By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006
The side streets in downtown Mexico City were so dark that I had to stop at every corner to check the directions to Zinco, a hot jazz club. The friend who recommended the place had warned against walking in the neighborhood after hours, but I didn't want to pass up the chance to visit one of the most popular music venues in town.
A couple of weeks earlier, bombs had blasted three buildings in the city. The attacks, linked to political clashes in the southern state of Oaxaca, were the latest reminder of the general mayhem that has descended on the Mexican capital in recent months. Paseo de la Reforma, a central artery, was the scene of a two-month protest last summer and fall that left some public buildings closed. Just days before my trip last month, Antonio O. Garza Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, posted a letter on the embassy Web site warning of the violence taking place in the capital and other parts of the country.
Street crime also has long plagued this 580-square-mile, traffic-clogged metropolis of more than 20 million residents. The list of crimes encountered by travelers is daunting: pickpocketing, purse snatching, mugging, armed robbery and rape, according to the U.S. State Department's consular information sheet on Mexico. "Instant kidnappings," in which the victims are abducted at gunpoint and forced to empty their bank accounts to pay a ransom, also are common. Even hailing taxis is considered risky.
Is a trip to a place with so many sore spots worth it? And if you go, how best to stay safe? I recently spent a long weekend in the capital trying to find out.Why Go
Mexico City's high-voltage, cosmopolitan vibe is hard to resist -- as are the bargains. At such restaurants as the ultra-chic Aguila y Sol, three superb courses of nouvelle Mexican fare and an exotic cocktail go for $30. Craft markets such as La Ciudadela offer silver jewelry, leather bags and other high-quality handmade goods for a quarter of what they'd cost in the States. At Bar Fly, a trendy club in the Polanco district, revelers can live la vida loca all night -- red-hot tunes, sleek dance moves and all.
To balance these contemporary attractions, an enthralling historical scene awaits: the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Chapultepec Park; the Zocalo, a sweeping, handsome square anchored by a centuries-old cathedral; and San Juan Teotihuacan, an archaeological site easily reachable from the city center.
Still, for a casual traveler, even the city's efforts to keep the ongoing political and drug wars at bay can be a turnoff. Guards armed with automatic weapons are a common sight near public buildings. One sunny afternoon during my visit, a busload of police officers in riot gear started positioning themselves near the Zocalo. They soon dispersed, but the sight was unnerving.
For advice, I turned to several local sources, including hoteliers, U.S. diplomats, taxi drivers, store owners and security experts.
Michael Rock, general manager of the JW Marriott Hotel in the upscale Polanco district, stressed that visitors should study ways to get around the city, since many incidents involve transportation.
Mario González-Román, a retired Foreign Service officer and security specialist who runs Security Corner ( http://www.securitycornermexico.com/), a Web site for expatriates and visitors, offered a list of neighborhoods to avoid.
Oscar Garrido, concierge at the Sheraton Maria Isabel hotel near the Zona Rosa district, recommended craft markets where shoppers are less likely to encounter cheating or petty crime.
"We think that people should visit Mexico City," said an official in the U.S. Embassy who declined to be quoted by name, citing embassy policy. "But they should be fully aware of the potential dangers and take all the precautions they would in any major city."
For three days, I put the recommendations through my own tests, traipsing through markets, riding city buses and Metro trains, navigating rows of vendors along downtown streets and negotiating several neighborhoods in the wee hours.
Of course, as with any urban destination, I also applied common-sense rules: Carry minimal cash and only one credit card, leave the bling at home, keep cameras concealed when not in use and carry yourself as if you know where you're going, even when you're lost.
In addition, I kept the telephone numbers of my hotel, the U.S. Embassy and a local contact with me at all times. Taking the hotel concierge's advice, I used only ATMs that were inside buildings, never those on the street in view of strangers. Although most service personnel in hotels, restaurants and shops speak some English, I found that using Spanish helped me blend in.
As I moved through the city, I kept my danger radar up. It went off frequently. One evening, taking an after-dinner stroll down the tree-lined stretch of the Paseo de la Reforma along the edge of Chapultepec Park, the city's magnificent answer to New York's Central Park, I spotted three men huddled together on an otherwise empty block. In a matter of seconds, I was on the other side of the street.Choosing a Neighborhood
In a city that has at least five major tourist-oriented neighborhoods, start by choosing accommodations near the activities you want to pursue.
Like boutique shopping? Polanco, home to a Rodeo Drive-style stretch of deluxe stores, eateries, nightspots and five-star hotels, is best. If you prefer budget bars and shops, the heavily touristed Zona Rosa will suit you better. Want to see the Zocalo and shop the markets? Try the major tourist hotels along the Paseo de la Reforma, an easy subway or taxi ride away. More of a nightclubber? The smaller boutique hotels in Condesa will put you within walking distance.
All of these districts are walkable and well policed.
Areas to avoid, according to González-Román, the security specialist, are around the airport and central train station, behind the National Palace, and the Garibaldi Square, Pensil, Tepito, Buenos Aires and Santa Julia districts.
After wandering the Zocalo at night, I would add that it, too, is a place to be avoided after dark.
"It's not like you will immediately be mugged or feel unsafe in these places," González-Román said. "But according to statistics, the chances of a mishap are far greater there."Car, Taxi or Subway?
Mapping out the best way to get around will also help hedge against crime. Security experts agree that visitors should not hail taxis -- usually green-and-white Volkswagen bugs that circulate the city -- on the street. They are usually cheaper than other modes of transport, and I hailed a couple, including one on a dark street around midnight, without incident. But in general, given the involvement of a few drivers of unregistered cabs in instant kidnappings, it's risky to flag them down.
Concierges and other hotel staff, unsurprisingly, recommended instead that guests order private cars through the hotels. But the costs of such services quickly escalate. Most hotels charge $70 an hour for a ride between the airport and central hotels and $50 an hour for sightseeing.
"Sitio taxis" are a compromise. They are usually lined up at taxi stands with the name of the company printed on the side of the vehicle. The cabs are metered, and the prices, while higher than street taxis, are fair: The rate from central tourist hotels to the airport averages $15.
At the airport, follow the signs to the official taxi stand, where an agent at a kiosk will determine the rate, based on the zone the hotel is in. The passenger pays the agent, who in turn gives the passenger a coupon to be handed over to the driver. The system, designed to help travelers concerned about taxi crime, works well.
As for the subway, Garrido, the concierge at the Sheraton Maria Isabel, cautioned that the system is rife with pickpockets and purse snatchers. Never use it during rush hour, he warned, adding that the last stop on the No. 3 line, Indios Verdes, is especially dangerous for outsiders.
But I wanted to try it anyway. So at 5 p.m. Friday, I elbowed for a spot on a crowded train as it barreled north from Balderas toward the Indios Verdes station.
As the No. 3 snaked through the city, the crowd grew thicker. Most of the passengers were working-class Mexicans or students. Following their example, I clutched my backpack to my chest. Finally, when the train reached Indios Verdes, the crowd poured out, pulling me along. Out on the street, minibuses and cars were loading up and pulling off. People swarmed around vendors. I turned and went back into the station, moving quickly as if I knew exactly where I was headed.
My conclusion: If you stay alert and guard your belongings, riding the Metro is a good way to get around. It connects most tourist venues, it's user-friendly and, at about 50 cents a trip, it's a good deal. But as in any new city, get a Metro map and study the route before leaving your hotel. Standing in a crowded station easily identifies you as a target. Beggars, who often jostle their way through packed trains, can also be a distraction.After Hours
In Mexico City, as with most major metropolises, the later in the day, the greater the dangers. Still, those who want to jump into the after-hours scene shouldn't fret.
The key to a secure night out is planning. Using guidebooks, concierges and Internet resources, map out your itinerary and decide the most suitable spots to have cocktails, dine and party. In a city where the trendy nightspots are constantly changing, this can be tough. It's a good idea to confirm the safety of your choices with hotel staff.
Sticking to one neighborhood or general area makes it easier. The two best places for dining and nightlife are Polanco and Condesa. The latter neighborhood draws a hip crowd of 20- and 30-somethings. In Polanco, the scene is chic and slightly older. Mexican officials say that street crime here is lower than in other parts of the city.
Once you decide on the venue, make dinner reservations either personally or through your hotel, and arrange transportation in advance. Order a taxi through your hotel or through agencies listed in most guidebooks. For return trips, either have the restaurant or bar call you a taxi, or reserve a private car beforehand.