When you’re in it, Mexico City’s network of low-rise neighborhoods can often feel surprisingly tranquil, the city’s size even manageable. It’s only as you work your way toward its ruffled edges, where its newest neighborhoods and satellite cities scale the sides of extinct volcanoes, that the enormity of the place really hits you. Despite the endless sprawl, though, Mexico City is a relatively simple place to escape for a quiet day or, time permitting, even longer. Here are four of my preferred city breaks.
Desierto De Los Leones: hiking, BBQ, mountain biking, laying around in the grass; weekends
Mexico City’s clogged streets turn to curvy, pine-lined roads near the entrance of Desierto de los Leones, a 17th-century convent in the forested hills at the city’s southeastern edge. The park of 4,600 acres was originally a place of meditation and prayer; now, it’s mostly filled with families domingueando—or Sundaying—and mountain bikers taking advantage of beautiful scenery and well-marked trails.
A 45-minute Uber ride from the center of Mexico City, Desierto de los Leones is one of the easiest possible escapes into the city’s rural periphery. I like to go on weekends with my dog, but even without a pet in tow, it’s a great place for a picnic and some easy hikes through ruined dwellings along the trails behind the old convent.
If you’re going with a group—or better yet, know a Chilango with a car—pack up some charcoal and carne for the BBQ pits and throw a picnic at one of the roadside grills on the way to the convent. The best picnic areas are at the back, but to snag one you’ll have to arrive before 10 a.m.
If you don’t have a ride, don’t worry. The way back is a little tricky, but doable. Walk about two and a half miles down the road (about a 30-minute walk, give or take) until you have cellphone service again, which should happen just about when you hit La Venta, a small village at a fork in the road. From there, call an Uber or, if you prefer, a local cab using Cabify. If you don’t have data on your phone, there’s plenty of taxis that cruise the area and places for a quick lunch while you wait for a car.
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Tepoztlan: archeological ruins, ice cream, pulque; weekday, or overnight
Tepoztlan is a pleasant mountain town with some pretty spectacular ice cream, surpassed only by the stunning archeological ruins perched on a steep, jungle-covered hillside at the edge of town. To do Tepoztlan in a day, you’ll need to make your way out of town early. Hop a bus from the Tasqueña bus station, the southern terminus of the Metro’s blue line, or línea 2. The bus company Pullman de Morelos offers service to Tepoztlan every 40 minutes that reach the entrance to town about 90 minutes later. From there, it’s a pleasant 15- to 20-minute walk into the heart of town. Remember where this station is. You’ll return to Mexico City from there.
Stop for a nice breakfast at one of the many charming cafés around the church and main square (Tepoz is a popular place for Mexico City’s bourgeois hippie types to keep vacation homes, so the center is absolutely loaded with cute new-agey spots, all of them more or less the same). Once fortified, mosey through the pretty cobbled backstreets following the signs to the trail-head for the El Tepozteco pyramid.
This hike, though short and not particularly difficult, can be surprisingly steep at times, so you may be surprised to find a clutch of staggering city folk stumble past with liter-size micheladas glued to their hands. On weekdays, you may be lucky enough to have the trail and the pyramid, with its marvelous views over the surrounding cliffs rising dramatically from the valley floor, to yourself.
Once you’ve returned, stop for lunch at a stall in the market called El Telcuil, selling pre-Hispanic (and largely vegetarian) snacks like amaranth soup and fritters made from hibiscus and grasshoppers, followed by a cone of ice cream at Tepoznieves. Finally, find the sole woman in the market selling pulque, the polarizing drink made from fermented agave sap, to reward yourself for the sweaty slog up and back. Catching a bus back the same evening is easy enough, but so is finding a simple hotel or Airbnb for a peaceful night’s rest.
La Marquesa: horseback riding, trout fishing, zorbing (if that’s your thing); best on weekends
Just past the Desierto de los Leones, over the state border from Ciudad de Mexico into the Estado de Mexico, La Marquesa park has, for better and for worse, a little bit of everything, as well as plenty of unspoiled stretches of volcanic alpine terrain for people in search of some much-needed peace and quiet.
Grab your bus ticket at Observatorio, the western terminus for Metro Line 1 (the pink line) and, once on board, remind the driver where you’ll be getting off (say: voy a bajar en La Marquesa). Don’t be surprised when he pulls over and opens the door at the edge of the highway: this is your stop. For best results, bring a cellphone with data and keep an eye on Google Maps. You’ll know you’ve reached the right place when you see a slew of little restaurants advertising quesadillas and trout.
The entrance to La Marquesa—known locally (and sort of ironically) as the “Eco-Park”—is a strange family extravaganza of four-wheeler rentals and zorbing, in which one rolls down a hill in a giant plastic hamster ball. That’s not at all the reason you’re here; it is a good spot to pick up a guide to take you out on horseback into the more pastoral stretches, or to rent a fishing pole to try your luck at one of the lakes scattered among the pines, which are regularly re-stocked with farm-raised trout (you can’t expect total wilderness this close to the largest city in the hemisphere). If you’re lucky, you can take your fish home with you to cook. If not, stop for a lunch of trucha frita, or fried trout, near the Entre Valles fishing pond.
Getting out is easy, too. Just walk back to the highway and wave down one of the Flecha Roja (Red Arrow) buses back to the city. The sign in the windshield should read Observatorio or México.
Parque Los Dinamos: rock climbing; preferably early on weekends
You wouldn’t know it from the looks of it, but this park is still within the borders of Mexico City. This is where the Rio Magdalena runs down out of the Estado de Mexico and into the valley, collecting in small pools that, historically, turned the generators that once powered the capital (hence the park’s name).
Now a protected area, Los Dinamos offers great rock climbing and a few good trails for hiking. At the bottom—where the river’s outflow is pungent, to put it politely—you’ll find the usual assortment of picnic areas and stalls selling antojitos and micheladas, where families gather on the weekends. To get to the quieter and wilder sections of the park, stay in the car until you start seeing stalls selling quesadillas and café de olla, or Mexican spiced coffee. Get down here to access the better walks.
The higher you climb through the park, the cooler and clearer the water becomes. Wear layers and a raincoat; the weather can change quickly and is usually cold. If you’re into rock climbing and carrying a trad rack, you might want to check out the Cuarto Dinamo (or Fourth Dynamo) at the very top of the road. Follow the trail through the woods until you reach the walls at the top. It’s a climb, but the views are worth it: from up here you can see the whole of Mexico City laid out under you, all shrouded in smog, murky as a cup of chocolate atole.
For most day or weekend trips, you’ll likely find yourself using the interstate bus system, leaving from one of the city’s four main bus terminals: Terminal del Norte (North), Tasqueña (South), La TAPO (East), and Observatorio (West). To get a sense of bus schedules and ticket prices, check clickbus.com.mx. For nearby destinations, it’s usually fine to turn up and ask around as buses will leave regularly. If you’re heading farther afield, particularly to popular destinations like Oaxaca, you might want to buy your tickets a few days before your trip to get a better price.