Mexico City, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 09/20/16
Personal Experiences from Mexico City, Mexico
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, we've lived in Eastern Europe, India, and Southeast Asia.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, D.C. by default. There are direct flights on United to Dulles. The U.S. Embassy's contract carrier is Delta which involves a change in Atlanta, but arrives at Reagan National, which may be more convenient for travelers.
3. How long have you lived here?
14 months, we will stay for approximately two more years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Working at the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is a bit of a mixed bag. There is housing in Santa Fe, an area quite far from the center of the city. Much of the housing is in Polanco, a well-heeled neighborhood closer in to the U.S. Embassy. There is housing in several other communities between Santa Fe and Polanco. We live in Polanco, as do most of the people we know, and are happy here. Polanco housing is almost all apartments, some fabulous, some...not. Ours is fine, but like other apartments has a lack of natural light. It's easy to get to the U.S. Embassy from Polanco via public transportation (bus), but you'd need to drive from the other housing locations.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Overall we spend much less on groceries here than in Washington, but we are happy with Mexican brands and what we can get on the local economy. There are upscale grocery stores, like City Market, which carry imported goods at predictably high prices. Walmart is here, as is Costco and Sams Club. We generally walk to Superama, a small supermarket which is also owned by Walmart, and drive to Costco about once a month to stock up on certain items. There are specialty fresh markets like Mercado de San Juan which carries gourmet ingredients (think fresh exotic mushrooms), and other more "regular" fresh markets where we buy honey. If you want it, most of the time you can find it here. We supplement a bit through Amazon for a few special items.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing, really. Saline solution is expensive and difficult to get through the diplomatic pouch (liquid restrictions).
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
If you want to eat it, it's here. Excellent Mexican (of course), Lebanese, an interesting sort of Chinese food, barbecue, steak houses, excellent pizza, upscale burger places, Indian, and Korean. There is a great restaurant delivery service, SinDelantal ("without apron") that will deliver from a huge selection of restaurants either for free or for a very small fee. Lots of places for good breakfasts out.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the diplomatic pouch, but have had to send documents to the United States via FedEx and there has never been a problem. If you drop off your package by noon, it delivers in the United States the next day.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We have a part-time housekeeper who is wonderful. The average rate for household help seems to be around $20 a day depending on how long they work and what you have them do. There is a great deal of availability. We found ours from a colleague departing post. Many people have help five days a week, and people with small children have nannys. A few people we know have live-in help, and there are maids quarters in many apartments. Almost everyone I know, Mexican or expat, has some sort of household help.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are gyms, and they are expensive. There are crossfit facilities and a wide selection of yoga and pilates studios. Yoga and pilates tend to be cheaper than in the United States.
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?
We use a credit card for the supermarket and restaurants. We always have cash on hand for taquerias, fresh markets, etc. We do use ATMs, and tend to stick with Banamex (which has a partnership with Citi Bank). Just be careful, just like anywhere.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is a Roman Catholic church that offers an English-language mass on Sundays. I'm assuming the LDS Temple has services in English, and I'd imagine there are other denominations with English services as well but I can't speak from personal experience.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You need a lot of Spanish. For such a sophisticated city, there is surprisingly little English. The more Spanish you have, the more enjoyable your time here will be. Mexicans are very friendly and love to chat, so you'll have more satisfying experiences if you speak Spanish.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Many! Sidewalks are in poor repair. Most buildings are not wheelchair accessible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Affordable--absolutely. Safe? Well, that depends. Buses within Mexico City seem to be ok, depending on where you're going. The Metro system is extensive, but best avoided at rush hour (we use it on the weekends quite a bit, however) as the crushes of people are just incredible and unnerving. Taxis should not be hailed on the street, but taxis from "sitios", or taxi stands, are considered safe and they are not expensive. Uber is here and is wildly popular. I use Uber more than taxis, as it's even cheaper and frankly more convenient.
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 have a small SUV that we hardly ever use. We only drive to a big box supermarket like Costco once a month or so to load up on heavy stuff like cat litter. Bring something with clearance as the streets get flooded during the rainy season. Bring something big enough that in a fender bender you won't be at risk. Most big stores have parking lots, so we really never park on the street, but if you will be looking for street parking, something slightly smaller might be more convenient.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, our internet is fast (not quite as fast as we pay for, but close) and reliable. It took about a week to have it installed. We have a package bundled with cable tv, which I think we'll eventually cancel because we never watch regular tv, we just stream. Even with a VPN our internet is fast enough to stream anything we want. Good internet is definitely a perk.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
If you're at the US Embassy you'll get an official phone, and many people have a personal phone as well. The Embassy uses Telcel. Many people use Telcel's pay as you go plan for personal phones, but AT&T is becoming increasingly popular as well. Data is cheap and relatively fast on smartphones. You can use Whatsapp, FaceBook and some other social media sites for free, not charged against your data quotient.
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?
No quarantine necessary, but there are regulations on paperwork, vaccinations, etc., just like most places. I believe there are good vets, we have not had to use one yet.
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?
Some spouses teach at the international schools, but most seem to get jobs at the U.S. Embassy. To work on the local economy you'd have to have fluent Spanish, and I believe the salaries would be low. A few spouses I know telecommute, a good option here because the internet is reliable and fast.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Mexicans dress up more than Americans. Dress code at work is business attire, more casual in public places. I've never seen anyone in shorts, at least in Mexico City.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes! Lots. With that said, if you're aware of your surroundings, take simple precautions (if you have an alarm system in your home, use it), and follow your instincts you'll be fine. Leave your diamonds at home. Don't walk after dark with headphones on. Don't flash large amounts of cash. Pretty basic stuff. Be careful crossing streets! Cars to not cede right of way to pedestrians, which can take some getting used to.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Zika is a concern, although Mexico City's altitude makes mosquitoes scarce. The altitude is a real thing, and takes some getting used to. Drink a lot of water your first few weeks here. Other than that, medical care is available and excellent. I have an excellent dentist, and many expat women choose to have babies here rather than returning to their home country.
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?
This has been a tough year for air quality, apparently it was the worst it's been in years and years in the Spring. Many people feel it. It's really not good for small children. If you or your family have sensitivities/asthma, think twice about coming here as the air quality can be dangerously poor. It hasn't reached Delhi or Beijing levels, but Mexico City is in a bowl-shaped valley, so the bad air tends to get trapped. The air improves dramatically once it starts raining in the summer, but those spring months are tough.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The weather is extremely temperate in Mexico City, and it gets surprisingly chilly at night in the winter (we slept on flannel sheets for a few months). Housing does not have airconditioning or heating. Overall the temperatures range from low 60's to low 80's Fahrenheit year round, with some hotter times in the spring, and colder times in winter. The rain starts in May and ends in October, but it rarely lasts all day, usually it rains for a few hours in the late afternoon/evening (just in time to snarl traffic for the evening commute).
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is a wide variety of international schools. I don't have personal experience, but I know some teenagers have a tough time here in some of the schools, leading to some being homeschooled or attending school back in the U.S. But I know other teenagers who have thrived here, so it seems to be very much on a family-by-family basis.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Preschools are available, but many people have nannies. Or a combination of both. No personal experience.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large, overall very good. This is a great city with a lot going on.
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?
There are many Meetup groups for expats or people interested in certain topics, which is a good way to meet people. The U.S. Embassy is huge and compared to other posts, has less of a tight-knit community, but I think that's because it's less necessary here in a city with so much to offer.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's good for everyone, with the caveat about the potentially poor air quality and small children.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Gay marriage is legal in Mexico City. That said, there is a move to make gay marriage legal across the country, and there is a lot of push back from the general Mexican public against this. But I don't think anyone in Mexico City would have a problem.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Macho culture is still apparent in Mexico, which leads to gender issues. As a female expat I haven't felt the gender inequality, especially compared to other countries in which I've lived, but I think it's there for much of the greater population.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
There is wonderful travel in Mexico. The beaches in the Yucatan are of course wonderful, but colonial cities such as Puebla are not to be missed. Chiapas is a fascinating place to visit, as is Oaxaca (currently suffering some difficulties). Traveling in the region is also easy and interesting. Guatemala is a quick trip, as is Costa Rica. There are lots of getaways reachable by car or fancy, comfortable bus from Mexico City. Interjet and Volaris, two low-cost carriers, fly to all the tourist destinations. I've enjoyed experiencing the vast regional differences in different parts of Mexico.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Too many to list. The art scene here is great, so is the music scene. Day of the Dead festivities are not to be missed. There are a number of small mezcal bars with a dizzying selection of artesinal mezcal. There are restaurants without number. Chapultepec Park is huge, bigger than Central Park, and great for wandering. Movie theaters show mostly blockbuster American movies with Spanish subtitles, but even the "VIP" theaters are cheap by American standards. Cineteca Nacional, a government-subsidized venue, shows independent and foreign films. Visiting the art market in San Angel on Saturdays is great fun. Football games are fun. We like to wander around the neighborhoods of La Condesa and La Roma, very hip neighborhoods. Spending time in Coyocan, where the Frieda Kahlo museum is located, is really special. Plaza Garbibaldi, which a little sketchy, can be a good place to get a drink and listen to the wandering mariachis looking for their next gig (but be careful). I like wandering the pedestrian streets in the Centro Historico. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is an experience.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes! When we have visitors we usually take them to Ciudadela, a handicrafts market in the center of Mexico City with items from all throughout the country. Every place you go in Mexico will have a special sort of craft. As I mentioned before, the art market in San Angel is an excellent place to buy art, and makes for fun browsing.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Access to world-class museums, art, music. A sophisticated and incredibly warm population. Incredible restaurants of every sort and at every price range. Low cost of living. Easy regional travel.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I expected to like it here, and I do. I might have been more prepared for how chilly the winters are.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Snow boots and heavy winter coats.
4. But don't forget your:
Flannel sheets, jackets for a variety of temperatures, good umbrella, rain boots, Spanish dictionary, good walking shoes. Despite the poor sidewalks, this is a good walking city.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman
6. Do you have any other comments?
The New York Times named Mexico City as the number one travel destination for 2016, for good reason.