Six Reasons You Should Visit the UNAM during your trip to Mexico City

The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known as the UNAM, is the biggest and most important public university in Mexico, known for the quality and breadth of its research and programs. There are campuses and research centers around the country but the main campus is in Mexico City, in the delegation of Coyoacán. A truly public university, students pay fifty cents to study there, creating a level playing field that promotes social mobility in Mexico.

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Apart from the academics, the UNAM also serves as a cultural hub for Mexico City, its campus named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can see a wide variety of high-quality performances or concerts here and the campus is open to the community. On a Sunday afternoon you will see groups of people running along the paths, playing touch football or frisbee, throwing balls to their dogs, or student groups practicing traditional dances or even aerial silks. In a city with little green space, the giant campus filled with trees and grass serves as a lung for the city and a lovely spot for exercising or hanging out. If you need more specific reasons to visit the UNAM though, here are six reasons that you should visit the campus, even if your trip is relatively short.

1. The Murals

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There are many murals on or near Las Islas, the main quad on campus (as well as many more all over campus), each representing an important time for the UNAM and for Mexico. The most impressive, by  Juan O’Gorman, completely covers the Biblioteca Central, made up of colorful rocks put together to tell the history of the country and the UNAM’s place in it (aptly titled Representación histórica de la cultura).

Another famous Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, left his mark on the UNAM on the Torre de Rectoría with three murals. One of them, titled El pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al pueblo, depicts students bringing the knowledge they have gained at university to their  towns of origin. It’s currently being restored so it’s covered in scaffolding but when it’s done the colors should be back to almost their former glory. Another, called Las fechas en la historia de México show the most important dates in Mexican history: the Spanish conquest in 1520, Independence in 1810, the reform laws in 1857, and the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Siqueiros leaves another date open with question marks, implying that there will be another great moment in Mexican history in the 1900s. The third is called Nuevo Símbolo de la Universidad which shows two birds, a condor and an eagle (representing Mexico) biting the sun, which represents knowledge.

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Perhaps the most well-known of the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, famous for his tumultuous relationship with Frida Kahlo in addition to his Communist-leaning art, also has a mural at the UNAM. La Universidad, la familia y el deporte en México decorates the Estadio Olímpico, right below the Olympic torch. The mural shows the mixing of pre-hispanic and Western cultures.

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José Chávez Morado’s La conquista de la energía is found at the Auditorio Alfonso Caso and depicts the paradigm shift that resulted from the discovery of fire by humankind and the search since then for something that will change the world as much as the discovery of fire.

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2. The Espacio Escultórico

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The sculpture space at the UNAM is a lovely spot to wander around for a few hours, perhaps getting lost on the little paths and stumbling upon giant sculptures the size of a football field. Their immense size makes them very easy to interact with, crawling through or on top of them. Seeing their colorful shapes in the distance almost makes it feel like you’re on a search for dinosaur remains. All in all, a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

Hours: 8am – 6pm Monday – Friday

3. The Botanic Garden

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Another delightful place for wandering is the botanic garden, featuring succulents, the plants that tend to thrive in this environment. There are greenhouses that feature other environments and types of plants and there is even a store where you can adopt plants that are endemic to Mexico.

Hours: 9am – 5pm Monday – Friday

9am – 3am Saturday

4. Azul y Oro

IMG_8132The restaurant run by distinguished chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita lets you sample classic well-done Mexican food from all around the country at a reasonable price. Presentation here is impeccable and even “simple” dishes like tamales are dressed up, though done in a way that doesn’t overshadow the flavors that make them delicious. I especially love the Jamaica enchiladas, the sweet flowers that are normally featured in agua de Jamaica make a nice tangy sweet contrast to the crema and cheese.

Hours: 10am – 6pm Monday and Tuesday

10am – 8pm Wednesday – Saturday

10am – 7pm Sunday

5. The MUAC

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The Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporaneo is a low-cost thoughtfully-designed museum where you can see an interesting variety of contemporary art. The simple modern building design beautifully houses colorful exhibits where even the transitions from space to space are an experience (tunnels ending in glass turn at the last minute into a new room and giant doors covered in art open right as you near the end). There are impressive temporary exhibits that come through but the mainstays are interesting enough to be worth the visit, I especially enjoy the sound room and if you get hungry during your visit there is a glass-walled cafe tucked in amongst the volcanic rock that forms the sturdy base of the UNAM. The MUAC is located within the Centro Cultural so once you’ve had your fill of the museum you can go over to see a dance performance, concert or a play to round out your cultural experience.

 

Hours: 10am – 6pm Wednesday, Friday and Sunday

10am – 8pm Thursday and Saturday

6. The Olympic Stadium

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The site of Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic games, the stadium is still in use today as the home base for the UNAM fútbol (soccer) team, the Pumas. During the season, games are played every other Sunday and even if you’re not a huge soccer fan the atmosphere in the stadium is a lot of fun. There are special cheers, huge servings of beer and so much team spirit that rival fans are separated from Puma fans by multiple layers of riot police.

 

 

 

However you choose to spend your day at the UNAM, it’s definitely worth the visit. Wear good walking shoes and slather on the sunscreen so you can can walk around the huge campus, enjoying yourself and learning more about Mexican culture along the way.

 

The Best Time to Visit Mexico City

Mexico City is an amazing place to visit any time of year. There’s a plethora of cultural activities happening year-round and the food is always delicious. However, if you’ve decided to make the trip and are wondering when is the best time to visit, these are some considerations to keep in mind.

Winter

Mexico City is a very temperate and generally not humid place, so wintertime here is not that intense, even though we’re at elevation (Mexico City is higher than any city in the United States at 12,890 feet). Winter temperatures can drop to the low 40s at night but during the day temps rise back up to the 70s. However, houses here do not have heat and are made out of concrete which I don’t find to be the warmest building material. So people hang around their houses at night in the winter with jackets and hats on and you definitely need to bundle up a bit when you go out at night (though I’m from New England so “bundling up” here is a whole different concept). Weather aside, the month leading up to Christmas in Mexico City is a very festive time, Mexico being a predominantly Catholic country. The Christmas season starts on December 12th with thelienzo-virgen-de-guadalupe-certificada-94x120cm-D_NQ_NP_248801-MLM20401463783_092015-F celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Virgin of Guadalupe is, without getting too deep here, a Mexican looking Virgin Mary who appeared to an indigenous man on the outskirts of Mexico City and whose image miraculously appeared on a cloth. That cloth hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City where pilgrims flock every year to celebrate her feast day. The Basilica and the surrounding area become super crowded this time of year but all throughout the city you’ll hear fireworks and parties in her honor. Following December 12th there are Christmas posadas, which are processions of people singing to represent Mary and Joseph looking for a room in Bethlehem, followed by a celebration with lots of food. However, it may be harder as a tourist to get involved in these events as they are generally celebrated amongst families.

Spring

Springtime in Mexico City is the season of jacarandas, the equivalent of the cherry blossoms in D.C. The bright purple blossoms show up everywhere and provide pops of color and even blanket the sidewalks with purple flowers. The weather warms up to around 80 during the day and a pleasant coolness of 50 at night. As far as seasonal festivities, religious holidays continue with Semana Santa, the week before Easter. As most touristy destinations outside of the city fill up, the city is left relatively quiet. Celebrations around this time tend to be more solemn religious proceedings and some restaurants or tourist places may be closed. But if you’re interested in that sort of thing the working-class neighborhood of Iztapalapa does a real-life stations of the cross that’s quite impressive. As the spring turns into summer, the rainy season begins (or as was the case this year, rainy season began pretty much in March) and the dry landscape gets greener.

Summer

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Summer in Mexico City brings torrential downpours pretty much every evening. During the day the sun shines brightly and highs even go down slightly from the spring. Around 6 or 7, clouds roll in and rain falls down hard for an hour or two. The rain is so intense that streets sometimes flood and the metro turns into a clammy slow nightmare. There’s not really any significant seasonal holidays during the summer either. Although this doesn’t really sound nice at all, the great part about the rainy season in Mexico City is that humidity is only an issue right before the rain starts and you’re not stuck with overcast cloudy skies, you can still explore during the day and just be sure to pack your umbrella and rain jacket for the evening.

Fall

The rainy season tapers off as fall begins, with intermittent rains continuing until October. The temperature drops to the mid 70s and around 50 at night. Fall is pretty much the season of Mexican holidays with Mexican Independence Day on September 16th and Day of the Dead on November 2nd. Independence Day is celebrated with fireworks and parades but what is unique about how they celebrate Independence Day here is the grito. At 11pm people gather in the main squares of the city to join in shouting “Viva la independencia, Viva México” and general revelry afterwards. Many families also choose to eat pozole, a typical Mexican soup with hominy and some sort of meat and then you choose your own adventure with toppings ranging from radishes to lettuce to spicy salsas.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is an experience unlike any other in the world. Mexicans have an interesting view of death that really comes to life on Day of the Dead.

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The ofrenda for Frida and Diego at the Dolores Olmedo Museum

Basically the idea is that deceased family members will come visit their loved ones in spirit form on the evening before November 2nd so families create an ofrenda, or offering, which includes pictures of their loved ones, the typical cempasúchil flower, papel picado, a bit of salt and their relative’s favorite foods. The domestic ofrenda is recreated at museums and public spaces on grand scales and you can make a day of visiting various ofrendas at this time.

While Halloween has caught on here as well, the traditional way to celebrate on November 2nd is to go to the cemetery and have a sometimes raucous party by your relatives’ graves.  There’s a parade that goes through the center full of Catrinas, the typical skeletal women with a giant feathered hat, and various other characters. I really can’t express how unique and indicative of Mexican culture Day of the Dead is, it’s an experience you have to live to even try to understand.

And if Day of the Dead and Independence Day wasn’t enough, fall is also the best time of year to eat ezquites and elote, which is corn off or on the cob served with mayo, cheese, chili and lime which may sound kind of gross as you read it but it is literally my favorite Mexican street food.

So if you couldn’t tell from my tone, I would recommend planning your trip to Mexico City in the fall, with springtime a close second. However, like I said before, you can’t go wrong with visiting this amazing and culturally profound city at any time of year. And if you’re not wanting to brave the rains or the cold here, summer and winter are great times to visit other areas of México, beach anyone?

When will you be visiting?

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.

La Cineteca Nacional: A Hidden Gem in CDMX

Every year when the Oscar nominations come out I say to myself that I’ll watch the movies nominated for Best Picture. Then every year I end up not watching any. I’m not a person who goes to the movie theater very often and I don’t know how to safely (or remotely legally) download movies online. But this year has been different because of the Cineteca. It’s located in Coyoacán, the same neighborhood I live in so I’ve been going pretty frequently in the last month or so to finally fulfill my Oscars resolution. But even when I’m not trying to see Oscar nominations I love going to the Cineteca for a lot of reasons.

First is the unique architecture which stands out even as you pass by on the street. It really feels more like a park than a movie theater, with grassy areas, open air walkways connecting the buildings and a space for outdoor movies. It’s a great space to go wander around and catch up with friends, even if you’re not seeing a movie.

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Second is the movie selection which combines indy international films, high-quality mainstream movies and traditional Mexican cine. The two Oscar nominated films I’ve seen here are Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water. This week I also saw Bosque de Niebla, a documentary about Las Cañadas, a cooperative in Veracruz who collectively manage their land in the cloud forest using permaculture principles. Next on my list is Call Me by Your Name which it seems like they brought to Cineteca after its Oscar nomination. Darkest Hour is also showing but I’m not as interested in that (the one movie I wish was playing there but isn’t is Lady Bird, I’ve heard such good things). Cineteca obviously skews towards cultural movies rather than action-packed blockbusters but it’s also not so high-brow as to inaccesible to the average movie goer.

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Third is the ridiculously low prices! Even for mexican prices it is cheap to see a movie here. As you may be able to tell from the name, la Cineteca Nacional is government sponsored so they don’t charge as much for tickets or even for popcorn (plus they combine butter with caramel popcorn to make the most delicious sweet and salty mix). For example, this week I paid 30 pesos (about $1.50 USD) to see Bosque de Niebla and spent 40 pesos (about $2 USD) for a medium popcorn. In a country where the salaries are low but the cost of entertainment is comparatively high, it’s nice to have a place where even the most broke friend can join you for a night out.

Finally, whether you’ve come to Cineteca for a movie or just to enjoy the peaceful oasis in a busy city, there are fun little shops and restaurants lining the open air area to complete your experience. This week my friend and I who went to the documentary met up with some more friends afterwards at Señorito, an informal restaurant that serves cerveza artesanal (craft beer) as well as mini pizzas, sandwiches, charcuterie, etc. The microbrew scene in Mexico is still pretty micro so I always relish going to a place that serves IPAs (I tried the Piedra Lisa from Cervecería de Colima which is probably one of my new favorite mexican IPAs). The vibe at all of these places really compliments the laid back hipster feeling at the Cineteca.

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Basically, the Cineteca is a great place to go, even if you’re just visiting Mexico City. And if you prefer to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home, there’s also a permanent setup of pirated movies right in front of the entrance because #thisismexico (also ezquites, yumm). But in all seriousness, this is one of my favorite places here that I feel really represents Mexico City in all its cultural diversity, check it out.