The perfect Day of the Dead weekend in Mexico City. We had it! We did it! We LOVED Día de los Muertos. When to go to Mexico City? What to see for Day of the Dead? Places to visit in Mexico? I will try to answer all of your questions here.
How to get to Mexico City?
Fly to Mexico City: Gracias, Jetblue, your direct, non-stop service from Boston to Mexico City is very convenient and comfortable. It did seem a little long on the way there (6h 12m), probably because we had to sit on the runway for almost two hours, but we appreciated the quicker ride on the way back (4h 29m). We also loved that it was an (almost) free ticket. Our economy class airfare “cost” us only 19,100 miles each + $112 in taxes. However, we are sad to learn that JetBlue plans to cancel direct non-stop service from Boston to Mexico City in January 2020! ¡Qué lástima!
Where to stay in Mexico City for Day of the Dead?
Our lodging in Mexico City: We loved where we stayed, but hotel is not really the right word. A room at the Villa is what we enjoyed! We had no desire to stay downtown for numerous reasons (like crime, crowds and noise), so we opted for lovely, well-located, leafy-green-tree-filled Coyoacán. We stayed in the beautiful Villa Alfonsina on Calle Ignacio Allende. Travelling with a friend, we got two rooms, and both were large, well-appointed and attractive with very nice bathrooms, too, as well as comfortable, a little bit charming even, and spotlessly clean. The WiFi was fast and reliable and we could also use it outside the property on the sidewalk in front, handy to call an Uber. We paid less than $60 per night per room. ¡Qué buen precio! Another nice touch is that one of the owners picked the three of us up at the airport for a reasonable fee (about $12)- and this was appreciated because we didn’t know the lay of the land yet. Héctor was extremely kind, patient and helpful, and he speaks perfect English in case you don’t know español.
We stayed in Coyoacán for several reasons: first and foremost, it is a nice neighborhood, with lots of trees and pretty parks (Jardín Centenario was one of our favorites), it’s easy and safe to walk around, it has many good cafés and restaurants, and is home to excellent and unique museums, too, – among them Casa Azul – Frida Kahlo’s old home, as well as Leon Trotsky’s old abode, too, and in fact, the one where he was killed. Also, there are a few metro stops in Coyoacán making it relatively easy and very cheap to get around to other parts of the city as well. Ironically, we visited neither of these two museums, nor did we take the metro even once. We had planned on doing both, but never quite got around to either. And we still loved Coyoacán and would stay there again in a heartbeat.
We didn’t take the metro because most of the time, it was too easy, too fast, and too cheap (and safe!) not to take an Uber. We knew that taxis could be dangerous, (unless called for you by a restaurant or a museum’s security guard, etc.), and we had expected to use public transportation, but when we consulted Google maps and compared travel times, by far, even with traffic, the fastest option was Uber. The owners of our lodging assured us that Uber was extremely safe, and since three of us were travelling together, dividing the fare amongst us was hardly more than the Metro fare anyway, and saved us so much time. And time was of the essence given that we had a little less than 72 hours in Mexico City and came packed with a full agenda.
Some friends thought we were a bit locos going so far, for such a short time, but we three were determined to make the best of it, and we did, we definitely made the most of our limited time in Mexico City. The direct non-stop flight helped for sure, (and hopefully Aeromexico or some other company will step in to fill the gap that JetBlue’s departure from the scene (no poor pun intended), is leaving. Other friends worried about us in Mexico City, having heard it was dangerous, but we didn’t have any problems.
Our most important goal was to experience Day of the Dead / Día de los Muertos, in a more authentic, genuine and meaningful way than this newly contrived artificial parade that was invented and takes place yearly now, in order to take advantage of the popularity of the James Bond film of a few years ago, starring a Day of the Dead parade, that never existed prior. The powers that be, who already have enough money, decided that they want even more money, and created a fake parade to capitalize on the situation. Yuck! No, gracias.
We arrived on Friday November 1, in the very late afternoon, because (1.) JetBlue changed the departure to 2 hours later (!) a few months before the flight, and (2.) our flight departure ended up being delayed a couple of hours later for various excuses. ¡Qué inconveniente! And to make matters worse, I learned that Mexico City had changed their clocks to Daylight Savings Time a week before we did, which meant that my careful research about how to make the most of the day according to what time the sun would set, was for nothing, because we lost an additional hour to this unexpected change.
Still, we had a blast, and didn’t miss a beat, so here is a snapshot of where we went and the highlights of what we did in Mexico City, mostly to honor and celebrate Day of the Dead.
Friday late afternoon and early evening in Coyoacan: We walked around the Day of the Dead Feria in Coyoacán- a warm and friendly, family-filled carnival-like energy abounding, admiring the colorful and cute decorations, tantalizing street food, and buoyant atmosphere on our street, to get to the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, which would be open until 8 pm. They had a few nice exhibits going on, and we especially liked their ofrendas and outdoor altars spread around the courtyard, as well as the Alebrije, and other original artworks. We were also impressed that although the entry ticket should have cost a mere 15 pesos (depicted as $15- which equals about 78 US cents), because of the holiday celebrations, everybody was allowed in for free.
After admiring the exhibits, we went to the ATM at Scotiabank, maybe a 7-minute walk from our hotel, on the same street, and we also had a really good dinner (and crazy cheap!) at a nearby local restaurant, Las Paradas. What a favorable exchange rate! 19.11 pesos (MXN) to the dollar (USD). I usually verify exchange rates at xe.com before travelling abroad. After dinner we were pretty tired and knew our next day would be full, so we went to sleep pretty early
Saturday morning- FREE WALKING TOUR MEXICO CITY: We had made reservations for a free 2 hour walking tour of the Centro Histórico beginning at 10 am, so after a good night of sleep, with no noise because the Villa Alfonsina is located on a quiet end of Ignacio Allende, we got up and out of our rooms pretty quickly. The WiFi there works great so we ordered our Uber, which came right away, and for a couple of dollars’ worth of pesos each, we were whisked away to downtown Mexico City, dropped off as close to the Plaza Zócalo (Zocalo Square) as we could get, given that barriers had already been erected to close off streets for the parade later that day.
We found our meeting spot for the walking tour, and then decided to go have breakfast at a nearby cafe. Half hour later, we were off. The tour and the guide (Belén) were excellent, and we visited the Templo Mayor ruins, the exterior of the Catedral, and one of the oldest candy shops in Mexico City, also the Casa de los Azulejos (The Tile House), the Post Office, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and more. And walking around allowed us to experience the pleasure of seeing some local ladies dressed up and celebrating, as Catrinas.
After the free walking tour ended (NB: free tours mean the guides survive on tips only, so it’s nice if you give about ten dollars’ worth of the local currency to your guide if you enjoyed the tour. We always do: enjoy and give!) The rate of exchange when we arrived, was 19.11 pesos (MXN) to the dollar (USD), so we each gave the guide 200 pesos.
We had planned to visit an outdoor special exhibit along Paseo de la Reforma (Mexicraneos), as well as pop by one of the local branches of the UNAM to see their Day of the Dead ofrenda, but the truth is we were tired and hungry, and it was almost impossible to walk where we wanted to walk.
Saturday afternoon LUNCH AT CANTINA MIRADOR: So, instead, we walked moving away from the direction of the parade (which wouldn’t start for another 3 or 4 hours), looking for a place to eat, but we discovered to our dismay that many small businesses had closed, probably because either they wanted to partake in the parade festivities, or, they knew they’d have few clients that day since most of the roads were closed. Finally we came across open and colorful Cantina Mirador at the corner of Hidalgo and Guerrero, and it was the right choice. Good food, good service, attractive place, nicely decorated, and one very friendly local (too friendly?) who insisted on joining us to chat and ended up paying our check (!). Luckily we got there in time to beat the crowds, who were filling up the place as we finished and were leaving.
From there we had to abandon our walking plans because the weather changed; it was pouring rain and thundering now. We were able to get an Uber pretty quickly, but the ride back to our lodging was long and convoluted, thanks to all traffic in the city being re-routed because of the parade closures.
Saturday late afternoon and early evening DIA de MUERTOS celebrations at MILPA ALTA and MIXQUIC: After freshening up back at the Villa, we knew we wanted to head to Alta (somewhat quiet and relatively unknown) en route to our final destination of Mixquic (not at all quiet during this holiday weekend, and far too well known) to admire their Día de los Muertos traditions. We feared how busy Uber would be consequently, and so earlier on had asked our host Héctor if we could pay him to take us there and back. Although he already had plans, Héctor found a friend of his, who became our private driver for the night. We left around 330 in the afternoon…our first stop was at Milpa Alta, where we admired the small but sweet cathedral, as well as the tiny cemetery and several holiday ofrendas they had. Then we hit the road again, for Mixquic- and our driver pointed out some nice teddy bear flower arrangements that we passed along the way, so we stopped to take some pictures. And realized the sign on the shop said this florist (and others we subsequently passed by) are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year. Yikes!
Mixquic during Day of the Dead, November 2, 2019, was festive and crowded, and there was lots of excitement in the air. The food stands and craft vendors were excellent. Lots of women were made up and/or dressed up as Catrinas, and they all looked fantastic! Many men and kids were dressed up as skeletons. It was all fun and not at all frightening. We enjoyed a street food dinner (of freshly barbecued meat on a stick, mouthwateringly delicious, just-grilled, not-too-spicy chicken wings, and esquites de elote– a delicious dish of corn on the cob sautéed in a nice broth with small slices of sausage and vegetables), something I have missed so much since my last trip to Thailand- ah, the enjoyment of excellent street food…. ¡Muy sabrosa!
Then we joined the already multi-pronged throngs in line to get in to the Mixquic cemetery itself and the church, to see the Alumbrada– the candle-lit graves and tombstones. It was gorgeous and obviously heartfelt- and reminded me of Bali; I mean that the local families were clearly spending time at the graves for themselves and for their loved ones, and as they should be, were completely oblivious to the tourists. And then I felt a bit guilty: why should we, even as respectful visitors, have the right to voyeuristically admire their traditions? Is that fair, or kind? And my answer I suppose, lies in the economics: perhaps yes, because doing so brings a lot of small business revenue to a region and folks that can use it…Yet, I wish they also charged us visitors to enter the sacred cemetery. With that additional income, they could also hire police or security guards to manage crowd control better than what was being done when we were there (which basically, was nothing).
Really, I don’t know how many thousands of people were in Mixquic that evening, (sábado, 3 de noviembre, 2019) but I had read in local newspapers that at least 100,000 visitors were anticipated. Whether this applied to the whole week, weekend, or day, I’m not sure, but I do know that the crowds were very poorly managed. As the shoulder-to-shoulder lines of us got closer to the cemetery entrance, people from behind were pushing the people in front so aggressively, that the force constantly propelled everyone forward. It was a bit scary. Another concern was the presence of hundreds if not thousands of candles and torches decorating the graves. I couldn’t help but think that one good gust of wind would topple them all over, just like that, and then what? And suddenly I was very happy that it had rained on and off all day because this probably meant that the flowers, plants, grass, brush, etc. would be too wet to catch fire. Otherwise, unthinkable….
Well, we came, we saw, we truly loved it, and we left, happy that our car and driver were awaiting us. Although we had heard and read that many people stay in Mixquic till midnight or later, we were ready to hit the road around 9 pm. And so we returned to our beautiful rooms at quiet little Villa Alfonsina in Coyoacán where we got yet another restorative night’s sleep.
Sunday morning CAFÉ LOS AMANTES: We began with a nice, leisurely, pampering breakfast (brunch?) at Cafe Restaurante Los Amantes, about an 8-minute walk from our hotel. Luckily, we managed to just beat the crowds and get a table right away. We enjoyed sharing baguettes topped with avocado, salmon, capers and eggs. And Zaheer and Emily shared a tower of mini pancakes that were filled with dark chocolate. I was enjoying the savory flavor too much to switch to sweet.
Afterwards, we took an Uber, and yes, Los Amantes, like many, though not all, small restaurants and cafés in Mexico’s capital, offers free WiFi, which truly, was a trip saver. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of technology in general, for I do believe that for the most part, it ruins the quality of interpersonal relationships and redundantly takes up so much of what otherwise could have been our free time, on a daily basis, BUT, being able to order an Uber from almost anywhere in Mexico City, was wonderful, and undeniably practical!
Sunday afternoon DOLORES OLMEDO MUSEUM- and the peacocks, wow! We arrived at Museum House of Dolores Olmedo (I call her the Isabella Stewart Gardner of Mexico, and there’s a Boston museum you shouldn’t miss your next time here) perhaps around noon, to find that there was a huge line there as well, but at least it was moving. And after waiting in it about 20 minutes or so, a staff member came along the line asking (en español) if anyone would be paying by credit card.
I raised by hand and called out, Sí, and so she pulled us out of the line, and whisked us right inside to the ticket area, to a machine where she quickly pressed all kinds of buttons, and then said, “insert your card there”. And we were in! What a place- beautiful grounds with gorgeous trees and flowers, and a staggering number of peacocks leisurely strolling around the property- and not always only within their gated area.
We caught the end of a play, that disappointingly for us, had been switched at the last minute, from the famous legend of La Llorona, that we had looked forward to seeing, to one children’s fantasy drama that involved local bird-god legends and so on, and then we waited in yet another line to visit the excellent collection of paintings by both artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The line was worth it! Later we gave up on waiting in the longest line yet, to see the Día de los Muertos ofrenda that the museum had erected. We had already seen many, and had other plans, too. I had researched the place online in advance, and knew that there was more entertainment in store of us here as well. Shortly before 3 pm we took our seats (outdoors, under a huge canopy) for the live performance of the Ballet Folclórico, and it was soooooooo good. A dozen live musicians playing a variety of instruments, several singing too, formed the background for the excellent troupe of exquisitely dressed and multi-talented dancers, all of whom absolutely delighted the crowds.
Sunday evening XOCHIMILCO CANALS along the HANGING GARDENS: Ah, the kindness of strangers…. We needed WiFi to get our Uber to continue our sojourn but trying to find it at the Dolores Olmedo was a wild goose chase. Finally, the fourth employee we asked sent us in the direction of the gift shop, and when Emily was telling me that she learned that there was WiFi but nobody knew the password for it, a local young patron overheard our conversation and offered us his cellphone hotspot. ¡Perfecto! Now we could continue to our last plan for the day, and largely on time, too. Off we went to the Hanging Gardens of Xochimilco….
Several locals we had spoken to before getting there told us, “don’t pay more than 500 pesos per hour for one canal cruise boat (called trajinera). This sum was equivalent to around $26. Now, had we been a group of a dozen people or more (the capacity is usually around 16-20), this price truly would have been peanuts. But, there were only three of us, and it was already 5:20 pm so the sun would be setting soon anyway, thus we only wanted a short cruise. We were fine with the price, but because we were trying to decide how long we wanted to rent the trajinera and its captain, the gentleman with whom we were negotiating, thought we didn’t like the price, and almost immediately came down to 400 pesos per hour (about $21).
We told him an hour and a half would be plenty and paid a little over $10 US equivalent in pesos, each, and we were off. (and by the way, Mexico uses what looks like our dollar signs to post their prices in pesos. Because of this, parts of our brains were constantly thinking that we were spending far more money than we actually were…) We were also hungry, so as we were cruising along the pretty canals, every now and then, we would stop and order food by local chefs, also cruising the canals in their own sleigh-like boats. We had delicious corn on the cob, and tasty made-from-scratch chicken, mushroom and cheese quesadillas (120 MXN for 3 so about $2 each, not bad).
Local visitors to Xochimilco often commission a boat for their entire family for hours, and bring their own homemade picnic treats, but we were very happy sampling the food provided by the floating vendors. Had we wanted to imbibe on local brews such as Tequila or Corona, there were plenty of opportunities, but we were too interested in being serenaded by the many groups of Mariachis that passed by.
After our sweet and pleasant ride was over, we called another Uber and returned to the hotel briefly to freshen up before heading out for dinner. We ate another good local meal at Casa de los Tacos, and after a brief walk back, turned in, hoping we’d find a way to make it to the pyramids before our return flight the next day. Time would be too tight for a tour, and we weren’t sure we’d be able to find an Uber to take us back once we got there, but around midnight I had an idea. Silly me! I should have had it sooner. I knew there were public buses between Teotihuacán and Mexico City, but I kept thinking that we did not have enough time, but then it hit me, finally, we didn’t have to take the bus both ways; we could take an Uber there, and hope to get WiFi to be able to get an Uber to take us back, but if this didn’t work, we could take the bus back. One way instead of round-trip, it could work…
¡Buenos días Pirámides!
Monday morning HOW to SEE the PYRAMIDS of the SUN and MOON at TEOTIHUACAN in Mexico when you only have a few hours: So we got up early the next morning, grabbed some good quick breakfast grub at the place Héctor recommended (Café el Jarocho), and got our Uber.
The ride to the pyramids took a little over an hour. We hoped to visit both pyramids and also the small but excellent Anthropology Museum there, and that would give us just enough time to take the bus back to the city…But for whatever reason, better late than never, it also occurred to me to ask the driver if we could pay him to wait for us, and then also drive us back to the capital.
He liked the suggestion but had no idea what to charge, and called his boss on his cellphone, who immediately came back to us with the crazy cheap price of about $2.60 per hour of waiting time. Awesome! So, we paid for the parking, bought our driver a Pyramids ticket, too, so he wouldn’t be bored or have to wait alone in his car, and then we all enjoyed visiting the area for almost 2 and 1/2 hours.
Uber kept the ride open, and so even with the waiting time and the return trip, the total cost was less than double than that of the ride there! Our journey to Teotihuacán had cost 890 pesos (during rush hour), and the waiting time and the return fare came to only 448 pesos (you cross into a different state when you go from the capital to Teotihuacan, and different states have different Uber rates). The total was only 1338 pesos! We also gave our driver a good tip and still barely spent the equivalent of $30 each.
Once back, we had time to finish up packing and have some lunch, at least one more Mexican avocado delight before going home. It was very convenient that our JetBlue flight back to Boston didn’t leave Mexico City until 4:00 p.m. That allowed us to make the most of our last day. ¡GuacamOlé!
p.s. Here’s a helpful hint: Did you know you can get altitude sickness in Mexico City? And it is definitely not fun. The other two did not suffer it at all, only me. Luckily, I remembered kind of last minute before leaving that I had become stricken with symptoms from El Jorocho / altitude sickness in Peru at a lower elevation (7600 feet) than that at which most people begin to suffer (8000 feet). And so I did buy some Diamox by prescription, before leaving Boston, just in case. And sure enough, I needed it! The problems began almost as soon as we arrived and stayed with me until we left. As soon as the headaches, extreme fatigue, difficulty breathing, dizziness and being light headed started, usually leading to my being completely out of breath after walking just a few steps (!), well, that was my twice daily reminder to take my pill, and I had hoped once a day (which meant only half the dose) would be enough, but no, I needed to take the medicine twice a day (standard regular dose) and it was just barely enough to stay comfortable. On the bright side, I WAS able to climb those nasty, steep steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, so, no complaints from me…Nope, nothing but gratitude, forever, and especially towards my parents, may they Rest In Peace. 💕