Bet you thought the Mexican national sport was soccer. In fact, on foot or in wheels of any kind, there’s nothing locals love more than a rousing game of chicken – with cars, with you, with an old lady with a cane, with a semi or a fruit vendor cart. Even the dogs do it. This, and other observations are collected below.
The air quality in Mexico City has improved in the last decade, but it’s still foul. While skies are blue, every breath is heavy with carbon monoxide, particulate matter and dust, and the altitude and dry air don’t help either. For the first few days, many people experience sinus problems or running noses, and it’s not unusual to see people on the street in surgical masks. You’ll want nasal spray, a decongestant, tissues and Vaseline for your chapped nose and lips. Eyes take a beating too; the favored eye drops are called OjoRojo and are sold at pharmacies.
After breathing, the next most important things are your manners. The poorest person here could teach most Americans a thing or two about genuine human interaction. In spite of living with 20 million other people, "chilangos" are always courteous. Even if your Spanish is non-existent, a smile and a word go a long way. Learn to say please, thank you and excuse me – and say it. Treat people with respect. Everyone is addressed as señor or señora, even the panhandlers. You will be rewarded with great courtesy, and when you smile, you almost always receive a big genuine smile in return.
At some point, you will find yourself chewing in your sleep – out of habit. Food is everywhere, at all hours, from fresh tamales or "tortas" in the morning to fruit, tacos and "guisados" in the afternoon and way into the night. All of it is tasty, if not always good for you. Carry lots of coins for the street vendors. If you do eat in the street, choose a busy stand. The other great cheap places to eat are the tiny daytime "loncherias" run by women, which serve simple home cooking. Restaurants open around 1 p.m. for lunch and 7:30 p.m. for dinner, but "chilangos" eat at 2:30 or 3 p.m., and dinner doesn’t get rolling until 9:30 p.m. – later on the weekends. Sunday lunch is HUGE.
The single most dangerous thing you will do here is walk. Sidewalks are crowded and narrow, and no lanes or directions are observed. Aside from playing chicken with cars and other pedestrians, the sidewalks themselves are uneven, with curbs and steps in random places, and they frequently are filled with holes or broken concrete. Stairs are random and whimsical, like Escher on a bad day. Drops of several feet without railings are common, and usually unmarked. Tip: Wear sturdy shoes, watch where you’re going and look down. Good news: no dog poop.
Most people are good-humored, if intensely focused, so stow your grumps. As I said before, smile! Someone will smile back!
Very few people speak it. Smile, point, nod and say "gracias," and you’ll be fine.
Don’t even think about it. Just don’t. For example, the common turn called the "vuelta inglese" involves turning left or right across lanes of traffic from any middle lane. No one stops at stop signs, and lanes are only suggestions. Large streets merge into others without warning, or split in two or three with no street signs. Streets change names for no apparent reason. Streets are not laid out on any grid, and they go every which way. Most streets are one-way, but it’s okay to drive the wrong way if you have to get somewhere. Taxis are cheap and know their way around much, much better than you could ever hope to.
It’s OK to get a little bit lit up, especially on the weekends, but slurring and stumbling is considered very bad form. And drinking, of course, leads to …
You will probably be so dehydrated that peeing won’t be much of a problem, but I quickly learned to always scout bathrooms well ahead of time and use them wherever I find them. Best advice: You can always use the "banos" in Sanborns.
Mexico gets up early and stays up late, and it’s noisy: People like things pounding-loud and dazzlingly bright. Those Play-Doh-like silicone earplugs are invaluable.
The Metro is awesome! You can go anywhere for 3 pesos, or about 25 cents. The only trick is that you have to use your tickets the same day you buy them.
Signage in museums and historic sites is non-existent to minimal, and always in Spanish. Before you go anywhere, study up on what you’re going to see, and lug the guidebook along. Be sure to take water, hat and sunscreen for any outdoor activity, even in winter.