As an expat in CDMX since last September, I’d like to start my first blog for Expats In Mexico with a few of the challenges of living in Mexico City.
So much of Mexico City is unambiguously great: the people, the history, the food, the buzz. But few people will move here without thinking twice about some of the perceived drawbacks, like crime, pollution, transportation and the danger of earthquakes.
This is something you’ll probably have thought about. I lived in London for most of my life and know that the media stuff around personal risk in cities is often overblown. But even so, I was pretty cautious when I first got to Mexico City.
Theft and robbery are, as in many places, a risk, but I’ve so far not had any trouble. This may be because of my personal rule that the more conscious you are about the risks, the less likely something is to happen.
Locals are often much more cautious and will advise you not to go to this or that place, and it’s natural at first to want to get Ubers all the time. But as long as you’re careful, there’s no need to let it put you off or change your behaviour. There is, however, one rule that rightly or wrongly has stuck with me: stay out of Doctores!
The air pollution can feel quite oppressive at first. It took me a few weeks to get used to it, but I did, and actually after travelling outside the city for a while I didn’t notice it again upon returning. If you look at the longer view, you’ll see that air quality has improved over time. In 1992 the U.N. named CDMX the most polluted city on the planet, whereas nowadays, it’s on a par with Los Angeles.
Similarly, water quality here is pretty bad. Despite being originally a lake (gradually drained away by the Spaniards), and receiving more fresh rainfall than London, clean water has to be pumped here from up to 100 km away. The whole purification and transportation process from plant to home is so fraught with contamination that even Mexicans rely on bottled or purified water. You will need to, also, if you want to save your stomach some trouble. Advice someone gave to me earlier that I wish I’d listened to is to start taking a daily probiotic like Yakult a month before arriving here.
Moving around the city sometimes demands a zen-like mindset. Public transport has improved hugely going by accounts from the city’s recent past. The problem is that with a population of 21 million and growing, whatever capacity is added gets consumed by increased demand.
The Metro, built in 1968 on the Paris template, is creaking, and while investment in new forms like the Metrobus show the authorities’ commitment to increasing capacity, you will often face crowding and at times irregular service.
I’m always impressed with the largely stoical Mexican attitude in the face of what can be a frustrating experience. I’m even more amazed that people still bother driving – as much as a crammed Metro can be unpleasant, the seemingly unending jams I’ve been stuck in were far worse.
The current overhaul of the ‘trolebus’ (like a tram/ streetcar) is a case study in the quirks of Mexican infrastructure. Replacing the old stock with shiny new trams is great except the new ones are two-thirds the capacity of the old ones, which has meant worse crowding than before. Even worse, not all drivers have mastered their new vehicles. I recently stood in a packed trolebus that lurched forward after every stop, hurling passengers into one another, while an elderly woman gave an amusing commentary on the uselessness of the system.
But as much as these quirks can be infuriating, mastering the public transport system makes you feel a part of the city in a way Uber never could. In more chilled moments, you’ll appreciate the traffic jam receding into the horizon as a part of the Mexico City experience.
Xtreme Topography and Earthquakes
While transport and air pollution are improving, the unchanging variable in CDMX is its unique location on a plateau surrounded by mountains over 6,000 ft high, on top of an ancient lake. The latter’s soft bed accounts for the city’s susceptibility to earthquakes.
It’s unlikely that this will affect your day-to-day life except for the occasional tremor, but it’s still there in the background. Public safety instructions are ubiquitous, which contributes to a slight underlying sense of jeopardy. The 1985 earthquake was completely devastating, but the 2017 event (weirdly occurring on the anniversary of the former, 19 September) thankfully less so due to better pre-planned resilience and emergency response.
Less dramatic, but probably more impactful, is altitude. Living so far above sea level wasn’t something I ever really thought about before I moved here, but it’s a really important feature of city life.
A typical day out can really take it out of you, and if you’re a keen runner, rethink your expectations. You absolutely have to stay hydrated, as the greater demands of oxygen drain the water from your body. For me, the main impact of this, aside from having to jog very slowly, is that I’m prone to getting irrationally irritable at otherwise charming city idiosyncrasies.
Combined with the other daily hazards, this means you often have to think through your daily activity plans in advance and sometimes be less ambitious about what you can do in a day. But shortness of breath, like the mountains in the distance, is a constant reminder that you’re living somewhere like nowhere else in the world.
So, this is the negative side of CDMX, which hopefully gives you an honest overview of living in the city. Next time, I’ll take a look at all of those things I have found to love about Mexico City.