When I set out for Latin America, one of my priority list toppers was poverty. I wanted to experience first-hand what it was like to live in a developing country, to live with and travel through developing communities. I wanted a global perspective on my comfortable, privileged Western life, a challenge.
In that sense, Mexico City has been one huge disappointment. It’s probably the easiest place I’ve ever passed through as a foreign traveler, and in most ways the easiest place I’ve ever lived.
It could be something individual: I love huge cities, and this one’s not too far from home in Florida. But it’s also in both a culture and a language that I’m still learning, and I rolled up with no plans and a two-digit bank balance. No, I think there’s something about the city. Show up with good English or a Western education and you’ll do just fine.
Bienvenidos al Distrito Federal
From an economic and global perspective, Mexico City, better known within Mexico as the DF, is a giant.
Its 22 million inhabitants generate one fifth of the enormous country’s entire GDP; as a sovereign state, the DF would have the 7th largest economy in Latin America and 30th in the entire world. The richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, just opened a fancy art museum in the city’s Polanco neighborhood this year.
The pure size and force of its economy make Mexico City in most respects nothing less than a ‘first world’ city. It’s ranked Alpha on the Global Cities index, alongside cities like Chicago, Brussels, Mumbai, and Amsterdam. You should think of it not like a sprawling Latin American urban mess, but instead like London. But only a London in which every day everything is on sale for 90% off, people are more easy going, and they speak Spanish.
It’s so easy to fall into the comfortable life of an urban, highly educated expat here.
Jake and the Federal District: A Love Story
When I arrived in the DF, I posted an ad offering private English classes on Craig’s List, reached out to a Workaway host, and the rest was history. I found a hostel where I could live and work with warm-ish water and mostly okay internet. I picked up some private English students — mostly local businessmen or university students from wealthier families — and I traveled on the metro to go teach them in their equally wealthy neighborhoods. When I got food poisoning, I bought Western medicine. On nights when I wasn’t working at the hostel, I went out to bars and listened to live music and walked home at three in the morning.
But this was never how it was supposed to go. I went to Latin America looking to struggle, to be made uncomfortable, yet somehow I ended up in an upper-middle class expat neighborhood in the wealthiest city in the country. I was supposed to despair over my inability to navigate such a giant foreign monster, but instead the DF was just like every other big city I’d been to.
In some ways, I think the more developed cities within developing countries are the easiest places for Westerners to take advantage of and make their homes for a while. Mexico is in many senses of the term a developing country: there is widespread poverty, government institutions are weak, and rule of law isn’t always the boss. At the same time, there are tens of millions of dollars of disposable income floating around the DF. That means that, for an educated Anglophone expat like myself, getting a job seems to be easier than it is even for my equally educated Mexican peers.
All of this made me feel like Mexico City couldn’t get enough of me. I found a place to stay and a source of income immediately. When I wanted to work more, I took more students, and when I wanted to work less, I did. No one gave me or my fancy passport a hard time when I wanted to open a bank account. People were friendly nearly everywhere, and they spoke their language to me until they wanted to practice mine.
Within a month I had built a little life for myself, or rather it had fallen together and into my lap. Some days I worked on my blog or my business all day, others I worked double shifts chatting up guests at the hostel, and others I partied all night and slept all day.
I was in love with the DF, and it felt like the feeling was mutual. But really, there are a handful of practical factors that opened up the doors here and made for the most low-friction stay I’ve ever had anywhere.
Cost of living in Mexico City
It’s low. Straight to the point, this is what we all care about. Your US dollar gets about 15 pesos, your euro just over 17, and they go far here. A one-bedroom apartment in the nicer, expat-heavy neighborhood of La Roma where I lived will run you 3-5,000 pesos per month ($200-$330 USD/€175-€290 EUR) depending on the size and age of the building. A night in a hostel dorm in this neighborhood is normally around 180-200 pesos ($12-13). Throughout the rest of the city they’re closer to $10 a night, and a modest hotel room in the city center can range anywhere from 200-800 pesos ($13-$55) nightly.
Especially if, like me, you are working remotely and being paid by clients in the US and Europe, you get a huge pay raise in Mexico City. Twenty bucks an hour may not be anything special for the typical young professional with a couple of university degrees and commensurate debt living in San Francisco or Amsterdam, but when you pay a couple hundred dollars a month for four times the space in an equally elegant neighborhood in the DF, you suddenly feel like you’ve joined the one percent.
In short, the DF is not gonna break the bank if you don’t ask it to. Whether you’re passing through or putting down roots, you’ll have a cheap place to rest your head at night. And that’s a huge deal to a foreign visitor without their own existing support network in the city. Having such an accessible and affordable range of accommodation was like landing in a pool of feathers when I arrived in Mexico City.
Food of the DF
Do I even need to say this? People already know this, right? Street food in Mexico City is without any question the best there is in the whole world. This is a fact and your opinions to the contrary do not interest me. Sometimes at night I cry a little bit when I realize I’ll never again experience gastronomic bliss to top what my taste buds felt in Mexico.
Street food in the DF outside of the upscale neighborhoods (Condesa, Roma, Polanco) is usually cheaper than shopping at the grocery store, and I’ve found my share of dollar gorditas and two-dollar tortas even in Roma. If you find the right spot, a gordita can run you 15 pesos and a flauta 6. In La Roma, a sturdy torta will set you back about $2 USD, and in more humble neighborhoods that can be a quarter or a third less. The main drags through the gay district in Zona Rosa offer surprisingly cheap and yummy food, and everything on the corner of Álvaro Obregón and Insurgentes in Colonia Roma is worth traveling across town for.
I lived in the DF for around five months, so at some point I decided it was in my best interest to diversify my diet beyond just Coronas and deep fried pig parts. Thankfully, fondas — traditional restaurants that just serve a menu del día with 2-3 choices rather than a whole menu full of choices — are plentiful throughout not just the DF but the whole country. In La Roma you can get a basically home-cooked three-course meal for 50-60 pesos (about $4), and in poorer neighborhoods like Doctores I’ve seen cheaper than that.
Groceries in Mexico are marginally cheaper than in the US, but not as cheap as you might expect or hope. While living and cooking my meals in the hostel, I spent around 1000 pesos a week ($70) on groceries. I’m quite a fan of the eating, so normal humans might spend more like $50. Going to a market can be both cheaper and better, but don’t assume either one.
If you want international cuisine or something a little more upscale, look no further than trendy Condesa, the neighborhood two blocks south of where I lived. Argentinian, Italian, Indian, French — nearly anything you want can be found here. For me Condesa was both too fancy and too expensive — most of the restaurants there aren’t exactly flip flops and t-shirt places, and a plate of food starts around $10 and increases sharply from there, expensive for Mexico. But sitting on the edge of a district with such a spread of international cuisine made me feel like I was just living in another world city somewhere, living in the world first and Mexico second.
Easy. This is probably the real reason Mexico City stole my heart. The metro reaches to the outer extremities of the Greater Mexico City Area, and five pesos, a mere thirty cents, will take you as far as you could ever hope to go. If you want to get somewhere not directly reachable by metro (like the popular Coyoacán neighborhood), hop on one of the buses and throw in one peso more than the metro.
Just like so many European cities are now doing, Mexico City has established a bike rental program, and it works fabulously. Ecobici can be expensive for passers-through (about $5 USD for a day pass), but anyone staying more than a couple weeks should invest in a year pass. For about $25, you’ve got a year of 45 minutes at a time of access to a bike network that covers the city’s entire urban core and many areas outside that. DF pro tip: cycling will always be the fastest mode of transportation during morning and evening rush hours.
While it’s not really ‘public transit’, Benito Juárez International Airport was another major contributor to my ease in Mexico City. This enormous airport is one of the biggest in Latin America, and it’s well connected to most of the Western hemisphere. According to Skyscanner, you could fly out of Mexico City and into 12 different countries next month for under $300 USD, meaning you’re pretty conveniently connected to the rest of the world. I even flew back to Florida for a week in May to visit family.
Arts, Music, and Nightlife
Museums, music, and performing arts, oh my. Mexico City is not only the administrative but also the cultural capital of the synecdochously named country, producing famous figures like Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Octavio Paz.
The National Museum of Anthropology is actually located inside Chapultepec Forest, the largest urban park in Latin America, and is the most famous and most visited museum in Mexico. The Frida Kahlo Museum and the Museum of Modern Art are just two more examples of world class cultural institutions.
The whole chunk on the western side of town that includes the Condesa, Roma, and Zona Rosa neighborhoods is the heart of great nightlife in Mexico City, and Centro is also lots of fun. If you’re coming from another huge world city, you won’t be disappointed with the DF’s nightlife.
While in the DF I ended up living and working with an Argentinian musician in the hostel (well, I met a lot of ‘musicians’, but this guy and his band are actually pretty legit). I went out frequently to see his DJ sets or band performances around the city, which gave me a pretty good taste of the DF’s alternative music scene. Below is a video of Muñeca Galactica, Pablo’s band, performing at El Imperial, just blocks away from our hostel.
These are the comforts you’d expect to miss living in a developing country, but my life in the DF was just as entertaining as it ever was anywhere in the US or the Netherlands. In fact, because my living costs were so low, I was able to spend more money on going out than I have anywhere else.
This is probably the biggest reason I call Mexico “easy”, and not in the warm and fuzzy rainbows and puppies sense but in a really practical way.
Everyone’s foreign in the DF. If they’re not from the turbulent North or the impoverished South, they’re from other parts of Latin America and the world. The DF is home to the largest population of American expats in the world, nearly half a million. The city seems to be crawling with Argentinians, Brazilians, and Spaniards especially, but there are also plenty of backpackers from your typical Germanies and Australias. You’re not isolated here, and you’re not special for being foreign.
And now for the warm and fuzzy side: Mexico City is, for these reasons and others, so easy to penetrate socially. People are generally open to a friendly chat with a stranger. When they see your light eyes or hear you speak English, they’re often curious or want to practice their own language skills. They take you to their favorite mezcalería or show you where to get the best tacos al pastor. The Couchsurfing community is lively, with meetups nearly every night. Our next door neighbor at the hostel was an old Dutch painter. People are welcoming, and I found it remarkably easy to make friends here.
A first world city in a developing country
In the last three years I’ve lived in the Netherlands and the United States, the fourth and fifth most highly developed countries in the world, respectively. But nowhere was life so easy for me as in La Ciudad de México, the capital of the giant developing neighbor just south of my home country. I don’t think life is this easy for everyone in the DF though: I rode in on a wave of expat privilege that made most aspects of my daily life fundamentally different than those of the locals.
I made my money in dollars and euros, but paid Mexican prices for food and entertainment. I arrived with two Western university degrees and six years of Western work experience. I speak perfect English without having spent years of my life studying it. My US passport allows me to more or less come and go as I please. In the DF I enjoyed most of the creature comforts of the big cities of the world I come from, and whenever I lacked for anything I could reach out to friends and family in Europe and North America.
I adore the DF and the five months I spent there were educational and catalytic to my growth as a global citizen. I’ll always recommend it, especially for the reasons I’ve given here: it’s a walk in the Parque México for Western travelers or expats. But if you’re looking for an adventure or to experience poverty or culture shock, you’ll have to work hard to find it here. Mexico City is an extremely first world city in a still developing country, and it makes for an experience you’d have a hard time replicating anywhere else in Mexico or the Americas.
Have you been to Mexico City or another highly developed city in a developing country? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons!