MEXICO'S CAPITAL IS NOT ONLY bordered by volcanoes, rattled from time to time by earthquakes, and inhabited by nearly twenty million people. The megalopolis is also sinking so rapidly into the ground that its church steeples lean at odd angles along the skyline. "Embrace the insanity of the place," a friend advised before I left. "Don't try to fight it or you'll go crazy." And so the first time a taxi driver raced through a red light into oncoming traffic at 40 miles per hour, I didn't protest; I just held on. Visitors must surrender to the city's idiosyncratic but immutable laws: Red lights are rarely heeded, dinner is served after nine, and the ubiquitous mango-green Volkswagen taxis (whose drivers are notorious for abducting and robbing tourists) are best avoided. But amid the chaos, Mexico City is brimming with vibrancy and renewal. The corrupt political party that ruled Mexico for 71 years—the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI—is no longer in power, and the economic slump set off by the 1994 peso devaluation is abating. Even the city's smog has begun to lift. Street life is humming, from the revitalized Zócalo, at the city's center, to the leafy enclave of the Condesa neighborhood, which is full of fresas, the city's young, well-heeled elite. After a dreary decade in the shadows, Mexico City is in full bloom.
As luck would have it, my boyfriend, Chad, and I happened to be in Mexico City at the same time as Pope John Paul II. We arrived on the day in July that he canonized the nation's first indigenous saint, the Christian convert Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. The pageantry surrounding the event was like so many things in Mexico City, which the Spanish built atop the vanquished Aztec city of Tenochtitlán: a fusion of colonial and indigenous traditions, Catholicism and paganism, all unself-consciously interwoven. Juan Diego's existence has been debated ( see Faith: "Quite Contrary" ), but his legend—in 1531 he saw an apparition of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary at the site of an Aztec shrine—helped convert Mexico's Indian population to Catholicism and launched a national obsession with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Men in Aztec dress celebrated his canonization by performing ancient dances outside the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and a tenor sang in the native Aztec language, Nahuatl, under a cloud of incense. We were unable to get anywhere near the basilica because millions of people, many of them pilgrims who had traveled across Mexico by foot, were jamming the streets, hoping for a view of the papal motorcade.
To avoid the crowds, we retreated to the exclusive neighborhood of Polanco and checked into the ultrachic Hotel Habita. Designed by the renowned Mexico City architecture firm TEN Arquitectos, it is the city's first boutique hotel, a translucent box of sandblasted glass that overlooks Polanco's main artery, Avenida Presidente Masaryk. Our room, illuminated during the day by natural light that filtered through the hotel's glass shell, was sleek but comfortable, with Eames chairs and a low-slung feather bed. Design was paramount: Our modernist room key, when inserted into a chrome fixture by the door, turned on recessed lighting and ambient music. We were reluctant to leave the comfort of the hotel, which has a spa and a spectacular rooftop bar, but we had dinner reservations at Izote, farther east on Avenida Masaryk. Izote is the city's hottest new restaurant, where the beautiful people flock for dinner late in the evening. Its brightly lit dining room is spare, but the food—imaginative revisions of pre-Hispanic and Mexican dishes by one of the country's premier chefs, Patricia Quintana—is divine. We feasted on Brie enchiladas in a tart tomato-pasilla sauce and lobster in pumpkin-seed mole. Izote so spoiled us that every meal that followed suffered by comparison.
If Izote's cuisine is a gastronomic map of Mexico, the country's regional and cultural roots are on display at the impressive Museo Nacional de Antropología, which we walked to the following morning. On the northern edge of Chapultepec Park—a thousand-acre expanse of green in the middle of the city with seven museums, a zoo, and a castle—the museum provided a historical framework for the city's Aztec roots and the ruins we would soon visit. Arranged by region, its relics include a Mayan temple, colorful Toltec frescoes, Mixtec codices painted on deerskin, and the spectacular Piedra del Sol, a carved image of the cosmos as imagined by the Aztecs. We could have spent the day exploring the park and its museums, but we opted instead to move on (the pope had left that morning, so the city was easier to navigate) and explore the city's bustling center, the Zócalo. Polanco had been an elegant refuge, but with its high-walled mansions watched by armed guards and its glittering array of stores—Tiffany, Versace, and Hermès, to name a few—it felt too far removed from the rest of the city. The Hotel Habita was also relatively expensive. We checked out and, taking a taxi that the hotel had called for us, drove across town and along the broad Paseo de la Reforma to the more affordable and central Hotel Majestic.
The Zócalo is the world's second-largest city square after Moscow's Red Square, and it is the city's vital political and spiritual center. The vast stone plaza, anchored by the Palacio Nacional (which houses President Vicente Fox's offices) and the Catedral Metropolitana (the grande dame of the city's churches), was awash in the sounds of organ-grinders, political protesters, and street vendors selling roasted corn. We spent the afternoon exploring the Zócalo, marveling at the Diego Rivera murals inside the Palacio Nacional and the recently unearthed Aztec temple, the Templo Mayor, next to the cathedral. Then we strolled a few blocks north to the Plaza Santo Domingo, where we went to a fascinating and macabre exhibit of instruments of torture, mostly those used by the Spanish during the Inquisition, at the Museo de la Medicina Mexicana. At the end of a long day of walking, we