In early 2017, I began to look for flights to Colombia to visit a friend. From Toronto, you can grab a relatively short, direct flight to Bogota. But I noticed that AeroMexico was having a great sale, saving me upwards of $200 CAD.
The only catch? Both ways would result in long (6+ hour) layovers in Mexico City.
Now, while some people hate long layovers, I actually don’t mind them. Because I work remotely, I can bring my work with me when I travel, and I find layovers to be a very productive time. That’s why I decided to book the deal and extend my second layover to be just under 12 hours – long enough to leave the airport, enjoy the city, and return in a leisurely pace.
Yes, that’s right: I decided I was going to add a day in Mexico City onto my Colombia trip.
At first, I was super excited about this plan. While I’ve technically been to Mexico, my only time there was a week spent at an all-inclusive resort when I was a child — hardly a strong memory or a cultural experience (though it was an insanely beautiful destination). This time, I had big dreams of wandering around, eating all of the tacos, and exploring some of the historic buildings that Mexico City is known for.
But somewhere between picking up some Mexican pesos at my bank in Toronto before I left and landing in Mexico City after my three weeks in Colombia, anxiety set in. Anxiety that I couldn’t really place.
I’m from a big city, I’ve traveled alone in Latin America, and my Spanish is halfway decent. So, what was pulling at me?
I finally realized what it was. It was a stereotype: a stereotype about a “scary” city that no woman should travel alone to. Ever.
I don’t know where this stereotype originated within me, though I’m sure years of mainstream western media perpetuating cultural biases and portraying Mexico City as dangerous city was behind it. But the fact was that it was stuck in my brain as I spent the night before my flight Googling “layover + Mexico City” and “solo female traveler + Mexico City.” I certainly didn’t do that during my eight-hour layover in Singapore the previous year, nor for my 13-hour layover in Munich this past summer.
The nagging anxiety became even more extreme after the phonecalls from many of my family members, begging me to “please be careful in Mexico City.”
That’s how I ended up sitting in the Carl’s Jr. in the arrivals section at MEX airport, eating a really terrible breakfast burrito (yes – in Mexico!), and trying to work up the nerve to just do it. To leave the airport. To walk in the face of a “scary city” stereotype and prove it wrong.
It took me two hours to walk out that door.
And do you know what I faced?
A city that is tailor-made for a long layover. A city that is modern and clean. A city where I – as a solo woman traveling with a relatively large bag (laptop inside) – never once felt unsafe (of course I can only speak to my own lived experience, but I felt very comfortable during the entire day).
So, what changed my perception of Mexico City?
For starters, the logistics of my day could not have been easier.
Directly outside the arrivals gate (in both terminals), there is a bus that brings you right to the central historical district of Mexico City. This bus is more expensive than regular city buses ($30 MXN compared to $6 MXN), but goes directly to the airport, has fewer stops, and has a police officer on board the entire time.
A friendly and English-speaking female attendant was even standing by the bus stop waiting to assist tourists in purchasing tickets for this bus (she recommended I buy a return ticket right from the machine). She also clarified with the driver which stop I wanted to get out at, and he made sure to let me know when the bus got to the stop.
My way back to the airport several hours later was also very simple. Because I already had my return ticket, I simply had to wait at the bus stop clearly marked with “aeropuerto” listed as one of the routes. When my bus arrived, very clearly marked, it was just a 20 minute drive right back to the airport.
But then, there were the people.
It wasn’t just the airport attendant and the ladies I chatted with in line who radiated warmth. There was also the young art student who I met while wandering through a gallery exhibit, who asked if he could practice his English for a few minutes. He proceeded to tell me about the murals I was looking at, from details about the artist who painted them to what point in Mexican history they depicted (As someone with very little understanding or knowledge of art, I appreciated this more than he knew!).
There was also the friendly couple at one of three taco shops I stopped at (#wheninMexico), who chatted with me first about my peanut allergy, then about how they started the shop, and finally all about the people who come through their door, from 9-5ers on their lunch break to tourists just like me.
Then there were the street food cart owners who gave me samples, and the Indian man selling the most beautiful silk dresses I’ve ever seen (I even bought one!). Everywhere I turned and everywhere I went, there was someone willing to have a conversation with me in my slow, elementary Spanish, to help me along my way, to welcome me to Mexico.
There was also the ease of sightseeing.
As I mentioned, the airport bus brought me right to the central historical district, a designated UNESCO heritage site. Here, historic buildings from the era of Spanish colonization – now art galleries and museums and office buildings – sit next to Aztec ruins and collide with tree-lined avenues, where men and women grab their morning coffees at Starbucks.
I walked through a bank that showcased an exhibit on Mexican coins, past and present, I chatted with some of the policemen – who seemed to be everywhere – about the pop up free clinic happening in the Zócalo (public plaza), I listened to a choir rehearsal in the Cathedral, and I meandered through Alameda Park and explored Templo Mayor, an ancient Aztec site.
A little closer to noon, I wandered a couple streets over from the Zócalo and found myself in the center of a vibrant market, where shops popped open to sell sunglasses, paintings, tacos, and everything in between. After allowing myself a little shopping time (and the aforementioned tacos), I hopped back on the bus to the airport.
After half a day of sightseeing in the city, I felt exhilarated yet not at all exhausted.
While I know I only scratched the surface of Mexico City, it was surprisingly easy to get a good feel of its historic center in only a matter of hours.
And overall, there was just a great vibe.
After I got back to the airport, I spent a few minutes just standing there, staring at that Carl’s Jr.
Why had I been so nervous to explore this city?
Sure, I’d only seen a tiny portion of this sprawling metropolis and yes, just like any major city, you have to keep your wits about you, but I couldn’t help but think that my anxiety had been completely irrational. I had chatted with and asked advice from more locals than I could count, I’d seen commuters waiting for the bus, I’d witnessed a woman doing her mascara in the passenger seat of a cab and mothers getting their children to school. It was all basically a typical urban center on a typical Thursday morning.
And that’s the danger of letting fear based, media-driven biases and culturally-ingrained stereotypes seep into you, unrealized. Of making assumptions about a place and its people before actually getting to know them for yourself.
Because what if I’d let those unconscious biases swallow me up? What if I’d never walked out the doors of that airport and had a glorious day in colorful, vibrant Mexico City? Well, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to telland all my distressed family members that actually, Mexico City is lovely and charming; that actually, they would love it; that actually, they should come visit.
Because they should. And so should you – even if just on a layover.