How to Use Mexico City's Underground System (a.k.a. "El Metro")
Because it is very cheap and navigating an urban center like Mexico City can be difficult above ground (due to abundant traffic, a lack of parking spots, bad neighborhoods, etc.), people from many different backgrounds prefer using the metro to move around the city.
But using Mexico City's subway can be an overwhelming experience. On average, 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.
That being said, it is not hard to understand how it works, and it is really, really cheap. But there are other benefits too!
There's No Better Way to Get a True Taste of Mexico City
You will see people dressed in suits, blue-collar workers, poor and middle-class people, 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—you'll find it all on the metro.
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. If you want to see raw Chilango culture, this is as real as it gets!
What Is a "Chilango"?
"Chilango" is the name used by people outside Mexico City when referring to the city's inhabitants. It was initially used pejoratively, (a lot of jokes were made about Chilangos) but Chilangos have sort of taken the name as an affirmation of their identity.
In this article, you will find information on the following topics related to Mexico City's metro.
- Pricing: how to pay for your ride, fare information, and more
- System Size: number of riders, system length, etc.
- Color-Coded and Numbered Lines: how to get where you need to go
- Metro Signs and Images: a guide to the signs and images in the metro
- Walking Warning: how to make your route as efficient as possible
- Tips for Taking the Metro With Kids: planning for every scenario
- Safety Tips: ways to stay safer while riding the metro
- Metro Rules: things not to do while on the metro
- Food Stall Tips: what to eat (and not to eat!) on the metro
Read on to find out everything you ever needed to know about Mexico City's subway system!
The Metro runs every day of the year during the following hours:
- Monday–Friday from 5:00 to 24:00
- Saturdays from 6:00 to 24:00
- Sundays and Holidays from 7:00 to 24:00
The Price Is Right!
The price for using the subway is ridiculously low. It costs MXP $5.00, which is around USD $0.26 (as of January 2019). Yes, that’s right: just over a quarter of a US dollar! Fares are 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.
Get all the tickets you expect to use in the day (or week) at once. 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.
How to Pay for Your Ride:
You can purchase either a ticket or a prepaid card (also used for Metrobus) at the taquilla (ticket booth). You will find turnstiles right at the entrance, where you insert the ticket or place your card next to a reading device that will subtract the fare from the card. If you put a ticket in and the turnstile keeps it, you don’t need it to exit the metro.
Most turnstiles in Mexico's metro are old fashioned and located in groups—one set of four or five to exit and the same number to get in. You won't be able to go through the ones marked with the red "X" under the "No Pase" sign.
Note: 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 on the subway for transportation, stopping the flow of people would really disrupt the subway’s operations, and the whole city could be affected.
Ticket Booths (Taquillas)
Every station has at least one staffed ticket booth. It is located in the middle of the station, and usually, you can get to it by any entrance. 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 should you do then? 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 cards (however I have noticed lately that some booths have a sign saying they don’t have cards).
Card Recharging Machines
If you choose the rechargeable card, there's a one-time fee of MXP $10.00 (around USD $0.53). 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 (5 pesos).
Disabled People and Seniors Ride for Free
People who are disabled or over 60 years old are entitled to ride the subway for free. However, they have to get a “Tarjeta de Cortesía” (an intelligent courtesy card) with the Metro administration first.
Transfer or Double Back Without Paying Extra
In most stations, after you pass through the turnstile, you can choose any direction, walk to another line (if you are in a transfer station), and even go back if you passed your station, without any additional charge. I find this awesome because in other cities' subways, you need to go in a specific entrance to take the right line (like New York's) or you are charged depending on the stations you 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.
How Big Is Mexico City's Subway Anyway?
With a system length of more than 200 kilometers, it’s the 14th longest in the world, the busiest in Latin America, and the second busiest on the continent (after New York City’s subway).
It opened in 1969 with lines 1, 2, and 3, when Mexico 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 it has a larger population than some countries (more than 21 million). It has both underground and elevated segments and 195 stations, 44 of which are transfer stations.
In 2012, it transported more than 1,608,865,177 people and traveled 42,087,784.92 kilometers, according to their own statistics.
12 Numbered and Color-Coordinated Lines
Each of the twelve lines is identified by a different color and number (1–12). For example, Line is 1 pink, Line 2 is blue, Line 3 is green, and so forth. The 12 lines can also be identified by the names of their endpoint stations. For example, Line 3 (the green one) is also known as the Universidad – Indios Verdes line.
When you go inside a station, unless it is an endpoint station, you have to take the train in “dirección a . . .”, which means in the direction of one of the two endpoint stations. Use the name of the endpoint station as a reference.
So it's common that when asking for directions, people will tell you, "Take the green line dirección a Indios Verdes to the Coyoacán station."
This means that when you go to the green line (line 3), 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 at Coyoacán station (the one with a coyote pictogram).
Understanding the Metro's Signs and Images
- Each station has a short name and a square image representative of either a related name, neighborhood, or landmark in the area. The color of the pictogram for the station is the same as 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 above). If you like, you can also check the Metro’s interactive map (link at the bottom), where you can 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" of color.
- For transfer stations, they will change color once you change line. So you know you are on the right path when changing from the blue line to the yellow line by looking at these ribbons.
Why Use Images for Subway Stations?
The idea behind the pictograms is to make life easier for 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. It works the same way if you are a foreigner, as you can look for the station with the “duck” or the “ship” instead of reading in a language you may find difficult.
- Most maps of the city (if not all) include 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. 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 it.
Did You Know?
The names of the stations were supposed to be short and representative. However, in recent years, they have included the names of government agencies nearby in some station names. I think it sucks, but maybe some people will find it helpful.
Be Prepared to Take Long Walks in the Subway
“What the hell are you talking about? I’m taking the subway because I don’t want to walk.”
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 go under the tracks, so you will 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 escalators, they do not function all the time and they are not present everywhere.
Choose Your Exit Wisely
Remember that this is a massive metropolis and block sizes are larger than they look. This means that depending on which exit you take out of the station, you may need to walk a lot to backtrack to your destination. Always try to get out at 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 choosing your exit. Remember that in a transit station, you may be on the pink side, but the best exit can be on the blue side.
At the very least, you'll usually have a choice to exit on either side of the street. Sometimes it is a four-lane street and it doesn't really matter which side you choose, but 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 (all of which you could have avoided by choosing the right exit).
Travelling on the Metro With Children
Taking your children on the metro can make for a more complicated experience, so here are a few tips to make it easier and keep them safer.
- If you are going to take your children on the metro, it is important to have a plan in case you get separated. It is safer to remain inside, so instruct them not to get nervous, never to leave the premises, and to remain in places with people around, especially other families. You should also tell them never to leave with strangers who are offering help, even if they are in uniform.
- Avoid rush hours.
- If several family or friends are going together, it is good to pair older and younger kids so that they can watch over each other.
- If you are in a big group, count your numbers before you take a train or start moving through a long corridor.
What If You Get Separated When Getting On or Off the Train?
Now that cell phones exist, finding your lost child is much easier. Simply tell your kid to look at the name of the station they are at and text it to your cellphone to make things quicker and easier.
That being said, here is a plan you can use if you and/or your child do not have cell phones. This is the strategy that my family had when I was growing up. It is not the only one, but it was effective for us.
- If the adult gets out and the kid is still on the train, the kid should get off at the next stop and wait for the adult to come looking for him/her.
- After getting off the train, the kid must stay in an area all of you have agreed on in advance. It can be where they got down or next to a specific entrance, but this must be made clear ahead of time. There are always three or more entrances to the tracks—one in the middle, one in the beginning, and one at the end—but the beginning and the end are less crowded). Once they reach the designated spot, they should put their backs to the wall so they won't be pushed around.
- The parent will look for the kid, either returning to the station the kid got down at or going in the direction the kid went in (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 boarding the train at that point and getting off in each station until they've found the kid.
- The kid should never attempt to go back or move to the final destination (unless you have kids old and savvy enough and you all have agreed on this).
What If You Get Separated Inside a Corridor or a Transit Station?
- If it is just a corridor, the plan will be to keep moving and wait to join the family where the corridor ends (if many people are moving through the corridor, 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 at the ticket booth.
- Agree on a time frame to wait for each other and when to ask the guards/police for help.
Safety Tips for Riding the Metro
The subway is safer than other public transportation systems in the city. There are guards and police officers inside the stations and the tracks, but they have too many people to watch to keep track of everything. 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.
Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind while traveling on Mexico City's metro (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 wait to put them back on until 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 in 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 into the train and physically touching (and getting touched by) other people, so 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, 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.
- 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.
- If you are not in a rush, let the crowd go in and out before you so you have more personal space when you do move.
- If possible, do not take calls on your cell phone while using the metro.
- Avoid being at the front of the crowd and do not cross the yellow line.
- It can get hot in the summer, making the cars feel more crowded than usual, so if you are at all claustrophobic, make an extra effort to travel at off-peak hours.
- Some stairs and corridors are really long (especially in transfer stations), so try to travel with a friend if you are using a subway late at night.
Reserved Cars for Women and Children
If you are a woman, you can use the special cars at the front of the train. These are reserved for children under 14 and women to use during rush hour.
For Safe Travels, Wait Until Sunup
If you arrive at a bus station or the airport late at night and you don’t want to pay for a cab to your destination, it is safest 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 at the station, long lines will already have formed to purchase tickets at 5:00 am! So, don’t rush, wait until the sun is up.
NEVER take a cab in the street outside these places. Half of the 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 them, I am afraid. It can be really dangerous.
Metro Rules to Abide By
- You can't go in with weapons or items that can be used as weapons. This includes blades, fuels, and mace.
- They have checkpoint security-screening equipment, and you must submit your bags and let them go through your belongings and scan them/you if you are asked to. This can be a random selection or you may look suspicious to them. Just do it, don't take it personally.
Food Stalls in the Metro
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 (though you should clean the can you are drinking from). However, you should avoid prepared food.
It's not that all food in the metro is bad or unclean—in fact, there are some legendary food shops there—but as with all street "antojitos," chances are you will get sick if you eat them, and if you are only staying in the city for a few days, it can ruin your trip.
So, what do you think?
Would you ride in the Metro?
The Longest Permanent Exposition in the World
La Raza station has a huge transfer corridor with the longest permanent exposition in the world—"Tunel de la Ciencia"—which has a length of over 600 meters by itself. They display pictures and video of scientific themes like space, animals, microscopic elements, fractals, etc. for the people who are transferring to the other line.
You will probably have to use this transfer if you are going to the North Bus Station.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Gabriela Hdez