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Magical Mexico City

Magical Mexico City
by Sandi Butchkiss

Mexico City needs new PR writers. Planning a few days there, my research unearthed negative verbiage that was overwhelming in its consistency.

I voraciously scanned excerpts from leading travel magazines, the New York Times, The Guardian and others, spent hours Googling this ancient Aztec city of 23 million souls and spoke with staff at the Mexican consulate. The opinions were unanimous. “Do not go to Mexico City if you value your life. If the banditos don’t kill you, the pollution will.” “The largest sprawling metropolis in the world, it is also the most crime-ridden.” “If you must come, leave your jewelry at home.” “Here the Third world meets the 21st century in a frightening clash of cultures.” Who was in charge of their marketing? Even Iraq probably spins a more attractive tourist destination come hither.

As an American attempting to enter Cuba, even with a special license (which I got) and a visa (ditto), I was still forced to fly into Havana via a non-US destination. I visited Mexico City a couple of times in the past and adored it. Could it have changed so radically in the last, oh my gosh, could it be, thirty years? Well, it was a very sad thought, but I suppose, judging the amount of time that elapsed, it was possible.

My journalistic nature tells me not to accept opinions of others wholesale. So I stubbornly stuck with Mexico City as our go-between. Not totally oblivious to the advice of others, we made our scary stopover as brief as possible, and booked ourselves an overnight stay right at the airport. We planned arriving as late as possible, going straight to bed, double-locking the door and hightailing it out on the first flight for Cuba the next morning.

Life is full of surprises. We were set to depart Denver on the 21st of December, and as fate would have it, on that very day Mother Nature decided to show off her powers and dropped four feet of the white stuff on and around the airport. This awesome winter wonderland effect hit the headlines as Colorado’s, record-breaking, mega Blizzard of ’06 and forced over four thousand stranded travelers to call the departure lounge home for the four days before Christmas.

Our flat in Boulder is normally a 45 minute ride to DIA. However, the conditions now made the drive impossible, forced the cancellation of all flights, closed the airport and all government buildings, cinemas and pretty much every retail outlet and restaurant for miles around.

We were stuck in Boulder.

Fortunately there was a supply of Shiraz in the wine rack, salmon steaks in the freezer and enough logs on hand to keep a cozy fire going for the six long days we had to wait.

Finally on the 25th of December, two seats on a plane to Mexico City became available. But Cuba was now totally out of the question. Mexicana Airlines was overbooked. Business commitments forced us to return to Colorado by the 2nd of January. And 3 or 4 measly days in Havana didn’t make sense.

We set our jaws, resigned ourselves to limit our breathing in the foul atmosphere of Mexico City, removed all jewelry, strapped on a money belt, sent farewell letters to friends and fearfully set off to be intimidated, mugged, kidnapped or worse.

Here’s what happened.

After the very first crime-free, blissful, blue sky, crystal clear day, we transferred our cash into our wallets, threw out the money belt, erased the negative warnings from our minds, took a deep breath of the pure ozone and had the best time ever.

While Mexico City sprawls over 2000 square kilometers, most tourists confine themselves to eight distinctive neighborhoods which together supply a 360 degree of portrait of the fascinating culture of the city. Not only did we walk everywhere at all hours in this sizable zone, we hailed taxis, rode the subway and jumped on mini buses with gay abandon, never noticing a single unsavory character anywhere. And believe me, we looked.

We never felt in the least bit edgy or threatened and instead found everyone we encountered helpful and delightful to an extraordinary extent. And this applies to hotel and restaurant staff, riders of public transport, taxi drivers, people in the street, everyone.

So if you’ve never been or it’s a long time since you have, as Mexico City’s most ardent fans, we recommend it most enthusiastically.

Here’s our must list of where to go and what to do. The rest you can fill in on your own as you wander around.

Condessa – This is one of the more fashionable quarters, with hip bars and eateries, European style tree-lined avenues and masses of wonderful cafes. If you are here at lunch or dinner time, do as we did and stop in to El Tizoncito This is a joint that offers delicious tacos al pastor, in which a coal-fired vertical oven perfectly browns a gyrolike affair of achiote-laced pork shoulder. The meat is sliced to order and layered into a tiny taco, with a little of its drippings, some chili sauce, a bit of onion and a garnish of deftly cut pineapple. You eat 5 for a snack and 10 for a meal. It's not elegant, but it is delicioso. We awarded our two super Margaritas 5 stars each.

Zona Rosa - This neighborhood has gone through and is going through a lot of changes. We didn’t spend much time here but the meal we had knocked us out. It was at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, the Fonda El Refugio, a simple but warmly inviting converted house with several small rooms on two floors, white plaster walls, some with deep blue or pink decorations, others with retro cooking utensils. If you get a chance, ask for a tour of the kitchen, which will be shown to you with pride. We had the queso frito, fetalike cheese topped with a mixture of chopped cilantro and mild chilies. A ''pinched'' tortilla of chorizo, beans and onions, with cilantro salsa, followed by a plate of chopped nopalitos (cactus leaves) topped with queso fresco. Even the fresh corn tortilla chips, called totopos, cooked in lard, are special. Tender, slow-cooked roast pork with spices comes with a stack of thick-sliced, crisply fried potatoes. It seems the daily specials are the way to go. Certainly, the manchamanteles, another pork dish, but this one with bananas, pineapple, sweet potato and chilies, was the most exciting main course we ate in Mexico City.

Roma – Here’s where the artistic set hangs out and where you can browse through galleries galore and trendy shops before you stop for a street taco or observe the passing parade from one of the many outdoor cafes.

El Centro – The historic heart of the city with the huge Zocolo (town square), street fairs, recently discovered ancient Aztec digs at Templo Mayor and some of the country's greatest cultural treasures, such as the famously sinking, lop-sided baroque Metropolitan Cathedral, national museums with murals by José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, and ornate palaces. A couple of penthouse eateries overlooking the Zocolo offer a bird’s eye view of this teeming square as well as tacos, quesadillas, burritos and of course refreshing Margaritas. Nearby, both the wonderfully Mexican Sanborn restaurant with it’s huge inner courtyard and the charming Opera dining spot are excellent dinner choices.

Alameda – Here you will find the fabulous Palace of Bellas Artes, a majestic structure decorated with the unique Tiffany curtain made of a million pieces of iridescent glass mosaic and more Rivera murals on the floor above. It is also home to the famed Ballet Folklorico, surely the very best, most professional ethnic dance company on the planet. Not to be missed. Just across is the hundred year old but still very much in use, glittering, gold post office. The top floor is now a charming maritime museum. Just one of the 135 in the city.

Polanco - Beverly Hills meets Fifth Avenue with all the expected designer boutiques, parks, avenues and expensive and chic eateries. Chef-owner Patricia Quintana, among the top Mexican cookbook authors writing in English, hit it just right with Izote, on the main drag of Presidente Masaryk. This is the restaurant of the moment, the hottest place in town. The food is as designery as the area with striking-looking dishes consisting of traditional recipes spruced up for contemporary dining. Whole-grain tortillas are rough, brittle and obviously homemade, served with a variety of fresh, sensational salsas. Especially yummy was one seasoned with sour orange, chile ancho and tequila. The grilled shrimp with tamarind mole accompanied by two tamales was excellent. As was the lovely fish steamed in bamboo. My significant carnivore had the barbacoa of lamb shank steamed in banana leaf with adobo and served with a trio of salsas and tiny tortillas. But you might find equally as memorable a meal consumed up or down the avenue where you’ll pass Lexuses and Mercedes galore and their drivers, discussing the issues of the day, a few feet away, waiting. The side streets are filled with wonderful modern and especially beautiful Colonial Spanish homes. Our small but very special and comfortable hip hotel also located on Masaryk, the Habita, is a real gem. We hated to say goodbye.

San Angel - You can spend all day at the colorful, crowded, Saturday art and crafts fair, in a lovely park-like, art-filled square amid beautiful, tiled Colonial mansions converted into charming restaurants and museums. Or you can pace yourself and take a short walk through the cobbled back streets to the famed San Angel Inn for a late lunch you will not forget. Advance booking is highly recommended. If the weather is nice, ask for an outside table. Save some time to cross the street for a short visit to the delightful studio of Frida and Diego, left pretty much the way it was when the couple was alive.

Coyoacan - More rustic with an even bigger but more bohemian, local type of crafts fair, this nearby area is also home to the Blue House, where Frida Kahlo lived. Diego and Frida’s shared lover, Dolores, has a museum not far away, packed with the couple’s art work and bric-a-brac and another must.

Chapultepec - This is a great mid city park full of wonderful things….like an excellent children’s museum, some unique restaurants, a boating lake, the stunning hill-top castle where the last Spanish ruler reigned, a marvelous zoo, amazing balloon sellers and masses of stalls, as well as the fabled Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Modern Art. Of the scores of museums these are two of the more impressive examples.

We never sign up for those tacky city tours, but we did here. In typical Mexican manana fashion it was an hour past scheduled time, but very well worth the wait. Called Touribus, we sat in the open air upstairs, listened to the non-stop English descriptions of everything we passed via our handy little ear-phones and had a marvelous time.

This same company takes you out to the archeological masterpiece of Teotiuacan, about 30 miles away. Here you will spend hours climbing the pyramids of the Sun and Moon, walking the Avenue of the Dead and soaking up a bit of history and as you absorb some understanding of the culture, legends, myths and memories of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past.

There is also the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, another pre-Hispanic engineered wonder. A system of ancient canals, boats laden with flowers and other colorful things which are rowed around in decorated wooden boats. The whole is surrounded by plenty of food, drink and music supplied by the omnipresent wandering mariachis.

I hate to mention it, because it’s really not my glass of tequila, but they do have bullfights in the Plaza Mexico Bullring on Sundays at 4PM. If you want more information, don’t ask me. Call 5563 3959.

So in closing we say, do plan to come to Mexico City. Stay within the large metropolitan area and we guarantee you’ll have a marvioso y stupendo tiempo. Until then, hasta la vista.

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