When you’re in it, Mexico City’s network of low-rise neighborhoods can often feel surprisingly tranquil, the city’s size even manageable. It’s only as you work your way toward its ruffled edges, where its newest neighborhoods and satellite cities scale the sides of extinct volcanoes, that the enormity of the place really hits you. Despite the endless sprawl, though, Mexico City is a relatively simple place to escape for a quiet day or, time permitting, even longer. Here are four of my preferred city breaks.
Desierto de los Leones: hiking, barbecue, mountain biking, laying around in the grass; weekends.
Mexico City’s clogged streets turn to curvy, pine-lined roads near the entrance of Desierto de los Leones, a 17th-century convent in the forested hills at the city’s southeastern edge. The park of 4,600 acres was originally a place of meditation and prayer; now it’s mostly filled with families domingueando (Sundaying) and mountain bikers taking advantage of beautiful scenery and well-marked trails.
A 45-minute taxi ride from the city center, Desierto de los Leones is one of the easiest possible escapes into the rural periphery. I like to go on weekends with my dog, but even without a pet in tow, it’s a great place for a picnic and easy hikes through ruined dwellings along the trails behind the old convent.
If you’re going with a group—or, better yet, know a chilango with a car—pack up some charcoal and carne for the barbecue pits and throw a picnic at one of the roadside grills on the way to the convent. The best picnic areas are at the back, but to snag one you have to arrive before 10 a.m.
If you don’t have a ride, don’t worry. The way back is a little tricky but doable. Walk about 2 1/2 miles down the road (about a 30-minute brisk walk, give or take) until you have cellphone service again, which should happen just about when you hit La Venta, a small village at a fork in the road. From there, call an Uber or, if you prefer, a local cab using Cabify. If you don’t have data on your phone, there are plenty of taxis that cruise the area—and plenty of places for a quick lunch while you wait for a car.
Tepoztlán: archeological ruins, ice cream, pulque; weekday or overnight.
Tepoztlán is a pleasant mountain town with pretty spectacular ice cream, surpassed only by the stunning archeological ruins perched on a steep, jungle-covered hillside at the edge of town. To do Tepoztlán in a day, you need to make your way out of the city early. Hop a bus from the Tasqueña bus station, the southern terminus of the metro’s blue line (línea 2). The bus company Pullman de Morelos offers service to Tepoztlán, leaving every 40 minutes and reaching the entrance to town about 90 minutes later. From there, it’s a pleasant 15- to 20-minute walk into the heart of town. Remember where the station is. You’ll return to Mexico City from there.
Stop for a nice breakfast at one of the many charming cafes around the church and main square (Tepoz is a popular place for Mexico City’s bourgeois hippie types to keep vacation homes, so the center is absolutely loaded with cute new-agey spots, all of them more or less the same). Once fortified, mosey through the pretty cobbled back streets, following the signs to the trailhead for the El Tepozteco pyramid.
The hike, though short and not particularly difficult, can be surprisingly steep at times, so you may be surprised to find a clutch of staggering city folk stumbling past with litersize micheladas–beers mixed with lime and sometimes clamato and rimmed with salt–glued to their hands. On weekdays you may be lucky enough to have the trail and the pyramid, with its marvelous views over the surrounding cliffs, which rise dramatically from the valley floor, all to yourself.
Once you’ve returned, stop for lunch at a stall in the market called El Tlecuil, selling pre-Hispanic (and largely vegetarian) snacks like amaranth soup and fritters made from hibiscus and grasshoppers, followed by an ice cream cone at Tepoznieves. Finally, find the sole woman in the market selling pulque, the polarizing drink made from fermented agave sap, to reward yourself for the sweaty slog up and back. Catching a bus back the same evening is easy enough, but so is finding a simple hotel or Airbnb for a peaceful night’s rest.
La Marquesa: horseback riding, trout fishing, zorbing (if that’s your thing); best on weekends.
Just past the Desierto de los Leones, over the state border from Ciudad de México into the Estado de México, La Marquesa park has, for better and for worse, a little bit of everything, as well as plenty of unspoiled volcanic alpine terrain for people in search of much-needed peace and quiet.
Grab your bus ticket at Observatorio, the western terminus for the metro’s pink line (línea 1), and, once on board, remind the driver where you’re getting off (say: Voy a bajar en La Marquesa). Don’t be surprised when he pulls over and opens the door at the edge of the highway: That is your stop. For best results, bring a cellphone with data and keep an eye on Google Maps. You know you’ve reached the right place when you see a slew of little restaurants advertising quesadillas and trout.
The entrance to La Marquesa—known locally (and sort of ironically) as the Eco Park—is a strange family extravaganza of four-wheeler rentals and zorbing, the sport of rolling down a hill in a giant plastic hamster ball. That’s not at all the reason you’re here. It is a good spot to pick up a guide who can take you out on horseback into the more pastoral stretches or to rent a fishing pole and try your luck at one of the lakes scattered among the pines, which are regularly restocked with farm-raised trout. (You can’t expect total wilderness this close to the largest city in the hemisphere.) If you’re lucky, you can take your fish home with you to cook. If you’re not, stop for a lunch of trucha frita (fried trout) near the Entre Valles fishing pond.
Getting out is easy too. Just walk back to the highway and wave down one of the Flecha Roja (Red Arrow) buses back to the city. The sign in the windshield should read “Observatorio” or “México.”
Parque Los Dinamos: rock climbing; preferably early on weekends.
You wouldn’t know it from the looks of it, but this park is still within the borders of Mexico City. It’s where the Río Magdalena runs down out of the Estado de México and into the valley, collecting in small pools that historically turned the generators that powered the capital (hence the park’s name).
Now a protected area, Los Dinamos offers great rock climbing and a few good trails for hiking. At the bottom—where the river’s outflow is pungent, to put it politely—you’ll find the usual assortment of picnic areas, where families gather on the weekends, and stalls selling antojitos and micheladas. To get to the quieter and wilder sections of the park, stay in the car until you start seeing stalls selling quesadillas and café de olla (Mexican spiced coffee). Go down here to access the better walks.
The higher you climb through the park, the cooler and clearer the water becomes. Wear layers and a raincoat; the weather can change quickly and is usually cold. If you’re into rock climbing and carrying a trad rack, you might want to check out the Cuarto Dinamo (Fourth Dynamo), at the very top of the road. Follow the trail through the woods until you reach the walls at the top. It’s a climb, but the views are worth it: From up here you can see the whole of Mexico City laid out under you, all shrouded in smog, murky as a cup of chocolate atole.
For most day or weekend trips, you’ll likely find yourself using the interstate bus system, leaving from one of the city’s four main bus terminals: Terminal del Norte (north), Tasqueña (south), La TAPO (east), and Observatorio (west). To get a sense of bus schedules and ticket prices, check clickbus.com.mx. For nearby destinations, it’s usually fine to turn up and ask around, as buses leave regularly. If you’re heading farther afield, particularly to popular destinations like Oaxaca, you might want to buy your tickets a few days before your trip to get a better price.
Co-published with the new Roads & Kingdoms Mexico City Travel Guide.