In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. We thought contributing editor and Mexico obsessive Brian Healy would have some good ideas for this Mexico City–related query.
Question: I’m spending a few days in Mexico City and would like to get out of the center on a half-day excursion. Any ideas that won’t involve pricey drivers?
Brian Healy: You don’t have to travel long to get away from the central city’s (wonderful) clamor. Using only a single Metro fare – all of five pesos (¢30) – here are two half-day experiences that are as Mexican as they get.
Planning tip: Since Mexico City Metro has done away with paper tickets, you’ll need to visit an electronic kiosk to buy a Tarjeta MI (about $1), which you’ll then top up to pay your fare. (The kiosk can only be found at certain stations, so plan ahead.) The metro system is remarkably clean and efficient, and while there is a visible police presence at major stations, it’s always wise to secure your belongings so as to not tempt pickpockets.
Make a mini pilgrimage to the Basílica de Guadalupe
One of the most sacred places in Latin America is just a few Metro stops away from the Zócalo. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, the Basílica de Guadalupe offers a reverent atmosphere, and the folks you’ll encounter there reflect the dynamism and diversity of Mexican society.
In 1531 on the Cerro del Tepeyac, a young Chichimec convert named Juan Diego experienced visions of the Virgin Mary, whose image became miraculously imprinted on his cloak (tilma). Today, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is a universal religious icon in Mexico and beyond, and her shrine draws the faithful from all over the world.
In the vast Plaza Mariana, groups of pilgrims of all ages – schoolchildren, town associations, disabled people in wheelchairs – line up with banners to process into masses offered hourly in the massive 1970s-era basilica, which can hold up to 40,000 congregants. Inside, the Virgin – as seen on Juan Diego’s tilma itself – presides above the altar. On a lower level (accessed from a side entrance), moving walkways convey visitors directly below the icon, where they can have a closer view by looking up through an opening below the altar just upstairs.
Continue the contemplation by walking the short distance up the hill, where small shrines line a leafy paved pathway to the baroque Capilla del Cerrito. On the way down, additional gardens, churches and chapels offer spaces for further contemplation – and for observing Mexicans of all stations paying their respects to the country’s patroness.
Planning tip: Practice the utmost respect. While visitors of all faiths (or none) are welcome at the basilica, everyone should dignify the site by avoiding skimpy shorts and covering shoulders, and speaking only in hushed whispers.
Go for a float in Xochimilco
For a decidedly more…secular experience, it’s hard to beat an afternoon on the canals of Xochimilco. This reserve in the city’s south suggests what the city might have felt like centuries ago, when a giant lake covered most of Mexico City’s current metro area. But don’t expect tranquility, especially on weekends, for a jaunt in a trajinera – one of the brightly painted, individually named gondolas that ply these waters – promises a raucous afternoon indeed.
A light-rail line (Tren Ligero, which requires another fare and Tarjeta MI tap) runs from the Tasqueña Metro station to a terminus about 25 minutes by foot to Xochimilco’s principal embarcadero, Nuevas Nativitas. Touts will want to guide you toward other, smaller, more expensive launch areas, but stand your ground: at Nuevas Nativitas, hundreds of trajineras are moored side by side, in a riot of color.
Before you board one, you’ll have to negotiate a rate with your captain. On weekdays, you’ll have some leverage; on weekends, when seemingly every family in the region converges on the canals, you’ll likely have to pay the official maximum price of 500 pesos ($28) per hour. Note that this rate is for the entire boat, not per person – which means every friend you invite along will make the excursion cheaper.
As your captain poles the motorless trajinera slowly along, you’ll pass dozens of other crafts. You’ll see cuddling couples, youngsters doing tequila shots to a soundtrack of Bad Bunny and multigenerational groups enjoying quality family time. Boats with mariachi musicians float by (they’ll board your boat to serenade you up close for a few hundred pesos); the cacophony of competing groups sounds surprisingly pleasant. And this tableau of urban leisure is one you’ll find nowhere else in the world.
Planning tip: While food and alcohol vendors will happily paddle over to sell you whatever you need at an outrageous premium, we recommend doing as the Mexicans do and arriving with a pre-packed picnic. Pick up a few cold beers on the walk from the station.
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