Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City

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I brush my son’s hair, wet from the shower, across his scalp. He’s wrapped in a fluffy towel, holding his Wimpy Kid book out to me to read while he brushes his teeth and gets in his pajamas. Once he’s all ready for bed, he cuddles up to me under the duvet and we laugh at the many misfortunes of Greg Heffley.

Then out of nowhere comes a piercing whistle, a shriek high pitched enough to set the dog to barking, but not enough so that only she can hear it. I tense up, teeth gritted, as the camote man sells his soft sweet potatoes on the street below our apartment, the whistle telling everyone within a 100-mile radius that they are good and ready.

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Half an hour later, the earthquake alarm goes off, and I grab our sleeping child while my husband picks up our fully grown German shepherd. We hustle down the stairs to the designated safe zone for our street, feeling the earth rumble under our bare feet.

Welcome to Mexico City; a place not for the faint of heart. Mexico City is beautiful, and charming, and an incredible place to visit, but living in a city of this size, scope and insane decibel levels takes more than your average tourist can give.

Palacio de Bellas Artes. Photo by Hayley Baldwin
Palacio de Bellas Artes. Photo by Hayley Baldwin

Gird Your Loins

Living here requires nerves of steel and the ability to walk out in front of moving traffic because if you don’t, you ain’t ever crossing this road.

You need taste buds that can stand up to the robustness of a chili flecked guacamole or the roasted red salsa that you’ve just smothered all over your al pastor.

Your ears need to get to grips with listening out for basic Spanish phrases and you need to be able to reply, even if only at the most basic level if you want to get what you need at la farmacia.

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Get to Grips with Spanish

Do not rely on people knowing English – why should they? Many Mexicans do speak English, but it is by no means guaranteed.

Spend enough time here, and when you speak to a local in your mangled Spanish they might just reply in English, much to your frustration. Once you’ve lived here long enough you will want them to only speak Spanish, so that you can put into practice all the verb tenses and conjugations you have. Alas, it seems that they too want to practice their language skills.

You will have many conversations with others where you both speak some kind of Spanglish at one another. Other times you will just have to do your best with the Spanish you do know.

Dial Down The Road Rage

Traffic is insane here. Have you ever been in a taxi in Midtown Manhattan at 17:30 on a Wednesday night?

Well, imagine a Midtown 571 square miles large, and you have an idea of the kind of traffic you will be dealing with on a daily basis, across the entire city.

 If it rains, then expect to be in a standstill for a long, long time. Factor in an extra hour to get to the airport. It might say it’s only eight kilometers away on Google Maps, but it will be the longest eight kilometers of your life.

Spicy elote on a trajinera in Xochimilco. Photo by Hayley Baldwin.
Spicy elote on a trajinera in Xochimilco. Photo by Hayley Baldwin.

You Will Not Find Tex-Mex Here

Do not expect the food to be covered in astronomical amounts of melted cheese. This isn’t Houston, and should you mention Tex-Mex be prepared for scorn.

Set aside your expectations and enjoy the light crisp batter on a fish taco, the addictive acid of a salsa verde on your chilaquiles, and the deep savory delight that is a complex enchilada con mole poblano.

I kind of like Tex-Mex, I think it has its place, but it most definitely isn’t in Mexico City. Squeeze your limes with abundance over your pork and pineapple taco and sample all of the accompanying sauces, even if you were quite literally burned the last time you tried one.

Your Stomach Will Need To Toughen Up

The best food you will have won’t be at the expensive spots. It will be at a questionable-looking taco stand or a hole in the wall.

You might get sick.

My aunt has never been to Mexico, but she has been to Thailand and this is what she said about a green curry she had there from a cart on the road – “it was the best curry I’ve ever had, and even when I found a cockroach swimming in the sauce, I flicked it out and carried on eating”.

I’m not saying you should actively seek out cockroach-infested food stalls, but realize that delicious food and adherence to stringent health and safety rules do not always coexist. I personally would draw the line at a cockroach in my torta cubana, but you do you.

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Salsa for Tacos. Photo by Hayley Baldwin
Salsa for Tacos. Photo by Hayley Baldwin

Do Branch Out Though

But don’t just stick to Mexican food. It can be delicious, but if you live here you will want food from other cuisines sometimes.

I’ve had many delicious Italian meal here, and the Indian restaurants tend to be pricey but incredible.

There are plenty of American chains too, so if you’re from the USA you will be able to find some home comforts. I’m from the UK, and it is not quite so easy to find Yorkshire Tea or Heinz Baked Beans, (cliché much?) but some places do stock Marmite and Dairy Milk, although at a hefty markup.

You Are Not Living in a Netflix Series

Cartels do exist, and occasionally there may be an incident at a Starbucks or fancy steak house in the region, but Mexico City in general does not have a big cartel problem.

There is crime, like in any big city, but just keep your eyes open and trust your gut.

This is not Juarez or Tijuana- do not expect to be living some kind of Narco: Mexico nightmare when you are in chi chi Polanco or trendy Roma. It just isn’t that kind of place.

El Angel de la Independencia - barricaded off after protests. Photo by Hayley Baldwin
El Angel de la Independencia – barricaded off after protests. Photo by Hayley Baldwin

Treat People Like, Well, People

Disregard every stereotype you have about Mexican people. Sure, there are some people fleeing the country for America, and yes there is poverty and hardship.

But Mexican people are more than refugees and crude Speedy Gonzalez  / mariachi stereotypes.

There are wealthy people here too, some extraordinarily so. Some people are lovely, some really are not, just like anywhere in the world.

Most Mexicans are just getting on with their lives in Mexico, working in just as many varied jobs as anywhere else, with varying degrees of success and financial security.

Piñata of chiles en nogada in the Museo de Arte Popular. Photo by Hayley Baldwin
Piñata of chiles en nogada in the Museo de Arte Popular. Photo by Hayley Baldwin

Be a Tourist Sometimes Too

Go to the markets, the pyramids, the museums.

Float along the Xochimilco canals while drinking margaritas out of plastic cups and eating spicy elotes on sticks.

Hire a pedal boat in Chapultepec then climb the hill to the castle, your hand dipping into a bag of dorilocos as you do, staining your fingers orange. Sink your teeth into a soft guava roll at Panaderia Rosetta and whip out your credit card for a meal at Pujol. You can live here and also see it from a tourist’s point of view too when you have some free time.

Mexico City, in short, is big, ballsy, frustrating, beautiful and more noisy than you could ever imagine. You can visit Frida Kahlo’s house, walk around the Zocalo and eat your way around Roma, but until you live here you will never truly get under the skin of this extraordinary city.

I’ve lived here three years and have still barely scratched the epidermis.  It is frequently a frustrating place to live, but if you persevere and learn to go with the flow of the city instead of fighting against it, you’ll find nowhere more exhilarating.

If You Go:  Guide to the city, individual neighborhoods and other areas of Mexico to visit.  Official guide to CDMX.  UK government travel advice on staying safe in Mexico.

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Author Bio: I’m Hayley Baldwin, and I am a freelance writer and “trailing spouse” currently living in Mexico City with my husband, son, and crazy German Shepherd. I have also lived in South Africa and the UK, and have written for Just For Her and Just For Families magazines in the UK.

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