Holy guacamole, Mexico City’s metro is a behemoth. Twelve lines, 201 kilometers (almost 125 miles) of track, roughly 1.5 million daily riders. On a normal day I ride the metro anywhere from two to eight times. I should rephrase that to say, I ride it at least twice daily, but seldom have less than one transfer in each direction.
The metro first opened in 1969, with Linea 1 running from Observatorio station in the west to Pantitlán station in the east. The newest line, Linea 12, opened last November (as if to welcome me to my new home). I don’t know if plans exist to lay new track or expand existing routes (expansion is greatly needed) but I know this much: the metro is cheap, efficient, crowded, hot, smelly, safe, and – every once in a great while – fun.
Each line has its own personality. I’ve ridden every line except for Lines A and B, neither of which serve any points of interest for yours truly, and both of which pass through some rather dodgy places. Below is my attempt at capturing what a typical ride is like, using Metro Line 2 as my point of origin. This blog is also an attempt at comedy writing, so if it all sounds a bit too negative I’d remind you that the best comedians are often the most cynical ones. Here goes:
Metro Line 2 (aka the Blue Line) is, as the name suggests, the city’s second-oldest line, and runs in an L-shaped route from Tasqueña in the south to Cuatro Caminos in the northwest. Cuatro Caminos is one of the only metro stations not located in the Distrito Federal. Like much of sprawling Mexico City itself, Cuatro Caminos is located in Estado de México, the “Maryland” to Mexico City’s “Washington, DC.”
Metro Line 2 has 24 stations. I sometimes take it from Cuatro Caminos to my neighborhood if I’m teaching classes in the area. The southbound metro starts here, and once the doors open every seat is taken within five seconds…and there are still 23 stops to go!
Speaking of Cuatro Caminos, the station terminus at the end of Line 2 was called “Toreo” for years, in reference to an adjacent bull ring. Although the bull ring was demolished in 2008 and the station name changed well before that date, most regional buses still use the name “Toreo” on destination placards. Most Chilangos, in fact, still call the station by its old name. Imagine my confusion the first time someone told me to catch the bus from “Metro Toreo.” Where the chingado is that?!
Cuatro Caminos/Toreo hosts a sprawling paradero, or local bus station, with combis and peseros taking passengers to/from here and various destinations in northwest Mexico City or nearby Estado de México. Other terminus stations along various routes have similar bus depots, but the paradero at Cuatro Caminos is the most impressive. Impressive because of the myriad destinations it serves. Impressive because of the sheer number of passengers connecting here. Impressive because of the size of its rats. Impressive because of the overpowering smell of food, garbage, and body odor. Oh yes. Madre de Dios, yes.
Whereas most metro lines have several cars that are “connected” but not open for riders to freely pass from car to car, Line 2 was given new cars a few years ago that allow for what is, essentially, one long cabin. (If you’ve ridden the ultra-modern MTR in Singapore or Hong Kong, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) The spaces between cars are converted into passageways via reinforced rubber connectors that rotate as the tracks curve. You can actually stand safely on these rubber connectors without fear of getting sucked out into the void. The seats are one long bench on each side. However, they lack any sort of friction-inducing plastic padding, so if you wear any pants that are not made of denim, you’re sure to slide from side to side as the train starts and stops. A great way to get to know the person sitting next to you, perhaps?
Metro Line 2 has the most interesting people watching by far. More hawkers pass through these cars than – I’d venture – every other line combined. It’s not uncommon to see three in each car – one in the middle and two at each end, plus two more waiting in the wings – each selling something different. These days it is bootleg mix CDs, but you can also buy Velcro wrist wallets, flashlights, coloring books, recipe books, etc. Having observed the sales trends, methinks butterfly stickers will soon outsell CDs. (¡Es la verdad!) More annoying are the street kids who crawl from car-to-car on their hands and knees, “offering” to polish your shoes with a dirty rag. I witnessed them attempt to clean the white sneakers of a commuter. The man’s shoes were immediately blackened with dirt (they were clean before), but that didn’t stop the urchins from insisting on a tip. Before I end this paragraph, I should add that I purchased one of those mix CDs – 50 gold classics for just ten pesos – and it was a damn good way to spend 85 U.S. cents. Don’t judge me.
Yesterday, I witnessed a magic show on my ride to work. I initially rolled my eyes at the sight of yet another busker setting up his card table, but when the other vendors saw what was on deck and cleared out of there, I began to suspect I might have to part with some hard-earned coinage. (I’m not a Scrooge; if they entertain me I’ll drop a coin or two in their cup.)
I was floored. The “Subway Magician,” as I shall forever call him, made his card table levitate. With a flick of the wrist, he made playing cards spin like helicopter rotors in thin air. He turned a steel walking stick into a multi-colored handkerchief scarf. He stumped us all with the classic disappearing, reappearing ball trick. How do magicians do that, really? (Don’t tell me; I don’t really wanna know.)
Metro Line 2 can be hell if it’s raining outside. Several stations along the south end of the route run on ground level, and the track through this area is exposed to the elements. Line 2 had a braking accident one rainy afternoon several years ago, and ever since then has been mandated by the government to run at a snail’s pace – if at all – when it is raining. It rains most evenings or afternoons in the summer, and if I’m returning home via Line 2, I’ll check the weather before boarding or else find an alternative route. Not that the other lines are much better, mind you….
Leaving Cuatro Caminos, the first transfer station is Tacuba, just two stops down the line. Here, Metro Line 7 runs north-to-south, from El Rosario to Barranca del Muerto (literally, “Canyon of Death”). Line 7 – the Orange Line – was built deep, deep, deep underground, during the height of the Cold War. As such, its stations can theoretically double as fallout shelters. What this means, so deep beneath the surface of the earth and with so many riders, is that Line 7 platforms are usually saunas…and odorific saunas at that.
The next transfer point is at Hidalgo, another seven stations down the track. Here, Metro Line 3 (aka the Olive Green Line) runs from Indios Verdes in the north to Universidad in the south. This is a no-nonsense metro line, granting access to several points of interest including Coyoacán, San Ángel, Casa del Gringo, and Tlatelolco and La Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Mexico City’s UNAM is a massive university campus, and has two of its own metro stations on this line. Line 3 is always crowded, and for my money Hidalgo station is the busiest in the entire system. Try passing through here at rush hour on a typical weekday. Better yet…don’t.
One station further along Line 2’s route and we reach another transfer point: Bellas Artes. Here, Metro Line 8 (the Dark Green Line) passes beneath on a northwest-southeast angle. Line 8 begins just north of here, at Garibaldi/Lagunilla station, and eventually terminates at Constitución de 1917. I’ve only ridden Line 8 twice; I’d generally advise against it, as most stations exit to suspect neighborhoods. Mexico City’s metro is probably the safest public place in the entire city; the same can’t be said for some of the neighborhoods outside its station exits.
Line 2 passes three more stations including Zócalo, always a hub of excitement as this is the geographical, historical, cultural, and political center of Mexico City. One station past Zócalo is Pino Suárez, transfer point for Metro Line 1, aka the Pink Line. Pino Suárez estación was the first transfer station in the city’s metro system, and it subsists today as a fully-functioning mini-city. This station has a surplus of bookstores, pizza chains, a mini-cinema (!), and its own Aztec pyramid, an altar dedicated to the god Ehécatl. (The pyramid is open to the street level above, and is pictured on station logos in place of a silhouette of José Maria Pino Suárez, one of Mexico’s turn-of-the-century vice presidents. No way, José.)
After Pino Suárez, the Blue Line ascends to street level and races between two directions of traffic on Calzada de Tlalpan, one of the city’s main north-south thoroughfares. Assuming it isn’t raining, the train will be going at enough speed that you probably won’t have a chance to spot the myriad ladyboys and prostitutes flaunting their wares along Tlalpan. The next stop of note is Chabacano, a three-line transfer station that connects Line 2 with the aforementioned Line 8 as well as with the efficient Brown Line, Line 9. From Chabacano, it’s just four more stops on Metro Line 2 to Nativitas, where I often disembark, being sure to wave at the hookers I pass along the way. Some of them have seen better days.
On occasion, my ultimate destination may be further west. If so, I’ll transfer at Ermita, where Metro Line 12, the Gold Line, crosses. Metro Line 12 is less than a year old, and is spotlessly clean. TVs are mounted in every car, and there is nary a hawker in sight. Let’s hope it stays that way. By the way, the transfer corridor between Lines 2 and 12 is so labyrinthine that it seldom takes less than 10 minutes to connect; expect no fewer than five flights of stairs!
If I’m meeting Pamela or catching a bus south to, say, Acapulco, I’ll remain on board Metro Line 2 until reaching Tasqueña, just two stations past Ermita. I’m usually exhausted by this point, as the metro has been packed ever since the doors opened at Cuatro Caminos <cough cough>”Toreo”<cough cough> roughly 40 minutes ago. By now several dozen hawkers have barked at me, and I’m feeling quite beat up. I can only imagine how they feel. Metro Line 2 terminates at Tasqueña, but riders bound for Xochimilco or other points south can pick up the tren ligero (light rail) at Tasqueña for another 30+ minutes of southbound travel. Can you imagine doing this every day?!
Closing Thoughts and Pics
What I’ve just described is a single Point A-to-Point B journey on the Mexico City metro, complete with color commentary. If the metro was expanded to parallel commuting patterns – say, for example, to run further west to Santa Fe – it would be better. If the frequencies were increased a bit to accommodate the crowds – especially on Lines 7 and 12 – it would be better still. Realistically, there probably isn’t much that can be done to cut back on the hawkers or on the surplus of food stalls around most station exits. The police occasionally chase these poor – and mostly honest – people away, but it’s seldom longer than six weeks before they gradually start returning, a few stalls at a time. I’ve seen it happen.
I love Mexico City and I mostly love its metro – but I guess it’s the kind of love that one has for a puppy who is teething and not yet potty trained, and who chews your favorite pair of slippers before shitting on the carpet while you’re out at work – it’s a real, try-your-patience-on-a-daily-basis kind of love.
I highly recommend hopping on board.
A few pics of the Mexico City metro in all its, erm, glory:
Above pic: Commuters scurrying through Tacubaya station. Note the background murals, including the mural of Lake Texcoco and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán.
Below pic: Schoolgirls mugging in front of a giant Olmec cabeza at Panteones station.
Above pic: Platform and incoming train at Zapata station of Line 12, the newest, cleanest metro line.
Below pic: Aztec altar at Pino Suárez station. Note the Christmas market at street level and the maguey plants in the foreground. Maguey is used to make pulque, a rather potent beverage unique to central Mexico.