By Arlene Larsen / Photos by Thor A. Larsen

Thinking about a vacation in Mexico might conjure images of lying on a white sandy beach, bright sunshine punctuated by warm breezes, a margarita in hand and the sounds of mariachi music in the background.  (However, this image is not our type of vacation.) When we ‘vacation’, we become ‘economic explorers’, desiring to get our monies worth, a bargain in a new venue, a different country, a different culture. In that spirit, we saw a bargain flight ($300) with Mexicana Air from JFK to Mexico City in April, 2010. In addition to the bargain air fare, we found a fine, modestly-priced hotel, the Holiday Inn Zocalo, located in the historic city center, the Zocalo, at a price of $100 a night. After chats with friends who have visited Mexico City and lived in Mexico City, we overcame our apprehension of safety concerns and booked our trip.

Mexico City is an enormous city of over 9 million people, fascinating Aztec anthropological sites to explore, magnificent museums, rich historical and religious buildings and a vast array of art galleries. Sprinkled amongst these renowned tourist attractions are charming parks and public squares filled with blooming magnolias, yellow acacias, purple jacarandas and lush, pink bougainvillea vines, cascading over walls and fences everywhere. The Zocalo is an enormous city square, flanked by the Catedral Metropolitana, considered one of the most significant religious buildings in Latin America, and the beautiful and expansive National Palace, with social and political murals by Diego Rivera.

Although the city appears dauntingly large with many sites seemingly far from city center, Mexico City has an extensive bus and modern subway system (patrolled by rifle-toting guards) as well as a myriad of taxi cabs (most very safe).  A tour of the city in a topless double-decker bus, which allows you to hop on and off all day while providing a running commentary on tape, is a great introduction to this colorful city. Two hundred yards from our hotel, located on the edge of the main Zocalo Square are several mini-bus tours to major tourist sites in and around Mexico City. Our first all-day tour went to the ruins of the very large (8 sq. mile) city, Teotihuacan, built before 1AD, and still features two large pyramids (200 ft), long, wide avenues and remains of very large palaces.  In addition, the tour took us to the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Another day, we found an older gentleman with a taxi who spoke English well and provided us an all-day private tour of important sites in Mexico City (for $100). Included in this private tour was time to explore the quaint, upscale neighborhoods of Coyoacan and San Angell with their cobblestone streets and historic buildings. We especially enjoyed the Saturday arts & crafts market in San Angell’s park and pavilion. Another stop was the former home of Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera containing some of their trade-mark artwork in a charming setting. Our last stop of the day was topped by a ride in a colorfully painted boat on the canals of the Xochimilco Gardens. The famous flower-bedecked ‘punts’ meander these historic canals (once used by the Aztecs) as various local crafts people hawk their wares while mariachi musicians serenade the boaters.

It’s easy to spend a day enjoying Chapultepec Park where many local families come to enjoy boat rides on the lakes, cafes, children’s amusements and museums. The internationally renowned anthropology museum located here should be on top of the list of any visitor.

Although we did not come to Mexico to kick up our heels until the wee hours of the morning, we did enjoy many balmy evenings at dinner on the rooftop restaurants of local hotels overlooking the Zocola square while mariachi musicians entertained us.

Mexico City, while requiring a keen eye and conservative attitude towards safety, offers a wide array of experiences from the Ballet Folklorica (Mexican folk dancers) and the dramatic Aztec ruins to the charming parks plus the warm and friendly people.