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It has been a year since Mexico City's progressive mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, launched a bicycle lending program as an alternative to driving. The idea is that commuters can use the bikes, called Ecobicis, for short jaunts and alleviate the environmental and traffic mess. Some 36,000 inhabitants have subscribed to the program so far, just a blip in a city with 4 million cars clogging the roads daily, but it is no longer a novelty to see cyclists on the street.

"I see a lot more people on bikes, including bikes that are not Ecobicis," said Zachary Parker, a transplant from Portland, Oregon, who has lived in the Mexican capital for two years. "People are starting to realise that it's a safe, acceptable form of transportation."

It is a more interesting one, too. Between the clogged arteries of the main thoroughfares, Mexico City is a mosaic of neighbourhoods where the pace of life often seems rooted in another era when the air was clear. Riding through the streets of the Condesa neighbourhood, for example, you encounter roving marimba players and the sweet potato vendor who pushes around a mobile oven with an ear-piercing steam whistle to herald his arrival. Cycling through the Historic Centre becomes a kaleidoscopic journey, a surreal succession of sombre colonial structures, frenetic commercial activity and feathered Aztec dancers.

Journalist and Mexico City native José Fernández Ramos has started to cycle around instead of driving, and not just as a practical measure. "Riding Ecobicis is lots of fun," he said. "You feel much better than when you're inside a car, especially when you see all those people trapped in traffic and you pass them all."

In the initial phase of the program, 90 Ecobici "stations" have been placed only in key central neighbourhoods such as Roma and Cuauhtémoc. The fire-engine red bicycles look dinky but are actually fairly sturdy machines, with high handlebars and a basket in front to throw a bag into. To use a bike, you simply swipe your card over a scanner, pull out a bike, adjust the seat to your comfort and go. As a subscriber (around $25 per year), you have 30 minutes to ride for free.

True, mixing it up with Mexico City traffic takes steely nerves. Cycling lanes are being installed along certain key routes but by and large you are sharing the streets with cars, trucks and buses. Peseros (mini buses that used to charge one peso, hence the name) weave in and out of traffic alarmingly, cutting off anyone in their path in their determination to grab as many riders as possible.

But in other ways, Mexico City is ideal for cycling. Though it is way up on a plateau, the city centre is table flat. And despite often startling levels of atmospheric particulates, the weather at 2,240m stays blissfully crisp almost year round.

What follows is a list of suggested rides through Mexico City, each of which starts and ends at a designated Ecobici station, none of which should exceed the half-hour free limit.

1. Station 43 (Juárez-Dr Mora) to Station 89 (República de Guatemala-Monte de Piedad): Glide through the poplar-lined Alameda Central to the Fine Arts Palace, the city's showpiece for the visual and performing arts. Across the six-lane Eje Central, enter the Historic Centre along Calle Madero (recently closed to auto traffic), ending on the massive central square, the Zócalo.

2. Station 13 (Reforma-Río Rodano) to Station 29 (Reforma-Bucareli): This ride down Paseo de la Reforma is most fun on Sunday when the stately thoroughfare is closed to auto traffic and cyclists swarm down its length -- a smart initiative that gives citizens a taste of what a traffic-free city might be like.

3. Station 75 (Alfonso Reyes-Atlixco) to Station 70 (Parque México-Michoacán): Condesa is where you are most likely to share the streets with other cyclists--Mayor Ebrard himself lives here. Av Tamaulipas leads up to the main restaurant/café zone. From the market building, take Vicente Suárez east a few blocks to the wonderful Parque México, a former horse racing track, now a jungle-like oval of tranquility.

4. Station 47 (Glorieta Cibeles) to Station 72 (Mazatlán-Alfonso Reyes): From the Cibeles roundabout, head east along Calle Durango, with plenty of Parisian style manses along its shaded length plus a few department stores. Then turn down Mazatlán, a broad boulevard where fat palms rise royally from a central median.

5. Station 26 (Reforma-Versalles) to Station 90 (Pino Suárez-Corregidora): This route takes you through the commercial district south of the Alameda, where each street is devoted to a different product (coins, light fixtures, musical instruments, perfumes) like an open-air department store, ending at the south side of the Zócalo.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Cycling the Aztec way’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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