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“Don’t go there. You’ll get robbed.”
This was the popular advice given to me by taxi drivers and hostel managers when I asked about Tepito, Mexico City’s most notorious neighborhood.
I’m usually great at listening to advice from locals, but this particular day I decided to keep asking until I got the answer I wanted. I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to experience a gigantic expanse – 72 blocks to be exact – of lawless and chaotic life that could never exist in the U.S.
So, I kept asking.
“I’ve been before. It’s a bit crazy, but you can go. You’ll be safe as long as you don’t bring anything valuable. Seriously, leave everything at the hostel. Just bring some cash and keep it in your shoe,” said a semi-concerned fellow traveler.
Bingo. There’s the answer I was looking for.
I gathered a small group of hostel-goers and we started our journey. As we approached Tepito on a crowded Mexico City metro, we stood in reserved silence letting wary thoughts occupy our minds for the duration of the tense and noisy train ride.
Getting to Tepito, Mexico City
A Self-Governing Neighborhood
We had all done the basic research and heard the stories. We knew that in Tepito you could find anything you set out to find, whether it be a steaming bowl of cow intestines, a fake Gucci watch, graphic 80’s porn, an unlicensed firearm, or a hitman for hire.
Tepito has long been a haven for Mexico City’s poor and outcast population. Over the years, wars, revolutions, and natural disasters pushed those with nowhere else to go into Tepito. The rent is dirt cheap and a communal, autonomous lifestyle is the law of the land for its thousands of inhabitants.
Mexico City’s police force, for the most part, chooses to stay away from Tepito, content to let the fierce community rule itself. To attempt to stop the ceaseless illegal activity in Tepito would mean a long and bloody intervention, and that’s something that the Mexico government isn’t willing to initiate.
All of this became abundantly clear to our group as we stepped off the train into the seemingly endless maze of chaos and questionable exchanges. I repeatedly checked my pockets for the cell phone and wallet that I’d purposefully left behind.
Exploring Mexico City’s Notorious Black Market
The hour and a half we spent wandering the intensely crowded confines of Tepito was a complete sensory overload.
Smoke and steam poured out of stalls and filled the air with the aroma of overcooked meat. Vendors chattered at us from every direction imploring us to check out their rows and rows of phony goods. A man with a tattered cardboard box full of puppies stood in a crowded section of the market, patiently waiting to make a sale. Another man with a wide smile staggered by with a wobbling stack of cages full of exotic birds.
The deeper we got into Tepito, the darker the merchandise got.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we found ourselves in a section of the market that was jammed with rows and rows of sex toys, bootlegged porn DVDs, and suspicious glances. A few young men started following us trying to sell us drugs. “Anything you want,” said one of the boys forcefully tugged at my friend’s backpack. He shot us an intense glare after we ignored him and bee-lined the other direction.
Don’t Be a Target in Tepito
Tepito is well-known for its frequent pickpocketing and robberies. Here’s some advice to follow if you decide to visit:
- Leave expensive clothing, jewelry, credit cards, cell phones, and cameras at your hotel.
- Bring only a small amount of cash and a physical map.
- Stay within the confines of the market and don’t wander off into the surrounding neighborhood.
- If you can find one, hire a trusted a guide to show you around and provide some local security.
Tepito is Mexico City’s Most Intense Neighborhood
We decided to go deeper into Tepito. Now, nearly every set of eyes tracked us as we continued our increasingly sketchy journey. The stares we received more and more intense.
Many people scowled in our direction, seemingly upset that a pack of foolish backpackers had explored a bit too far beyond their boundaries. Some people just seemed shocked that we had actually wandered that deep into the market. The tension was becoming a bit overwhelming.
My heart slowly began to pound through my shirt. Sweat ran down my back. Everyone in the group was becoming restless and on edge. All eyes in our corner of Tepito remained glued to us. None of us spoke much, but we all felt the exact same way. Tepito was unlike anywhere we’d ever been.
It was time to get the hell out of there.
We briskly retreated to a safer part of the market and regrouped at a fruit stall with a cup full of unripe mangoes seasoned with salt and chili pepper. The chaos of the market continued to buzz and pulse around us. Tepito had an intense, unapologetic energy to it. We all looked each other in the eyes and silently agreed that it was time to leave.
This time we skipped the metro and ordered an Uber back to our hostel. Once inside, we laughed nervously about the brief but profound experience, underplaying the fear we felt. I believe that within Tepito exists a twisted and turbulent beauty, but maybe another trip back to Mexico City’s fierce neighborhood might change my mind. None of us saw any guns or hitmen, but we all knew where to go if we wanted to find one.
In Mexico City the saying goes, “En Tepito todo se vende menos la dignidad.”
In Tepito everything is for sale, except dignity.
I believe every word of it.