Do you like good music? Reggae, specifically? Do you live in Mexico City? Then may I suggest seeing Hollie Cook this Thursday, May 10.
She’s also playing on Friday night (May 11), but the show’s sold out. The venue is Foro Indierocks, a club in the Roma neighborhood of downtown Mexico City. The opening band for both nights is Mexican reggae group Malamar.
She’s on tour in support of her new album Vessel of Love, which features not only her expressive voice but also a tight reggae band. The following show is on May 12 at the Akamba Festival in the town of Tequila.
David Byrne played Mexico City on Tuesday, April 4. It’s still early in the tour and he’ll head back to the U.S. after a few more dates in Mexico. Trust me, go see David Byrne, even if you only have a vague appreciation for Talking Heads. I don’t review every concert I attend, not even all the great ones. But this was more than a concert, it was a show.
The box-like stage was totally empty—no amps, cables, or drums kits. It was bordered by hanging strings of light that looked like sparkling curtains, which the players passed through as they left and reentered the stage.
The 12 musicians and singers—I’ll call them “players” because they were more than musicians and singers, but cogs in a cohesive musical machine—were in constant motion, carrying their instruments as they walked, ran, and danced around the stage. They had bare feet and wore matching grey suits. At times the lights made the suits change color, from a silvery blue to a light brown.
A full half were drummers, so it didn’t matter that their bare feet were unavailable for the music, since all the drums you’d find on a typical drum kit were divided among the six of them. Between songs they disappeared behind the curtain of glowing strings and reemerged with different drums, often the ones in the drumline of a marching band. They carried big bass drums, single snares, bongos, talking drums, smaller hand drums like djembes, thin sideways drums that looked like the Irish bodhrán, shakers, and the array of toms used by marching bands.
With so many drummers, every song was a masterclass in rhythm. As they moved around the stage, usually in formation, you could watch specific drummers and hear exactly what they were playing and how it fit into the larger sound, even if it were something as simple as a shaker.
Three of the remaining six were singers, Byrne and two more, one male and the other female. At times they played a small drum or shaker, but were mostly free to dance. Byrne played guitar a few times but spent most of the show without an instrument. When he did play guitar, it was usually for a solo. I learned that the weird sound after the chorus in “Blind” is actually Byrne doing a high bend on the guitar.
The other three players were a guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist with the keyboard hung from his neck. With these three taking care of everything besides percussion, the music had an almost stripped-down feel, despite all the drums. Six Talking Heads songs were from their big-band funk era, with three each from Remain in Light and Speaking In Tongues. Therefore these three musicians handled parts originally played by up to six people: two keyboardists, sometimes two bassists, and two or three guitarists.
The musicians were at once virtuosic and tasteful. Elements of Talking Heads songs were sometimes faithfully rendered, like the unmistakable keyboard solo in “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place),” and sometimes given a fresh interpretation, like the incredible guitar solo during “The Great Curve,” which as the last song of the first encore seemed the climax of the show. But even though the guitarist was obviously exceptional, she usually only played sparse rhythm parts, saving the big solos for certain moments.
Byrne introduced the bassist as Bobby Wooten—is he a member of the Wooten clan that includes Flecktones Victor Wooten and Future Man? He was the glue, the solid connection between the two melody instruments and the frantic polyrhythmic chorus of drums.
About half of the show were Talking Heads songs, and the other half were a mix of songs from Byrne’s new album American Utopia and a few outliers from his solo career. The Heads songs included big hits, of course, but also many songs the casual radio listener might not know, like “I Zimbra,” “Slippery People,” and “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” both well-suited to the peculiarities of this band.
Perhaps the catchiest song from American Utopia is “Every Day is a Miracle.” With its bright and expansive chorus, it could have appeared on a later Talking Heads album like True Stories, although its dissimilar music clearly represents a different age and attitude. It got the crowd swaying as much as any of the old classics.
Other American Utopia songs have a more divergent style, such as the grinding electro chorus in “We Dance Like This.” But the lyrics are pure Byrne, with topics ranging from declarations of uninhibited weirdness to abstract social commentary.
I have a much better appreciation for these American Utopia songs after having seen them performed live. Each seemed to tell a story, both lyrically and through the choreography, similar to how the motions of ballet dancers tell wordless stories on the stage.
This was also true for his other solo material. In “I Should Watch TV,” Byrne sang to himself in front of a mirror. In “Dancing Together,” one bongo-playing drummer ran loose in front of the rest of group, which followed at a distance, seeming to chase and chastise him.
Besides these more thematic motions, the choreography was a mostly a mix of marching band, flat-footed ballet, and organized chaos. The arrangement of the players sometimes recalled Talking Heads essentials like the concert film Stop Making Sense or Byrne’s jerky dancing in the music video for “Once in a Lifetime.”
During “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” they began in two lines that alternately advanced and retreated, all while drenched in red lights. During “Burning Down the House,” they formed a large + that spun around the stage, to later break into other formations. And in many songs, the two backup singers danced with each other in an exaggerated tango.
The venue was perfect—the large and ornate Teatro Metropolitán, a classic theatre in the heart of downtown Mexico City, one block away from the central Alameda park. The street outside was lined with vendors selling bootleg t-shirts, posters, and coffee mugs, in contrast to the tall columns, gold trim, and plush carpets of the interior.
Immediately after openers Mexican Institute of Sound left the stage, the crew rushed out and took away their gear, leaving the stage bare. Four workers with long dust mops came out and swept the floor clean. Then they brought out a square table and placed it in the exact center of the stage.
A three-sided rack of what looked like a lighting rig was lowered down to just above the stage, hanging at its far edges in a kind of open square. It was about now that I noticed the lack of house music. It was strange to have silence between bands—but it wasn’t silent, of course, with people all around talking, looking for their seats, and buying snacks and milkshakes from vendor girls wearing suits and squeezing through the crowded aisles. No beer, though—for that you had to go downstairs to the bar and get in line.
But wait—it wasn’t actually silent underneath all the voices and shuffling feet. Some sound was coming out of the speakers, a kind of soft white noise, a faint electronic humming just faint enough to be nonchalant and nearly unnoticeable. But as the minutes passed, it soon changed from a steady hum to almost like crickets. There was no ignoring it now.
The crowd kept talking while the sound grew louder. A crew member brought out a chair and put it behind the table. The stage went dark and a spotlight shone on the table and chair. The house lights stayed on, however, so no one seemed to notice. But they must have noticed the sound, which continued to evolve, first into another constant white noise, then to something like rain. But not real rain—like the crickets it had an electronic, created quality. Eventually it became chirping birds, loud and insistent, but intriguing like the rest. Suddenly the house lights went out. The show had begun.
The rack of hanging strings of light quickly rose above the stage. David Byrne walked alone though the brilliant cords and sat at the table. He picked up a big white object—a human brain, which he alternately cradled and swung about, pondering it and singing to it during “Here,” the atmospheric first song with lyrics about neurons, aliens, and hallucinations.
The musicians emerged for the second song, got into formation, and the show went on, a spectacle of sound and rhythm, drums and voices, synchronized motions and warm lights.
The show had two encores, both noteworthy. The first began with a song called “Dancing Together,” which Byrne introduced by saying he wrote it for Imelda Marcos, calling her something like a “high society lady.” This was followed by the rapid groove of “The Great Curve,” probably the musical highlight of the night. After this, the players didn’t only bow to the applauding crowd, but also to each other.
The band left the darkened stage and returned shortly for a second encore. They carried no other instruments besides drums. Byrne spoke again, saying that they’d play a song written by a friend with lyrics adapted to Mexico. (Setlist.com tells me it was “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monáe.)
The chant-like song was in Spanish, beginning with repetitions of “Cuarenta y tres” (43), referring to the 43 students who disappeared from the small town Ayotzinapa in 2014, a still-unresolved crime widely believed to have been committed or at least approved by the government.
The chant then became “Diga su nombre, diga su nombre!” (Say his name, say his name!), and individual singers responded by calling out names, obviously those of the missing 43 students.
This was the only overtly political message of the night. In the context of his American Utopia, he reminded the crowd of their very real Mexican dystopia.
In the same way that this show was more than a concert, David Byrne is more than a musician, but an activist, writer, and interesting character in many respects. As a lifelong cyclist, I greatly appreciate his promotion of urban cycling all around the world. Anyone interested in music would love his book How Music Works. And, of course, Talking Heads are legendary, one of my god bands—if you aren’t familiar with their music, get on YouTube and watch Stop Making Sense right now. Fanatic Heads worshipers like me are bound to enjoy American Utopia, a worthy addition to his legacy, especially if you can catch it live.
Thanks Mr. Byrne, and come back to Mexico soon!
Tips and practical information for Mexico’s biggest and busiest airport
If you fly to Mexico from abroad, there’s a good chance that you’ll arrive or transfer in Mexico City.
Benito Juarez International is by far the biggest and busiest airport in Mexico. Here you can take a connecting flight on one of Mexico’s discount airlines to practically any other part of the country. Or you can take a short subway or bus ride into Mexico City, where many great adventures begin. After exploring the city, continue onward in a bus or a rental car.
Like any major airport anywhere in the world, Benito Juarez International is big and confusing, but there’s nothing to be worried about. A little knowledge and preparation goes a long way. After a long flight, it’s no fun walking around in circles with your heavy baggage and nowhere to go, no pesos, and no Spanish skills.
At a minimum you should learn about public transportation routes and schedules, how to get money, and procedures for customs and immigration. Figuring these out for my recent trips to Russia and South Africa was enormously helpful, even though it required a lot of online research beforehand.
That research gave me some insight into what it’s like for first-time travelers to Mexico to arrive by plane in Mexico City. So, with that in mind, here’s what you need to know to successfully navigate the Benito Juarez International Airport.
Choose a good arrival time
The first step is to choose your flight carefully so you arrive while public transportation is still running. But if you don’t mind paying for a taxi to your hotel, then it really doesn’t matter what time you arrive. In this case, review the policies of your hotel for the earliest time you can check-in or if you must let them know before arriving late at night.
(I’ll write about getting hotels in Mexico in another post, but for now, if you’re still looking for a place to stay, check out all the options on websites like Booking.com)
If you want to use public transportation, don’t arrive before 6 AM or after 8 PM. Although the metro (subway) and the metrobus (local buses that run on a fixed route) do run later, usually until around 11 PM, it’s not a good idea to walk around Mexico City in the dark while dragging your baggage from the bus or metro stop to your hotel. Sure, downtown is reasonably safe (at least in the daytime), but there’s no need to tempt fate.
Also keep in mind that buses from the airport to other nearby cities stop running around 10 PM, and you may need up to an hour to get through immigration and customs, depending on how busy they are.
If you don’t mind sleeping on the plane, the best time to arrive is between 6 and 7 AM. You can take public transportation and beat Mexico City’s insane rush hour traffic, which really gets heavy after 7. Another good time to arrive is between 10 AM and 1 PM. You’ll miss rush hour when traveling into the city, and you’ll get to your hotel just in time for check-in.
If you arrive in the morning, make sure your hotel doesn’t charge for an early check-in. Check-in for most hotels is around 2 PM, but if the room is ready they’ll probably let you in early. If not, then leave your bags behind the front desk and go out for a long breakfast.
A second consideration when planning your flights is whether you’ll transfer in Mexico City for another destination in Mexico. You’ll clear immigration and also customs there before you fly to your next destination. This could take 10 minutes or an hour—or even longer on a busy Mexican holiday. Make sure you have enough time between flights.
There are two terminals at the Mexico City Airport, and depending on how busy it is, getting from one to the other could take around 30 minutes. They are too far apart to walk—you take a little train between them.
Which terminal your flight arrives at depends on which airline it is. So if both flights are on the same airline, you probably won’t have to change terminals. But if they are different airlines, include extra time when considering your layover.
Save your tourist card
Like for most countries, you’ll get the tourist/immigration and customs cards on the plane. They are in Spanish and English, so filling them out is easy. If you have any questions, ask the flight attendant.
You might find a few typos—for example, at the moment both the top and bottom parts say that it is the arrival card. The bottom part is actually the departure card, so fill in all the information except for the flight number.
Once the plane lands, all the passengers will be herded toward the immigration area, called migración in Mexico. Get in the line for foreigners, not for Mexican citizens.
You’ll give the tourist form to the immigration officer, who will stamp the bottom part, write the amount of time you are granted to be in the country (usually 180 days), and give it back to you. Save this card—you’ll need it to leave Mexico, and if you don’t have it you’ll be fined about $30 USD.
You’ll probably be asked about the purpose of your trip (tourism), how long you plan on staying, and where you’ll be staying (your hotel or other destination), but probably little else. It’s rare that they ask to see your return ticket (which can be common in other countries, like the U.S.), but regardless it’s good to have a printout of your return itinerary just in case.
The customs area is next to the baggage claim in both terminals. After getting your bags and waiting in line, you’ll hand the customs form to the officer and then push a button. Above the button you’ll see either a green or red light. The green light means that you can enter, and the red light means you’ll be searched.
The one time I pushed red I had the maximum allowable amount of liquor (three liters at the time, but this may change) in a duty-free shop bag and three more bottles in my luggage. As eager as I was to get out of the airport, I stood back patiently and answered all of the officer’s questions while she lined up the bottles on the metal counter. She got about halfway through my bag and let me go, no problem.
So take my advice—be as respectful and patient as possible. (This goes for all Mexican authorities.) DO NOT complain or tell them you’re in hurry, which will only annoy them and cause them to give you a hard time.
Terminal 1 or Terminal 2?
As I mentioned above, there are two terminals at the airport, which are far apart on opposite sides of the runways. It won’t be obvious which terminal you are in upon arrival, so if you need to make a connection, ask a flight attendant on the plane or an officer in the baggage claim.
The terminals are not divided by international and domestic; different airlines use different terminals. You can find the list here:
A train called the Autotrain travels between the terminals. Save your boarding pass to use it because they won’t let you on without one.
Exchange rates in airports are typically terrible all over the world, but not so much in Mexico City. Don’t use the ones when you are still inside the baggage claim area, but wait until you clear customs.
At each currency exchange booth you’ll see two different numbers for U.S. dollars and other major currencies: buy and sell. The smaller the difference between them, the better the rate. For example, if “buy” is at 20.54 and “sell” is at 20.40, it’s a good deal. But if “buy” is at 22.00 and “sell” is at 18.00, the rate is worse.
It’s crucial to have an idea of the exchange rate before you arrive so you can compare rates at the different booths with the official rate. Before your trip, check exchange rates online, such as at this website: http://coinmill.com
Make some notes about how much your home currency is worth in pesos, so you aren’t trying to make rushed calculations after a long flight. Make a sheet with notes like this:
- $10 USD = 200 pesos
- $20 USD = 400 pesos
- 100 pesos = $5 USD
- 200 pesos = $10 USD
(These rates are only examples.)
By the way, exchanging money in downtown Mexico City is easy, so if the rates are bad at the airport, only get what you need for transportation and a meal.
Or, for a generally better exchange rate, withdraw from a bank ATM. Many are scattered throughout both terminals, including near the exit for the metrobus in Terminal 2. Look for ATMs with international credit exchange symbols on them, like Cirrus or Interac, and match those symbols to the ones on your card:
For more about managing your money in Mexico and Latin America, please read this article.
Renting a car
Unless you’ll immediately drive to a nearby town or visit an unusual part of the city, I don’t recommend renting a car in Mexico City.
Driving around is a bad idea for three reasons: traffic, parking, and confusing road signs that make getting lost easy. Driving through the wrong neighborhood could get you carjacked or worse. Plus, you can get to all the major tourist spots by bus, metro or metrobus.
But if you want to rent a car, you can do it at the many booths near the taxi stands, although you can often get a better deal online. All the usual international companies are there, like Enterprise, Budget, etc.
If you reserve online, be aware that the insurance offered by third-party websites like expedia.com is not valid in Mexico. When you go to pick up the car, the price will double or even triple when they add insurance. To avoid this, arrange car rentals directly on company websites, and read all that boing fine print.
Picking up a car at a major airport can take a long time. First you get in line at the booth inside the airport and then take a shuttle to the car lot, where you fill out all the paperwork and wait for the car to be ready. Then, once it’s ready, you go around the car inspecting for previous damage, and finally sign the contract.
This means that you shouldn’t expect a fast process when picking up a car at the airport. Plan for the extra time. Fortunately, dropping the car off before departing usually only takes a few minutes.
Besides renting a car, there are three better options to get into downtown Mexico City: a taxi, the metrobus, and the metro (subway).
Taxis take you anywhere; the metrobus is a good option in the daylight hours to get to the zócalo (central square) or elsewhere in the centro historico or nearby neighborhoods like Condesa or Zona Rosa; and the metro goes practically everywhere and is by far the cheapest and most confusing.
Also, if you’ll travel by land to another city in Mexico, many direct buses leave from both terminals.
Using a taxi is the fastest, easiest, and most expensive option. For safety’s sake, do not flag down a taxi outside the terminals, but use a taxi stand inside the airport.
Ignore anyone who approaches you offering a taxi—go right to the stands. Many obvious ones are in both terminals and prices should be similar, if not the same. Confirm that you’ll be in a regular car (a sedan, the word in Spanish and English) and not a big passenger van, which costs more.
At the time of writing, getting downtown (the centro historico) costs about 230 pesos (about $12 USD). If you want to pay with a credit card, look for Mastercard, Visa or American Express stickers on the booth window. Or get some pesos first—don’t pay in U.S. dollars, as the exchange rate will be ridiculous.
The price is determined by neighborhood, so have the full address of your hotel ready. You’ll pay at the stand and then receive a slip of paper to give to a person by the line of taxis waiting outside. Once in the taxi, tell the driver the specific address of where you’re going—again, having it written down is essential, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
The price of a taxi is the same no matter how many people use it, so try to share with any friends you make on your flight who are traveling to the same part of the city as you.
This is a good option if you’re going downtown and don’t mind dragging your luggage around. There’s plenty of space for it on the bus, although the buses tend to get quite crowded soon after leaving the airport.
The metrobus line for the airport is Line 4. Check out the map to find the stop closest to your hotel and if it’s within walking distance.
The metrobus leaves from the ground floor in each terminal, close to where you exit customs. It leaves from Door 7 (Puerta 7) in Terminal 1 and Door 3 (Puerta 3) in Terminal 2. Look for the MB symbol on signs hanging from the ceiling. Once outside, look for MB symbol on a sign—that’s the bus stop—and wait in line for the big red bus. (Or are they green now?)
To pay, buy a card from a machine inside each terminal near the door to the bus stop. The minimum is 40 pesos plus 10 for the card, so that’s 50. The machine accepts 20, 50 and 100 bills, but it doesn’t give change, so buy something from the convenience store OXXO if you only have big bills.
From either terminal it takes about 30 minutes to get downtown. If you don’t have hotel reservations, but plan on walking around looking for a hotel (there are many around the zócalo), get off at Bellas Artes—you can’t miss it.
Metro (the subway)
The Mexico City metro is super cheap at 5 pesos per ride, and although it’s safe enough, it definitely isn’t a good idea for anyone who has never taken a subway before or has a lot of luggage. You need to be able to read the map, be comfortable with transfers, and keep an eye on your bags at all times.
The metro leaves from Terminal 1. Walk outside, turn left, and keep walking until you see the entrance. The name of the stop is Terminal Aérea, and it’s on an out-of-the-way line, so you’ll probably have to transfer at least once. Get a copy of the metro map beforehand and plan your route. Not all stations have maps posted and they aren’t always available when you buy tickets, although you can try asking for one.
Here is a link to a map for the metro: http://mexicometro.org/wp-content/uploads/Mexico-City-Metro-Map-October-2015.pdf
As you can see, the Terminal Aérea stop is on the yellow line (on the far right on the map), which doesn’t go downtown. Only a stop or two away, however, are transfers to the major lines that cross the city, including the pink line through downtown. To look for hotels in the historic center, get off on the Pino Suarez or Isabela la Catolica stops on the pink line, and ask someone to point you in the direction of the zócalo. You’ll pass many discount hotels on the walk there.
Tip: If you plan on frequently traveling by metro during your stay in Mexico City, buy many tickets at once so you don’t have to wait in line each time.
Buses to nearby cities
Buses go from the airport to the nearby cities of Puebla, Cuernavaca, Querétaro, Toluca, and more. Most run between 6-7 AM until 10 PM.
To find the buses in either terminal, once you leave customs follow the signs for transporte foráneo (ground transportation) with a little bus icon next to it.
In Terminal 1, take a left after you leave the customs area and follow the signs. You’ll take another left, go up a motorized ramp to the second floor, pass a food court, go down a hallway, and you’ll see desks for the different destinations.
In Terminal 2, finding the bus station is easier—take a right out of customs and just follow the signs straight on. It’s on the same floor and looks more like a typical bus station than the one in Terminal 1.
Yes, you can buy tickets online beforehand, but I don’t recommend this in case your flight is late. I have never seen a bus sell out, but if this happens the worst thing would be to wait for the next one.
For a summary page of the buses that leave from the Mexico City airport, you can consult this page on the airport website, which may not be up to date. You can check schedules on the bus company websites for four major destinations:
To Puebla: Estrella Roja
To Cuernavaca: Pullman Morelos
To Toluca: Caminante
To Querétaro: Primera Plus
Once you’ve been in Mexico City for a while, you’ll know whether there’s a metrobus or metro stop near your hotel that you can take back to the airport once it’s time to leave. If you want to take a taxi, have the hotel call one for you. Waving down taxis on the street in Mexico City isn’t safe.
Make sure you know which terminal your flight departs from (see above), and follow the standard advice for international flights—arrive at least three hours early.
The good news is that you can buy a beer from a convenience store near the departure gates and drink it in the waiting area for your flight—you don’t have to get overcharged at a restaurant.
Once again, be sure that you have the departure portion of the tourist card that was stamped when you arrived, or be prepared to pay the fine.
A final tip: Don’t buy tequila or other booze (mezcal, Kahlúa, or good Central American rum like Flor de Caña) at the duty free shop. It’s cheaper at an average grocery, liquor or convenience store in the city, but definitely not at a specialty shop in a tourist area. Put the bottles in your checked luggage, and check the requirements of your home country about how much you can bring back.
The same goes for souvenirs. Don’t wait for the airport. The best place for souvenirs in Mexico City, by the way, is the Ciudadela Market.
Finally, take a moment of appreciation for an airport in a major city that’s only 30 minutes from downtown. In fact, a new airport outside the city is already being built.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to the prime real estate currently occupied by Benito Juarez International, but one can only hope that at least part of it will become a public park.