In May of this year, Mexico City registered some of the highest levels of air pollution in recent history. The particles that chilangos (as Mexico City residents are colloquially known) often feel in the air were actually visible. The city, ringed by pine and snow-covered mountains visible on clear days, felt like a bar at last call back in the day of indoor smoking.
Smoke from wildfires across Mexico had conflated with the city’s status quo pollution (there’s at least 25 million people living in the metropolitan area, with millions of vehicles churning out exhaust and a number of factories emitting industrial waste) and low oxygen levels (its lowest elevation is 7,200 feet) making the city “unsafe” by World Health Organization standards for multiple days at a time. It’s been established that should the Valley of Mexico enter a serious drought, vulnerable populations in poorer neighborhoods would be the first to suffer.
City officials called a state of emergency and went with their go-to air quality emergency plan of limiting which cars can circulate on certain days of the week (this does not pertain to buses and garbage trucks). The city’s Chief of Government, Claudia Sheinbaum, tossed blame for the air pollution problem on the previous administration while a 2017 pre-mayoral tweet resurfaced in which she accused the former city government of waiting for the annual appearance of the Mesoamerican rain deity Tlalóc (who was late to the party this year) to help with the dire situation.
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Now, it’s August and Tlalóc has arrived. The first storm didn’t do much other than prove how dirty the air really was. But now the capital is thriving with near-daily afternoon showers and clouds which have improved the mood of capitaleños, for the time being at least. And, to be fair, much has changed since 1992 when the United Nations named Mexico City the world’s most polluted city. It’s now not anywhere near the top of the list and ranks somewhere similar to Los Angeles in that realm.
Fortunately, Mexico City has a green lining for these moments and any moment, that travelers and locals alike can take advantage of: some serious green spaces. And we’re not just talking quaint city parks or tree-lined neighborhoods. There are massive pine forests which lead up to 13,000-foot peaks within the city and volcanoes that loom in the distance. Take that, everywhere else. So, we’ve compiled a list to some of the best green spaces in and around the city.
Desierto de los Leones National Park
Area: 4,611 acres
How to get there: Can be accessed by rideshare apps and taxis for about 250 pesos one way from most parts of the core city, whether you’re calling from Roma or Coyoacán. A return ride is more reliable in taxi due to limited cell service in the park. The trip takes about an hour by car. A bus marked “SANTA ROSA / DESIERTO” leaves frequently from outside the Viveros subway station and takes about an hour depending on traffic conditions.
Hours: The park is open daily from 6 a.m.-5 p.m., though the former convent is closed on Mondays.
This park on the city’s southwest side requires a bit of travel, with winding roads passing the outskirts of town and into an area where many chilangos have their vacation homes. The main attraction for most people is the 17th century ex-convent founded by Carmelite monks. The convent is open to tour, and wandering onto the surrounding hiking trails takes visitors through a thick forest where lesser kept remains of the convent can be found embraced by nature’s reclaim. Sit down for a game of chess if there’s a table set out—there often is—at the entrance where there’s no shortage of places to eat fresh quesadillas and prized wild mushroom soup, a staple of Central Mexico’s mountain cuisine. Bring a jacket as it’s much cooler here than in the city.
Bosque de Chapultepec
Area: 1,675 acres
How to get there: Best accessed by Chapultepec, Auditorio or Constituyentes subway stations, or by taxi or rideshare.
Hours: The park consists of three sections, section 1 being the most visited and regulated, open from 5 a.m.-8 p.m, and closed on Mondays. Sections two and three are open 24 hours every day of the year.
Near Mexico City’s bustling business district of Reforma Avenue, lies the Bosque de Chapultepec (a Nahuatl phrase meaning “grasshopper hill”). This impeccably manicured and lively space gives green life to the city’s center, where many trees were felled in order to make way for human progress. The park itself boasts two lakes which were created during the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship of the early 20th century, though the area has been the site of irrigation and aqueducts since the era of Tenochtitlán (the former capital of the Aztec empire on which Mexico City sits). In addition to being a sacred space for the Aztecs, and likely those who came before them, the park also boasts a curious mansion on said grasshopper hill which was built between 1785-1863 and housed an Austrian archduke and his Belgian princess wife during France’s invasion of Mexico.
Area: 6,002 acres
How to get there: Taxi or rideshare will take you all the way to Dínamos 4 in less than an hour from most parts of the core city, depending on traffic conditions. From the Taxqueña subway station, take a bus marked “Los Dínamos” which takes about an hour to arrive, depending on traffic conditions.
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
Los Dínamos is the go-to spot for rock climbing fanatics, hikers and mountain bikers in CDMX. Similar to Desierto de los Leones, it’s on the city’s southwest side though easily accessible through the southwest borough of Magdalena Contreras, just a 30-45 minute drive from many places in the central city. The park is sectioned off into four locations, with Dínamos 4 being the most remote and flaunting the highest elevation (more than 10,000 feet). Like any good mountain send-off trail in Mexico, there are vendors selling local cuisine, cerveza, and even in this case pulque (slightly alcoholic fermented agave nectar) to replenish your energy sources after meandering through any of the 16 miles of rustic trails.
Cumbres del Ajusco National Park
Area: 2,300 acres
How to get there: Rideshares and taxis are pretty easy to come by from within the city and to return, though the trip will likely take more than an hour. If you find yourself stuck after a hike, just ask around and you’ll find a taxi driver. From the Universidad metro, take the “San Miguel Ajusco” bus which takes about an hour to arrive, from there, ask for the “parque nacional” which can be another 20 minutes.
Hours: Open hours, though recommended during daylight as trails can be difficult to navigate in the dark.
Mexico City’s highest point is Ajusco mountain, which guards the southern edge of the city. At 12,894 feet, Ajusco is rugged and steep, but not a technically difficult mountain to climb. Cabins and of course quesadillas and birria (a hearty country soup made with goat or sheep meat) stands abound and the foothills are a popular place for family members to gather. Also part of the national park is the Volcán Xitle, a volcano that blew its top roughly 1,700 years ago and covered much of the city’s south side in volcanic rock. Rumored to have been used as a place for sacrifices and offerings to the Gods, it still draws visitors to its crater for hiking and to connect with the legends of its pre-Columbian past.
Insurgente Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla National Park (aka La Marquesa)
Area: 4,349 acres
How to get there: Rideshares and taxis make the roughly hour trip from the core city on a regular basis. To go by bus, go to the Observatorio subway station, exit and head across the road to the bus station and purchase a ticket to Toluca (make sure it’s an “intermedio” ticket) which will drop you right at La Marquesa in about 45 minutes.
Hours: 7 a.m.-6 p.m.
La Marquesa is a popular park which climbs into the highlands surrounding Mexico City, bordering the city limits and the neighboring State of Mexico. There are hiking trails, diversions (think go-karts and paintball) and horseback riding and is a great place to stop off on the way to or from the stunning Nevado de Toluca volcano or Valle de Bravo, a charming village-surrounding Avándaro lake valley now being touted by Mexico City real estate agents as “the Hamptons of Mexico City” (please don’t go there looking for that). La Marquesa sits at more than 10,000 feet and entices visitors with sampling a variety of Mexican delicacies such as rabbit, mixiote (a pit-barbecue dish) and cecina (dried beef). You can even fish for your own trout and have a restaurant grill it up for you.
Los Viveros de Coyoacán
Area: 119 acres
How to get there: The best way to arrive is to the Viveros subway station.
Hours: 6 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
Viveros is the Spanish term for plant nursery, and there is a large one on site at this park where you can buy anything from herbs to a palm tree. But the real draw and importance of the space is the surprisingly private forest that lies within the park’s walls. Most visitors to Viveros get their walk or run in on the more than one mile-wide loop that encircles the collection of neatly planted trees, including varieties of acacia and eucalyptus. The part plant nursery/part public park was founded as a space to reforest the city and was declared a national park in 1938.
Bosque de Tlalpan and Fuentes Brotantes
Area: 936 acres combined
How to get there: For Bosque de Tlalpan: Take the Metrobus Line 1 south to Villa Olímpica and take a 10-minute taxi drive or walk 15-20 minutes. For Fuentes Brotantes, exit at the Ayuntamiento station and take a five-minute taxi drive or walk 10 minutes.
Hours: Bosque de Tlalpan is open daily from 5:30 a.m.-5 p.m. and Fuentes Brotantes from 9 a.m-6 p.m.
Right along Insurgentes Avenue, the main artery connecting the north and south of the city, lie two national parks in the southern delegation of Tlalpan. Bosque de Tlalpan is made up of steep inclines dotted with pines, oaks and cedars. It’s a popular place for people to hike, hold picnics and other events (including a weekly organic market) and to come with children to enjoy the massive jungle gym equipment. At the southern edge of the park with a separate entrance and hours is Fuentes Brotantes, where natural spring waters flow into a large pond enjoyed by passersby and plenty of ducks. Both parks are often tapped for their natural and tranquil atmosphere to host activities such as yoga and dance classes.
UNAM Botanical Garden
Area: 30 acres
How to get there: Take the subway to Universidad, and take a short walk into the UNAM campus.
Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Small, sweet, and complete is the UNAM Botanical Garden, part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s massive campus that is home to more than 300,000 students. UNAM has a great deal of outdoor spaces to enjoy, such as the Sculpture Park and its central Las Islas common area, but the Botanical Garden is one of the most relaxed areas on campus, featuring plants and trees endemic to Mexico, including a wide variety of cacti. There’s even a gift shop where you can adopt a native, endangered cactus (for a small fee) and care for it in your own home. The space is popular for students and cityfolk alike, with plenty of space to stretch out and take in the sun and the oxygen that it provides.
Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl
Area: 98,842 acres
How to get there: The best bet is to rent a car so you can explore the park at your leisure. Otherwise, buses make the hour-and-a-half trip regularly for Amecameca, from the city’s TAPO bus station, from there you can hire a taxi to take you into the park.
Hours: 7 a.m.- 9 p.m., with special backcountry permits required to hike Iztaccíhuatl (it’s at least a 14-hour out-and-back hike).
While not technically part of Mexico City, this massive national park is home to two of Mexico’s largest volcanoes which play a major role of the valley’s indigenous legends. On a day with moderate traffic, the park is between one and two hours to the east. On clear days (mostly in the late fall and early winter), the snow-capped mountains can be seen from the city itself. Iztaccíhuatl, at more than 17,100 feet, last erupted in 1868 and is now considered dormant; known colloquially as The Sleeping Woman or The White Woman for its year-round snowpack, and its form of a woman resting on her side. As Aztec legend goes, she was the true love of warrior Popocatepetl (17,800 feet), which is still active to this day, dousing dust on surrounding communities in his mourning of her death. It erupts at small levels regularly, and its habit of spitting out ash contributed in part to the poor air quality the city experienced this spring.
Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco
Area: 531 acres
How to get there: Rideshares and taxis are abundant in the area, though congestion is high in Xochimilco due to two-lane roads and travel from central areas of the city can take an hour or more. The park sits right off of the Periférico highway which circles the city. On Metrobus line 1 or Tren Ligero, get off at the Periférico station and take a bus east asking for Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco.
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Xochimilco is one of Mexico City’s most important neighborhoods in terms of its food production on floating islands known as chinampas (an ingenious creation of the Aztecs) and the canals built from now mostly dry Lake Texcoco, making up for about 60 miles of waterways. The delegation’s water and trees function as lungs as well as a popular recreation area and home to the endangered axolotl (cuteness level: red alert). So popular, in fact, that water in the canals is pumped out and treated and also diverted from other areas of the city for the popular Xochimilco boat rides. The Xochimilco Ecological Park is home to migrating birds as well as native flora and fauna that has managed to stand up to the tests of Mexico City’s rapid urbanization of this not-long-ago rural delegation.
Cerro de la Estrella National Park
Area: 200 acres
How to get there: Take the subway to the Cerro de al Estrella National Park station and have a taxi take you to the park.
Hours: Open daily 5 a.m.-7 p.m.Overlooking the densely populated Iztapalapa borough, Cerro de la Estrella sits at more than 8,000 feet (more than 700 feet above the city) and is covered in pines, eucalyptus and white cedar. It’s popular for trail running and offers an excellent view of the city on a clear day. Though the cherry on top is really a pyramid. Other visitors go for the pre-Columbian sites including a pyramid and petroglyphs, the work of various indigenous groups (namely the Chichimecas) dating as far back as 1500 BCE.
Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone and Ecological Park
Area: 44 acres
How to get there: Take the Metrobus to the Villa Olímpica station, Cuicuilco sits alongside northbound Insurgentes Avenue.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
The largest archaeological site in Mexico City is also one of its oldest and greenest. Long before the Mexica (also known as the Aztecs) took hold of the valley, this pyramid was built by the Cuicuilca people (of whom not much is known) in honor of a fire deity, possibly referencing nearby Xitle volcano which erupted between 245 and 315 CE and ultimately lead to the abandonment of Cuicuilco. Much of the pyramid still lies beneath more than 30 feet of volcanic rock from that eruption. Agaves, eucalyptus, grasses and many endemic flowers make up the ecological aspect of this ancient part of the city. An onsite museum boasts what is arguably the best depiction of the now-dry Lake Texcoco on which Mexico City was formed as an island.
Area: 136 acres
How to get there: Take the subway to the Refinería station which sits on its eastern border.
Hours: 7 a.m.-6 p.m.
Providing respite on the city’s north side, Parque Bicentenario is home to five gardens, an orchid house and a conservatory. The park has undergone a number of recent reforestation programs providing shade for chilangos to rest under in between soccer matches. With sports fields and a lake, it’s provides this side of town with a tranquil and family friendly place to spend time. While it’s often quiet on weekdays, the weekends welcome hordes of people to celebrate everything from having a day off to birthdays and weddings in the wide green areas. The park is even adapted from time to time to host major concerts featuring national and international acts such as Hello Seahorse! and Björk.
Megan Frye is an independent journalist and translator living in Mexico City. She has a history of newsroom journalism as well as nonprofit administration and works with international and Mexican publications.