In the Danger Zone: Living Like a Local in Mexico

Mexico — By on March 9, 2011 at 2:19 pm

By Nneka Opene
LG Contributor

Mi casa es su casa is the phrase we have all heard but may not have experienced. The Garcia family truly showed me the meaning of that phrase during my stay at their home in Mexico City. They caught a cab to pick me up at the airport at dawn. Then took me to the market early in the morning to get food for breakfast. They also lent me warm clothing, and their only portable heater, as I was ill prepared for the frigid forty degree Fahrenheit nighttimes. Despite the large number of people staying in the modest sized home, the family put me in the largest room with the King size bed all by myself.

My first days weren’t spent sightseeing, rather going door to door with the family so that they could formally present me to the neighborhood. Most guidebooks recommend the same list of sites to see while in Mexico City. Although I managed to visit a few of them, my most memorable moments were spent absorbing the authentic culture, traditions and lessons imparted to me by Natalia’s family. For example, on New Years Eve, we dressed up to eat a fancy dinner at home together. The family prepared Caldo de camarones, a tasty, spicy soup with fresh prawns and vegetables. They also made an enormous pork roast which had to be cooked in a larger oven next door, then carried back to our place by two people! There was plenty of wine, snacks and other side dishes, including twelve sugar covered grapes which we had to eat just after our toast at the stroke of midnight. As the family quickly devoured the grapes, they rushed everyone out of the house for another important tradition. To grab a suitcase then power walk around the block ensuring a year filled with travel and prosperity.

When we returned home, we found a crowd gathered inside. For many, another tradition is caravanning from one house party to the next. Some of the visitors stayed outside, shooting fireworks in the street and hosting a piñata game for all the children. The children were excited to get so much candy, and stay up late. Some of the adults (myself included), acted like children as we ran screaming through the streets from the fireworks. I was sure that someone’s house would burst into flames as I watched rockets explode on neighbors’ balconies, gardens and underneath cars! When I finally went back inside, I realized that I had not eaten all twelve of my grapes, and worried what misfortune might ensue.

The festivities continued on January 5th and 6th to celebrate The Day of the Kings, when many Catholics honor the three Wise Men, who took gifts to Jesus after his birth. On the eve of the holiday, the city streets look like a shopping mall on black Friday, as masses of people scurry to buy pastries and gifts for their children. At bedtime, the children leave a note for the Kings in a shoe under the tree and find gifts by sunup. The bakeries are the most crowded places, apart from the amusement park. Where thousands go to play, eat and have their photo taken with a live depiction of the infamous Nativity scene featuring the Three Kings, hovered over baby Jesus in a manger. I witnessed countless versions of this scene using small figurines outside of nearly every home I passed.

Another family tradition I experienced was sailing along the remnants of the Aztec floating gardens at Xochimilco. Patrons have picnics on their gondolas while floating along the crowded canals. You can pay for a Mariachi band to drift along side your boat and serenade you. There are also gondolas with people peddling snacks, drinks, and other items.

Other areas frequented by tourists are the ancient pre-Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacán. About 25 miles outside of the city, this archeological site was once the largest city in the world, with a population of over 200,000 at its cultural height from 150 – 450 AD. There are two large pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, which can be climbed, and are flanked by smaller pyramids and a temple. I took an hour and a half bus ride with the family to see these mystical relics. Other popular places to visit are deceased iconic artist Frida Khalo’s house, and Paseo de la Reforma, a 15-kilometer long, 60-meter wide road lined by monuments and artwork from Mexico’s history.

I would agree that the history lover should visit Constitution Plaza, (the worlds second largest public square), where they can visit the National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral, and Great Temple museum in one stop.

Not too far away is the Palace of the Fine Arts, and the 44 story Latin American Tower, which hosts a 360º view of the sprawling city. Another favorite is the 2000-acre Chapultepec park. The largest in Mexico, this site is home to three of the cities most important museums, castle, zoo, lake with boat rentals, and even the President’s home.

As one of the largest cities in the world, it could take weeks for a visitor to take in all of the sites to behold in Mexico City. I for one barely scratched the surface. So for the traveler seeking a rich, personal, cultural experience, I would highly recommend staying with a local family. Apart from immersing oneself in the language and eating home cooked food, the visitor can truly relish in the unique cultural traditions that only a local could share.

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  • Sruti says:

    thanks for the post nneka! two of us are visiting mexico city in may for 4 days (this is our first time to mexico & we don’t know spanish). i have a question on your recommendation of staying with a local family. how would i go about doing it? we don’t know anybody in the city. is there a website like couchsurfing that we can use?

  • Mariela says:

    Loved your experience!! The same is with my family. They sleep on the floor while we sleep on their beds. I feel bad but I know they will get insulted if i don’t sleep there. 🙂