Mexico City Metro Guide: Complete With Metro Strategy, Silly Stories and Strong Opinions

Believe it or not, your best friend in Mexico City isn’t the lady slinging tacos on the corner. Nope; she’s a close second. Your real best friend is the metro. Because of its sheer size—Mexico City is roughly 270 square miles bigger than New York City—navigating by other means is often impossible. With 12 lines and 195 stations, the metro could seem intimidating from an outsider’s perspective. However, armed with this unofficial guide, you can ride the Mexico City metro with confidence. It will soon be a breeze compared to the daunting task of choosing from the thousands of dining options now at your disposal.

Let’s get you ready.

The process

If you plan to spend more than a few days, I’d pick up a metro card. It’s 20 pesos and saves a lot of headache. You can load it with MXN $120, which is 24 trips (30 on the above-ground metrobus) before you need to reload it. You avoid waiting in a queue every time you want to ride. During peak times, these lines can swell to 50 or more people and take 10-15 minutes because usually only a single window is open.  Save yourself. Buy multiple tickets or get a metro reloadable card.

The metro system is laid out nicely and it’s relatively easy to navigate your way, though there’s sometimes hiccups, as with all good things. For example, some metros only sell tickets at a specific entrance. If you arrive at one of these and the booth is on the other side of the turnstiles, you’ll have to go back up the stairs, go outside and looks across the street for another entrance.

Navigation before you board

Hours of operation:
5am-midnight weekdays
6am-midnight Saturdays
7am-midnight Sundays

Cost: MXN $5 per trip
If you’re under five years old and reading this (it’s possible…), congrats—you ride for free!
Old folks and people with disabilities also ride free

Number of lines: 12

Number of stations: 195

Passengers served (2015): 1.62 billion

Busiest station (2015): Indios Verdes- Line 3; 43 million users

I’d say the navigation is intuitive, but I’ll break it down anyhow. There are 12 lines, each with two distinct directions you can travel (unless you start from one of the endpoints). Each station is represented with a name and a picture.

Each station has a map of the entire system, which admittedly can be a bit overwhelming. But, when you head down a corridor to your platform, you’ll see on the wall another smaller representation of the single line where you’re currently located. This makes it super simple to double check.

The closest line to me is the pink line 1. The two end stations or direcciones are Observatorio to the west, and Pantitlán to the east. There’s 20 stations that run along this line.

GoogleMaps (super easy to plan your route) gives me three metro options. The simplest is one is to go to Insurgentes station, then take the pink line 1 four stops to Salto del Agua station in the direction of Pantitalán. Once I arrive, I walk a bit and I’m there.

There’s huge signs that hang above that indicate which corridor leads to which direction. In my example to Bellas Artes, there’s two signs that indicate dirección Observatorio and dirección Pantitlán.

That’s it. You need a station to start from, a station to arrive, a line two take and a direction.

If all else fails, ask for help. I’ve never not seen police officers inside, so if you’re unsure, you can ask them where you need to go.

The queue and what to do

There are written rules to using the metro in CDMX. More accurately, there’s specific spots on the ground that indicate where to “esperar” and where passengers will “bajarse”. When the metro car approaches, people who want to exit are supposed to be able to get off first, and then the passengers waiting on the platform enter. This is usually the case. It’s basically the same thought for using an elevator. The only difference here is that you can’t control the doors and press the sideways arrows to re-open them.

When you want to enter, you stand on the right or you stand on the left, facing the doors and when the car approaches the platform, the riders exit between you.

Adjust accordingly

In a perfect world, this is how it would work. But since we’re human and we’re often impatient, rude, self-absorbed and sometimes utterly clueless, it often doesn’t go down like this. Instead, the people on the platform jockey for position. The car approaches. The door slides open and the rules go right out the window. People try to flood in without letting anyone off. Pushing ensues. Maybe even a few grunts or stern words are exchanged. But hey, it only cost $0.25 for this! Truly entertainment on a budget.

 

Fun Fact: There’s a museum in the Mixcoac station (line 12) which is dedicated to the history of the metro itself. It’s free, interesting and definitely worth a visit.

 

The queues for entering one of the metro cars can be daunting. Some are reasonably well formed and have an order to them, like the exchange at Tacubaya. Others don’t queue very well, though (looking at you Insurgentes) and assemble in more of beehive formation every few feet along the platform. These stations require you to be a bit more aggressive getting on, because you essentially need to crowd the door and wait for the mob behind you to push you in.

Strategy on the inside

Snaking lines of people waiting to board an orange line train on the Mexico City Metro.

Exchange at Tacubaya station; line 1 with direction towards Pantitlán

Once you’re actually aboard, the real fun begins.

It’s more of a game that’s wrapped inside a method of transportation than anything else. You’re trying to find an uncrowded car, get in quickly, find an empty seat away from people, not touch the nasty handrails, get off the at the right stop and not get pickpocketed. That’s the general strategy at least.

If you’re only going to be on for a few stops, you should pick something near the exit door. That way you can get off quickly before the doors shut. But, here you also have to move out of the way of the people getting on. This is the tricky part. You want to be close enough to exit without having to push through ten people, potentially being unable to exit and missing your stop. But, you want to be far enough away that you don’t have to continually readjust when people exit and new people enter.

As for steadying yourself on the metro, I recommend finding a position where you can lean a bit against a wall, door or rail. The handrails are disgusting, germ-covered, influenza-spreading metal tubes and should only be used when absolutely necessary. The amount of people I’ve seeing licking their fingers or sneezing or picking their nose and then touching the rails is staggering. If you do have to use them—when the train starts and stops abruptly—consider using your sleeve or buying hand sanitizer and using it when you leave the metro station. Or both.

Getting closer

There’s also a chance that you’ll already be aboard when the car stops at a notoriously busy station and ten to fifteen people all flood in at once. Instead of having an easy exit at the next stop, you’re now in the back of the car, smooshed against the glass and will have to snake through the now overcrowded car.

A successful exit strategy

You’re going to want to use a few friendly, yet stern voice when trying to exit the car. Con permiso this dude, con permiso that woman. Or, less correct but more accurate, comper this dude and comper that woman. Basically, you’re just making everyone in your path aware that you’re exiting and that it’d sure be great if they could give you permission to squeeze through them. You can also ask someone if they’re getting off—“¿Tú vas?” with a head nod towards the door works pretty well and can help initiate the movement of the person in your path.

Usually I try to move towards the exit door a stop before my station. Sometimes though you’re in a completely filled car and can’t do this. Then, my advice would be to unleash a fury of those compers a few seconds after the door closes at the station before yours. Most people tend to respect this and find a way to either switch you places or allow you to slip by them.

It’s nothing personal, amigo

Metro Vocabulary:

• taquilla- ticket booth
• andenes- platforms
• entrada- entrance
• salida- exit
• no pase- do not pass
• usted está aquí- you are here

I think the biggest piece of advice I have for a successful exit in a full car is to not be afraid of using a little muscle. I’m not talking about manhandling someone, or even going full extension with your push. Heck you don’t even have to go halfway. Give a slight nudge in the back to the person in front of you. Lean forward. And keep those feet moving. You should note here that this is after you’ve asked the person if they’re getting off at the same stop and they replied affirmatively. Otherwise, it’s just poor etiquette.

Don’t worry about offending people, though. I’ve seen little old (and unassuming) women give a shove that would warrant a yellow card in La Liga. I’ve also seen a single guy, who knew he had to get off at the next super crowded stop, flatten two people from the incoming mob. No, no bromas here. I saw it with my own two eyes. Sweet old lady was on the metro. And the solo rider was on the metrobus. They both knew they wouldn’t make it off without a solid exit play.

If you’ve taken my advice thus far, you’re likely going to be giving and receiving a slight push when you go to exit, so no worries. The metro might be the only place I’ve been in CDMX that seems unfriendly, but this is only because it’s generally understood that when those doors open, it’s every güey for himself.

You shouldn’t get carried away though. Use your manners. Learn enough Spanish to get off the metro—it’s really not that difficult and people are accommodating more often than not.

Avoiding a pickpocket

List of stations on the pink line found at Insurgentes station in the Mexico City Metro.

It sounds silly, thinking of where to stand and trying to plan a “strategy”. But you really don’t want to be that person who realizes she’s getting off at the next stop and now has to shove past a car full of people.

Your strategy also should account for the possibly of someone trying to pickpocket you. I’d wager the number of pickpockets rival the number of tamale vendors and nowhere are they more prevalent than in a crowded metro. A friend from Quebec said she and her boyfriend were entering a metro car when a few “strangers” formed a sort of human bubble around her and tried to direct her with their bodies into a certain spot on the car. Her boyfriend, un chilango, realized what was going on and shoved her and himself through the Red Rover chain and onto the other side of the car. She told me one of the potential thieves, a little old lady (again with these people?) gave her boyfriend “the eye” for having caught onto and ruining her potential theft.

I’ve met tons of people here, both foreign and local, who have been victims of pickpocketing. They often don’t even realize it until they’re halfway home and try to dig out their phone to message someone only to find it isn’t there.

Head on a swivel

Stay alert. Be wary of the people around you. I’d suggest putting all your valuables in one spot. I usually put my wallet and cellphone in one of my front pockets and then put my hand in this pocket. This gives you security over your valuables, while also leaving you one hand to grab a handrail if necessary or jostle past people when it’s your stop.

After using the metro extensively, I’ve never felt unsafe or in danger. As long as you’re not flashing designer watches or bags from a shopping spree, you’ll be alright. I’ve heard worse stories from using taxi cabs in the city in comparison to using the metro. Also worth noting, children and women have the option of using separate cars towards the front. Look for the orange blockade that says, “Solo mujeres y menores de 12 años.”

Odds and ends

After you’ve successfully navigated your line and your stop correctly, you can slow down and take a deep breath. Not for relaxation purposes, but rather the odorous mixture of metro medley that is bound to greet you.

Food

The amount of food that exists in the metro is impressive. They have McDonald’s counters offering ice cream only. They have Domino’s Pizza where it’s not rare to see a family of 20 (seriously, Mexican families are huge) sharing a few pizzas underground. You can buy churros for three pesos. You can buy prepackaged sandwiches, freshly made donuts and giant 1-liter smoothies. All of it seems so enticing. But then you remember where you are and probably want to reconsider.

For a city that has food on almost every corner, I haven’t yet found the urgency nor understood the necessity to chow down in the metro. Take a flight of stairs, people. Eat in the sunlight and the fresh air, away from the noxious cocktail of diesel fumes and day-old hotdogs.

WiFi

One last thing that may get potential arrivals excited is that as of December 3, 2017, line 7 (orange line) offers free WiFi to passengers. You can use it in all of the 14 stations of line 7 and after registering details like your name and email, you have 30 minutes of free access. After that, you can just sign in again. The project plans to continue with Lines 1 and 3 in the future. Fun facts: the project took 14,000 hours of manpower to get it up and running and cost around USD $96M.

Mexico City metro in a nutshell

The Mexico City metro is a beast of system. It’s huge, with almost 200 stops, but with a little knowledge in advance, it’s not that difficult to use with confidence. Just take a look at these people using the metro with confidence—and without pants!—definitely masters of their domain.