News doesn’t just travel fast, it travels far. I arrive in Mexico City with the shock waves caused by Top Gear’s ‘anti-Mexican’ comments scandal still reverberating in the UK, hoping word hasn’t reached these shores. But, of course, everyone here knows about the scandal, too.
“A lot of people were very upset,” says Oscar, my local guide. “I was in shock. There’s an idea that we’re still riding around on horses and wearing big hats, sleeping under cactus… People never think of Mexico City as such a modern city.”
Mexico City is a thriving cosmopolitan capital that blows apart any lazy preconceptions. It’s huge, too, with 18 million people living in Mexico City (23 million if you include the surrounding valley). The city is very much the heartbeat of the country — with so many people coming here to live and work, all of Mexico is represented in its food, art and culture.
Moving around, you’re struck by diversity and contrast — from noisy streets with honking cars and uniformed organeros (organ grinders) turning handles on music boxes, to the green sanctuary of Alameda Central park or the peaceful canalways of Xochimilco.
The history of the capital and the country, as told in the giant murals of Diego Rivera and in venues across the city, is a blend of native and foreign cultures, including Europe (notably Spain), Africa and the US. Evidence of both ancient and modern is found side by side here, too: the downtown area has the ruins of Aztec pyramids and grand 16th-century colonial churches alongside contemporary museums, galleries and designer boutiques. Traditional mariachis are present, as are chic nightclubs. There’s also a thriving art scene, building on the city’s proud history of Frida Kahlo and ‘the big three’ (Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros).
Despite the strong Catholic influence, the city is progressive — it’s the only city in Mexico where same-sex marriage is allowed.
There are serious problems, however, including pollution and famously bad traffic jams (using the good Metro system is usually much quicker than a taxi across town). But locals insist the perception of the city as dangerous and crime-ridden is over-hyped and that things have improved a great deal in the past 15 years. Nevertheless, it’s still a city to be cautious in. And the gap between rich and poor is conspicuous and, apparently, getting worse.
But in stark contrast to Richard Hammond and co’s comments, Mexicans are incredibly proud of their country and their capital.
And after spending only a few days here, it’s easy to see that this pride is well-founded.
One of the many people who took offence at Jeremy Clarkson’s attack on Mexican cuisine was TV chef and restaurateur Monica Patino. This type of misperception of Mexican food, she suggests, is based on poor imitations in the US and other countries. “It’s like pizzas in the United States and in Italy,” she says. “Each has nothing to do with the other.”
I eat at Naos, Monica’s restaurant in upscale Palmas, which fuses traditional Mexican dishes with ingredients and techniques from Asia and Europe. “Mexico City is really a magnet for all cultures, all foods,” she tells me. “Many people from all over the country live here. It’s like a sample of the whole country, the tip of the iceberg.”
I also visit the newly opened Azul Condesa, in Condesa, where influential chef and radio host Ricardo Munoz is working to preserve and promote Mexican culinary traditions. “There’s a misperception among many people that traditional Mexican food is inferior, and that’s not true,” he says. “We’re not French, not Italian. We’re Mexican and very proud. One of the great things about Mexico City is you can eat at a mid-range restaurant like this, as well as very luxurious places, or you can eat great things at a hole in the wall.”
He’s right. I enjoyed plenty of tasty street food (tamales boiled in cans by the roadside, tortillas fresh and hot from the machine…) and basic dishes in cantinas and restaurants. The diet can be quite heavy — one of the most popular traditional sauces, after all, is mole, which blends chillis with chocolate. But Mexican food is ultimately defined by the combination of flavours — tables are filled with a variety of sauces, herbs and chillis to add to meals. And one piece of golden advice I receive: “Never trust a Mexican who tells you a sauce is not hot.” Whether their taste buds are acclimatised or they’re simply playing a game with visitors, accept a fingertip’s worth of some sauces here and it could take your head off.
A night out in Mexico City is almost guaranteed to include one thing: tequila. The potent spirit is a great source of national pride, and drunk daily by many with meals or in bars, as well as at birthdays, weddings and other celebrations. “It’s like the tortilla — so important to us,” says Juan Martinez, head bartender at popular cantina La Bipolar. “A Mexican starts drinking tequila when they’re young, and when they die, the last drink they have will be tequila.” Tequila’s cousin, mezcal, is becoming more fashionable with young drinkers in the capital.
Although it’s undeniably touristy, Plaza Garibaldi is probably the best place to enjoy tequila, where dozens of uniformed mariachi bands vie to perform to visitors. The square’s crowded with so many musicians playing at the same time, it’s difficult to make out individual bands or songs but the atmosphere here is charged in spite — or possibly because — of this.
Mariachi’s still a living tradition, not just a tourist sideshow, and in cantinas around the square, bands perform full-hearted songs of love and lost love, while bottles of tequila are emptied. I sit with friends in the bar El Tenampa, sampling from the extensive tequila menu and watching this national tradition that falls somewhere between folk music and karaoke. Mexicans (and anyone else who knows the words) stand and join the 10 or 12-piece bands to belt out passionate, often drunken, renditions, glass of tequila in hand.
There’s a surprising number of museums and galleries scattered around the city, from the fascinating Museo Nacional de Antopologia, filled with beautiful objects from Mayan, Aztec and other pre-Hispanic cultures, to the Museo De Arte Moderno, home to one of Frida Kahlo’s most famous works, Las Dos Fridas.
I walk around the Palacio de Bellas Artes, whose walls are covered by the giant, colourful and bold political murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. Across town, you can take in centuries of Mexican history, from original, indigenous cultures through the Conquest and Inquisition and on to Independence and Revolution, simply by standing before Rivera’s mural Mexico a Traves de los Sigloes, which surrounds the main staircase of the Palacio Nacional. The figures who made Mexico are all represented, from Revolutionary hero Pancho Villa to Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo; from chiefs and generals to peasants and prostitutes.
I visit Frida Kahlo’s ‘Blue House’ (the house where she was born and died), which hammers home the physical and emotional pain she suffered for most of her life, and sheds light on her turbulent relationship with Rivera. Strangely, several of her most tormented works are not far away, in the Museo Dolores Olmedo, the former home of Rivera’s unofficial mistress. Roaming its peaceful gardens are peacocks, and a breed of black dog that Rivera loved and which appears as a recurring motif in his works, rather like the Where’s Wally? character. There’s a variety of his work here beyond the more famous murals, including portraits and Cubist pieces. My favourite room is filled with pictures of sunsets he created on different evenings from the same vantage point at a holiday retreat; all are similar but possess their own, distinct shades of melancholy.
“Mexico City is a place where a lot of artists come because they know the tradition we have in the culture,” art collector and promoter Oscar Roman tells me at his gallery in Polanco. “In the time of Rivera and Kahlo, many people came to Mexico City and found a very good experience with the culture: the Hispanic, colonial and contemporary. So now it’s a great mix of old and new and people from around the country.” As with the food, so too the art.
Large US and Mexican chain hotels have long had a presence along the central Reforma Avenue. But in the past 10-15 years, as Mexico City has become a destination city rather than a place you merely pass through, an increasing number of smaller boutique hotels have opened on route to the beach resorts. “People want the place they stay in to be part of the experience, not just somewhere to sleep,” Abigail Rivera of Hamak hotel group tells me.
I stay at one of its hotels in upmarket Polanco. Lumina Luxury Suites is a small (12 rooms), modern, secluded place, with cool white marble throughout and lots of greenery — a cool mint in a hot city. The rooms each have individual, playful arty touches. And the people who work here are thoughtful (an extension lead I need for my laptop, but haven’t asked for, appears in my room one afternoon) and friendly, making it feel quite homely.
I try out another pair of boutique hotes, in Polanco. Casa Vieja’s decor is classic Mexican: bright blue-and-yellow-painted adobe walled rooms furnished with ceramics; Las Alcobas, on the other hand, is elegant and luxurious. Across town, Condesa DF is perhaps the hippest place to stay in perhaps the hippest neighbourhood of them all, Condesa. A tad showy possibly, but the fashionable rooftop bar is buzzing at night.
If all you want, however, is a simple room close to the downtown sights, the Holiday Inn is right on the edge of the Zocalo (main square). From the rooftop restaurant you can see the square and the Catedral Metropolitana, Latin America’s largest cathedral.
Templo Mayor is an Aztec pyramid right in the heart of downtown. However, a half-hour’s drive from the city is the most visited archeological site in Mexico, the Teotihuacan Pyramids. I walk up the steep steps of the Pyramid of the Sun in the afternoon heat and take in the views of the adjacent Pyramid of the Moon and the connecting Street of the Dead. Although the site is popular, it’s large enough not to feel crowded.
Peace can also be found on one of the colourful boats on the canalways of Xochimilico in the south of the city. Men and women here sell everything from fruit to shawls and canoes, while mariachi bands on boats play songs for pesos. Halfway down the canal, there’s the creepily bizarre Island of the Dolls, a collection of mutilated dolls and teddy bears tied to trees. On my last night in the city, I go for a full-on Mexican experience, Luche Libra (wresting) at Arena Mexico. The sport is incredibly popular with families who delight in taunting the ‘bad guys’ — usually with imaginatively brutal insults featuring the grapplers’ mothers.
“After football, Luche Libre is the most important tradition in Mexico,” wrestler Rey Buccanero tells me before his fight. “Wrestling is popular because of the competitors’ outfits and personalities.” Out front sit boys and girls, and often their dads, wearing the colourful masks of their heroes. While the fights are cheesy and staged, you have to admire the commitment of the combatants — stunts are genuinely dangerous, with somersaults, high falls onto the hard floor and acrobatic leaps from the ropes into the audience.
Over three hours of bouts, costumed warriors such as Blue Panther, Y Dragon Rojo, Super Porky (imagine a bearded Danny Devito) and Rey Bucanero pound, kick, slap, throw, dunk and bounce each other across and out of the ring; many of them looking like they could rip up a phone directory with their hands. As I watch them in all their sweaty, muscled glory, I can’t help thinking I’d love to see Richard ‘The Hamster’ Hammond share his views about Mexicans with these guys.
British Airways operates a direct flight from Heathrow to Mexico City four times weekly. www.ba.com
Average flight time: 11-12h
Frequent traffic jams make Mexico City frustrating to explore by car. Fortunately, there’s a good city-wide Metro, with stops in all major zones, though it’s best avoided at rush hour. If you do use taxis, ask a hotel, restaurant or bar to book an official one for you — slightly more pricier but safer than an unlicensed cab. Turibus bus tours are a good way to sightsee.
When To Go
Mexico’s warmest months are July and August; the coldest, December and January.
Need To Know
Visas: British passport holders do not require a visa and can stay in the country for up to six months without a special permit. For longer periods, visitors need to apply for an FM3 visa.
Currency: Mexican peso. £1 = 19.48MXN.
Health: Recommended vaccinations include tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid.
International dial code: 00 52.
Time Difference: GMT -6.
Naos. Av. Palmas 425 Local B, Col Lomas de Chapultepec. T: 00 52 5520 5702.
Azul Condesa. Nuevo Leon 68, Col Condesa. T: 00 52 5286 6380.
Delirio. Monterrey 116 con Álvaro Obregón, Col Roma. T: 00 52 5584 0870.
La Opera. Cinco de Mayo 10, Col Centro. T: 00 52 5512 8959.
La Bipolar. Malintzin 155, Distrito Federal. T: 00 52 5484 8230.
El Tenampa. Plaza Garibaldi 12, Col Centro. www.salontenampa.com
Covadonga. Puebla 121, Col Roma. www.banquetescovadonga.com
La Guadalupana. Higuera 2, Col Coyoacan. T: 00 52 5554 6253.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia. www.mna.inah.gob.mx
Museo De Arte Moderno. www.mam.org.mx
Palacio de Bellas Artes. www.bellesartes.gob.mx
Palacio Nacional. www.palacionacionalmexico.com
Museum Frida Kahlo. www.museofridakahlo.org
Museo Dolores Olmeda. www.museodoloresolmedo.org.mx
Galeria Oscar Roman. www.galeriaoscarroman.com.mx
Lumina Luxury Suites. Leibinitz 40, Col. Nueva Anzures.
Condesa DF. Av. Veracruz N.102, Col. Condesa. www.condesadf.com
Casa Vieja. Eugenio Sue 45, Col Polanco. www.casavieja.com
Las Alcobas Hotel. Presidente Masaryk 390A, Col. Polanco. www.lasalcobas.com
Holiday Inn Zocalo. Av. 5 de Mayo No. 61, Col. Centro. www.holidayinn.com/mexicodowntown
Aztec, by Gary Jennings. RRP: £10.28.
Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel. RRP: £7.99.
Tequila Oil: Getting Lost In Mexico, by Hugh Thomson. RRP: £8.99.
The Mango Orchard, by Robin Bayley. RRP: £7.99.
Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico, by Isabella Tree. RRP: £11.99.
How to do it
W&O Travel South American Experience offers three nights at the Casa Vieja from £385 per person B&B based on two sharing including transfers, a full-day city tour and visit to the Teotihuacan Pyramids. www.wandotravel.com
Native Trails offers a Discover Mexico City four-day tour for £318 per person staying in a double room at Holiday Inn Zocalo, with an English-speaking driver/guide. www.nativetrails.co.uk
Published in the Jul/Aug 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)