Renting a bike in Mexico City

Theoretically, renting a bike in Mexico City as a tourist should be easy. In practice, it’s a bit of a pain (but follow me out). Mexicans with national cards can buy a year pass to ecobici for 400 pesos/21.26USD. As a tourist the rate is 300 pesos/15.95USD per week. In addition the weekly pass needs to get renewed every seven days (surprise!), and that means a trip to the ecobici office and, sometimes, a wait. Of course have an ID (you only need a driver’s license). As tourist it’s still a good deal – see the chart below for comparisons to other cities – but no where as sweet as the year pass. In addition, count on your credit card getting docked for 1500 pesos/79.77 USD for each week. I guess they are protecting themselves in case you turn out to be a criminal with a passport and a desire for the heavy bikes. The deposit is refunded after the rental period is over; our deposits have been returned promptly.

Pedestrians in the bike path One of the first things to practice is using the bell on the handlebars. I put this photo in for Blork, since I know how much he adores pedestrians in bike paths!

You get the treat of lining up with everyone else to get your pass. Unlike polite Canadians your line-companions will be openly annoyed by the long waits, but along with them you too are required to take a written test to prove your extensive knowledge of the traffic laws in the DF. If you’re there when everyone isn’t arguing with each other, you might get some help (and a pass) from the generally friendly staff. Recently they have allowed for an English version of the test, which certainly makes things easier. If you are a normal rider most of the answers are common sense.

ecobici office There are several forms (besides the biking test) that need to be completed and signed; it takes about 15 minutes per person at the counter.

I’m perverse enough that I enjoyed going to the office, at least the first couple of times. After that it gets a little old, and you wish they might at least consider a two week or month pass, so you don’t have to go back repeatedly.

What you can’t complain about, though, is the cost. It’s less than of the cost of other systems, which follows in the pricing in general for public transport: subsidized and affordable from a tourist point of view.

The ecobici bike rental system in Mexico City has stands throughout the core of the city. It’s not everywhere, though, by any means. It is popular and after sounding whiny I have to say that I enjoy using it, and appreciate the bike lanes that are often spacious and well segregated from both pedestrian and car traffic  (the photo above with pedestrians wandering around is on a Saturday afternoon across from the Alamada – a worst case scenario!). Even where there aren’t bike lanes, in my experience if you stick to the interior streets (and not the high speed avenues) riding is not too intimidating if you are attentive and experienced. There’s room and when there isn’t it’s because traffic is stopped, and you can do quite a bit better than everyone else! Don’t even consider going on the high speed streets and avenues.

Bike path on Reforma This is a best-case scenario, but in general the streets are wide enough that ample sized bike paths can co-exist with traffic. This lane isn’t even the main avenue, it’s a service road that runs double-parallel to the main avenue of Reform. It’s a variation on the six-lane highway but with a more workable pedestrian and bike scale to it.

Unlike the Bixi system in Montreal and bike rental systems in many other cities, in the DF there is no way around having the plastic card, so it’s not as friendly to the visitor. But if you are curious about the city and its people, you’ll learn a lot …

How bike rental systems stack up

 Mexico CityMontrealNew York
Year started201020082013
One year subscription400 pesos/21.26 USD (2015)87.00 CAD/62.52USD (2015)149.00 USD (2015)
One week subscription300 pesos/15.95 USD (2015)Not available, 72 hrs for 14.00 CAD/10.06USD (2015)25.00 USD (2015)
Number of rides~9.5 million (2015)3.5 million (2015)~12 million (2014)
Number of subscribers~1 million (2015)38,000 (2015)97,864 (2015)
Number of stations444 (2015)460 (2015)332 (2015)
Number of bikes6,500 (2015)5,200 (2015)6,000 (2015)
Free ride period45 min30 min (1 or 3 day pass)
45 min (other passes)
45 min with annual pass
30 min with others
Additional cost for 2 hour ride45 pesos/2.39USD (2015)12.25 CAD/8.04USD (2015)20.50 USD annual pass (2015)
25.00 USD other passes
Links to websitesecobiciBixiCiti Bike

Table notes: Cost and usage figures are taken (February 2016) from the following sources: Mexico City/ecobici, Montreal/Bixi, stations and bikes from Wikipedia and news reports. Price differences are amplified by the weakness of the peso and the Canadian dollar currently against the USD (Feb 2016). Currently 1USD=18.5 pesos=1.40CAD

Posted in Biking, Mexico, Transit, Travel
Tags: , ,

Pastelerías and bikes

My favorite way to get to know a city is on a bike. But Mexico City is so huge there’s no way – even if you lived here – to know even a fraction of its different neighbourhoods. It is large beyond imagination, and always changing. As a visitor I’m limited to narrow windows – but I’m always curious and travelling around, trying to learn more.

Self-service at the bakery: The typical aluminum tray with tongs. This bakery (Pastelería Ideal) is in the Centro, and well loved. The white red and blue boxes piled on the back wall are broadcast widely, each packed with treasures headed back home. Upstairs is a whole room of wedding cakes, well worth just looking at!

Bikes are great for exploring. With a bike I have freedom to skip over what’s not interesting, and go for whatever has a natural draw, which can often be a surprise – like salsa dancing in a park, an open air market (tianguis), or just simply a beautiful place noticed while passing by.

Preparing for the oven The trays, freshly baked, are set out in the front from which you can make your selections. This bakery (Pastelerías Esperanza) is just south of the Coyoacan metro station and one of my absolute favorites – in any country.

Calories are required for this type of exploration, and pasteries are an ideal way to gain them. We’ve gotten so we have limit how often we stop, picking up an aluminium tray and a pair of tongs, and helping ourselves to fresh goodies. They are straight from the oven and lined up on serving trays. The rotation of what’s there changes day to day and hour to hour.

It’s a wide variety to choose from and they are not at all gloopy sugar-coated white bread. I don’t know the technical description, perhaps someone reading can comment, but they are usually made with a dough that tends toward a cake taste, instead of bread. There are fillings and coatings that are both decorative and subtlety delicious

When you are paying there is a characteristic way of packaging each pastery where it’s put on a type of thin paper (a cross between film wrap and wax) which is doubled over the pastery, the corners held, and the entire assembly spun around serveral times to yield a package with two poney-tails at its top. After that all we need is a cup of coffee. If it’s morning we’ll head to the nearest park to enjoy breakfast and watch the surrounds.

Biking food, required for the day. These are actually of a lightly salted bread with decorative covering.

There will be plenty of time for biking later on.

Posted in Food, Mexico

Media versus reality

As the Aeromexico flight we’re on crosses the US-Mexican border I can feel a tangible change. Up until this invisible line there has been no deviation from a flight path: an arc out of Montreal and then a diagonal line towards Houston. As we cross the border flight attendants wheel a cart down the aisle full of free tequila and fruit juices and in the cockpit the captain curves the plane to the west just south of Matamoros and sets a long, straight bead on the Mexico City airport. It’s a busy airport but we’re not waiting for anyone. He barrels in straight, slapping down at a lot faster than usual and then coming up short after a strong brake. You get a definite impression that he feels this is his place, and so too do our two-hundred or so co-passengers. A few whitish faces to be seen, but most people are coming home, in one sense or another.

Crossing mountains north of Mexico City

Crossing mountains north of Mexico City It’s hard to believe that there could be a village or agricultural land in such a landscape, but you can see both in the river bed near the bend.

I have a friend who lives in Europe who wrote a few days ago to confess embarrassment.  She is helping out with the refugee situation in her country and had inadvertently revealed surprise (to a Beiruti) that Lebanon could possibly have a functioning postal system (it does). I feel a little of the same about myself in Mexico City. I’m embarrassed to look around and see how different the daily life is from the image that forms in my mind reading the press – and I should know better. But I’m going to relax about things pretty quickly. It’s just starting spring here and people are still bundled up – even though as I write it’s 23C. I’m wandering around in a summer-weight clothing and looking, well, a bit dazed.

In Montreal there hasn’t been a ripe plum tomato sighted since late October so suddenly having fresh, ripe fruit and vegetables of every variety is a bit of a shock. These vendors travel up and down the streets calling with speakers.

It’s no wonder I’m in shock. There’s the social shock, being thrown suddenly into a Latin culture. There’s the visual shock, suddenly being surrounded by color and texture. And then there’s just plain pleasure, still shocking, of escaping winter. In Montreal we had been up just after 4am to get to the airport. We drove through the monochrome early morning light to Dorval airport, and were surprised to find we had been beaten to the line-up at the ticket counter by several other early-morning folk. Passing through security we found our plane already at the gate so our worries about inevitable delays subsided …

Getting ready to leave early morning, Dorval airport in Montreal. No snow but cold.

After landing we walked around in the evening light looking for changes in the neighbourhood where we have now stayed four times. Next morning (today) we headed on foot to the office of ecobici. I’ll write more about biking in a later post.  After getting our ecobici cards we went to a restaurant nearby that was packed with families and friends. Happily fed we swiped our new bike cards and headed north towards Reforma to poke around and do some errands.

Proof that we really are good citizens In Mexico City you have to pass a bike exam to get a pass to the rental system. Last year it was in Spanish, this year it’s in English. We both got an A, marked and circled at the top! More about renting bikes in a future post.

Spring really is just starting. The riotous happiness of all the flowers in bloom that’s usually going on in March is only just being hinted at now. I can see, perhaps, how this might be considered “winter” but it’s still warm, there’s lots of light and color, and even a few Jacaranda trees bravely breaking out their blue-magenta blooms.

Good cure for monochrome winters.

Posted in Mexico, Travel

¿Why visit Mexico City?

Please come along!  Visit this vibrant city over the next couple of weeks on this blog, including photos I’ll be taking of Pope Francis’s visit to the city. With millions of people participating, it will be quite an event. Have you been there yourself? Welcome to share your own experiences or comments.

Sunday afternoon public salsa dancing

Sunday afternoon public salsa dancing in the park near the city library.


Mexico City fills to overflowing a huge valley that even just a century ago was mostly a lake. Humans pulled the plug on the water and filled in the lake, spawning a huge city that combines new land butting up to old shoreline and islands. Like Damascus – the city my family came from – it’s an ancient metropolis where you can dig down and find thousands of years of human history. Unlike Damascus, it’s a city I can still go to. I’m attracted to its latin spirit, its vendor calls, colors, food and much more. It’s a place where modernity has asserted itself, but where tradition and history are still the connective tissue.

As a young student in the United States I don’t remember learning more than a paragraph or two about Mexico. The basic lesson was about a bloody Aztec culture the Spanish subdued and then how Americans would be forced to invade and sort things out for the Mexicans, who certainly weren’t capable of doing that on their own. Not much has changed really – the same stereotypes are today propagated by popular media and political discussion. Coming up short is any kind of appreciation for the lives and traditions of the 120 million people who live in Mexico, much less the 21 million who live in the Mexico City (Distrito Federal/DF).

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be posting photographs and writing as a repeat visitor who in some ways feels at home in the DF, and in many ways never will be. I don’t intend to gloss things over – I know it’s a tough city, and in many ways a difficult country to live in. But Mexico gets plenty written about its rough and unpleasant sides. These posts are for the people who ask why I would ever want to go to the DF. They may not be the reasons you would choose the DF for a travel destination, but they are the reasons that I do.

Posted in Mexico, Travel

Blending in while sticking out

I think of myself as having grown up in Vermont, but there was a stint of four years when I also lived in Wallingford, Connecticut. It was the Sixties and Wallingford was a gritty industrial town outside of New Haven. It was home to a lot of Italians and also a big silver company. By the time my parents moved there the silver company was gone, and the Italians were not. What was left was a polluted lake with condoms floating in it, and a poor town with a very rich prep school where my father taught.

Not far outside Wallingford is a town called New Britain. A guy who taught me a lot about photography came from there, where he grew up drag racing Cameros and working on being as offensive to his family as he could be. It was understandable, really. He had gotten drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam, and in the process had developed a severe case of sarcasm and disrespect for the American government, which spilled over into a distaste for his waspy family. He associated his parents with the war, and considering how they had brought him up it probably was not an unfair attitude. In any case, he had gone to Rochester Institute of Technology and was an excellent, if somewhat demented, photographer and he was generous enough to teach me a lot about the craft of printmaking.

Girls in Monte Carlo SS just north of Hartford, CT (1996)

Girls in Monte Carlo SS just north of Hartford, CT (1996)

One of the things that got me about him was always how close he was to physical conflict with people. He spouted loud anti-Semitic views at me, probably figuring that I wouldn’t mind but forgetting I was one of those too. His family was well off, but he had been hurt by the Vietnam experience and you could tell it – his eyes didn’t quite line up and he had a nasty anger that came out, especially when he was stoned – which was often. To him everything was Spics, Jews, Wops and Rag Heads, and all of them were after a part of the country that he owned. Or at least he felt that his family had owned until he got screwed by the government.

In any case, he was five or ten years older than I was and I kept my mouth shut mostly until the end, when (many years later) we got in a big fight over some comments about Rag Heads and that wrapped things up. But one of the lessons I learned, besides photographic printing, was that in order to get along I needed to suppress what ever ethnic background I felt was mine and pretend (as best I could!) that I too grew up drag racing Cameros on the Berlin Turnpike. I hadn’t, though and it always felt a bit off. I had a slant-six Dodge Dart which was a durable and practical car but not exactly on the sporty side.

I spent this morning in the basement of a big hospital getting scanned. I find that Canada is quite different in that there’s a lot of noise about privacy but when you’re in a situation like that you’re thrown in much closer with people who have cancer and other really significant diseases and the doors aren’t closed – you are quite aware of what’s going on around you. So when I had a break of several hours I went to visit a couple of good friends near the hospital and have breakfast with them. They have just adopted a child who brought me dolls and animals and then her pottie, all in a friendly effort which included hugs and even a kiss, which were new for me from her. My friends had adopted her a few months ago, and she came from far away, bringing with her who knows what traumas that were part of her almost four year old history. So looking at her dark, round face as she happily munched on part of a croissant across from me made me feel good, and certainly contrasted with the other end of the day.

My friends are not unusual for Montrealers. In our neighbourhood you see quite a few couples, as well as their children, who are racially and ethnically contrasting. I’m always surprised at how good this makes me feel, and so it’s probably no surprise that when Justin Trudeau was elected and made his announcement about welcoming Syrian refugees it was to some degree solace for the trauma of living through years of the Harper government here, and ethnic jokes and tension in the US.

I like going to Mexico and being in the culture there. I feel a certain bond with the people, even it’s just one sided. I don’t fit in wiht my Syrian and Armenian blood. But until coming to Canada I was used to being in a Rag Head minority, and I think that Mexicans are used to getting constantly judged. Not only in North America, but unfortunately even in their own country where a lot of social position revolves around skin color.

Street scene, Good Friday, Iztapalapa (2015)

People on the street, Iztapalapa (2015)

Posted in Mexico, Social Documentary

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How Many Roads? is a book of photographs by Jonathan Sa'adah, available for order, offering an unglossy but deeply human view of the period from 1968 to 1975 in richly detailed, observant images that have poignant resonance with the present. Ninety-one sepia photographs reproduced with an introduction by Teju Cole, essays by Beth Adams, Hoyt Alverson, and Steven Tozer, and a preface by the photographer.
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