Tell someone you’re planning to vacation in Venice, Italy, and they “ooh” and “awe” and get all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed over it. Tell them you’re going to Mexico City and they scratch their head, puzzled, and manage only to sputter, “why?”
Why? Because it’s a city where, even in the thick of summer, the high temperature doesn’t scoot an inch above 77 degrees, and where if it doesn’t rain for an hour every afternoon, people are apt to call it a dry season. In Ciudad de Mexico, a 2-hour lunch break is considered customary and you can drizzle hot sauce and lime juice over everything. You can marvel at the intricate detail of architecture created in the 1500s or try and count the number of floors on a marble, state-of-the-art sky scrapper that’s younger than you are. Mexico City is a wonder.
Claro, the splendor of Mexico’s capital was practically a mystery to we Texans prior to our arrival. We had heard legendary stories of Tenochtitlan, been vaguely versed as undergrads in the history of the Mexican Revolution, and were fairly confident in the fact that it might be the dwelling place of
my our Mexican movie star boyfriend, Gael Garcia Bernal. And yes, for you mothers of the world, we had heard a note or two about some kind of drug war, which we didn’t take too much to heart. For the most part, except for a few trivial factoids, we went to Mexico City as infants.
The purpose of our journey was two-fold. First, we wanted to celebrate two years of liking being married to each other with an exotic vacation (exotic in the sense that you could eat bizarre foods but not spend $1000 on a plane ticket). Second, we wanted to visit newlyweds Alex and Santi* who relocated there a few months earlier. But, for the non-anniversary-celebrating/friend-visiting traveler, why Mexico City?
Promptly upon arriving in Mexico City, before even stepping out of the airport, we were handed a cup of Mango (purchased on the street, no less) sprinkled with chili powder and spritzed with lime juice. Bienvenidos indeed. But the incredibly irresistible combination of lime juice and chili powder (which comes on, if not next to, practically everything you order in the District Federal) is merely a starting point. Throughout the week we ate street tacos for 20 pesos and extravagant ceviche for considerably more—both tasted like meals intended for kings. We savored Oaxaca cheese, nibbled on cups of roasted corn, and delighted in ordering a laundry list of local staples: gorditas, gunabana, flautas, quesadillas, bistek, consommé. It’s rare, state side, to find any meal that can rival the freshness or flavor of the street food in Mexico City; in fact, I think certain FDA requirements make it impossible. And you can’t touch the price. It’s unlikely, too, to be able to find truly enjoyable menudo (cow intestine), grasshopper guacamole, corn fungus or cucaracha (an entire shrimp deep fried in spicy tempura batter). We found, and happily devoured, each. Journey to Mexico City and you will eat like royalty if not like a god.
I don’t think it a stretch to say the promise of collecting a truckload of inexpensive goods at market is a significant, if not the primary, draw for many Americans visiting Mexico’s urban cities. As a collective, the markets were hit or miss. The misses were cheap stands covered in rain drenched tarps and splayed with plastic cell phone cases made in China or bootleg DVDs of bad made-for-tv movies. You are sternly beckoned from the street to take an interest in the tackiest of paraphernalia, and you feel compelled to keep your purse plastered to your side as if it were as dear to you as an arm or other apendage. But the good markets, the hits, are worth risking the misses. There you browse at your leisure through mazes of crisp produce, artisan crafts or festive clothing, and the vendors are friendly rather than forceful. The prices are fair and people watching sublime.
Every nation has its story, but tales of the people that lived and the events that unfolded in Mexico City seem to be exceptionally compelling. There are the familiar, but still intriguing, tales of dictators erecting ornate monuments in their own honor, destructive and widespread colonization, and brave native heroes. And then there are the slightly more unique bits of Mexican folklore. Indigenous lords sacrificed losers of sporting events to the gods; leader Porfirio Diaz had a quirky affinity for painting himself white; Frida Kahlo showed a bizarre talent for depicting pain; and jilted presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador led a 3-month civil resistance campaign in Zócalo—the heart of Mexico City—after losing an election by half a percent. The stories are wild, and with more museums to its name than any other destination on the planet, you can fill up on them in Mexico City.
Many of the city’s historic buildings and plazas were designed and modeled after some of the greatest cities in Europe, which gives many facades an intricate, ornate and Gothic texture. Simultaneously, there are are an abundance of structures that take on very modern characteristics. Clean lines, flat surfaces and exceptional use of light give many spaces an airy and minimalistic quality. The Santa Fe neighborhood boasts sky scrappers of marble, geometric in design. Some structures there more closely resemble futuristic washing machines than a usable public space. And intermingled with them all are mansions made of mosaic tile and modest clay dwellings painted like Easter eggs. The city is wildly eclectic and homes and buildings vary in style from house-to-house, neighborhood-to-neighborhood. No matter your personal preference in architectural styles, there’s something to love on the skyline.
The culture of Mexico City is baroque through and through. The food is made more flavorful with liberal use of citrus and pepper. The colors on the streets and in the people’s art are explosive, and the history is gruesome and romantic, tragic and complex. But all of those elements are so because of the people who created them. There is no other country where I have been received so warmly as in Mexico. Strangers kiss you on the cheek on first introductions and mariachis serenade you on the streets and in bars. Mexicans will debate you when they disagree and praise you when they are in good company. They are bound to their indigenous roots while welcoming foreign ideas. They value loyalty and family and friendship and are the reason why this city is so enchanting.
Our week-long adventure in the city was more gratifying than I could have imagined. Of course, the city is not without it’s flaws. The lack of access to safe drinking water took its toll on us after we made our 2438243 purchase of bottled water, and the people’s wild driving habits were chaotic if not comical. From above, I imagine the city’s traffic patterns more closely resemble ants running frantically from a squashed mound than an organized system of transit in one of the world’s largest urban centers. Here, lanes–where they exist–are viewed more as arbitrary suggestions than actual guidelines. There were some public areas which charged for use of their restrooms (a practice that, to me, seemed simultaneously criminal but genius), and sometimes when walking the city’s cobblestone streets you can get whiffs of some offensive odor in the right wind, which urged Alex to tell us that Mexico City seems to always smell like either lime or garbage. Some areas are plagued with devastating poverty and parts of the political system are horrendously corrupt. It’s not a perfect city and there is room for much improvement.
Why Mexico City? It’s a city of beauty, one that feels like it was built inside a garden. In engaging with its citizens, dining on its cuisine and absorbing the beauty of its environment we were filled with wonder and curiosity and life.
*It is imperative we note how influential Alex, Santi and his sister Maria Ines were during our Mexico City tenure. This remarkable trio listened with patience to our insufferable Spanish, provided thoughtful responses and insight to our endless barrage of questions about Mexican culture and showed us an intimate view of the city. Without their thoughtful guidance and kind hearted nature, we would not have experienced the city with nearly the same gusto.