What It’s Like to Visit Mexico City Now
(Bloomberg) -- Cyntia Barrera Diaz is a Bloomberg Breaking News Editor, based in Mexico City.
On most weekends in the trendy Condesa, Roma, and Polanco neighborhoods of Mexico City, restaurants’ outdoor seats are packed with long-lingering patrons and their pets, unfazed by the traffic passing just inches away. Joggers can be seen training in the early morning, winding through the expansive Chapultepec park and down tree-lined Reforma Avenue. On Sundays, hundreds of residents take over some of the capital’s main streets, thanks to a popular government-organized bike ride for all ages.
Life seems unusually normal in many parts of Mexico’s capital, even though the country ranks fourth worldwide in Covid-19 deaths and the city is currently seeing an acceleration of weekly cases and hospitalizations.
Still, there are lingering markers of Covid’s impact: Masaryk Avenue, often referred to as Mexico’s Rodeo Drive, has more “For Rent” signs peppering its facades than ever before. And some restrictions remain: Restaurants, hotels and malls are generally limited to 60% capacity while indoors, and movie theaters and outdoor stadiums are capped at 50%.
Locals are now regaining confidence on the heels of a revved-up vaccination campaign that aims to curb the virus spread during the busier summer months. While a reported 64% of the adult population have received at least one dose to date, president Lopez Obrador has committed to have all eligible people vaccinated with at least one shot by October. In Mexico City, cases are rising among the 20-to-39 age group and authorities are still bracing for a third wave to peak in August, with only 38% of adults expected to be vaccinated by then.
The race to vaccinate is especially important in the face of Mexico’s tourism restrictions—or total lack thereof. With no requirement to quarantine or test before arrival, some of the capital’s hotels and vacation rentals have been busy taking in international visitors who seek the U.S. as their final destination but who are banned from going there until they spend two weeks in an approved country, such as Mexico.
Sylvain Chauvet, general manager of the Sofitel Reforma hotel, says things started picking up gradually in January 2021, and vaccinated Americans have been arriving in larger numbers since March. The hotel’s rooftop restaurant, Cityzen, which serves ambitious cocktails with a breathtaking skyline view, is packed on weekends—although it’s still separating tables with partitions.
The scene there perfectly encapsulates Mexico City’s current reality: culinary greatness served with plenty of lingering precautions. Here’s what to expect if you’re thinking about an adventure in this incomparable megalopolis.
The Dining Scene
Around 20% of all restaurants in Mexico have pulled the plug since the beginning of the pandemic as lockdowns, wary customers, and a lack of economic support from the government choked businesses. Among the notable closures: Sir Winston Churchill’s, a 50-year-old restaurant in a Tudor-style mansion known for its superb Wellington steak and political powerhouse crowd. Conversely, hundreds of street taco stands remained open amid lax enforcement from local authorities seeking to keep the informal economy afloat.
Outdoor dining has been a blessing in disguise for many spots, though it started awkwardly in January amid a harsh second wave that saturated hospitals beds. Now it’s set to become a permanent feature. But the city’s fine-dining darlings, such as Pujol and Quintonil, rely on indoor service for a fuller, more controlled experience; now that this is an option, reservations are being taken for spaced-apart indoor tables at least four to six weeks out, and getting in is no easy feat.
There are notable newcomers, too. The tiny, female-owned bar Las Brujas, adjacent to beautiful Rio de Janeiro Plaza, is fast developing an outsized reputation for such risk-taking drinks as “Fairy Poison,” made with mezcal, rice milk, and lavender syrup. (It’s also a great spot to wind up after exploring the area’s many architectural jewels.) Maximo Bistrot, an old favorite, might as well be new again: It relocated in 2020 to a spacious, industrial-looking site in the dynamic Roma Norte neighborhood, with plenty of additions to a constantly changing menu that uses anything from ants to delicate rain mushrooms.
For those still concerned about dining out, established local chef Somsri Raksamran has made plenty of Mexican fans with Pin-tó, a dark kitchen dishing out meal kits comprising Thai small plates. And Piedra Braza, a reservations-only Argentinean grill about an hour southwest of the city limits, serves fixed-menu options in the middle of the woods.
Culture Makes a Comeback
Mexico City is emerging from the worst months of the pandemic, which may leave some visitors feeling more cautious than others.
If you’re still Covid-weary: Rent a colorful, flat-bottom gondola, called a trajinera, to explore the canal gardens in Xochimilco; either pack a picnic or visit one of the many outdoor family-run restaurants nearby once you’ve worked up an appetite. If you plan ahead, the local chef collective Arca Tierra organizes trajinera outings at the break of dawn, culminating with breakfasts sourced from native ingredients. Hot air balloon trips above the magnificent Aztec archaeological site of Teotihuacan are another unforgettable, socially distant option, as is the the sprawling Chapultepec Castle, which currently allows only 1,800 daily visitors to visit its history-packed rooms and gardens.
If you need a gentle reentry: Museums are open but running at 50% capacity. A giant installation by Mexican artist Tania Candiani of a black car standing on its nose is parked in front of the museum; inside, the artist’s daring mixed-media works tell the city’s history over the last eight centuries. Show up when the museum opens at 10 a.m. and walk in for free. Tickets are required to visit the famous Frida Kahlo’s Blue House museum in the heart of the quaint Coyoacan neighborhood, but parties are restricted to two persons. If you can’t get in, the nearby Anahuacalli museum gathers Diego Rivera’s enormous collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts in a pyramid-like building made of volcanic rock.
If you want to pretend the pandemic never happened: Night clubs are among a handful of businesses that are not yet allowed to operate, though underground events are advertised frequently via social media. A little less daring are live drive-in concerts at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, a venue that also stages car races; popular Mexican rock band Los Caifanes started the trend in mid-May and Molotov, another famous rock group, will play a pair of shows in August, possibly with scores of open-air pods for added seating. The first mass sporting event scheduled for the city will be Formula 1 in October, and authorities seem keen on selling loads of tickets and avoiding cancelation.
How to Get Around
Subways and buses, crowded in Mexico City, are perceived by many as unsafe during the pandemic. Ride-hailing apps such as Uber, DiDi, or Beat (which provides Tesla rides in select tourist neighborhoods) are an easy, affordable alternative; most drivers require masks and have installed passenger partitions. That said, the city’s famous traffic is almost back to normal.
Another option is EcoBici, which offers bike-sharing stations across several residential areas, often near subway or bus stations. With 45-minute rental intervals and flimsy frames, they’re great for short trips but not for crisscrossing the vast city. Online registration requires your passport, so avoid applying on the go.
Bike riders beware: While city officials have made cycling safer by expanding dedicated lanes, some roads have car traffic moving in one direction and public buses moving the other way. Take advantage of Sunday street closures along large portions of Reforma Avenue as a no-stress way to see the city on two wheels.
The Lingering Covid Etiquette
With several Covid variants circulating in Mexico City amid a large unvaccinated population, mask wearing is still seen as critically important—even if enforcement is tricky at times for proprietors. Stores and restaurants are welcoming customers back after months of hardship, and must comply with government-issued sanitary rules: cleaning your shoes on mats at the entrance, applying hand sanitizer, and checking your body temperature. Staff may often turn a blind eye to those taking face masks off or using them incorrectly once they are inside. Don’t copy others if they flash their unmasked pearly whites.
Many hotel workers, restaurant staff, and drivers live in the outskirts of the city and spend multiple hours commuting daily on public transit—resulting in great personal risk. If tips of 10% to 15% were previously customary in Mexico City, now is a great time to be more generous, especially with favorable exchange rates for Americans and Europeans against the peso.
Don’t expect the city to have become any quieter. Even the pandemic was unable to silence the late-night battles among carts selling hot tamales and baked sweet potatoes or the early morning bells announcing garbage trucks. Packing a pair of ear plugs could be wise.
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