Note: Travel Tip Tuesday posts are more travel resource than travel blog. They will generally contain advice and specific tips and recommendations we came up with during our trip. While these posts are more firmly geared towards those readers who may be contemplating or planning a trip of their own, we hope they will not be uninteresting to everyone else. And we promise to pepper them vigorously with little anecdotes and tidbits from our travels to keep you coming back for more!
One of the reasons we love Mexico City so much is the Metro. For a city so massive and sprawling, it's astonishingly easy to get everywhere you want to go... thanks to the glorious Sistema de Transporte Colectivo Metro.
Given the unsavory (and mostly undeserved) reputation Mexico City has in general, it's perhaps not surprising that a lot of travelers who touch down there are afraid to use the Metro. Rather than drop $0.15 on a 45-minute subway ride from the airport to the Zócalo, they spend 75 times as much to battle the famous DF traffic in the back seat of a cab.
Friends, travelers, be not afraid. The Mexico City Metro is no more dangerous than any big-city subway. Jessica and I have taken the Metro around town pretty much every day we've spent there (usually several times a day) and have never felt the slightest bit unsafe.
Never, not once, not even a little.
Yes, it can sometimes be crowded, especially during rush hour. But crowded sort of comes with the territory when you're in one of the world's most populous cities. And most of the time, it's not all that crowded at all.
Yes, during rush hour the front couple of cars are reserved for women and children only. But that doesn't mean that during those times the other cars become a hotbed of testosterone and violence or anything. They're just more crowded, still filled with men and women (and children) alike. Jessica and I don't like to be apart, so we both always rode together in one of the rear cars during rush hour. She never felt uncomfortable or unsafe at all. Neither will you.
Yes, I know you've read that you shouldn't take the Metro from the airport because you don't want to ride it with all of your luggage. Ignore that nonsense. As long as you haven't overpacked, no one's going to care. Just take your backpack off and hold it in front of you, both to be courteous and so you can keep an eye on it (there's still a risk of pickpocketing here, as in any crowded place anywhere in the world). The Metro is the best and easiest way to get into town from the airport (see below). Be not afraid.
The Mexico City Metro runs daily from 5:00am to midnight (starting a hour or two later on Saturdays and Sundays), and is made up of a number of interconnected lines. Where these lines cross, you can switch (for free) from one line to another.
(I know the above image is too small to be of much use: it's just to serve as a quick overview of what the lines look like. For a more practical map of the Mexico City Metro lines, print out this PDF from the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo.)
When you enter a metro station, make your way first to the taquilla (ticket counter). Because transfers are free here, there's just one static ticket price. The person behind the window doesn't want to know where you're going, just how many tickets you want. Just walk up to the window and say "Uno, por favor" (or however many you want), and hold up a matching number of fingers in case she didn't hear you. While you're doing this, drop your pesos into the little dish below the window: it costs two pesos a ticket. You'll be given back your tickets and your change.
Next, go over to the turnstiles, stick your tickets into the slot (it doesn't matter which side faces up or in, any way will work) and go through. Make sure you don't choose one of the marked card-only turnstiles – they don't have ticket slots.
Next, make your way to the andenes (train platforms). They're all clearly marked with the color of the line you're on and the direction it's headed (ie, the name of the stop at the end of the line).
Hang out on your platform waiting for your train – they come by every five or ten minutes, so you won't be waiting for long. Note that if it's rush hour, there may be a sign saying Solo Mujeres (Women Only) marking off where the women-and-children-only cars will be. If you're a man, and you wait on the wrong side of this line, a police office will make you move to the other side of it.
When your train comes, let exiting passengers escape and then pile on in. If it's rush hour, you may have to squeeze in a bit, but otherwise you'll probably be able to grab a seat.
The Mexico City metro trains are pretty much exactly what you'd expect to find in any American or European city, except that they aren't air conditioned. (Open windows tend to keep it pretty cool, though.) You'll be surrounded by men and women in suits on their way to and from work, teenagers making their way home from school, and parents and children out to run a few errands. Women and children will be everywhere. Unless you're taking the Metro in the dead of night (in which case it will be pretty quiet), you will feel completely safe. I promise.
Now, along the way you'll be provided some free entertainment. Hawkers will wander through selling pens and flashlights, food and candy. CD vendors selling discs of pirated MP3s for less than a dollar wear backpacks stuffed full with speakers, and wander through blaring Pink Floyd and Enya. They'll generally get on at one stop and off at the next, only to be replaced by someone else the station after that.
You may have someone make their way through the car placing something on each person's lap: candy, say, or a small piece of paper (often a prayer). If that happens, do what everyone else is doing and ignore it. They'll come back through a moment later and collect them all. (If you've eaten the candy or kept the prayer, they'll want a few pesos from you.)
Keep an eye out for your station, so you can get out at the right place. Each station in Mexico City has a unique icon associated with it, making it easy to recognize even from a distance. ("Ok, so we're getting off at the apple tree, just past the coyote and the duck.")
When you get to where you're going, exit the train (look out for impatient people squeezing onboard before you've had a chance to get off!) and look for the salida (exit). There will usually be a few exits from each station, often putting you topside on different sides of busy, hard-to-cross streets. Look around for the helpful maps in each station showing where the exits come out.
If you're connecting, follow the signs for the your next train line (make sure you know which direction you want to go!). Note that in a few stations, transferring from one line to another can mean a bit of walking. (This is especially true at La Raza, where you have to spend several minutes making your way through the "Tunnel of Science" to switch from the Brown Line to the Yellow Line.)
Once you've touched down at the Benito Juarez airport, gone through customs, and grabbed a few pesos from an ATM, make your way out the main doors at the end of Terminal 1. From here, follow the crowd to the left. After a 5-minute walk or so, there will be a path branching off to the left. You might miss the Metro sign (which is just the stylized "M" at the top of the PDF above), but you won't be able to miss the fact that everyone else is taking a left here. Stairs a few feet away lead down into the Terminal Aerea metro station.
As described above, walk up to the taquilla and buy your tickets. After going through the turnstiles, make your way to the platforms heading in the Pantitlan direction. Jump on that train and take it for two stops, to the end of the line: Pantitlan station.
Pantitlan is where several lines meet, but you're looking for the Pink Line headed towards Observatorio. (Note that because you're coming from the Yellow Line all the signs will be yellow, even when they're for the Pink Line. Ignore this madness, and just make sure you're headed for Observatorio.)
Get on a train headed to Observatorio, and take it for nine stops, to Pino Suarez. From here make one more switch, to the Blue Line headed towards Cuatro Caminos. On the way from the Pink Line to the Blue Line you'll pass by a frequently-updated art exhibit of some sort, and an enormous Aztec column they unearthed while building the station.
Take the Blue Line towards Cuatro Caminos for one stop to the Zócalo station, and then make your way to the salida and up to the surface.
Congratulations! You've taken the Metro from the airport to the heart of El Centro Histórico. And now that you've successfully taken it once, you're probably addicted to how easy it is, and how much it will aid you in navigating this wonderful city.
I know we were.
We recently received a comment (see below) from Richard, the webmaster of a marvelous website called, appropriately enough, The Mexico City Metro System. It looks like a great source for information for any travelers planning a trip to Mexico City. (I know I'll be spending hours poking around over there before our next trip down!)