The bus driver taking us back to Mexico City from the ruins at Teotihuacan looked skeptical when my girlfriend Margaret, noticing we had missed our stop, told him we wanted off.
We were at a red light near an old hospital, a vacant lot, and a line of frowning men stirring shallow cauldrons of bubbling meat at some food carts. As the doors opened for us, the driver said something in Spanish about how the people who were milling around on the sidewalk out there were going to rob us.
“Verdad?” Margaret asked. He didn’t answer, but I took the open doors as a sign that probably nothing too bad would happen. Surely this driver cared enough about goodness and decency to not let two of his follow humans willingly exit his bus onto a corner that he knew to be truly dangerous, right?
I mean, I wouldn’t say the bus driver and I were great friends exactly, but I’m pretty sure the potential was there. I considered our relationship to be about as strong as the ones I have with waiters who I hope like me more than their other customers.
Besides, from my view out the window I didn’t see much of a problem. Yeah, there was litter and traffic and some disheveled people skipping work to chain-smoke cigs against a fence. But that’s like being on Westheimer! Except for the cheaper cigs and significantly looser transportation laws governing where the bus driver was authorized to let us off, I was basically back in Houston. A violent crime befalling my loved one and I would just make me homesick.
Margaret and I got off the bus, casually scanning the landscape for danger. Luckily, a man in a greasy shirt staring at me as he slapped some cauldron meat onto a tortilla was there to calm me down.
“Que tipo de taco es esto?” I asked the man, pointing to a row of small tacos he was setting on a pan.
“Tacos de sesos,” he answered, much more indifferent to my presence at his food cart than I’ve made him out to be in this retelling. I bought two for two pesos each and Googled “sesos” on my phone while I chewed the goopy meat.
“Calf brain,” I read with enthusiasm. Ironically, I’d probably have a foreign parasite munching on my own medulla oblongata by 3 p.m., but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling pretty good. You see, I was on a mission to write “something” about Mexico City, and I had been leaning toward exploring the literary concept of eating enough street food that shitting in a storm drain goes from being a last resort to a clever loophole. The calf brain tacos were giving me confidence that I could pull off an investigation like that.
Still, as Margaret paid 35 pesos for some mango slices and we wondered that maybe fruit cup price gouging was what the bus driver had meant about getting robbed, I suspected the path ahead wouldn’t be totally straightforward.
If you’ve been to Mexico City, then you know what I mean. It’s an overpowering organism growing on top of the haunted ruins of an ancient empire, pushing and pulling everybody and everything inside of it with its crazy fucking chili powder-covered candy tentacles. To have it all is impossible, and even trying to get a decent taste will make you anxious.
I imagine it’s the kind of place that a service like Yelp was made for because it can be so damn overwhelming to figure anything out for yourself. What if you miss an amazing thing you just have to see? What if a really fun activity is right around the next corner and you settle for a slightly less fun activity because you had no idea what else was out there? What if — gasp — you end up going to an inferior Condesa brunch spot?
FOMO is a part of every vacation, but it happens so easily in Mexico City. It’s stressful trying to chill so hard.
Of course, there are dozens of travel articles and expert recommendations that a visitor could easily use to plan their trip from start to finish and keep any of the aforementioned 1 star nightmares from happening. It’s certainly less overwhelming to embrace the simplicity of letting Yelp or online travel articles or even your friends who went to the National Museum of Anthropology one time five years ago make decisions for you.
And don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing bad about relying on the instructions of people who know what they’re talking about. Lord knows we did.
On our first day there, after Margaret used the contents of a taco stand’s free condiment tray as the sole ingredients of a taco she declared to be vegetarian, retreating to internet recommendations seemed like a decent idea. Disturbed customers eating lunch at the stand looked away as she slopped a few spoonfuls of old onions and salsa and peppers mixed with cigarette butts from the tray on the counter into her tortilla. It’d be like going to McDonalds and insisting that several squirts of ketchup pumped straight from the dispenser into your mouth is a healthy meal.
For the purposes of my afternoon mission, however, I knew I’d need to abandon the guidebooks and follow my heart, no matter where that took me. Simply diving into the organism unknown and chronicling what happened to me there was my best shot at writing anything halfway decent about Mexico City — especially if I structured the chaos around eating whatever I saw and also going to this one market where I heard they sold dehydrated viper semen with magical powers by the packet.
Mangos and brain tacos in hand, Margaret and I caught a taxi and set off to buy some dried snake ejaculate. Now, I should note that this market — Mercado de Sonora — was something I’d read about in one of those online articles I just finished bragging I was too good to use, so let me backtrack a little and revise my previous statement: In Mexico City you should just do whatever you want.
Upon arriving at the market, I was pleased to see that I’d stumbled into a two-for-one deal. Not only would I probably be able to find any flavor of viper jiz I wanted at this place, but I could also continue my mission to eat so much street food that I’d poop my pants at the same time. There were a bunch of food stands all around the parking lot as well as some interesting looking street-side restaurants on the side of the market where people were selling enchanted spiritual goods. I knew we had come to the right place.
After Margaret asked a guy where she could throw her 35-peso mango cup away and he pointed to a pile of garbage in the street, we made our way inside.
Everything you could imagine was for sale — kitchen stuff, toys, herbs and spices, portraits of Jesus doing various things — and the crowded aisles were very narrow. Since we had no real idea what we were looking for, we just did the thing that you probably won’t find rated very highly on Yelp but I think everyone should try at least once while they’re in Mexico City.
Yep, get pushed around by the flow of a crowd until you’re barfed out into an area where people are selling dozens of mistreated animals in cages
Jokes aside, this was a sad place for anyone who has even a passing interest in not wanting puppies and kittens and baby alligators to feel bad, and we found an exit as quickly as we could. I tried to do the right thing and take a photo on the way out — the least I could do was turn this factory farm over to the weak liberal outrage of my Instagram followers — but the scarred man with the alligators told me no photos. I’m pretty sure it was the first rule of the market to do whatever Gator Man tells you, so who can blame me for immediately giving up my hero photographer role and pushing my girlfriend out of my way so I could escape?
On the other side of the Sad Animal Zone we stumbled into the Viper Semen Zone. Finally, some good vibes! This is where practitioners of Santeria are selling jewelry and robes and back alley liquor alongside people who are busy practicing their own mysterious spiritual rituals, like hawking occult aerosol sprays and powders to gullible tourists that eliminate gambling addictions and cure unemployment, respectively. (Yes, I purchased both.)
While Margaret went around and pointed at different baskets that old ladies were selling, asking if each one had magical properties, I stocked up on sorcerous tinctures and entrancing elixers that I could use to curse people back home into liking me and doing what I command. This is the Mexico City I had dreamed of!
The items might sound cheesy, but if you’re reading this article as a guide to what you should do in CDMX then the advice I have for is this: You shouldn’t use this article as a guide to what you should do in CDMX, and also go check out the witchcraft section of Mercado de Sonora.
You can find Virgin Mary figurines where Mary’s face has been replaced by a fucking evil skull, scoop up jarred concoctions that will help your ugly ass find love, and of course — stock up on valuable viper semen (it goes great in coffee)! I’d go back tomorrow if I could.
After Margaret and I had filled our bags with bewitched market goods, it was time to focus on scrounging up some more food, so we headed to one of the nearby restaurants. Now an outdoor seafood grill doesn’t really qualify as “street food” necessarily, but like I said before, in Mexico City just forget all your other plans and responsibilities and do whatever sounds best in the moment.
We took a seat and I ordered some fish and octopus tostados as waiters carried other people’s meals out from the kitchen. There was all kinds of food, but the plate that really caught my eye was an octopus that got brought out floating in a soupy broth of its own black ink! Talk about a humiliating way to get served up as lunch.
My no-ink octopus tostado was plain and dignified by comparison, but I wasn’t too bothered about that as I watched a lady slurp down her forbidden dark fluid. I wondered if perhaps there are some things that humans aren’t intended to taste as I picked up my bag full of black magic viper cum. We paid our cuenta and Margaret and I headed to the other food carts at the front of the market where we entered.
In this area, we were able to get some more great food from another guy grilling up another delicious and greasy array of animal parts in a large dish. But while I chowed down on an amazing taco for the fourth or fifth time that afternoon, my eyes grew wide with concern.
It suddenly dawned on me that my total lack of food-writing experience might end up getting in the way of writing a useful article about Mexico City.
All I know about food is if it tastes good or not, and the only ways I know to write about it is to repeat excited announcements like “Amazing!” “Cheap!” “The Best!” and “You should try it!”
But then again, those are pretty much the only words anyone needs to use in an article about Mexico City. It’s the best, the food is amazing, the plane ticket is cheap — you should try it! Maybe you should use this article as a guide to your own CDMX trip, after all.