I arrived in Mexico City in the afternoon of October 24th, 2013 and proceeded to my hostel for the duration of my stay: Hostal La Buena Vida, in the hip neighborhood of La Condesa, about 4-5 km southeast of the main tourist district of Mexico City (the Centro Historico).
I always pre-book my first 2-3 nights of lodgings on a trip, just so I have somewhere to go and drop my backpack upon arrival, and so I don’t have to move said backpack for the first couple of nights. This is most important when jet lag is an issue and you need a bit of time to acclimate (not applicable in this case).
My primary criteria for picking a place to stay in a city I’ve never been to nor seen:
I don’t want to stay in a party hostel ever again if I can help it. I’m not an old fuddy-duddy, but beer bongs and pub crawls with vapid, horny 20-year-olds make me want to puke in more ways than alcohol ever could. I’d prefer to meet travelers a little closer to my age range and experience level, then get drunk with them and act like a 20-year-old. See the difference? Disclosure: the author is 32 years old.
I want to be close to the action, but I don’t want to stay directly IN it (unless we’re talking about a big festival atmosphere like Carnevale, Dia de los Muertos, or Holi, of course!) unless my time is severely limited in that city. Multiple reasons for this:
1. For some inexplicable reason, the food is always both the worst and most expensive in the tourist area in almost every city on planet earth.
2. In the tourist district, service personnel and locals are tired of dealing with an ever-rotating impermanent flock of tourists, so you’ll almost never connect on a meaningful level. Why would anyone extend their hand in friendship or camaraderie? You’ll just leave them like the rest did, boo hoo!
3. Tourist zones are often noisy places, which can affect your quality of sleep. Then again, lodgings in any part of a busy city might have thin walls or windows that don’t close. Read reviews before you book – most negative reviews will mention noise level if it’s a problem. Oh, and bring earplugs along for any trip!
4. Pickpockets, touts and scammers target tourists, and tourists stay in the tourist zone, so the jerks do too.
5. Sometimes staying a little ways outside of the center means a better nightly rate, better value, or both. Not always, but often. Depends on the country you’re in.
Here’s how I pick my first place to stay, in research and execution:
1. Buy a guidebook for the country/city you’re visiting, and review the map for lodgings as they relate to the activities you’d like to pursue. Most big cities have multiple districts that you can stay in, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, from price to accessibility. Pick an AREA that would serve your needs best, so you can start narrowing your search. My guidebook in this case was Lonely Planet Mexico, which did a nice job of delineating the different neighborhoods in Mexico City where a traveler might want to stay. My top contenders were: Centro Historico, Colonia Roma, Zona Rosa, La Condesa.
2. Investigate possible lodging options in the area you’ve selected. If a particular property looks good, note it, and double check current reviews on sites like the following: Tripadvisor.com, Hostelbookers.com, Hostels.com. Sometimes the guidebook’s writeup and the online reviews conflict; sometimes the negative online reviews are worth taking with a grain of salt. Then again, sometimes you find an immediate winner. Cross-referencing can take a bit of time.
3. If you fall in love with a particular place to stay, e-mail them straightaway and ask about availability – most places listed in the guidebook or on the internet will have a command of English (and often additional languages) and will be able to tell you what you need to know. There’s no harm in getting this done early on, but be mindful of stringent cancellation policies if you have to put a credit card down. Also, I prefer to only book 2-3 nights just in case my travel plans change or the property is considerably worse than expected.
4. If NOTHING looks good or if everything is unavailable, start over with a different property or a area of town in mind and repeat. If you come up completely dry on all your picks, start lowering your expectations or raising your budget. And at some point, be willing to just pull the trigger on whatever’s available… or be willing to fly by the seat of your pants upon arrival and investigate lodgings in person upon arrival. Don’t discount the latter option – it’s my usual way of booking rooms while I travel and generally works pretty well, provided that you’re willing to haul your heavy pack around while you get repeatedly turned away from lodgings like a modern Mary and/or Joseph.
Hostal la Buena Vida was spotless and well thought out – head and shoulders above the quality/value of a lot of hostels at which I’ve stayed. Prices at in October 2012 were a little over $20/night for an 8-bed dormitory. The staff was FRIENDLY, the internet WORKED, the hot water was HOT, self-service laundry was (is) available, the hostel is situated close to the metro and plenty of food options, the breakfast was pretty good for a free hostel breakfast, etc etc. And more: they change the sheets for you (daily, I believe), and the beds even have their own throw pillow – both hostel firsts for me. Things don’t always work out quite this well.
La Condesa is a cool neighborhood, too – I can see why people would want to live here. Mixed residential/commercial with wide walking paths under tall shade trees, lots of taquerias for a quick and cheap bite, inviting unique open air bars and cafes, boutiques and shops of curiosities, cool art deco architecture and a nice urban park, and relatively young, somewhat arty residents (mostly affluent, I’m guessing). Gentrified? Maybe a bit. But not in a terribly ugly way.
I spent the remainder of my evening walking through my new neighborhood with no destination in mind.
I had dinner at the taqueria that claims invention of tacos al pastor (“Shepherd’s” tacos) washed them down with an horchata (sweet rice-based drink) and wandered the neighborhood a bit, landing at Parque Mexico, where space was shared between practicing skateboarders, jugglers, packs of runners and happy dogs off their leashes. Parque Mexico was originally designed as the horse racing track of La Condesa de Miravalle (The Countess of Miravalle), herself the namesake of La Condesa.
I retired to Hostal La Buena Vida after dark to find my eight bed dorm completely empty aside from myself. A private room might seem like a blessing, but when you’re traveling solo, it’s nice to meet others with which to interact, share food, see the city.
I was a little lonely, so I did what so many of us do in such a situation – I logged on to the internet.
THUS BEGINS THE TALE OF MY FIRST TRUE “COUCHSURFING” EXPERIENCES.
“What is this ‘Couchsurfing?’” you might ask (I’ve found that many of my friends aren’t aware of this phenomenon). And I’d reply, “Couchsurfing is a social website by which you can host/lodge travelers that are passing through your town, or by which you can request a (free) place to stay with hosts in other cities/towns.” Then, I’d pause thoughtfully and add “It’s a great way to connect in a meaningful with people that you otherwise may never meet.”
“Why would I want to invite a stranger into my home?” you might ask. Or conversely, “Why on earth would I put myself at risk by staying with a complete stranger?” And yeah, these are valid questions – there are a lot of unknowns associated with offering quarter to someone you’ve never met, or asking for a place to stay in the same manner. By hosting or by surfing, both host and surfer take a certain leap of faith. Each is taking a risk.
Do bad things happen via Couchsurfing? Occasionally, yes. Some, far worse than others. But most of the time, no. I’ve never met a traveler that’s had a wholly negative experience. Inconvenient? Sure. But I’ve never overheard stories of physical or sexual assault, robbery, etc – and backpackers talk their asses off in the common room of the hostel.
At its best, Couchsurfing yields new friendships, new connections new shared experiences. It’s less about finding a free place to stay and more about people connecting. It can be a really amazing thing to get this kind of access to new people outside of your usual social circle.
A successful surfing/hosting experience requires a balance, of course:
As a surfer, you need to be flexible – a host’s house is NOT a hotel, and accordingly your experience of surfing at their place may require a little patience or understanding. For example: maybe your host further out of town than you calculated. Maybe their lifestyle is significantly different than yours. Maybe they want to spend every second with you, or maybe they have absolutely no time to show you around and were just nice enough to put you up for a night. OR, maybe they have the poshest pad in town. Who knows, everybody’s different! Your touristic plans will also need to be flexible – if your host is throwing a barbeque, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea for you to shelve your museum visit for another day and hang out (I know what I’d rather do anyway). Et cetera. You get the idea.
As a host, you need to make your guest feel welcome. Sometimes just a couch is enough, but sometimes it’s nice to show your surfer around your city all day! You never know what kind of friendships can emerge from the simple generous act of giving a person a place to crash for a night or two. And it doesn’t cost you anything, either! The cool takeaway from this is that you may end up with a friend worth visiting in another part of the world that owes you a couch and some merriment. Pretty good trade.
I didn’t need a place to stay in Mexico City – I was happy in my hostel, and I can afford $15-20/night (to be clear, some backpackers’ budgets don’t allow for this) in order to have secure lodgings from which I can come and go as I please. Saving a few dollars wasn’t why I tapped into the Couchsurfing network – what I wanted was to meet some new people, especially Mexico D.F. locals, and engage in some activities that weren’t wholly on the tourist trail.
I logged onto Couchsurfing.org on my MacBook Air (yeah, I know this is a little bourgeois for a backpacker, but it’s a blogging and photo processing tool!) and started mining through the profiles of the Couchsurfing denizens of Mexico City the same way I dug for my hostel. I picked four profiles based on the following criteria:
- High rate of response to messages
- Plenty of positive reactions from previous interactions with other Couchsurfers
- Moderate to expert level of English (because my Spanish is poor)
- Shared interests of some sort – or completely different interests, why not?
Then, I sent each of them a variation of a message that looked something like this:
“Hello! I’m 32, from the US and am in Mexico City until Sunday.
I’m traveling solo and have a place to stay in Condesa, but have found the hostel that I’m staying in is completely, completely empty – so I thought it was probably a good time to reach out through CouchSurfing and find the quality of person I was looking for anyway!
I’m not so much looking for an insane party while I’m here as I am good people to meet up with and have dinner, drinks, walk around town, whatever.
I’m a good traveler, but have found that the amount of value that I can get from traipsing around by myself in a city of this size is fairly limited. I need help and insight! I’m very interested in what makes places like this tick, the socioeconomic/geographic dividing lines, stuff like that – ideas that bring a place to life.
I also like live music, dive bars, new people, all that as well – and this town seems to have no short supply of it.
I work in film at home – mostly commercial production work – and travel when I’m not working. This year it’s been 3 months in India, 1 month in Finland, 1 month in Poland/Baltics, and now two weeks in Mexico. It’s been a cool year.
Anyway, you sound like a good person to know – give me a shout if you’ve got some free time over the next few days! If you respond, I’ll try to get back with you Thursday evening when I have internet access again. Thanks and hope to hear from you!”
I didn’t expect much – maybe an email back a week later to the tune of “lo siento guey, I was out of town”. But miraculously, all four of the Couchsurfers I messaged replied within 24 hours and were interested in hanging out. Wow!
I know what some of you are thinking: “So you’re just going to go meet up with people you don’t know, alone, in a foreign city in which you just arrived?” And, uh, the answer is yes.
In the days that followed, I would spend time with three of the four I messaged plus another unrelated Couchsurfer via these three interactions. And yes, it was eventful, and I’ll tell you all about it IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT (or maybe the one after that – Mexico City apparently needs LOTS OF WORDS).
I shut the laptop and the light and set my alarm for a reasonable hour. In the morning of DAY 2, I would set out for the obvious touristic destinations of Mexico City (I like to get this stuff out of the way early), starting at the Zocalo and working my way through the Centro Historico.
Previous Mexico City posts:
No Reason To Go To Mexico
MEXICO CITY 2012: Parte Uno – Seven Days in the Megalopolis