Mexico City has a highly developed and remarkably cheap public transportation system. It is a shame that the sharp increase in crime and resulting safety concerns have made these less comfortable options for travelers. The Metro, first- and second-class buses, colectivos, and Nissan Tsuru libre taxis will take you anywhere you want to go for very little money -- but visitor warnings about the use of public transportation should be respected. Because sitio taxis (official taxis registered to a specific locale or hotel) are relatively inexpensive and the safest way to travel within the city, you are best off using them.
Taxis operate under several distinct sets of rules.
"Turismo" and Sitio Taxis -- These are by far the safest way to travel within Mexico City. Turismo taxis are unmarked cabs, usually well-kept luxury cars assigned to specific hotels that have special license plates. Although more expensive than the VW Beetle and libre taxis (usually Nissan Tsurus), "turismo" taxis, along with radio-dispatched sitio taxis, are the safest ones to use. The drivers negotiate rates with individual passengers for sightseeing, but rates to and from the airport are established. Ask the bell captain what the airport fare should be, and establish it before taking off. These drivers are often licensed English-speaking guides and can provide exceptional service. In general, expect to pay around 250 pesos per hour for guided service, and about 15% more than metered rates for normal transportation. Often these drivers will wait for you while you shop or dine to take you back to the hotel, or they can be called to come back and pick you up.
Metered Taxis -- Most of the classic green VW Beetle cabs have been phased out but their red counterparts as well as libre cabs provide low-cost service, but for safety reasons, you should not use them. Some sitio taxis (radio taxis, which are safe; tel. 55/5590-3325 or 55/5698-5192) use meters, while others have set rates. I have used Intertaxi (tel. 55/2603-3268). They have a fleet of regular cars that don't appear to be taxis from the outside. This is especially safe if you're traveling late at night, when thieves may see taxis as easy targets. Although you may encounter a gouging driver or one who advances the meter or drives farther than necessary to run up the tab, most service is quick and adequate.
The subway system in Mexico City offers a smooth ride for one of the lowest fares anywhere in the world (5 pesos). Twelve lines crisscross the sprawling city. Each train usually has nine cars. The Metro is open Monday to Friday 5am to midnight, Saturday 6am to midnight, and Sunday 7am to midnight.
As you enter the station, buy a boleto (ticket) at the glass taquilla (ticket booth). Insert your ticket into the slot at the turnstile and pass through; inside you'll see two large signs showing the line's destination (for example, for Line 1, it's Observatorio and Pantitlán). Follow the signs in the direction you want and know where you're going; there is usually only one map of the routes, at the entrance to the station. You'll see two signs everywhere: SALIDA (exit) and ANDENES (platforms). On the train, above each door is a map of the station stops for that line, with symbols and names.
CORRESPONDENCIAS indicates transfer points. The ride is smooth, fast, and efficient (although hot and crowded during rush hours). The beautifully designed stations are clean and have the added attraction of displaying archaeological ruins unearthed during construction. A subterranean passage goes between the Pino Suárez and Zócalo stations, so you can avoid the crowds along Pino Suárez.
The Metro is crowded during the day on weekdays and, consequently, pretty hot and muggy in summer. In fact, you may find it virtually unusable downtown between 4 and 7pm on weekdays, because of sardine-can conditions. At some stations, there are even separate lanes roped off for women and children; the press of the crowd is so great that someone might get molested. Buses, colectivos, and taxis are all heavily used during these hours, less so during off hours (such as 10:30am-noon). Avoid the crowds by traveling during off-peak hours, or simply wait a few minutes for the next train.
Be prepared to do some walking within the Metro system, especially if you transfer lines. Stations are connected by elevated walkways, corridors with shops or museumlike displays, and escalators.
The Subway Skinny -- The Metro system runs Monday to Friday from 5am to midnight, Saturday from 6am to midnight, and Sunday and holidays from 7am to midnight. Baggage larger than a small carry-on is not allowed on the trains. In practice, this means that bulky suitcases or backpacks will make you persona non grata. On an average day, Mexico City's Metro handles more than five million riders -- leaving little room for bags! But in effect, if no one stops you as you enter, you're in.
Watch your bags and your pockets. Metro pickpockets prey on the unwary (especially foreigners) and are very crafty -- on a crowded train, they've been known to empty a fanny pack from the front. Be careful, and carry valuables inside your clothing. Women should avoid traveling alone.
Moving millions of people through this sprawling urban mass is a gargantuan task, but the city officials do a pretty good job of it. Bus stops on the major tourist streets usually have a map posted with the full route description.
Crowding is common during peak hours. The cost is 6 pesos. Although the driver usually has change, try to have exact fare or at least a few coins when you board.
One of the most important bus routes runs between the zócalo and the Auditorio (National Auditorium in Chapultepec Park) or the Observatorio Metro station. The route is Avenida Madero or Cinco de Mayo, Avenida Juárez, and Paseo de la Reforma.
The latest member of the Mexico City transportation family, the Metrobus was first introduced in 2006. These buses run in their own designated lanes up and down Avenida Insurgentes and often travel much faster than surrounding traffic. Most of the stops are designed to be convenient for commuters, but you can use it to access Plaza Tres Culturas from the Tlateloco stop, and the luxurious Reforma 222 shopping plaza near the Hamburgo stop; if you get off at Campeche, you'll be just a short walk from Condesa. To board these buses, purchase a smartcard for 15 pesos, which can be recharged for 5 pesos per trip. These buses are generally cleaner and faster than other forms of transportation but can get just as crowded during peak hours.
Women-Only Buses & Train Cars -- In January 2008, Mexico City designated a number of city buses for women only, distinguished by conspicuous pink placards. The popular program was designed to prevent men from groping female passengers -- a fairly common problem in the capital's crowded public transportation system. Bus drivers are charged with keeping men off of these buses, and their female passengers are delighted. During peak hours, Mexico City's subway system also designates the first three cars for women and children.
Also called peseros or microbuses, these are sedans or minibuses, usually green and gray, that run along major arteries. They pick up and discharge passengers along the route, charge established fares, and provide slightly more comfort and speed than the bus. Cards in the windshield display routes; often a Metro station is the destination. One of the most useful routes for tourists runs from the zócalo along Avenida Juárez, along Reforma to Chapultepec, and back again. Board a colectivo with a sign saying Z&OACUTE;CALO, not VILLA. (The Villa route goes to the Basílica de Guadalupe.) Some of the minibuses on this route have automatic sliding doors -- you don't have to shut them.
As the driver approaches a stop, he may put his hand out the window and hold up one or more fingers. This is the number of passengers he's willing to take on (vacant seats are difficult to see if you're outside the car).
By Tourist Bus
A convenient and popular way to see the city is on one of the red double-decker Turibuses (tel. 55/5133-2488; www.turibus.com.mx), which offer separate circuits in the north and south of the city. Each of the double-decker buses seats 75 and offers audio information in five languages, plus street maps. The buses operate from 9am to 9pm, with unlimited hop-on, hop-off privileges after paying 140 pesos for a day pass (165 pesos weekends). The Chapultepec-Centro Histórico route has 25 stops at major monuments, museums, and neighborhoods along the 35km (22-mile) route, which runs from the National Auditorium to the city center (including the zócalo) and from there to La Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of the Three Cultures), returning via Avenida Reforma toward the posh neighborhood of Polanco and finally to Museo del Niño (Children's Museum). The full circuit takes a little under 3 hours. Another Turibus circuit runs in the city south, taking passengers from La Roma neighborhood south along Avenida Insurgentes to San Angel, Coyoacán, and Tlalpan. Stops include the World Trade Center, Plaza de Torros bullring, Carillo Gil museum, Perisur shopping center, UNAM, and the Frida Kahlo museum, among others. Turibus also offers a route to the pyramids at Teotihuacán.
By Rental Car
If you plan to travel to Puebla or a surrounding area, a rental car might come in handy. However, due to high rates of auto theft, I don't recommend renting a car. Taxis and the Metro also eliminate the risk of getting lost in an unsavory area.
If you must rent, be aware that that the least-expensive rental car is a manual-shift without air-conditioning. The price jump is considerable for automatics with air-conditioning. The safest option is to leave the driving to someone else -- Avis offers chauffeur-driven rental cars at its nine locations in the Mexican capital. The chauffeur is on an 8-hour shift, but the car is available to the customer for 24 hours. For prices and reservations, call Avis (tel. 800/352-7900 in the U.S., or 01-800/288-8888 in Mexico).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.