Greater Mexico City is a massive metropolis (or is that megalopolis?) of approximately 22,000,000 people, making it the fifth largest city in the world. Combined with the fact that we tend to be given only negative news, a visit might seem rather daunting.
But just when the temperature on the prairies dropped to -30 Celsius (not counting the wind chill), we headed south to Mexico City for certain adventure and discovered an amazing, beautiful, multi-faceted, orderly, cultural, traditional, and cosmopolitan city. Here, you’ll see a little old taco stand or street seller next to a modern sky-scraper.
I’m writing this in two parts because there is just so much to say about Mexico City. In Part 1, I’ll share some thoughts on what is on everyone’s mind - safety.
The first point to remember is that the vast millions of Mexican nationals just want the same as we do - to work and live a safe, quiet and cultural life in which to raise families. They are not out stealing, assaulting, or raping and pillaging the community, so to speak. In fact, we found that, as a whole, they are more polite, respectful, kind, helpful, and warmer than many in our culture, even in a centre the size of Mexico City.
As we explored Mexico City, my mantra became, “They’re really trying”, referring to the initiatives to make the city safe for citizens and travellers alike.
Remember that there are parts of any city, even your own, that you will avoid. Mexico City is no different. Main areas which hold the most interest to travellers (and which are also known to be safe) include Polanco, Centro Historico District, Colonial Cuauhtemoc, Condesa/Roma, and San Angel/Coyoacan/Ciudad Universitaria. The literature, and even locals, are clear which areas in Mexico City are not safe and, as travellers, we probably really have no need to visit - some of these include Iztapalapa, Tepito, Ciudad Neza, and Doctores, or generally speaking, the outlying areas, especially after dark. Don’t tempt fate if you don’t have to. This map from vanDam shows the size of Mexico City, and the main areas of interest to travellers are contained in the black boxes. When you look at Mexico City this way, it becomes much more manageable.
Obviously, organized crime is a real issue. It is important to remember that they do seem more concentrated in certain areas of Mexico. (The Government of Canada clearly identifies areas of Mexico to avoid due to risk – so it's probably wise to avoid them), and this is a topic which Mexico City appears to be working hard to address – maybe not handling it completely but managing it, at least in the central areas known to be safe for residents and travellers.
Reading up, there are over 80,000 police officials in Mexico City alone, in several different layers, including tourism police. In fact, mexiconewsdaily.com reports that although the country was short on police staff in 2021, Mexico City had more than 1.8 officers per 1,000 people which exceeds the international standard for policing. Police, security guard, auxiliary police, and national guard presence was strong in the areas we explored. They are on almost every street corner and outside every bank, museum, bus stop, and historic site. They stand all along the metro platforms. They walk the parks. You’ll see them standing randomly or tucked away on streets. I read somewhere that this heavy police/protection presence was to give a clear warning to 'criminals' to stay out of these areas – or at least that their illicit behaviour would be dealt with. And this presence was not threatening; rather, it was more simply a presence. Our feeling was one of safety rather than threat (or police oppression).
We were impressed by the safety measures on the metro. Mexico City metro is one of the largest and busiest in the world (about 12 lines with almost 200 stations). People stand body to body, and you just avoid from 6:00 to 9:00 - am and pm. As I said, police walk the metro platforms. But the most impressive initiative is the designated women-only or women-with-children train cars which are clearly identified and are reached by clearly marked waiting lanes. Of course, a police person ensures no male enters the lane. (We made the mistake of entering one of the women-and-children-only lanes and were quickly, but politely, pointed in the right direction.)
Another Mexico City initiative that might not have originated for safety purposes is free wifi for all – Wifi Por Todos. This initially arose during Covid to provide free internet so that disadvantaged children could have wifi in order to learn from home when schools were closed (that’s brilliant in itself). There are more than 28,000 (yes, 28,000) free wifi spots in the city which means that you are almost always connected. The safety feature is that the wifi uses the same bandwidth as the many security cameras which also support Safe Streets and Safe Routes programs. It does not gather personal information, but if you share your location, you are easily accessible to emergency personnel who, as I said, are everywhere. The security cameras alone are a great safety feature. You can read up on this at mexicocity.cdmx.gob.mx; ‘Free Wifi:Internet For All’. I was never without wifi during our entire visit.
Further, the efforts made to keep people satisfied and occupied contribute to safety in the long run. There is an abundance of street cleaners, parks workers, garbage collectors, sidewalk sweepers, ticket checkers, and door watchers everywhere. Then there are the numerous beautiful parks and playgrounds, over 150 museums, and a huge zoo (many free or free for nationals on a designated day of the week). We know that busy, employed, and active people in a clean city are happy and contented people who make a city a safe place. We even found a garden for people over 60 years, monitored, of course, by a security guard. That's brilliant.
An interesting article is ‘How Mexico City developed an integrated approach to citizen security’ by Marcela Figuero Franco, apolitical.co). The article outlines efforts such as community engagement (developing education, sports, recreation, and culture and addressing social issues such as addictions and family violence), developing greater police ‘Intelligence’ resources, hiring more (including female) and better police and providing more training, and coordinating police and security institutions.
So those are several key features that Mexico City has put in place to work for the safety of locals and travellers: police presence, metro security, free wifi, security cameras, employment, and community development.
Finally, we can't forget that Mexico City sits in an earthquake zone. The city is really trying to deal with this, too. (Mexico City has a lot to deal with, doesn't it?) All over, you will see green squares with arrows in them and the words "Punto de reunion", a 'reunion space' where you are supposed to go, if you can, hopefully as a safer space during an earthquake and/or to be accounted for after an event. Also, Mexico City has an early warning siren system; and every September 19th, there is an earthquake preparedness drill for everyone. Schools and hotels have regular drills. New codes have been established to build structures that will withstand an earthquake.
So, Mexico City is really trying. The rest of safety is what we should always be doing as travellers in any location: keep your wits and belongings close, stay in reputable areas, be wary of pickpockets, watch for scams such as a person dropping something or spilling something on you to distract you while they steal your belongings, don’t pet that cute kitty or puppy while the owner steals your purse, use a locking cross-shoulder purse or pouch, use only certified taxis or drivers, use only bank ATM’s for withdrawals, don’t flash your possessions, leave your designer stuff at home (not a problem for me!), carry only the minimum of cash/credit cards/ID, don’t give out personal information, don’t tell people where you are staying, drink alcohol sensibly, avoid drug use, watch for traffic . . .
We were impressed with the efforts Mexico City is taking to keep locals and travellers safe. These efforts, combined with smart travel wits, make Mexico City a beautiful and intriguing city to visit. We felt safe our entire stay.
Next up, Part 2 - exploring Mexico City.