By Special Request: Comparing Mexico City with Los Angeles

I was asked by my friend Chris to compare differences between Los Angeles – my old home – and Mexico City – my new home. A worthy challenge, and an honor – my first blog request!  (Alas, it took me so long to write this up that Chris – a longtime LA resident – finally just came down here to see for himself. Better late than never?)

Before I comment on the differences – of which there are several – I want to point out a few similarities as well. You probably already know that of LA’s roughly 40% Hispanic population, the majority is of Mexican descent. Most of those Mexican-Americans will, if asked, claim to have at least one living relative in Mexico City. As such, “Mexican” food in LA is often similar to what you’ll find on offer in your typical Mexico City restaurant. Sure, no one eats chapulines in LA – and nor do people eat burritos in Mexico City – but tacos al pastor at a low-budget Van Nuys taquería, for instance, are identical to the same-named dish at half-a-dozen quick-service restaurants in my own Mexico City neighborhood. Mole, a delectable spicy chocolate sauce that can adorn baked chicken or turkey, is a regional specialty that comes from Puebla, just two hours from Mexico City by road. I have enjoyed it in both LA and Mexico City (not to mention Puebla), and I couldn’t tell the difference.

The biggest similarity between Mexico City and LA, however, is architectural. That is to say, in the character of certain neighborhoods and communities. Can you guess where the following photos were taken? Mexico DF (Distrito Federal) or LA?

 Santa Fe 11

Interlomas 5

El Angel 6

If you guessed Mexico DF for all of them, you’re right!

Santa Fe (top pic) is Mexico City’s modern business district, built on earthquake-proof land in the far western reaches of el DF. From up high, you might think you’re in Dubai, with freshly-paved highways passing office towers on one side and mega-malls on the other side. But from street level, it seems more like LA’s Century City, with the city’s nicest hotels and tallest buildings. Its aforementioned mall – Centro Comercial Santa Fe – trumps both Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates and LA’s Westfield Century City Mall with seven (!) department stores and up to four levels of high-end retail.

A drive down Paseo de la Herradura into Interlomas (second pic) is like cruising down Sunset Boulevard, or perhaps along any of the canyon roads (Coldwater, Beverly Glen, etc.) that separate West LA from the San Fernando Valley. Many of the city’s richest residents live here, in gated communities with armed guards. Said residents drive BMWs, send their kids to private schools and have their own Mexican maids – much the same as in LA’s hills. Wanna get to Interlomas by public transit? Good luck – the closest metro station is 30 minutes away! Incidentally, while Interlomas is technically part of Mexico City, it is so far from the center that it actually resides in Estado de Mexico and not in Distrito Federal.

Closer to downtown, Paseo de la Reforma (third pic) is a grand thoroughfare built by Maximilian I to connect his castle in Chapultepec with the Centro Histórico. Before Santa Fe rose up to the west, most international companies had their headquarters somewhere along this wide, wide, wide street. A few still do, as do most embassies. (The U.S. embassy occupies an entire city block just east of the Independence Monument, and gaudy anti-tank barricades let any passersby know just which country they are walking by.) The blocks around here look not unlike LA’s Wilshire Boulevard as it passes through Westwood. Both Reforma and Wilshire are noteworthy for having some of the worst traffic in their respective cities – especially Reforma as it heads west towards…wait for it…Santa Fe and Interlomas!


Mexico City resides at about 7,350 feet (2,240 meters) above sea level, in a large valley surrounded by volcanoes. At this altitude, days are usually warm and sunny while winter nights can be downright chilly (though it never snows). Temperate, sea level Los Angeles has similar temps and humidity, although the rainy seasons are reversed. The city’s highlands – namely the San Gabriel Mountains – boast flora and fauna similar to those of Mexico City – a pine tree for every cactus, let’s say. If this sounds like a similarity, the point I’m taking too many words to make is that for as much potential as Mexico City has as a hiker’s paradise, it simply pales (in this regard) when compared to what Greater LA has to offer.

For starters, DF’s most hike-able hills are on the periphery of the city…and it is on the periphery of the city where the most dangerous neighborhoods seem to be. While in LA, the “rich” live in the hills and the “poor” live in the valleys, in Mexico City (and in most of Latin America, in fact), it’s the opposite. Additionally, LA’s trail system is well-marked, and litter is collected regularly. Not so here. It is a good bet that after a Mexico City family leaves a woodland recreation area following an afternoon hike or picnic, they’ll leave several garbage bags worth of trash behind. If there’s an upside to this, it’s that the area’s requisite stray dogs will be in their scavenging glory.

Mexico City and LA have similar sprawl, with both cities surrounded by mountains on at least three sides and with both cities threatening to expand on the other side – if they haven’t done so already. Both cities have all-hours traffic congestion so severe it can make grown men cry…but Mexico City is making greater strides than LA in combating its traffic. The 20 year MTA expansion plan that LA is rolling out includes the controversial “Subway to the Sea” and, perhaps, better access by public transport to LAX. Mexico DF doesn’t have an ocean nearby but last fall opened a 25-km (15.6-mile) subway line (the city’s twelfth!) and has both metro and Metrobúaccess to MEX (Benito Juarez International Airport). Take that, LA! Additionally, Mexico City has four long distance bus terminals, one at each directional point of the compass, and each long distance terminal is well served by neighborhood buses of all sizes.

While we’re talking about sprawl, I thought it worth mentioning that whichever long distance bus terminal you leave from – North, South, East, or West – you can expect another 30-45 minutes of driving through endless (read: ugly) sprawl before even reaching the outer city limits. ¡Chingado!

GringoPotpourri note: I originally included a third point of difference between LA and DF that had to do with the socio-ethnic profiles of the two cities’ Mexican-blooded populations. I decided not to include it as my observations had gotten rather lengthy, and as I felt this insight deserved a blog entry of its own, complete with citations. Some other time, perhaps. 

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

7 thoughts on “By Special Request: Comparing Mexico City with Los Angeles”

  1. Good post and glad you took my request. Before visiting I had always imagined that Mexico City might be something like Los Angeles but more crowded and older. When I got there, that presumption evaporated quickly. I didn’t get to make it to the Polanco area which I suppose is like their version of Beverly Hills, but when I was around the Paseo de la Reforma area I felt like I was in Mid-Wilshire. Beyond that though, the comparison ended. Obviously, L.A. being in the US functions better, you can drink the tapwater(even though it smells and tastes bad) and is cleaner and has sidewalks without foot-eating mystery holes. We lack anything coming close to DF’s centro distric with it’s old-world architecture. We have historic downtown in L.A. but there’s no comparison. We don’t have the great public gathering spaces other than Pershing Square which is a joke compared to Zocalo. L.A. is also a lot more calm and leisurely than Mexican City.

    After being there a few days, I was reminded far more of Bangkok. Both cities are kinda of big, polluted and dirty with a ton of smog. Both are very exciting places that will assault your senses, both have slums as well as posh neighborhoods, often not that far from each other, both have a strong culture and history, amazing architectural sites, great street food and restaurants, cheap, easy to get around, fairly friendly people for such large cities. Not that I’m trying to equate the two, they are obviously too very different experiences, but I did feel some parallels. I definitely see myself coming back to DF again in the future now that know the lay of the land. There’s a ton of stuff I didn’t see like the museum in Chapultepec and the rich areas.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Chris. I like your comment about the “functionality” of LA, which I agree with on most aspects except for traffic. As crazy as Mexico City’s traffic is, there are surprisingly few car accidents.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your time here.

    1. Yes, I thought the drivers overall were pretty decent. I was expecting it to be like a bumper car ride down there but I can’t say I noticed much in the way of terrible driving. And I saw no accidents either.

  3. I loved Mexico City. We had no trouble finding excellent food both times we were there. It was in the mid-2000s, so alas, I’ve forgotten the names of the restaurants. On one trip we had a guide who was a local and an associate from Alaska Airlines–he sent us to the oldest restaurant in the city to get mole.

    OK, so I have a request for you. Well two actually but I’ll start with this one. I was fascinated by the castle and the story of Maximilian and Carlotta–a couple of European aristocrats who got plugged into a country and culture that didn’t want them, and ended up full of holes. (Well, he did. She ended up batty.)

    Is that castle anything more than a tourist attraction to the locals? Do they have strong patriotic feelings about this European occupation and their ability to hold their own against them? Comparing to American nationalism and fervor–what is Mexican patriotism like?

    1. Hola Srta. Snaggler. I’m glad you enjoyed both visits to Mexico City.

      I don’t know that I have enough info for a full-fledged blog entry on the subject, but although the castle is mostly just a tourist attraction for Mexicans, one thing that separates them from their northern neighbors is that – proud or not – they really know their country’s history. Most Mexicans can recite, in order, the names of every Mexican president and name something he is/was famous for.

      Regarding Mexican patriotism vs. American nationalism, most Mexicans I know seem to love their country, warts and all. They declare “¡Viva Mexico!” every 16 September but are never shy to admit that it’s not a perfect place. In the U.S. there are more varied levels of nationalism, with some Americans (I’d put myself in this group) liking many aspects of our country but disliking just as many, and often believing that we got lost somewhere along the way. Other Americans, on the other hand, think of the U.S. as – absolutely – the greatest country on Earth, and are prone to label any dissenting opinions as ultra-liberal claptrap. I don’t know ANY Mexicans who think of Mexico as the greatest country in the world. 🙂

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