MEXICO CITY — Leaving our bed-and-breakfast on a busy Monday holiday, my husband Tom and I walk a few blocks to a museum where we look for a statue of a Spanish king on a horse. It’s there we are supposed to meet Oskar Sandoval, a volunteer with Mexico City Greeters.
We spend the next five hours together — walking, chatting about everything from immigration to homelessness, sampling ice cream and marveling at the art deco architecture in the 19th century neighborhood of Tabacalera, named for a cigarette factory that now houses an art museum.
Fast-forward to dinner later that evening. An Uber driver drops us off at the home of two locals and members of eatwith.com, a website that follows the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals worldwide — not with a room, but with a shared meal in their home.
For the next three hours, we eat and talk about life in the United States and Mexico. By the next morning, we’re Facebook friends.
It would be easy to feel lost in a place the size of Mexico City. With more than 20 million people, the metropolitan area vies only with São Paulo, Brazil, as the most populous in Latin America. You arrive as a stranger, but with a few well-planned local connections (or just the internet), you don’t have to feel like one.
Three suggestions for an up-close-and-personal visit:
Sign up with a Global Greeter
We found Oskar through the Global Greeters Network, an organization with volunteers in more than 200 destinations worldwide. The greeters aren’t tour guides and they don’t accept tips. Rather, they focus on places that have a personal meaning to them, often hidden treasures away from the usual tourist sites.
Oskar and I began emailing and texting on WhatsApp a week before we left Seattle. When he mentioned that two of Mexico City’s largest newspapers were headquartered in Tabacalera, and that an old-time ice cream shop still made tobacco-flavored treats, I was all in.
Oskar studied English in Vancouver, British Columbia, and earned his degree in history from a public university where tuition is free for those who qualify. In between his volunteer gig with Mexico City Greeters, he does research at a botanical garden to fulfill mandatory public service required of graduates.
We walked by the newspaper offices, the old tobacco factory and the Monument to the Revolution, an arched observation tower built around the remains of a palace planned for Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s president for more than 30 years (1877–80, 1884–1911).
Over a dish of the tobacco-flavored ice cream (surprisingly tasty with maple syrup and strawberries) at La Especial de París, in business since 1921, Oskar explained his reason for volunteering as a greeter.
“When people ask me if Mexico is a dangerous country, I say ‘Yes, it is,’ but it’s not all of the country,” he said. “Mexico City is one of the safest places to be. I want people to feel like they can walk around the city without any problems.”
Eat with a local
We’ve shared dinner and conversation with home cooks in France, Italy and Spain through the meal-sharing website eatwith.com, so I was delighted to come across good reviews for the “Celebrating Mexico” four-course dinner Roberto Escoto and Cristina Unna offer in their home.
With the fee arranged through Eatwith in advance ($48 per person), we felt more like friends invited over for the evening rather than paying guests.
The couple welcomed us into a cozy living room filled with art, antiques and shelves lined with vinyl records, CDs and books.
Roberto, 62, works in recycling and Cristina, 60, runs a cultural center. Both are devoted amateur cooks known to throw paella dinners for 50, and they stage pop-up dinners in Chicago when visiting their daughter.
Roberto mixed margaritas as we chatted with Cristina and their friend Luz, visiting from Cuernavaca. After some get-to-know-you conversation, Cristina and Roberto went to the kitchen, put on aprons and reappeared a few minutes later with platters of quesadillas stuffed with zucchini flowers and mini tortillas filled with refried beans topped with pork and salsa.
Dinner began with a soup made from green tomatillos, followed by Chiles en Nogada, a classic Mexican dish featuring the national colors of green, white and red: a poblano pepper filled with minced pork and a mix of fruit and spices, covered with a creamy walnut sauce.
In her spare time, Cristina makes fruitcakes — 100 every year, which she sells around the holidays. We toasted our new friendship by sharing the first slices of the season.
When it came time for us to go, she wrapped up a few pieces for us to take home, along with a bag of her homemade granola.
Many Americans head to hotels in the Zona Rosa, an area known for its shopping and nightlife. Somewhat scruffier but more authentically Mexican is the Centro Histórico, a 34-block area, home to some of the city’s most elaborate historic monuments, former palaces, traditional restaurants and museums.
Development has come with young entrepreneurs such as David Marino. He and his mother, Rosalie, own Chillout Flats, an urban B&B in a residential building surrounded by bakeries, cafes and chic restaurants.
Over a breakfast of watermelon juice, fresh fruit and eggs, we met guests from Peru, France and other parts of Mexico. David and Rosalie shared tips for getting around, and pointed out their favorite spots for a meal.
Just around the corner was the Cafe de Tacuba, opened in 1912, where mariachis serenade diners enjoying traditional dishes in a dining room decorated with colorful tiles, stained glass and murals.
Down the street was Rosalie’s favorite, Cafe La Pagoda, where locals line up for bargain breakfasts like the $3 plates of huevos divorciados: eggs “separated” by their salsas, one a fiery red, the other a jealous green.
If you go:
Aeroméxico and Delta Air Lines operate non-stop code share flights between Seattle and Mexico City.
Apart from the metro system, Uber is the best way to get around the city. Fares are inexpensive, but vary with the time of day. Most locals use WhatsApp to communicate via text message.
Connecting with locals:
Book a lunch or dinner through eatwith.com. Enter your destination, the dates you are available and the number of people in your party. Select from regularly scheduled meals, or click on “show experiences available on request.” This is how we found our hosts, Cristina and Roberto. Most reservations can be canceled within 24-48 hours at no charge. Payment is made online.
Arrange for a volunteer greeter through the Global Greeter Network. Information on the Mexico City Greeters can be found here. Greeters don’t accept tips, but it’s nice to offer to pay for coffee, lunch or a drink. The organization accepts donations through its website.
Sleep in a bed-and-breakfast, or an Airbnb, provided it’s a room in someone’s actual home as opposed to a commercial apartment. The family-run Chillout Flats is an eight-room B&B on the upper floors of a classic building in the historical center. We paid $65 per night for a large suite, with private bathroom and breakfast.
Ask your friends if they know anyone studying or working in Mexico City. We had dinner our first night with an American friend of a friend who teaches English in the city. He and his Mexican girlfriend met us for dinner, and introduced us to what became our favorite drink, pulque, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.