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 rewarded ourselves with a visit to the Dulcería de Celaya, an old-fashioned candy shop that displays its confections like diamonds in a jewel case. We ate dinner at the nearby Café de Tacuba, a downtown institution whose food we found pedestrian until we tried the heavenly enchiladas de Tacuba, savory chicken enchiladas in an unusual spinach-cream sauce. Afterward we had drinks at the baroque La Opera Bar. Founded in 1876, it has a bullet hole in the ceiling reputedly put there by Pancho Villa.
The Hotel Majestic, which is on the Zócalo, is vastly different from the Hotel Habita, with fewer frills (no air conditioning) and an older, more traditionally Mexican feel. Our room afforded a magnificent view, with French doors that opened onto a balcony overlooking the enormous plaza, but the noise made sleep hard to come by. At night sirens wailed and dogs howled; at dawn we were awakened by the clanging of cathedral bells and a drum-and-bugle corps heralding the raising of the Mexican flag. After our first night at the Majestic, we hired a taxi for the day (the hotel has a stable of reliable drivers) and traveled thirty miles northeast to Teotihuacán, the stunning ruins of a city-state that dated back to the time of Imperial Rome. We began by climbing to the top of the famous Pirámide del Sol, the third-largest pyramid in the world, and took in the extraordinary view of the ancient city down below. Next we walked along the Calzada de los Muertos (Street of the Dead) to the smaller Pirámide de la Luna and explored the adjacent Palacio de los Jaguares, painted with ornate frescoes of jaguars. The heat, the altitude, and the steepness of our climb up the pyramids made for an exhausting but exhilarating day; we ended our trip with a late lunch of decent chicken mole at the touristy but pretty La Gruta, located in a cool, dark cave near the ruins.
Before turning in for the night, we decided to explore the Condesa, a quiet oasis in the midst of Mexico City’s urban sprawl. We had dinner there late that evening, when the area’s many street cafes were crowded with fresas. With tree-lined side streets and an artistic atmosphere, the Condesa felt blissfully undiscovered by tourists; we were the only Americans in sight. We did our share of people-watching at La Gloria, an open-air cafe that serves good, simple bistro food, then splurged on crepas de cajeta (crêpes with caramelized goat’s milk) at La Crêperie de la Paix, which was still hopping when we left at one.
The next morning, we started our day in the soaring blue-and-white-tiled courtyard of Sanborns’ Casa de Azulejos, a 1596 mansion near the Zócalo, where we ate a hearty breakfast of chilaquiles verdes. Then we headed for Coyoacán, a charming enclave on the south side of the city, and visited the electric-blue hacienda where Frida Kahlo lived with Diego Rivera, a sun-dappled space that is now a museum showcasing Kahlo’s artwork and life. Afterward we walked five blocks to the perfectly preserved house where Leon Trotsky, once Kahlo’s lover, was assassinated with an ice pick in 1940. At the nearby Plaza Hidalgo, we took the first car in line at the sitio, or taxi stand—the safest way to travel if you’re not near a hotel or restaurant that can call a cab for you. We made sure to agree on a fare beforehand, having gotten fleeced when we forgot to do so earlier on our trip.
We headed west to the neighborhood of San Angel, where artisans sell their wares every Saturday at the Bazar Sábado, a two-block-long outdoor market that encompasses both the Plaza San Jacinto and the Plaza del Carmen. After looking at an array of mostly unexceptional oil paintings, we were glad to find booths selling high-quality hammered silver, embroidered cloth, pottery, and handmade paper. We picked out presents for our friends, then took a leisurely stroll through San Angel’s winding cobblestone streets, past villas whose brightly hued adobe walls were draped with bougainvillea. By the time we arrived at another former home of Mexico City’s two most famous artists, the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, the museum had closed. But all was not lost: We had dinner reservations across the street at the San Angel Inn, an elegant restaurant in an eighteenth-century hacienda. Sitting in the rose-filled courtyard, we drank the inn’s signature margaritas, which our waiter poured from tiny silver carafes nestled in tiny ice buckets into salted martini glasses. The restaurant—which, like many we visited, was deserted before nine—is grand and old-fashioned, with courtly waiters who served us chateaubriand and cherries jubilee.
After dinner we listened to the inn’s mariachis play sad songs about love, then returned to the Zócalo for a nightcap. It was our last night in Mexico City, and so we repaired to La Casa de las Sirenas, a beautiful old house with stained-glass windows that serves hundreds of tequilas as well as Mexican haute cuisine. As we drank Herradura Reposado on its balcony, we stared out at the expanse of the Zócalo, faintly illuminated by the lights of the cathedral. The Aztecs believed that this spot was the center of the universe, and we saw no reason to disagree.
Getting there: You can fly nonstop to Mexico City from Dallas-Fort Worth (via Aeromexico, American, and Delta), Houston (Aeromexico, Continental, and Delta), and San Antonio (Mexicana and United). When you exit customs, look for the taxi-service counter on your left. Pay your taxi fare here (our taxi to Polanco was $14); you will receive a ticket, which you will present to your driver. Taxis with an airplane logo on the side will be lined up just outside the terminal. These authorized taxis are the safest way to travel from the airport.
Where to stay: Hotel Habita, Av. Presidente Masaryk 201, 011-52-555-282-3100, fax 555-282-3101; hotelhabita.com, [email protected]; from $195 for a single room to $275 for a suite. Hotel Majestic, Av. Madero 73, 011-52-555-521-8600, fax 555-512-6262; majestic.com.mx, [email protected]; from $100 for a single room to $175 for a suite.
Where to eat and drink: Café de Tacuba, Tacuba 28; entrées $5-$13. Café la Gloria, Vicente Suárez 41; entrées $5-$9. La Crêperie de la Paix, Michoacán 103; crêpes $3-$5. Izote, Av. Presidente Masaryk 513; entrées $12-$26. La Casa de las Sirenas, República de Guatemala 32; a shot of Herradura Reposado is $5. La Gruta, east of gate five on Teotihuacán’s perimeter road; entrées $8-$12. La Opera Bar, Av. Cinco de Mayo 14; a shot of Herradura Reposado is $5. San Angel Inn, Diego Rivera 50; entrées $8-$25. Sanborns’ Casa de Azulejos, Av. Madero 4; breakfast $4-$7.
What to do: Dulcería de Celaya, Av. Cinco de Mayo 39. Museo Casa de León Trotsky, Av. Río Churubusco 410; admission $1; closed Monday. Museo de la Medicina Mexicana, República del Brasil 33; admission $3.50. Museo Frida Kahlo, Londres 247; admission $2; closed Monday. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Paseo de la Reforma at Calzada Gandhi; admission $2.50; closed Monday. Templo Mayor, on the Zócalo; admission $3.50; closed Monday. Teotihuacán, in the Zona Arqueológica de Teotihuacán; admission $2.75; a taxi for the day is about $30 per person.
Peso me mucho: Change some of your dollars into pesos when you arrive at your destination airport; the exchange rates are on a par with those at Mexican banks and ATMs and are usually better than the rates at U.S. airports and Mexican shops, hotels, and casas de cambio (currency exchanges). And buy something right away to break up the big bills you’ll get: In Mexico you can never have enough small change.