From the top of the hill in Ixtapaluca, Mexico City looks attractive: the metropolis of 22 million seats on a valley surrounded by two beautiful volcanoes and mountains. The city still has a shrinking lake, Xochimilco, a legacy from pre Hispanic times, one of the few remaining natural reserves.

New human settlements keep devouring nature by the day, mostly on the hills, as the flat surfaces are mostly occupied or unaffordable.

To kids here airplanes are an attraction, as they fly over one every minute in the afternoons so is to look at the city’s historic center to identify some of its many landmarks, typically monuments, office towers and Chapultepec Park, the largest green spot inside the concrete jungle.

But going to see the city’s zoo at Chapultepec is a luxury families living here can rarely afford.

It takes about two hours on public transportation to reach the city’s center, and about half of a daily minimum wage for one person to go down there.

Before taking the first collective taxi to the nearest train station people need to walk on the dirt, which during the rainy season becomes sticky mud.

With no water or sewage the only service that works sometimes is electricity coming on a fragile makeshift system with non-professional wiring. This is an informal settlement arranged by a political group which occupies land then pressures the government to provide services, a process that usually takes several years.

Shanties share the hill with corn fields and a few remaining tall trees.

It is a hard life, says Moises Vazquez, who works as a security guard in the city. But better to struggle for a few years living on something you own, rather than to continue paying rent to somebody else’s property under not better conditions in one of the nearby settlements.

Living in Ixtapaluca has a few benefits: The air is cleaner, the view is amazing. Vazquez mother in-law, who lives with him, her two daughters and seven children in two shanties, is proud she can cook a delicious meal for everyone with the cactus she cuts right there on the side of her home.

“Life is good sometimes when we all seat together to have food,” she says.