Mexico: Public Life and Neighborhoods

In late June/early July, Andy and I spent about 10 days in Mexico, divided between Mexico City (DF) and Oaxaca City. I am writing about the highlights of our trip in four parts: the food, major historic sights and museums, public life and neighborhoods, and travel logistics/accommodations.

Since I don’t have much new to report on the running front right now, I thought it was time I picked up my Mexico trip recaps.

When my husband and I travel, one of our favorite things to do is explore different neighborhoods, to see how people actually live in the city, witness daily life, and get a feel for unique local hangouts. We’re both urban planners and kind of geeky about architecture and public space, so we like to check out both historic and contemporary buildings, public parks, street life, markets, and the like.

The well-thought out public spaces in Mexico City really impressed us. Our city, Washington DC, has beautiful public spaces but many of them are woefully under-programmed and under-utilized, largely due to the National Park Service’s failure to capably manage urban park space (see here and here). Like Medellin did last year, Mexico City made us envious of the inviting, active, well-used parks and public space, adding to my theory that Latin America really puts the U.S. to shame when it comes to active, vibrant city life.

The main plaza of Mexico City is the zocalo, a huge, imposing public square that attracts all sorts of visitors and is the central gathering space of the city:

Parque Mexico, located in Condesa, the residential neighborhood we stayed in, was probably my favorite public park. This was a lovely leafy park with plenty of footpaths, benches, and green space. I ran some laps here one morning, and we cut through it nearly every day to come and go.

This tree-lined footpath between traffic lanes formed a large oval through the neighborhood, creating a nice place to walk free of traffic. I found it ironic that Mexico City was such a dangerous place for a pedestrian (cars rule; any time you step into an intersection you are taking your life in your hands) yet creates such pleasant places to walk, if you can get there.

I also loved the many parks and markets of the San Angel and Coyoacan area. We took a really long walk around there one day, beginning in San Angel with the Plaza San Jacinto and its art sellers, adjacent to the Bazar del Sabado, an indoor crafts market in a beautiful old building with a central courtyard. The whole area was lovely for walking, with charming colonial buildings and cobblestone streets.

We cut through another beautiful park, the Jardin de la Bombilla. This park had a very odd temple. We climbed up, and there wasn’t much to see inside other than a fountain. Outside the temple, at the top of the stairs, are two statues. There was a man there who kept filling up a bucket from the fountain and dumping it on the feet of one of the statues. It seemed like some kind of ritual. Odd.

We took a long walk from there to Coyoacan, through a rather high-end residential area with art galleries, churches, and well-kept Spanish colonial homes:

This is not us.

And ended up at the Plaza Hidalgo. It was a Saturday afternoon and the plaza was alive with street vendors, kids playing, people eating and drinking, a wedding, the works. I loved it.

Another day, we walked through Roma, a trendy neighborhood near “our” neighborhood, Condesa, which boasts a street market. We got there a little before the market was in full swing, but the market space, situated in the center of a wide green boulevard, was perfect for strolling.

Another part of Mexico City that I really loved was Calle Regina, a pedestrianized street in downtown that has recently become a trendy spot for young people, lined with hip restaurants and mezcalerias.

We went there our first night and found a cool hole-in-the-wall bar where we sampled mezcal and chapulines (grasshoppers).

Finally, we also got to witness ciclovia, Mexico City’s version of the tradition began in Bogota. Every Sunday, the Paseo Reforma, one of the city’s main arteries, is closed to traffic and opened up for bicyclists, walkers, runners. I love it.

Oaxaca City is much smaller than Mexico City but also did not disappoint with markets and public space. The best thing to do in Oaxaca is walk along the cobblestone streets and take in the historic buildings painted in bright colors.

Two of the main public gathering spaces are the Plaza del Santo Domingo, in front of the huge cathedral and museum, where young people and vendors gathered, and the zocalo, a leafy square lined with restaurants that was always full of people. I also really liked Parque Llana, a smaller park near our B&B. I went running there a few mornings as well, and there were lots of people running and walking.

One day, we walked north of the central part of the town, along Los Arquitos, the historic 18th century aqueducts which now have been preserved and form little cave-like structures for residences and businesses.

From there, we walked north and grabbed a cab to San Felipe del Agua, a small village to the north of town. There was a tiny market going on and everyone stared at us.

I had been hoping to walk north out of town to the entrance to a national park to do a bit of hiking, but the park was closed. So, we just walked around the village, looked at the city and valley below, and eventually returned to town.

We also got to witness a version of critical mass, Oaxaca-style, on two nights. This was mostly young kids and teenagers who took off on a huge bike ride through the main part of the city. It was awesome.

On our last day, we took a long walk up Escaleras del Fortin, a long set of staircases, to an amphitheater and observatory overlooking the city. It wasn’t a bad climb, and the stairs were lined with residences and small shops, built into the side of the hill. At the observatory, we were afforded with nice panoramic views of the city.

Both Mexico City and Oaxaca are full of interesting, lively streets and neighborhoods, perfect for exploring. This post, as long as it is, doesn’t even capture everything we saw, and I know that there is plenty we missed in both places. As important as it is to me to visit museums and historic sites while traveling, I think it is equally important to see the neighborhoods, check out the less visited spots, and soak in daily life.

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3 thoughts on “Mexico: Public Life and Neighborhoods

  1. Pingback: Mexico: Travel Logistics and Accommodations | Kathy Q. Runs

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