How to use Mexico City's Underground System (AKA "El Metro")
What is a Chilango?
"Chilango" is the name used by people outside Mexico City when refering to the city's inhabitants.
It was pejorative at the beginning (a lot of jokes were made about Chilangos) but Chilangos have sort of taken the name as an affirmation of their identity.
Because it is very cheap and because navigating a city like Mexico can be difficult in the surface (lot of traffic, no parking spots, bad neighborhoods, etc) a lot of people from different backgrounds prefer using the metro to move around.
You will see people dressed in suits and blue collar workers, poor and middle class, housewives with children, students, nice looking people and really creepy people, the clean and the smelly, the young and old, locals and foreigners, and all sorts of urban tribes and subcultures.
Furthermore, the subway system has a unique flavor because a lot of city life happens underground. You have food stands, neighborhood billboards, shops and services, internet areas (for free!), art and even theatre plays. If you want to see raw Chilango culture, this is as real as it gets!
People going into Station Zocalo
But using Mexico City´s subway can be an overwhelming experience. An average of more than four million people commute every day using its huge maze of interconnected lines and underground corridors. And it can get really hot in the summer.
If you don't like crowded places - avoid it at rush hours.
A lot of walking is involved and it is highly probable you'll have to use the stairs (there are lots of them). If you hate walking, avoid changing metro lines, some corridors are really long.
That being said, it is not hard to understand how it works and it is really really cheap. Here is what you need to know:
The price is right!
The price for using the subway is ridiculously low. It costs MXP $3.00 which is around USD $ 0.25. Yes, that’s right: a quarter of a US dollar! - it is subsidized by the government.
If you take into account that once inside you can do multiple transfers and that using the subway you can get close to almost any place in the city, it’s an incredible deal.
Paying for your ride:
You can use either a ticket or a prepaid card (also used for Metrobus).
You will find turnstiles right at the entrance, where you insert the ticket or place your card next to a reading device that will discount the fare from the card.
If you put a ticket in the turnstile keeps it, you don’t need it to exit the metro.
What size is Mexico's city subway anyway?
With more than 200 kilometers, it’s the 9th longest of the world, the busiest in Latin America, and second busiest in the continent (after New York City’s subway which holds the first place.)
It opened in 1969 with lines 1,2 and 3, when Mexico’s city had a relatively small population of 7 million people. Now, it has grown to have 12 lines and it services a metropolis so big that has more people than some countries (more than 22 million).
It has underground, superficial and elevated segments, 195 stations and 44 of these are transfer stations.
In year 2102 it transported more a total of 1,608, 865,177 people and traveled 42,087,784.92 KM according to their own statistics.
Ticket Booths and Card Recharging Machines
Stations have at least one, staffed ticket booth. They are located in the middle of the station and usually you can get to the ticket booth by any entrance. However there are some entry points that don’t have access to a ticket booth but they will let you know with a big sign over the entrance. What to do? Go back outside and look across the street, chances are you will find another entry point that will give you access to the booth.
In the booth you can buy tickets and the rechargeable card (however I have noticed lately that some booths have a sign saying they don’t have cards).
If you choose the rechargeable card, the plastic costs MXP 10.00 (around USD $0.75) and you will find self-service electronic recharge machines in most stations just before the turnstiles. You insert the card, chose the option “Recargar” and then insert money (coins and bills are accepted) – the minimum amount to charge is the cost of one ride ($3.00 pesos).
People with disability and over 60 years old are entitled to ride for free in the subway. However, you have to get first a “Tarjeta de Cortesía” (an intelligent courtesy card) with the Metro administration.
Turnstiles at Bellas Artes Subway Station
An advice if you are buying tickets: Get all the tickets you expect to use in the day (or week). This will save you precious time and tickets are so inexpensive that you won’t regret giving them away after your last ride if you are left with any.
By the way: If the ticket seller hasn’t arrived, or if the turnstiles are malfunctioning. Don’t worry, you won’t be stalled. The policeman will open a service door and let everybody in for free. With so many commuters relying in the subway for transportation, stopping the flow of people would really disrupt the subway’s operations, and even the whole city can be affected.
If you arrive late at night to a bus station or to the airport and you don’t want to pay for the cab service sold inside the premises, it is safer to stay there for a few hours and wait for the subway to open. I’ve done this a couple of times and I can assure you: you won’t be the only one doing this, you’ll see that when you arrive to the station: long lines to purchase tickets at 5:00 am!
So, don’t rush, wait until the sun is up.
And by the way, NEVER take a cab in the street outside these places, half of cabs around these areas are not legal and some are there specifically preying on tourists and out of town folks (and not just to overcharge I am afraid - it can be really dangerous).
The subway working days and hours:
The Metro works every day of the year. Working hours are as follows:
Working days from 5:00 to 24:00.
Saturdays 6:00 to 24:00
Sundays and Holidays: 7:00 to 24:00
Understanding the Metro signs and images
- Each of the twelve lines is identified by a different color and a number (1 to 12). So you have line 1 which is pink, line 2 is blue, line 3 is green and so forth.
The 12 lines can also be identified by the names of its endpoint stations: e.g. Line 3, the green one, is also known as the Universidad – Indios Verdes line.
- When you go inside a station, unless it is and endpoint station you have to take it in “dirección a . . .” which mean in direction to any of the two endpoint stations. You use the name of the endpoint station as a reference.
So the usual when asking direction is that people will tell you, take the “green line” or “line 3” “dirección a Indios Verdes” to the “Coyoacán” station.
It means that when you go inside line 3 (the green line) you have to take the train in the "andenes" (tracks) that say “Dirección Indios Verdes” (as opposed to the endpoint station Universidad) and get off in station Coyoacán (the one with a Coyotte pictogram).
In most stations, after you pass the turnstile you can chose any direction, walk to another line (transfer stations), and even go back if you passed your station without any additional charge. I find this awesome, because in other city's subways you need to get in the right entrance to take a specific line (like New York's) or you are charged depending on the stations you will cover (like Madrid's).
That being said, there are a few exceptions to this rule where you have to enter the "right side" before crossing the turnstiles. Unfortunately I don't know them all but Hidalgo station is one, and I also had this problem at the endpoint of one of the surface lines (I don't remember which one now). So keep this in mind.
Subway System Map on Every Station (Sorry for the crappy picture)
- Each station has a short name and a square pictographic image representative of either a related name, neighborhood or a landmark in the area. The color of this pictogram for the station is the same of the line it belongs to.
- Transfer stations that join lines are displayed in the two, three or even four colors of the lines that you can access from them.
- In each station you will find a map with all the lines and intersections, like the one next to this text. If you like you can also check the Metro’s interactive map (link at the bottom), where you can also search individual stations.
- As I mentioned before, the stations take the color of the line they are in. This is shown everywhere with an upper band or "ribbon".
- For transfer stations, they will change color once you change line. So you know you are in the right path when changing line blue to line yellow by looking at these ribbons.
Viveros Station / Human Rights
The idea behind the pictograms is to make life easier to everybody. So if you don’t know how to read (this still happens in Mexico) and someone tells you to go to the “Chabacano” (apricot) station, you can look for the image of the fruit. The same if you are a foreigner, you can look for the station with the “duck” or with the “ship” instead of reading in a languague you may find difficult.
- Most maps of the city (if not all) includes all the Subway and now the Metrobus Stations, so if you look a map you can easily find the nearest station. (Look for the pictogram of the station or the name of the station next to the metro’s “m” logo – which was designed to look like a subway car).
- Most businesses, government offices, stores and organizations usually include the nearest metro station listed next to their addresses.
- In every station you can consult a sign with the line's stations. (Check out the picture beneath this text). These are very helpful because they show you the station you are in (marked with an arrow "usted está aquí" -"you are here"), and all the stations in both directions (to the two endpoints of the line).
- You can also consult this information inside each subway car.
- Inside the cars you will hear the next station name when you are approaching them.
Stations on Line 1, the pink, Pantitlán - Observatorio Line
The longest permanent exposition of the world
Station La Raza has a huge transfer corridor with the longest permanent exposition in the world "Tunel de la Ciencia" which by itself has a length of over 600 meters. They display pictures and video of cientific themes like space, animals, microscopic elements, fractals, etc for the people that is transfering to the other line.
You will probably have to use this transfer if you are going to the North Bus Station.
Taking long walks in the subway
“What the hell are you talking about? I’m taking the subway because I don’t want to walk.” You may say.
Well, consider yourself warned, you may be faced with several minutes of walking, without even leaving the subway station.
The usual way to change sides inside a station is by stairs that goes under the tracks, so you probably have to use these at least once.
Also, when changing lines corridors can be really really long and the truth is that although there are lots of electric stairs, they do not function all the time and they are not present everywhere.
Remember that this is a massive metropolis and block sizes are larger than they look. So you may need to walk a lot after going out so try to get out in the right exit.
There are neighborhood maps in the exits of all stations and in the middle of transit stations. These are extra helpful, spend some time chosing your exit. Remember that in a transit station you may be in the pink side, but the best exit can be in the blue side.
You have usually at least a choice to exit either side of the street. Some times it is a four lane street and it doesn't really matter wich side you choose, and sometimes it is an intersection where two or more boulevards and avenues intersect so crossing to the other side involves waiting for a lot of traffic lights and/or using several bridges.
You may also like:
- Exploring the Back Roads of Mexico: Great Things to See while Using Mexico City's Underground System.
- Urban Legends: 5 Ghost Stories in Mexico City's Underground.
Travelling with Children
If you are going to bring your children, it is important to have a plan if you get separated.
It is safer to remain inside, so instruct them not to get nervous, never leave the premises and remain in places with people around, specially other families. Never leave with strangers offering help even if they have a uniform.
Avoid rush hours.
Also, if several family or friends are going together it is good to form couples of older and younger kids to watch over each other.
If you are a big group, before you take a train or you start moving through a long corridor, count your numbers.
If you get separated when getting on or off the train:
This is the strategy that my family had when I was growing up. It is not the only one but it is effective enough.
- Either if the adult gets out and the kid stays in the train or the other way around, the kid is going to wait for the adult come looking for him/her.
- If the kid didn't exit the train and the adult did, the kid must get down the train as soon as he/she can (usually the next stop, but it can be tricky if there's too much people).
- After getting down the train, the kid must stay in the track in an area all of you have agreed in advance. It can be just where they got down or next to a specific entrance but this must be really clear (there are always three or more entrances to the tracks, one in the middle, one in the beginning and one the end of the track - the beginning and the end are less crowded). They must put their backs to the wall so they won't be pushed around.
- The parent will go to the kid, either returning to the station the kid got down or going in the direction the kid went (remember once inside you can get on and off the train as much as you like). The parent will look for the kid in the agreed place, by taking the traincar at that point and going out in each station until finding the kid.
- The kid should never attempt to go back or move to the final destination (unless you have kids old and savy enough and you all have agreed on this).
- Now that cell phones exist and kids know so well how to use them, tell them to look at the name of the station they are and text it to your cellphone to make things quickier.
If you get sepparated inside a corridor or a transit station:
- If it is just a corridor, the plan will be to keep moving and wait / join the family where the corridor ends (if much people is moving it is difficult to wait in the middle).
- If it is trickier than that, like getting lost in a transfer station where several corridors intersect, and you don't know where you got lost agree to meet in the ticket booth.
- Agree on a time frame to wait for each other and when to ask the guards / police for help.
Safety, Security and Health Issues
The subway is safer than other public transportation system in the city. It is possible to be the victim of a pickpocketer or the occasional groper but it is very unlikely to be the victim of a darker crime.
Take these considerations (which also apply to any other place in the city, really):
- Do not wear flashy jewelry, bags, electronic devices or clothes. Remove your watch, jewelry and other valuable looking stuff before going into the subway and put them back on when you are in a safe place.
- Do not keep your wallet or other valuables in your back pockets or other easily accessible places. I believe the best pockets to carry stuff are deep in your front pockets in your pants or skirt and the inside pockets of a zippered or buttoned jacket.
- If it is rush hour, you will be crammed and physically touching (and getting touched by) other people, you won't be able to "feel" if someone is pulling out your valuables.
- If you are carrying a backpack, keep your valuable stuff in the bottom and if possible under less valuable items. Do not keep anything in the outer compartments.
- Treat your IDs as valuable stuff. There's a market for them you know?
- Avoid rush hour as much as you can. Rush hour is from 8 to 9:30 am, 2 to 4 pm and 6 to 8:30 pm.
- There are guards and policemen and policewomen inside the stations and the tracks, but they have too much people to watch to keep track of everything.
- You can't go in with weapons or items that can be used as weapons. This includes blades, fuels and maze.
- They have checkpoint security screening equipment, and you must submit your bags, let them go through your belongings and scan them/you if you are asked to. This can be a random revision or you may look suspicious to them. Just do it, don't take it personally.
- If you are not in a rush, let the crowd go in and out before you, so you have more personal space when you move.
- If possible do not take calls from your cell phone while moving in the Metro.
- If you are a woman, you can use the special cars at the front of the train. These are just for women and children under 14, to be used in rush hour.
- Avoid being on the front of the crowd. Do not cross the yellow line.
- It can get hot in the summer, you can feel claustrophobic at times, and some stairs and corridors are really long. This happens especially in transfer stations.
Some stations will have food shops and even small restaurants. If they sell packaged food from well known brands (like Bimbo or Coca-Cola) it is safe to eat (clean the can if you are drinking). However if it is prepared food you shouldn't go for it.
It's not that all food is bad or unclean, there are some legendary food shops there, but as all the street "antojitos" chances are you will get sick if you eat them, especially if you are staying in the city just for a few days, it can ruin your trip.
So, what do you think?
Would you ride in the Metro?
Useful links and information
- A great source of information is Mexico City's Official Subway Webpage, and their interactive map. Unfortunately it is in Spanish.
- If you want to know where and when cultural events will be held, check the schedule in the Metro's webpage.
- Another great source is the Spanish Wikipedia. The English Wikipedia do not have information about the subway and each individual station, including its description, history, facts and places of interest nearby.
- Use Wikipedia's Metro de la Ciudad de México for an overall description of all the lines or search by station.
Metromanía - A Billboard to Promote Culture
© 2013 Gabriela Hernández Paulín