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A Comprehensive Guide about Living in Mexico City

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  • Francois Bertrand

    The last InterNations event was just great: I had some very nice chats with fellow expats (even Canadians like me) in Mexico City.

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Life in Mexico City

  • Mexico City is huge and has a population of nine million people, but the cost of living is relatively low. Due to the large population and the city’s location, air pollution is a major problem.
  • Mexico City is not exempt from drug-related problems. Disparity and the unemployment rate are also on the rise. Therefore, choosing the right borough is important.
  • Traffic in Mexico City is unbearable, therefore the city came up with a solution that also tackles air pollution: Hoy no circula.
  • Alternatively it is possible to make use of the efficient public transportation or take a more adventurous pesero ride.

As Big as New York City

Mexico’s capital has long since reached an almost legendary status as a prototypical megacity and is sure to be mentioned in any discussion about the world’s largest cities. Popular guesses and half-truths about the number of people living in Mexico City typically range anywhere from “tens of millions” to “half the country”. The actual number of inhabitants does not quite live up to these exaggerated estimates, but the city’s population of nearly 9 million people is still nothing short of mind-boggling.

As is often the case, however, there is a kernel of truth behind these population myths: Mexico City has one of the largest metropolitan areas in the Americas — on par with New York City in the US and São Paulo in Brazil — and, in fact, one of the largest worldwide, with a total population surpassing a whopping 20 million.

As the city is Mexico’s single most important business hub and center of the media and the government, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most expats in Mexico are living in Mexico City. While exact numbers are hard to come by, it is safe to say that there are sizeable communities to be found living in Mexico City of virtually every nationality from the Americas and Europe, as well as some Asian regions.

Learn Some Spanish, por Favor

Thus, many an expat has chosen life in Mexico City, and chances are that you’ll run into someone who shares your mother tongue. If not, you needn’t worry: English is widely spoken in professional circles, particularly in multinational companies with many expat employees. Nevertheless, you may find it hard to enjoy living in Mexico City to the fullest — or at all, some might argue — if you lack even a basic command of the Spanish language.

Granted, the Spanish spoken by people living in Mexico City differs from that spoken in other parts of the world in terms of both vocabulary and pronunciation. This should not, however, impede communication too much with speakers of other variants. If you already have some understanding of, for instance, castellano as spoken in Spain, you should have no problem communicating with the locals in Mexico City. If, on the other hand, you have to learn the language from scratch, it is probably advisable to attend a school in Mexico, so as to pick up the Mexican variant of Spanish straight away.

The Infinite Entertaining Possibilities

The cultural side of life in Mexico City has been greatly influenced by the city’s past: both Aztec and Catholic rituals have stood the test of time and are thriving, if not in everyday life, at least in the form of countless street festivals. The Secretary of Tourism offers an overview of all notable cultural events around the megacity.

Naturally, Mexico City has much more to offer than just traditional festivals. Whether you are a sports nut, a foodie, or a history buff, living in Mexico City is very unlikely to ever grow dull. As the nation’s largest and most significant city, expectations from visitors and locals are of course very high, but Mexico City is up to the task of satisfying them all.

Affordable Mexico City

Unsurprisingly, living in the capital is more costly than living outside of it. Numbeo, which has a database comparing prices in cities around the world, records that the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center is about 495 USD a month. Outside the city center it would be on average 310 USD a month.

Under certain circumstances, Mexico City can be a very profitable city to live in. For instance, a single ride on the subway costs merely 3 MXN (0,16 USD), and if you do your grocery shopping at the market, you will be able to find fresh, high-quality products without breaking the bank. The dining selection of Mexico City offers something for every taste and budget. On average, a meal in a regular neighborhood amounts to 5 USD. Utilities (water, garbage service, and a reasonable amount of electricity) aren’t expensive either, amounting to around 43 USD a month.

Therefore, how much your living costs in Mexico City will be are really up to you and the way you decide to live. If you choose to live in one of the more fancy boroughs like Polanco, or to shop in luxurious malls, it will not be too easy on your wallet. All in all, as long as you don’t mind taking public transportation, shopping at markets, and not dining in three-star Michelin restaurants, you will be able to live comfortably at a low cost.

In order to get an overview of the average cost of most products and services in Mexico City and to compare them to another city, it is possible to consult the website of Numbeo.

High-Quality Healthcare, Poor-Quality Air

As you might have guessed, Mexico’s capital and largest city is home to some of the finest medical institutions in the country, both in the private and public sector. Your health is in very capable hands here. For a closer look at the public health system in Mexico, please refer to our article on living in Mexico, where you will also find information on how to access the system as an expat.

While life in Mexico City does not pose any particular health hazards by way of local flora and fauna, those of you with respiratory problems might want to think twice about whether Mexico City is actually the right option for relocation. Not only is the city located at an altitude of more than 2,200 meters, but it unfortunately has one of the worst problems with air pollution worldwide.

Crime, Safety, and Health in Mexico City

Mexico’s Drug War

Unlike other Mexican regions, such as Veracruz and Tamaulipas, Mexico City has for a long time had the reputation of being relatively safe from the long drug war affecting the country. Recently, however, Mexico City itself has experienced some violent episodes which seem to be linked to drug cartels. However, the violent episodes are isolated ones, and the chances that you will witness grisly crime scenes are definitely low, especially if you are living in one of the safest boroughs.

Not the Safest City in the World

When it comes to crime and safety, Mexico City has earned quite a poor reputation — and deservedly so, many would argue. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) of the US Department of State considers the crime and safety situation in Mexico City “critical”. According to the OSAC’s latest report on the city,  this assessment is derived from the high prevalence of criminal acts such as armed robberies, kidnappings, credit card fraud, and various street crimes, combined with a relatively low rate of convictions.

Luckily, there is no indication that foreigners and expats are preferred targets of criminals, as is the case in some other expat destinations around the world. This does not mean, however, that you will be safer than everyone else in Mexico City. Crime is a city-wide problem, but your choice of neighborhood is obviously one of the biggest factors when it comes to your personal safety. See our article on moving to Mexico City for more detailed information about the city’s safest neighborhoods.

There’s no guarantee that you won’t be witness to some form of criminal activity during your time abroad in Mexico City. You can, however, prepare. We wholeheartedly recommend reading the full OSAC report on Mexico City, which can be found on their website. Taking their safety advice to heart will go a long way for you.

Mexico City’s Great Divides

Recent studies by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) have shown that the gap between the rich and the poor in Mexico is currently at its highest point in the past 30 years. The average income of the richest 10% of households in Mexico is 26 times higher than the average income of the poorest 10% of households. This is also visible in the capital, where poverty and unemployment are predominant, with a poverty rate of up to 76.2%.

When in Mexico City, it can be quite a shock to see the gigantic difference there is between wealthy neighborhoods and the less affluent ones, which are often separated by just a single street. The former are made up of luxurious, big, and modern houses and buildings, while the character of the latter is quite the opposite.

Transportation in Mexico City

Painful Gridlock for Commuters

As you can surely imagine based purely on the unfathomable size of the population, getting around Mexico City is not always a swift or pleasant affair. In fact, recent reports by Goldman Sachs’ Patrick Archambault and the navigation app Waze classify Mexico City as one of the worst cities in the world for commuters. The sheer number of cars on the streets has all but paralyzed the traffic in Mexico City. A 2012 study even suggested that the near-constant gridlock costs the local and national economy a staggering 2.5 billion USD annually. An estimated average speed of 17 km/h will probably make many an expat think twice about taking their car to work.

The city administration puts a lot of effort into providing efficient and modernized infrastructure for its 20 million residents. However, even with designated bus lanes, a very extensive subway network, and measures such as Hoy No Circula, there is still much work to be done. A sign that things are looking up, however, is the fact that the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) awarded Mexico City with the 2013 Sustainable Transport Award for positive developments in sustainable transportation and urban livability. Highlights were the local Metrobus system and other projects such as the bike-sharing service Ecobici.

Hoy No Circula

Mexico City is located on a plateau almost completely enclosed by mountains and volcanoes, some of which exceed altitudes of 5,000 m. Therefore, the circulation of air — or rather the lack thereof — is highly problematic. The city endures some of the worst smog levels worldwide, as the heavy fumes and emissions become trapped within the mountain belt. This problem is further intensified in winter, when thermal inversion prevents pollution from rising. Air pollution has long been one of the most pressing issues for Mexico City and its inhabitants, with more than 10,000 deaths per year attributed to the poor air quality.

As a means to combat the worsening conditions, city administration came up with a rather simple, yet effective, solution, which has proven quite beneficial for the air quality: Hoy No Circula. The program is in effect from Monday to Saturday, 05:00 to 22:00, and prohibits the use of vehicles based on their license plate. License plates ending in the following digits are not allowed on the roads on the following days:

  • 5 or 6: Monday and the first Saturday of every month
  • 7 or 8: Tuesday and the second Saturday of every month
  • 3 or 4: Wednesday and the third Saturday of every month
  • 1 or 2: Thursday and the fourth Saturday of every month
  • 9 or 0: Friday and the fifth Saturday of every month (if applicable)

The effects of the program are very evident to long-time residents. The air quality has improved significantly from the dismal state it was in during the first half of the 1990s.

Play It Safe on the Metro or Dare to Ride a Pesero?

Mexico City has an extensive public transportation network. You will have the choice between a metro network consisting of twelve lines servicing every corner of the city, bus and trolleybus services, as well as Metrobus, which has recently been expanded with a fourth line. For route planners and additional service information, please see the pages of the respective operators (Spanish only): Sistema de Transporte Colectivo for the metro, Servicio de Transportes Electricos del D.F. for bus and trolleybus, and Metrobus.

Yet another mass transit option is used by many commuters and other passengers. The peseros, Mexico City’s cabs or minibuses, are easily the cheapest and most popular way of getting around town, especially in the parts that are not serviced by any other public transportation systems. These green and grey microbuses operate on fixed lines, picking up and dropping off passengers anywhere along the way. Be warned, however, that peseros are also somewhat accident prone due to self-trained drivers, so expats are often advised against using them. Nevertheless, they are part of daily life in Mexico City, so everyone should experience a ride in a pesero at least once.

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  • Francois Bertrand

    The last InterNations event was just great: I had some very nice chats with fellow expats (even Canadians like me) in Mexico City.

  • Barbara Melington

    With InterNations, we had the chance to find a good bi-lingual school for our children in Mexico. They are gonna grow up as true 'third-culture kids'!

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