Mexico City, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 12/01/13

Personal Experiences from Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico 12/01/13

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Lived in Cairo, Egypt and Durban, South Africa.

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2. How long have you lived here?

Two year tour - I left the summer of 2013.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomat working for U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

U.S. Embassy people:

Polanco is where you want to be, or close to it. The commute times are a real bummer for everyone who lives in Santa Fe or other outskirt neighborhood. Yes, the houses are big and the neighbors are friendly and the schools are probably better and you only get two bedrooms in Polanco - but if you don't need all that, fight for Polanco. It's worth it to be closer to the action, especially if you like eating out.

Also, there are direct bus lines (big buses, not combis) from various thoroughfares to get to the U.S. Embassy. About 50 cents a trip. Took me 30 minutes, door to door. Cabs are about US$6, takes 5 minutes. You can drive/park, carpool, get a spot at the Embassy.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

More expensive, generally, than in the U.S. with the exception of two things:
Produce
Anything you buy that is of terrible quality, i.e. toilet paper, pasta, gadgets, whatever.

We were wasteful, but I must say we saved a ton by doing two things (if you're working at the embassy):
1. We used Amazon excessively to ship to our U.S. address, and then received the packages a day or two later. Very quick with Amazon Prime.
2. We shopped at Costco for any items we could buy in bulk.

Otherwise, I am a cook and a bit of a snob, so I shopped at the Whole Foods-almost equivalent, City Market. Superama is owned by WalMart and generally has a good selection as well.

You can get extremely cheap and decent Spanish wine (US$3), though they import all kinds. Mexican wine - if priced above US$10 - is also very good (under US$10 means it hasn't quite matured yet).

Everyone loved going to the local outdoor markets called "tianguis" but keep in mind this is the same food that they sell in grocery stores. These folks just sell outdoors (they are generally not farmers). But the experience is fun, and they can occasionally have a seasonal selection you won't find elsewhere. The Polanco Saturday Market in Lincoln Park is legendary.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Everything can be shipped via Amazon, if you have that luxury. If not, I'd bring everything I needed - including a refrigerator, etc. - as many apartments come completely unfurnished and without even basic appliances, so you will need to supply these things.

The other sound advice I received before arrival was that you can find absolutely anything you want in Mexico, but you should buy your clothes and electronics in the U.S. The prices are higher and the quality is worse.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

You have the ubiquitous taco truck on every single corner. That's not an exaggeration. Cost range - cheap. But you'll get sick if you're not careful, and even when you are. Look behind the cook - does it look clean? It probably is. But the water is the problem, not the level of cleanliness, so unless they are cleaning everything with straight bleach, you can always get sick from eating out. Even/especially in restaurants.

Some of the best restaurants in the world are in Mexico too: Biko and Pujol are consistently rated in the Top 50 in the World by San Pellegrino and Restaurant's Magazine. But others too could make this list: Dulce Patria, Quintonil, Contramar, Maximo Bistrot locale, but tons are always opening and the food scene is huge.

Vegetarians: don't plan on being vegetarian long! I started eating fish before I arrived, and I don't know how I would have done it otherwise. I ordered a plain cheese quesadilla on my first day and it came filled with pork - the pork was the understood base for a "quesa"dilla, and the cheese was an extra!

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Again, because of the elevation, few problems. We had some mosquitos as we were close to a big park.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

U.S. embassy has a variety of mail options. It's not terribly cheap, but it's easy enough. You don't receive mail in your mailbox in Mexico - that's not a thing here. Netflix for some reason takes ages to get here and back, but Amazon was extremely fast. I'd often feel that the box arrived before I even placed the order!

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Generally trustworthy, widely available, and extremely affordable. We had a great experience and paid about US$20/day.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Exorbitant. I don't know who can afford to pay for these things. US$2000 non-refundable initiation fees and US$150/month. I was priced out, so I can't offer any suggestions. Eat responsibly and run in the park.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

ATM's: If you have a Bank of America account, you can withdraw from any Santander without penalty.
Credit Cards: We used Capital One Venture because there is no foreign transaction fee and you earn crazy points.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You can get by without Spanish, but if you will be staying for a while, you need Spanish. I was surprised at how little English is spoken/understood. No cabbies spoke English to my knowledge. Museums, restaurants, no one - and if you plan on traveling anywhere outside of Cancun or Cabo, you'll need it, unless you're staying with expats or in a B&B owned by a foreigner.

So, at the least, come with the basics.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Depends. The streets are broken, but there are wheelchair ramps everywhere. Most business seem to be accommodating.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

U.S. embassy folks don't hail taxis on the street. We use "Sitio" taxis, which are labelled and can be called. They are generally more expensive, but we're talking about a couple dollars to ensure you're not getting express kidnapped. So we used them and felt safe.

Trains, no. Unless you mean the Tequila Train near Tequila, Jalisco - a must-do!
Buses, sure - there are even luxury buses you can take where the seats recline, TVs, etc. Several bus station options. But frankly, I'd rather fly or drive myself, so we only did the bus option once and that was enough.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

We brought a Mazda3 - loved the car; did not love the car on the roads. Potholes are EVERYWHERE. Speed bumps/TOPES are EVERYWHERE. Accidents occur less frequently than you'd think given how no one has a driver's license (they are not required) and how badly everyone drives. Braking suddenly is a way of life. The traffic is terrible and omnipresent. All this to say: an SUV. I know, it's not enviro-friendly. I know! They are gas guzzlers - I didn't bring one and still wouldn't. But if you are seriously considering driving regularly, you have to have one. Otherwise bring a car you hate because you're going to treat it like you hate it. And all the other drivers will too.

Gas is basically the same as in the U.S., but the state-owned gas monopoly Pemex is not always consistent. They will generally have bathrooms (if you stop at one outside town), but will not necessarily take credit cards or have little groceries for you to get food. They are almost everywhere, though, and generally secure.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yep - variety of carriers. We paid about US$80 a month but had very fast service (Axtel). Getting set up is a nightmare for everyone, so plan on getting frustrated.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Unlock yours before you get here, then plan on getting robbed if you go with a cell phone plan. I didn't get a data plan, which was fine, and just recharged my SIM card at the local 7-11s when I ran out. 100 pesos (US$8) would last me a month, and even came with 1GB of data, so I could check maps if I were traveling. Cheaper this way, I think, though I always ran out of minutes when I was on the road - so that was the trade-off.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

There are lots of vets, and they often provide kenneling services. Exotic pets and vets are available, but you will have to do a fair amount of research/phone calls to find out who. The internet is not great for discovering service providers in general.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

No. There are 22 million people in this town and everyone's looking for work, and willing to earn less than you.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Not sure, but this is a good question. I'm not sure this industry is well developed. There is a Red Cross, but I'm not sure what work they do. I know of folks who did events with their religious communities. I'm not sure about Habitat or the more developed places - these aren't hugely popular from what I understand. But there are lots of animal conservation places which let you volunteer - turtles, rainforests, mangrove swamps, whale sharks - that sort of thing.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

U.S. Embassy - mostly formal. Most men and women wear suits.
In public, leans towards trendy in fashiony neighborhoods, and more formal in nicer restaurants.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The embassy security team never ceases to remind you that this is still a high-threat country where crime is a serious concern. I think that's true, though I have to admit I never once felt unsafe, not even at late hours. No one even looked at me the wrong way. Now granted I did not go to dangerous areas (embassy folks are not allowed), but the restaurant/neighborhood areas (Polanco, Santa Fe, Condesa, Roma, Zona Rosa, San Angel, Coyoacan) are all pretty reliably safe, and my friends all said the same.

That being said, there are plenty of places downtown which would not qualify under the 'safe' category, and one must always be paying attention lest you wander aimlessly into a sketchier neighborhood. Everyone should follow basic street and city-safety practices. If you leave your luggage unattended, someone will probably steal it. If you look lost, someone will probably take advantage of you.

Also, U.S. embassy employees are not currently allowed to visit 2 hours west of Mexico City (the state of Michoacan) and anything north of the state of Guanajuato - but this really did not hinder our travels any. We still didn't have time to see everything on our bucket list.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Are there ever not? The quality of care is good, and many women give birth in local hospitals without any complaints. If you are in a motor cycle accident in Chiapas, say, and don't have health or travel insurance or someone to pay to get you home, you might be in trouble.

Be prepared for bad water. This can show up in any number of ways - washing, brushing teeth, ice, dirty taco stands, clean taco stands. It's a way of life, and unavoidable. The water that leaves the filtration plants is clean, but old sewage pipes run along the same corridors as the water pipes and are corroded, leaking the sewage into the entire water system. (This is what I've heard at least.) We bleached all our fruit/veg. We boiled water for 5 minutes past boiling point (because of altitude). We bought "garafones" of water - giant 20L bottles which are great and last about a week.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

You almost forget the air is bad until you fly back through the city and see the thick blanket of smog choking the entire landscape (and it's flat and wide - Mexicans build outwards, not upwards). So it can be kind of gross. Those with allergies may be relieved by the lack of pollen, but still suffer from all the pollution. It's not easy. The summer rainy season brings nice relief for a few months, but January and February churn out red-day after red-day.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Aside from the pollution, the climate is perfect. For Fahrenheit-minded folks, the temps rarely dip below 50 at night and rarely reach above 80. Most days are in the 70s and nights in the 60s. Jackets are fine. I never once wore a coat and can remember only one day when I regretted that. Even when it's rainy, it's still dry. Because of the elevation, there is never any humidity. You don't really sweat. It's incredibly strange if you are coming from a humid environment, but very welcome all the same. Loved the weather.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Huge. What you make of it. You can ignore everyone if you like and no one will notice. Seriously. You can be gone every weekend, or at home, or living the life of a star - and you can incorporate everyone you know or no one at all. Totally will be your decision. It's nice to have the option to escape and to also sometimes be included, frankly. This is not a place where you rely heavily on your coworkers for entertainment, unless you want that (and they do too).

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Restaurants. Bars. Clubs. Performances. Musical concerts. It's a big city and not sleepy.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

All of the above!
What is there to say: you will make of this experience what you want. If you like eating fancy, it's for you. If you like eating cheap, it's for you. If you like staying at home, then maybe you should consider Africa as they get mansions and we don't, but if you want to stay home every night, well the housing is pretty decent too. Lots of tourism (see above), lots of entertainment, easy to meet people, and Mexicans are very friendly. You'll get lots of phone numbers if you go out late, though you'll never hear from anyone and your plans will probably fall through (or you will get texts every five minutes - the culture is a bit funny that way).

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Excellent. DF and Quintana Roo are two states in Mexico that recognize and perform gay marriage. I was here as part of a gay couple, and the city is very open. You'll see straight and gay alike making out on every corner (people can't do it at home), and most people don't care. They have a good-sized Pride parade. There are at least a dozen well-known dance clubs that steer gay, tons of bars in Zona Rosa catering to gays, and a mixture of both that cater to your various queer types (bears, les, white, dark, etc.). Money goes a long way in this town, so if you look wealthy (read: foreigner), you'll bypass everyone else waiting in line - so be prepared to say 'excuse me' and look humbly grateful.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

I'd say yes, but I don't know that foreigners experience these problems (I will not speak for everyone). Race is an issue if you're Mexican, in that rich people tend to be whiter (and often Spanish-looking) and poorer are darker (and more indigenous-looking) - which goes back hundreds of years, and only now are those things starting to change. Gender can be a problem too, though again - foreigners generally don't experience it I don't think as there are plenty of women in positions of power in Mexico.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The travel opportunities are incredible:

For one-day visitors, downtown affords an accessible opportunity to see ancient, colonial, and modern Mexico. Start with the Xocalo and then go to any of the great restaurants in the Condesa/Roma area.

For several days, there are a number of day-trips within the city (takes a while to get around a city this big, naturally) - Xochimilco water canals, the pyramids, Basilica de Guadalupe, a number of magic towns, Cuernavaca or Puebla (if they want to see a smaller big town), Chapultepec park, Coyoacan, museums, clubs, etc.

For those who live here, your options are limitless, really. The country established a program called "pueblos magicos" that pumps a bit of money into towns all over the country in order to promote tourism. Some have done a better job than others, but many are worth the time and there are a good two dozen within a day's drive of Mexico City, each requiring just an hour or two to arrive and you can spend 30 minutes to a full day there - stay until you leave, really. Some you'll find are less impressive, but most have either an interesting local cuisine, neat architecture, a nice museum, pre-colonial ruins, interesting dress or wares to buy. For weekend trips, there are lots of options - each of the big cities within driving/flying distance deserve a longer look - Guadalajara, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Puebla, Oaxaca, Merida, Morelia (though I never made it), Queretaro - among many others. Cancun and the Maya Riviera region are always great to meet the less-adventurous. The beaches there are among the best in the world, and the all-inclusive places are fabulous during slower season. If you're looking to get out of the city-life, we had an excellent week touring Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, stayed in swank resorts in Cabo, saw indigenous life throughout Chiapas, and did great road adventures through Veracruz, Hidalgo, Jalisco, and broader swaths of El Bajio.

Seriously, if travel is your thing, Mexico has some hidden gems. Sure, take your guidebook, but there's plenty of unexplored areas which really make you feel intrepid. Nothing left in Europe like that.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

For Pueblos Magicos, my favorites were the hike up Tepoztlan, the museum at Tepozotlan (don't mix those two up!), the falls at Huasca de Ocampo, the views of Bernal, the hikes through the Sierras, the fabulous churrigeresque churches surrounding Popocatepetl, the Arcos del Sitio in the State of Mexico, absolutely everything in San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, and the ruins at Malinalco, Cantona, and Tula. All are day or weekend trips.

In the city, riding on a boat in Xochimilco with friends and a bunch of beers/food is a total relaxfest. The Frida/Diego/Trotsky circuit is loads of interesting fun - and don't miss Diego's pyramid museum Anahuacalli. You can take architecture tours of some of the local legends' designs. I loved lucha libre wrestling matches - hilarious stuff. Excellent history/art/anthropology museums, if that's your ticket. Ruins everywhere, though Teotihuacan pyramids are the best/biggest.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Limitless. Mexican handicrafts make for some of the coolest (and tackiest) gifts/ornaments/decoration you can find. There are lots of Christmas things, as well as paraphernalia related to lucha libre (wrestlers), ceramics, silver, pottery, stick figures called alebrijes, ornate boxes, masks, crosses, tiles, and all sorts of knick-knacks you can bring home with you as gifts.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Mexico City is a real treat because it affords a good amount of luxury, comforts, travel opportunities, culture, big city amenities and entertainment, and off-the-beaten path opportunities for visitors. The weather is spectacular. The people are incredibly friendly. As a tourist or a resident, you can spend as much or as little as you want on food, entertainment, etc. There is never a lack of things to do, as even the most adventurous never tick everything off their bucket list. If you like Mexican food, you're in luck! (Though here, they just call it "food.")

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10. Can you save money?

Absolutely. I traveled every weekend and still managed to accumulate enough savings for a down payment on a house - no joke.

The trick: cook your own food. If you eat out, you'll be spending US$30 a meal. It's pricey at nice places. And if you like clubbing, plan on dropping US$100-$150 in an evening, each.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

1. Service is horrendous. Over the phone, in person, etc. - you will constantly be frustrated if trying to resolve an issue. Think setting up internet, opening a bank account, trying to get a credit card to work when you know it's not your fault, getting something fixed, airline problems -- anything that would require a little bit of customer attention or help is missing from this culture - EVEN THOUGH maybe 10% of people work in the "customer service industry." It sure doesn't feel like it. That being said, Mexicans are generally nice - they just don't budge when it comes to accommodating clients.

2. The roads are terrible. See the above section on driving.

3. Airfare is expensive. Don't move here thinking you can get cheap tickets home or to other parts of the country. I went home once in two years. My friends/family spent less on their total vacations to Cancun than I did when we would meet there.

4. Altitude can be a problem for some. I had stomach issues the whole time I was there, but general fatigue wears off after a few weeks. Also, living at altitude is seriously a lifestyle commitment I didn't plan on making. You have to boil water for 5 minutes past boiling point to make sure it's actually sterile. Baking is completely different at altitude. Pasta takes 20 minutes to cook. It's an adjustment if you like cooking.

5. True vegetarianism/veganism is almost impossible, unless you cook for yourself. Expect no one to understand the concept outside of big cities, and even in big cities you are certain to find bits of meat find their way onto your plate or tortilla. There are some veg restaurants, though, and if you keep looking, you'll find some great options (try tlacoyos filled with fava beans (haba) and smothered in cactus leaves (nopales) and salsa - scrumptious).

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely. Mexico City is so completely under the radar right now because of the violence in the north. Take advantage of it while you still can!

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3. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Amores Perros
and Y Tu Mama Tambien (English subtitled)
are both exceptional and were filmed here.

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4. Do you have any other comments?

Wouldn't trade in this experience for anything.

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