Mexico City Alone

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museum mexico city
10 Days As A Solo Female Traveler in Mexico City

By Solange Castro

Casa Azul in Mexico City.
Casa Azul in Mexico City.

When I was in college, back in the dark ages of skeleton keys and no Internet, I navigated a trip from England to Greece with two friends, a backpack and that dog-eared copy of “Let’s Go Europe”

I recently returned from a solo trip to a place–Mexico City,  that some female travelers might be afraid to visit alone.

Back then I could never have conceived of what is now referred to as “solo travel.”

However, thanks to the Internet, Facebook groups, and tours, solo travel feels not only less intimidating but sometimes preferable to traveling with friends.

The freedom and openness to new people and experiences has few other comparisons in 2022 life.

However, solo traveling requires attention and energy.  While on a solo travel trip, I try to keep the following rules in mind:

1. Always stay alert. (There is nobody else to pick up the slack.)
2. Take time to get organized. (Bag chaos is the enemy).
3. Understand that anything can happen. (A repeat of rule #1, but it bears repeating.)
4. Make sure you are always fully charged. (This includes phone, backup charger and self).

 Mural by Rina Lazo at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Mural by Rina Lazo at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

After I purchased my ticket to Mexico City, I had several panic attacks.  Especially when I saw the distressed looks on the faces of friends after telling them I was going to CDMX alone.

The negative media representations of Mexico have a strong influence on tourism.

However, I traveled to Mexico often as a child with my mother who taught me to cherish the culture, food and people, and as soon as arrived and smelled the diesel, I felt at home.

La Condesa Neighborhood

I stayed in a Bed and Breakfast La Condesa, a very lively area in the Cuauhtémoc Borough of Mexico City.

Like many accommodations in Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, the B&B is a 19th-century European-style house that has been renovated.

The floor creaked and the shower had two temperatures, hot and cold, but a homey vibe and communal breakfast, which helps when you are alone.

First Day Chaos – Altitude Sickness and Purse Chaos

On my first day, I ran out of the house in excitement and forgot that the first day in a new city is always a cluster of confusion, disorientation and purse chaos.

I tried to change money, but the bank teller told me that I needed my passport, so I went back to my B&B.I had packed for cooler weather, but the sun was blazing so I bought sunscreen and later a hat.

Churro ingredients
Churro ingredients at the churro-making class in Mexico City.

I found my way to the metro, a sardine-like experience even in the women-only car, and arrived at the Centro Histórico feeling light-headed, overheated, and with my nearing obsolescence iPhone in the red (this became a theme).

I needed to regroup so I stopped at a restaurant called “El Cardenal” in the Centro Historic and ordered a salmon with a mango sauce and sparkling water.

I used the bathroom, charged my phone, and figured out the currency exchange rate and the location for my walking tour. As I mentioned in step 2, I took the time to get organized.

I met up with the tour guide, Manolo, near the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

As we began the tour under the blazing sun, I became physically aware that Mexico City is 7300 feet above sea level. I live in Venice, California, which is at sea level.

We walked through the Centro Histórico, to the Palacio Postal, (which is really what a post office should be), the Catedral Metropolitana, and the Zocalo Plaza, where there is not one iota of shade.

At about the time Manolo told us about the fist fight between Picasso and Diego Rivera, all I could think about was the possibility of fainting in the middle of the Zocalo.

I left the tour early to stand in the shade, downed a bottle of water, and soon felt better.

I then called an Uber to get to my next event, a Churro Making Class, which I found through Airbnb experiences.

In hindsight, I would not have planned two events on my first day, but as I learned throughout the trip, solo travel is a work in progress.

The Churro-making class was not only fun, but a great place to meet other solo travelers.

Together we grated sugar, sifted flour, beat the batter, poured it in boiling oil, made shapes, covered the churros with sugar and cinnamon and ate them with chocolate mixed with chili and coffee.

churros made
Some of these churros might be overcooked.

The electrolytes of dough and sugar eased my altitude sickness and I got tips on tours, and restaurants from the other travelers.

When it was over, I found a Mercado and bought fruit, including mango which I ate with Kombucha because I couldn’t stomach food with the heat and altitude.

Then I took a shower that was either scalding hot or cold and went to bed.

Solo Travel Fail

My second day in Mexico City started out OK.  I had breakfast with a gay couple from Florida at my B&B.

I had tickets to Casa Azul (Frida Kahlo’s house), in Coyoacán, but not until 3:00 PM.

flautas
Flautas with guacamole at a local restaurant.

I ate lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant, Lardo, in Condesa where I sat at the bar (a sure-fire way to get seated when reservations are needed) and ordered a Margherita pizza with burrata cheese and a salad.

A doctor from UCSF sat next to me and we talked and he let me use his charger.  (At this point, I vowed to upgrade.)

I felt fine until mid-way into my 30-minute Uber drive in a boiling hot car.

Standard Uber drivers in Mexico City don’t use the A/C unless you ask and even then it’s pretty light. (But you can’t blame them when a drive across town is only $5).

If I could go back, I would have bought my tickets for the morning and had lunch in Coyoacán, a lovely area. Instead, I arrived during the hottest hour, lightheaded and dehydrated.

I had some trouble finding my ticket because I bought it from TripAdvisor.com and I needed to call them.

Then I entered a fray of tourists.  Even though they stagger the visitors, the room capacity resembled the metro.

I ended up behind a couple with loud commentary that included things like, “Frida was so creative!” There were some crying children and gridlock.

After an hour, I was ready to leave. Meanwhile, my battery ran out of juice as did my charger and I had to ask multiple Ubers if they were mine.

I downed two bottles of water, sat with my driver in more gridlock traffic, and vowed to upgrade my iPhone.

The milky waters at Gruto
The milky waters at Grutas.

It was solo travel fail day. It’s OK, they happen.

Magical Hot Springs at Tolantongo

On my third day in Mexico, I took a break from solo travel and became part of a tour to “Las Grutas Tolantonga,” a hot springs resort located two hours away in the state of Hidalgo.

I first saw images of “Las Grutas” on the Internet and the turquoise color of the water seemed unreal.

Still, I was not psyched to wake up at 5:30 AM, as I am not a morning person and still on California time, making it essentially 3:30 AM for me.

But the dazzling color and the spirits of travel experience beckoned me, and amazingly I arrived at the meeting place on time.

The van drove for an hour before we stopped for a breakfast buffet. I got to know the ten other people on the tour and our guide Francisco (not his real name).

Francisco proved a chill and free-spirited guide in a way that I can only describe as “very Mexico.”

Unlike the United States where you can sue a theme park for tripping on an empty can, Mexico is not a litigious country.

People and organizations are not as hung up on things like “rules” or even “safety.”

Let’s just say that traffic light stops in Mexico City are merely a suggestion.

Francisco told us that the Grutas Tolantongo are owned by local families in the San Cristobal area as “ejidos” or communal properties and the profits are reinvested into the resort.

As we got closer to Las Grutas, the van drove up a steep mountain full of switchbacks with a direct drop down a canyon. We arrived at the resort section, which consists of dozens of man-made pools built on the side of a canyon.

Francisco pointed us in the direction of the pools and then hit the bar with the friend he brought along.

The rest of us jumped into the water and embarked on photo shoots for our “grams.”

I’m all for a carefully positioned picture of me in a bathing suit, but in retrospect, I wish I had just enjoyed the moment more.

A few hours later Francisco and his friend appeared with Micheladas and we took a taxi down the mountain to the river where we ate lunch on foldable tables and chairs from the van. We all had received little backpacks with water, cell phone protectors, and towels.

After lunch, a group of us went into the river with the water shoes that we purchased on the way up. It was impossible to see the bottom through the milky bright blue color.

clay facial
Free facial with the clay and sediment
from the Tolantongo river.

A few Mexican families hung out by the bank with their faces covered in what looked like a gray spa mask. A woman explained to me how to take the white sediment from the rocks, along with the clay from the bottom of the river to make a mask.

Several of us from the tour covered our faces with the sediment and clay and sat there for over an hour, just absorbing minerals, taking in the gorgeous view, and talking about how dating sucks (the universal language of straight women). I didn’t want to leave.

At the resort, I saw rows of tents for camping camp. Las Grutas seems affordable and popular with Mexicans with less financial means.  After a while, we packed up and the van took us up the hill.

Grutas Tolantongo
Grutas Tolantongo

Source of the Hot Springs

hot spring waterfall
This spectacular waterfall comes from the source of the hot springs.

We then walked to the source of the hot springs, a cave covered by a spectacular waterfall and out of which flows the natural volcanically heated mineral water. Stalactites line the walls and the ceiling of the cave.

Per Francisco’s direction, we followed a rope into another cave, to the right, that went against the current and deeper into the mountain. Once inside we could stand and shine our lights on the high ceiling.

Francisco shined his light on the bats which made them fly around.  A girl in our group from Boston told me that a dead bat floated by her.

Afterward, Francisco led us to another cave that required us to swim under the rock wall to end up in a tiny crawl space that was a thousand degrees with packed with ten other people. Panic ensued.

I immediately turned and swam back the way I came in but came up for too soon and I hit my head on the point of a stalactite. A group of kids pulled me out.  I was fine, but maybe I could have skipped the cave diving portion of the tour.

Later, Francisco told us that he was amazed there weren’t more injuries. Not a statement that inspired ease but which, as I mentioned before, is very Mexico.

It was supposed to take two hours to drive back, but because of an accident, we sat on the highway for an extra two hours, until we were directed to a detour that took us into an abandoned dirt road.

According to Francisco, “this was the true Mexican experience.”  I arrived home at midnight, making it an 18-hour day, but it was one of the best travel experiences of my life.

Indiana Jane Underworld
Indiana Jane leads our group into the Underworld.

Indiana Jane and Teotihuacán/

For the next few days, I visited museums, including, Castillo de Chapultepec, Museo Tamayo, and the Museo del Objeto and the Museo Nacional de Antropología, in preparation for my tour to Teotihuacán.

I would be going with @teotihuacanvip and a tour guide called “Indiana Jane,” who has the amazing credit of having scaled the side of the Pyramid of the Sun as a little kid because taking the stairs was considered weak. She now leads a movement to protect Teotihuacán from development.

temple of the moon
Temple of the Moon sits at the end of the Avenue of the Dead.

We started the tour at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, where Indiana Jane explained that nobody knows what happened to the original inhabitants of the city. Infighting? Plague? War? Uprising? We’ll never know.

In 2003, a large tunnel was discovered that was filled with Pyrite, like a hall of mirrors. It led to a room with a model of the city and four statues. Indiana Jane) and as an adult entering the new tunnel discovered in 2003.

Afterward, we drove to what looked like the middle of the desert and walked into a cave that led to…a restaurant! Talk about a hole in the wall! After lunch, drove to another cave.

Indiana Jane had us put on hardhats and ask the underworld for permission to enter. Once in the cave, we turned off the lights and sat in the dark. I came home and went to bed, exhausted from my trip to the underworld.

Stay Alert in Mexico City

In my last few days, exhausted from being a hard-core tourist, I wandered around Condesa and Roma, looked at stores and sat in coffee shops.

I find that sometimes I discover just as much about a city through aimless wandering, like when I stumbled upon the amazing Parque Mexico, an enormous green, tree-filled park filled with cute canopied benches and teenagers making out.

Temple of the Moon in Mexico.
Temple of the Moon in Mexico.

For my last night in Mexico City, I moved to another B&B because I decided to extend my trip a few days and my first B&B could not accommodate me.

I liked the location of this first B&B on a quiet street near an “helado” store, but won’t say the name of the place because the manager became a little too friendly. Since my first day in Mexico City, he regularly texted me things like, “What are you up to?”

At first, I thought maybe this is what modern B&Bs are like now like you have your own personal concierge. But, no, once I checked out he sent me a flurry of texts about “taking me out.”

I don’t think he’s a bad guy, but besides it being unprofessional, I would prefer not to have the managers of the place where I am staying hit on me.

This brings me to an important point about solo traveling as a woman. Men gonna be men. In the event of feeling too uncomfortable, I would have reached out to the owner or left.

This brings me back to rule #1: always stay alert.

Last Day – Now I’m Considering Moving To Mexico

I didn’t want to leave. On my last day I researched airfares as I could not accept that the trip was over. But I read that rents have increased due to the influx of American ex-pats attracted to the affordable lifestyle.

hat merchant
Hat vendor with many colorful options

I did feel like a privileged remote working ex-pat sitting in a coffee shop with my MacBook Pro and Cappuccino.

But there’s not much I can do about it except speak in Spanish, tip well, and take an interest in the lives of the people I meet, the cleaning staff, Uber drivers, tour guides, baristas and waiters.

But mostly, the way I can help Mexico is to share my incredible love for this wonderful culture and people.

Solange Castro

 

Solange Castro is a writer, standup comic, and playwright.  In March of 2020, she self-published her memoir “Salsa Chica: How I Learned To Dance Salsa And Avoid Real Life” (just in time for the pandemic!)  www.solangecastro.com