Affordable Mexico City

mex1Mexico City has as many world-class museums, restaurants, parks, neighborhoods and cultural opportunities as New York City, but at one-third the price. But Mexico is too dangerous to visit, right? Let’s shoo that elephant out of the room right now.

Many parts of the culturally-rich nation, including the most-visited tourism spots in gigantic Mexico City, are every bit as safe as say, Cleveland. And although it is dirt-cheap and its beloved subway system is inaccessible, overall accessibility at hotels, museums, restaurants, shops and more is outstanding.

Following a few simple rules, such as booking radio cabs, visiting the historic center in daylight and relying on tips from our hotel, my wife Heidi and I felt 100 percent safe in the sophisticated metropolis of 9 million people spread across nearly 600 square miles. We stayed for a week in a room with the best roll-in shower we’ve ever seen, at the ultra-lux and perfectly-located St. Regis, for $200 per night including taxes. The same room at an amenities-rich property would cost $800 in Manhattan.

Our splurge got us an elegantly-ramped entrance right in front of the famed Diana the Huntress fountain on the tree and monument-lined Paseo de la Reforma. A top-hatted doorman caught the door for us without fail, and high-speed accessible elevators whisked us to our fabulously modern room with accessible bath and plenty of room to maneuver a wheelchair.

The doorman always spoke with drivers to make sure they dropped us off at the optimal spot for barrier-free passage into our destinations. The concierge, fabulous at booking a car service or radio taxi for safe passage, scored prized reservations at a pair of the most-acclaimed restaurants in the Western world: Dulce Patria and Pujol. We ate like kings with $100 for the pair of us covering three-course meals, multiple drinks and handsome tips. Such gourmet meals of seafood, beef, fowl and epicurean sides and sweets would cost $200 apiece in the Big Apple.

A wheelchair-accessible limo ride, with generous tip for the cautious driver, came in at less than $30 round trip. A safe, but long radio cab journey from the airport to our perfectly-located hotel was a fixed price of only $15.
On the less ritzy, but equally flavorful end of things, a belly-busting traditional Mexican meal for two at legendary Café Tacuba cost $20 including tip. An obscene amount of sweet bakery goods and donuts from fabled Pasteleria Ideal ran less than $3 including a large tip. A single gourmet ice cream cone at the legendary Neveria Roxy in Condesa is barely more than $1.

All of Mexico City is steeped in history. Here, Heidi Johnson-Wright accesses the exterior of the Museo de Templo Mayor.

All of Mexico City is steeped in history. Here, Heidi Johnson-Wright accesses the exterior of the Museo de Templo Mayor.

Spend dawn to dusk for seven days and you can’t possibly see everything in the art and cultural treasure-filled museums just in the central neighborhoods of Mexico City. We visited some of the greatest archaeology, anthropology and art museums in North America for a pittance — none cost more than $5 per couple. Ramps, elevators, wide aisles and courteous docents made wheelchair access a breeze in dozens of fabled museums that we visited.

Barrier-free access was further enhanced by the pedestrian-only Calle Francisco I. Madero in the Centro Historico.

As much as we fell in love with Mexico City, it is only fair to note that curb cuts were not always perfect. We did find wide sidewalks and average to above average wheeling access in the central areas along Reforma, Zona Rosa, Chapultepec Park, Polanco, Centro Historico and the enchanting and human-scaled Condesa neighborhood.

The best bet for transit is the Turibus, which costs about $12 for a daylong pass and barrier-free access. The main stop is at the El Angel monument, just blocks from the St. Regis. It takes about 3.5 hours to ride the entire route. Turibus features very convenient and accessible drop off points at dozens of notable stops.

While it is possible to visit Mexico City without speaking a word of Spanish, your visit is so much more rich and convenient if you at least learn a few phrases before your trip. Following are highlights to look for.

Seven Wheelchair Accessible Wonders

1. Museo Nacional de Antropología. One could easily spend from opening to closing (9 a.m.-7 p.m.) and not be bored at the triumphant National Museum of Anthropology. The huge and fabled Aztec calendar stone wheel occupies a proud place in the 44,000 square foot museum. Virtually the entire museum, regarded as one of the best in the world, is wheelchair-accessible — including the outdoor pathways that lead to intriguing artifacts. Ancient Aztec codex pages are on display, along with giant Olmec heads and Mayan gravestones. The ground-floor rooms are devoted to history with amazing dioramas of Mexico City when the Spaniards arrived, and reproductions of part of a pyramid at Teotihuacán.

2. Museo de Templo Mayor. It is hard to believe that daily life went on around the center of Mexico City’s great Zocalo public square, National Palace, and Metropolitan Cathedral for decades while this great temple slept underground. In 1978, workmen digging on the east side of the massive cathedral unearthed Aztec remains of a great pyramid that the Spaniards dismantled after their arrival in the 16th century. Walkways, about half of them wheelchair-accessible, transport visitors among the shelter-protected artifacts, such as the haunting Altar of Skulls. Inside, elevators and modern floor layouts create 100 percent barrier-free access to more than 6,000 masks, figurines, tools, jewelry, and other artifacts, including the huge stone wheel of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui excavated from the relatively small plot in front of the museum.

3. Condesa. Mexico City is a monumental-scaled city with huge statuary, huge parks, huge traffic jams and an increasing number of huge skyscrapers. The Condesa neighborhood is a welcome escape from the bustling city — the Greenwich Village of the capital city, a human-scaled neighborhood of restored art deco and art nouveau apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, cool stores and hip fashion boutiques. It seems like every day, some cutting-edge young chef is opening a new bistro among Condesa’s tree-lined streets. Fashionable in the jazz age, this area was almost abandoned after the 1985 earthquake decimated it. Bohemians, drawn by outstanding architecture and the prime urban location, slowly resettled the area in the late 1980s. Two tremendous parks — the huge Parque Mexico and the more compact Parque España — are both wheelchair accessible. The area continues to evolve with the city’s hippest cafes, bars, art galleries and nightclubs.

4. Palacio Nacional. The National Palace is where the presidents of Mexico worked, and it remains an important site for presidential meetings and national events. Admission is free, but you have to go through an intense security check. Though a bit intimidating, guards are outstanding about threading wheelchair users through the long entry lines and pointing the way to elevators that transport disabled visitors to the palace’s various levels. Diego Rivera painted fabulous murals depicting the history of Mexico on the second floor. The highly political murals actually cover a grand staircase, but the second floor provides an excellent vantage point for visitors unable to traverse the steps. Barrier-free access is also provided through the complex of countless formal rooms and grand courtyards adorned with carved brass balconies.

5. Palacio de Bellas Artes. Primarily a performing arts center, this 1934 elaborate edifice is well worth a visit even if you don’t have tickets to a show. The exterior, covered in Italian Carrara marble, is a marvelous example of early-20th-century art nouveau. Inside, the building is pure 1930s art deco. The accessible entrance is routed through a delivery area, where an elevator whisks you to the main lobby to buy tickets. Another set of elevators provides perfect wheelchair access to the third level, which is a veritable shrine to Mexico’s big three muralists: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros. The controversial Rivera mural “Man, Controller of the Universe” — commissioned in 1933 for Rockefeller Center in New York but rejected for its communist content — appears here in its full anti-capitalist glory.

6. Parque Chapultepec. With more than 540 acres, Chapultepec Park is one of the largest urban parks in the world. This magnificent city oasis has everything from the president’s quarters to a cemetery with dozens of notables interred to the castle where Mexican Emperor Maximilian I, and his consort Empress Carlota, ruled from during the Second Mexican Empire. The City Zoo, La Feria amusement park and lagoon with rentable boats are all here. The Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo Rufino Tomayo and previously mentioned Anthropology museum are all here, too. Note that virtually every museum in Mexico City is closed on Mondays. The park is on generally level or gently-sloped ground and all museums are barrier-free. The glaring exception is Castillo Chapultepec, which sits on a high bluff with commanding views of Mexico City. To reach the 19th century castle, which now serves as a history museum, it is best to take a taxi to the accessible drop-off point.

7. Parque Alameda to Zocalo. Alameda Park, improved with millions of dollars’ worth of pedestrian walkways and improved lighting, is a great jumping off point to experience the Centro Historico. Immediately east of the park is the palace-like Museo Nacional de Arte, a legacy of Europe-loving Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. The National Art Museum, accessible by a series of elevators, features works mostly covering the 1810-1950 period. Nearby is the Casa de los Azulejos, a colonial-era gem that dates back to the late 1500s. Covered in gorgeous blue-and-white, the building is now home to the flagship of the ubiquitous Sanborns restaurant-retail chain, and it has an outstanding accessible ground floor public restroom. The pedestrian-only street — Calle Francisco I. Madero — passes restored colonial buildings, grand old churches, tiny restaurants favored by locals and lots of tourist traps housed in beautiful edifices. Madero ends at the huge public square known as the Zocalo, where thousands of vendors spread out their wares on blankets around the enormous Catedral Metropolitana, which blends baroque, neoclassical, and Mexican Churrigueresque architecture.

Steve Wright has published thousands of articles on travel, accessibility, universal design and inclusive urban planning.

If You Go
• St. Regis Mexico City, Paseo de la Reforma 439, (52)(55) 5228-1818; www.stregis.starwoodhotels.com
• Dulce Patria, Anatole France 100, (52)(55) 3300-3999; www.dulcepatriamexico.com
Pujol, Francisco Petrarca 254, (52)(55) 5545-3507; www.pujol.com.mx/en
• Café Tacuba, Calle Tacuba 28, (52)(55) 5518-8482; www.cafedetacuba.com.mx
• Pasteleria Ideal, Av. 16 de Septiembre 18, (52)(55) 5130-2970; www.pasteleriaideal.com.mx
• Neveria Roxy, Avenida Mazatlán No. 80, (52)(55) 5286-1258; www.neveriaroxy.com.mx
• Turibus, (52)(55) 5141-1360; www.turibus.com.mx
• Museo Nacional de Antropología, Paseo de la Reforma & Calzada Gandhi in Chapultepec Park, (52)(55) 5553-6266; www.mna.inah.gob.mx
• Museo de Templo Mayor, northeast corner of Zocalo, (52)(55) 5542-4943; www.templomayor.inah.gob.mx
• Palacio Nacional, Avenida Pino Suárez, (52)(55) 9158-1259.
• Palacio de Bellas Artes, Calle López Peralta, east end of La Alameda, (52)(55) 5512-2593; www.palacio.bellasartes.gob.mx
• Information in English about Mexico City attractions: www.visitmexico.com/en

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