Published, June 2001
As the bus pulled into the Terminal del Norte, we made our final preparations for Mexico City.
"Weapons on auto?" I said.
"Check," said my wife Nancy.
"Check, dad," said Hannah, my 10-year-old, putting a last black streak on her cheek.
"Money belts secured?"
"Check," I answered myself.
With that, the bus ground to a halt and in a moment we were standing on the tarmac at the Terminal del Norte in the gathering darkness.
OK, OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit here. We didn't have any weapons and the closest thing to face paint was the lip chap Hannah was clutching in her hand. But we did feel overwhelmed and besieged by our first visit together to Mexico City. And -- thanks to the large dose of fear mongering we'd been served beforehand -- picturing all of the aforementioned wasn't much of a leap.
We'd been told by rank tourists and old Mexico hands alike that the D.F. was a seething pit of Nauyaukas. "I don't know anyone who lives there who hasn't been kidnapped and held for ransom," one told us. "Muggings are routine on the metro," said another. "You can't take a taxi in Mexico City, they'll rob you -- or worse," said a third.
And it wasn't like I was some Mexico virgin. I'd lived there for nearly three years in the late '70s and had been back three times since. But not since '86, also the last time I'd been to Mexico City, a time when I'd felt more than comfortable in the world's largest metropolitan center. Now, though, I was going with my wife and child -- two innocents -- and the horror stories, no matter how outlandish, made me very uncomfortable.
Inside, the station was a boiling cauldron of people, a scene right out of Blade Runner. Tsunamis of commuters and travellers washed by us. We clutched our luggage and began to make our way through the vortex, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. In a few moments we found ourselves across the street and entering the dreaded Metro. It was our only choice -- that or take our chances with a cab. Below, in the station, the crush was even more intense. An armed policeman scrutinized us and said: "¿Quieren direciones?"
"No, gracias," I replied and we hurried away.
I had scripted our route to the Metro stop nearest our hotel near the Plaza de la Revolucion. Terminal Norte, one stop (direccion Pentitlan) to La Raza. Change to Linea 3 and go three stops (Direccion Universidad) to infamous Hidalgo station. Change there to line 2 (Direccion Cuatro Caminos) and then one stop to Revolucion.
During the crowded, sweaty ride my hand was glued to my money belt, eyes scanning the packed car for pickpockets -- whatever they look like. None appeared, just a parade of grim but determined hawkers, flogging everything from batteries to note-pads to toys, a different one entering and exiting the car at each stop. We made all of our changes -- including the one at Hidalgo, where one respected guidebook said to avoid even travelling 'through' the station on a metro train, much less changing lines or, God forbid, getting off there. No pickpockets accosted us, just a lot of working class Mexicans looking vaguely curious at the rare sight of gringos riding the Metro.
We arrived at Revolucion and climbed the stairs to the street. Muggers did not rappel off the buildings to brutalize us. Nor was the neighborhood post-nuclear. It had shops and medical offices and Internet cafes and I noticed that many of the men walking along the sidewalks wore business suits, some talking on cell phones. If this was supposed to be scary, I'd have died of heart failure long ago in Canada.
We spent about a week in Mexico City and in many ways it was the highlight of an extremely varied 31-day trip that also included stops in San Miguel Allende, Oaxaca and Huatulco. My wife, the culture vulture, was awestruck by the Aztec ruins -- whether at Teotihuacan or the Templo Mayor downtown, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia -- and by the fact we could mix lunch and a cultural experience by visiting the Sanborns in the ancient but spectacular Casa de Azulejos on Avenida Madero. My daughter, the would-be veterinarian and intrepid shopper, loved the zoo and the outdoor markets.
This is not to in any way downplay or ignore the issue of crime in Mexico City -- it's there, just as it is in New York or Los Angeles or any other large urban center. But with a little common sense and some big-city savvy there's no reason to be any more concerned. We certainly saw clear indications that crime is an issue. Many busy corners are home to a heavily armed policeman or two and gun-toting private security guards are in constant view.
We hired a guide while gazing at the Templo Mayor near the Zocalo and after he'd finished giving us the low-down on his version of Aztec history, I asked him about the increasing dangers of Mexico City.
"It's still very safe if you don't wander into any of the bad areas," he said. "If you're a tourist and you are doing the things tourists do, there's no reason to worry."
Our guide, a charming gentleman who said he was a history teacher, asked 60 pesos for 30 minutes of information but talked with us for over an hour. He told us that, yes, Mexico City wasn't as safe as it used to be and sitios and radio cabs are best to use. He also warned us about not going anywhere near Mercado Tepito, about 10 blocks north of the Zocalo, because it's frequented by traffickers in guns and drugs. He regretted, he said, that the police turned a blind eye to this place.
About the only thing we regretted about Mexico City was not having more time to spend there.
(Jim Jamieson has been a reporter for The Province newspaper in Vancouver, Canada for the last 15 years, covering sports, hard news and, most recently, high technology. He has also written numerous freelance magazine and newspaper articles about Mexico and no longer sweats in the D.F. Jim was also an editor and typist (in the pre-computer days) for "The People's Guide to Boating, Backpacking and Camping in Mexico").