by the working class and those of the middle class who are sick of the traffic. In my opinion it’s one of the easiest to navigate metros that I’ve experienced with a system of colors with a name and picture for each station (due to high levels of illiteracy). Overall the trains and stations are slightly to very dingy though the newer lines are a lot nicer in terms of cleanliness and conveniences like verbal announcements for the stops and TVs. In true Mexican fashion, you are able to buy anything from hair elastics to gum to pirated CDs from the vendors who walk through the cars yelling out their sing-song announcements. You can also hear music which varies from blind people singing karaoke style with a backpack speaker to a solo didgeridoo player to three person bands with electric guitars covering 90s rock. There are also all kinds of beggars walking around barefoot, occasionally with children in tow, either making speeches or handing out little slips of paper which tell their story then coming back around to collect the papers and any money that you feel inclined to give them. The stations can also be experiences in and of themselves, complete with murals, museums, cartoons and vendors of food and hair accessories.

There are, however, definite security concerns on the metro. Due to the high volume of people passing through it is the favorite hangout for pickpockets who are mainly on the prowl for smart phones. They work in groups and will usually scope you out on the platform then as the train arrives they’ll start pushing and shoving you, which does sometimes happen when the metro is really crowded and everyone is trying to get on. But in these cases they’ll take advantage of your distraction to grab your phone from whatever pocket or purse compartment it is in then turn around to go sell it in the places that buy used electronics. The metro police aren’t too much help with this as some of these groups give them a kickback for doing nothing. To avoid being a target for these groups it’s a good idea to not take your phone out once you enter the metro and to keep it in a place that’s hard to get at.

Despite the prevalence of pickpockets there’s something special about the CDMX metro that makes me feel comfortable using it daily – the women’s only section. The first few cars are reserved for women, children and elderly people (although usually only during peak hours). Although this started for the unfortunate reason of women being sexually assaulted on the metro, it has resulted in an area that is usually much less crowded than the rest of the train so you may even get a seat or at least not have to be crowded in like sardines with the hot stale air providing no relief. Especially after I got my phone stolen by a group of men on the metro I’ve come to cherish the women’s section even more.

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The other downside of the metro is that it does not reach every neighborhood in Mexico City. Luckily, there are more options for getting to places where the metro doesn’t go.

 

Metrobus

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The metrobus is a newer addition to the transport options in the city and is noticeably cleaner and more mechanized (a machine sells you tickets instead of a person). The cost is slightly higher than the metro but still only 6 pesos, or 30 cents. The main line (Red or 1) runs through Avenida Insurgentes, the main thoroughfare through the commercial/business areas and will get you all the way to Tlalpan, one of the southernmost areas in Mexico City. It gets to be even more crowded than the metro though you do get some fresh air through the windows and once again, the women’s section is mostly less crowded (though it can get to be really full and the women are really fierce getting on and off). The metrobus travels through a private dedicated lane so you’re able to breeze by the cars sitting in traffic although crowded intersections will still slow you down a bit.

 

Peseros/Microbuses

Peseros are privately run microbuses that used to cost one peso (hence the name) that have sprung up in areas where there are no city-run transportation options or for more local transit. Being more informal, there are no maps available online to show where they go, rather, they have signs on their front dashboards that say the places that they will pass by. You really need to know the area where you are going in order to use peseros because in addition to not having published routes, they also don’t have established stops. When it’s time for you to get off you have to get up and approach the door where there is a button to press to request a stop (or if it’s broken you have to yell over the cumbia music to the driver to stop and let you out). To get on you have to hail a ride as you would a taxi and between everyone getting on and off the peseros will swerve back and forth to stop on the side of the street then speed up to zip through traffic in the middle lanes. Drivers are financially incentivized to crowd in as many passengers as possible so they also fill up to the point where you’ll see multiple people hanging out the door as the pesero speeds along. Trying to get out at these moments is quite the challenge though when people get on through the back and can’t reach the driver other passengers are very accustomed to passing the money for the fare up towards the driver and then passing back the change. Peseros cost between 5 and 6 pesos depending on the size or more if you’re going a far distance. I feel like peseros really encompass Mexico City culture but I wouldn’t recommend them to tourists unless they have a deep knowledge of the city.

 

Trolebús

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Image from Quinto Poder

The electric trolley bus travels through and to the outskirts of the city with the main line running parallel but on the opposite side of the city as the metrobus. Unlike the peseros, this is city-run transit so there are programmed stops and you get a slip of paper for your ticket as you enter (I’ve heard that you should hang on to this because if you were involved in an accident on the trolley bus this would serve as proof that you were a passenger and your medical costs would be covered). On the cleanliness spectrum it’s less clean than the metrobus but generally a little cleaner than the metro. At 4 pesos it’s even cheaper than the metro and although it has a semi-dedicated lane to use, cyclists, peseros and parked cars tend to occupy this lane as well so you get the same swerving back and forth as in the pesero and sometimes get slowed down by traffic.

 

Biking

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The biking trend has definitely arrived to Mexico City and you’ll see expert bike commuters zipping through traffic and occasionally through intersections. I have attempted to commute to work on a bike when I worked closer to my house but I only did it once as I am honestly not the most comfortable with urban biking on main roads during rush hour. There are definitely areas (like Roma and Condesa) which are more bike friendly but the city is creating bike lanes all around. Another great option if you don’t have your own bike or if you are linking together metro and biking within your commute is the Ecobici. It’s a bike sharing program that has 480 bike stations around the city. It’s not in every area but in the areas where it exists there are stations evenly and frequently spread out to make it a popular option for local travel. You need a pass (annual with a Mexican bank account or daily for tourists) and with the pass you’re able to check out a bike free of charge for up to 45 minutes at which point you have to return it to a station. There’s an app you can download to see the stations near you and even if they have bikes or not or if there are only a few. The bikes are usually not in the absolute best shape but they all have lights and are comfortable to ride. It’s a great way to take a quick trip to the bank or to get around the hip neighborhoods that have tree-lined bike and pedestrian lanes in the middle of streets.

 

Walking

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Due to the sprawling nature of the city walking is not a practical option if you want to go to another area of the city. Within neighborhoods, walking can be a great option in some areas (Del Valle, Condesa, Centro, Roma, etc.) or practically impossible in others (Santa Fe, Xochimilco or some areas of Tlalpan). However, mostly all the touristy areas are pedestrian-friendly and strolling around can be a great way to experience the city.

However you chose to get around there’s lots to see and experience in Mexico City, even the transportation itself if you let go of your strict timeline and take it all in.

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