Detail from Diego Rivera mural at the National Palace | Royal Calkins
By Royal Calkins
Like many people, I have been intrigued by Mexico City. The culture. The history. The people. The size.
And like too many people, I have also been intimidated by the city. The smog and the news accounts of traffic, crime and, again, the size — the unwieldiness of a megacity of 22 million, bigger even than Los Angeles and the adjoining metropolitan areas.
But I finally had good reason to visit Mexico City last week and I learned that almost everything I thought I knew about the place was wrong.
Now if you are from Mexico City or are expert on this remarkable place, I suggest you stop reading now because I am likely to disappoint. I proceed anyway, at great risk of offending someone, because I have often been misled by travel pieces written by the experts. My intent here is merely to puncture stereotypes and not to impress anyone. I recall that the only bad meal I suffered through in Rome was at a place highly recommended by the expert Rick Steves. Speaking of Rome, I almost didn’t visit there when I had the chance because there was so much chatter about pickpockets. The chatter, it turned out, was for chumps.
The Mexico City I encountered was a jumble, a huge sprawl of dilapidated buildings butting up against architectural gems, tree-lined streets, perfect parks, trendy sidewalk cafes and block after block of street-food vendors trying to make a living five pesos at a time.
Like most tourists from the states, we stayed in the Condessa-Roma area. That’s Roma, as in the recent Academy Award-winning movie set in the city. There are richer neighborhoods but this is where the city’s young professionals live, the runners and cyclists, the espresso-sipping accountants and lawyers and architects. Espresso during the day. Mezcal at night.
It is also a neighborhood of dogs. On weekdays, professional dog walkers struggle with as many as five or six pooches on leashes. On weekends, the residents themselves take the dogs out. Too many, unfortunately, are sheepdogs and huskies, too thick-coated for the climate. The dogs, not the residents.
The apartment we rented is owned by a young architect currently studying in Spain. It was inexpensive and charming, though her taste runs to minimalist with little concern for comfortable seating. It was, however, a convenient bargain behind a triple-locked door.
Mexico City would be a great place to be an architect. The city is dotted with high-rises far more interesting than anything you’ll find in Silicon Valley. And many neighborhoods are slowly being rebuilt from within, new office and apartment buildings taking the place of worn-out structures from a couple centuries ago. Reminiscent of Berlin, perhaps.
My only real complaint with the city involves the sidewalks. The headline above refers to stumbling because I did a lot of that. I’m hampered by an ankle injury so there were times that the dips and holes and slopes created by time, earthquakes and neglect created a real sense of adventure for me, though not for my travel companions.
I have seen many news stories and documentaries about the poorest neighborhoods of Mexico City, mid-rise slums pressed against the hills some distance from the city center. I wanted to visit because that’s the way I am. I say it has something to do with journalism. Others say it is closer to voyeurism. Whichever, I didn’t do it because so many people, gringos and Mexicanos alike, said it would a truly stupid thing to do. If I had been traveling alone, I would have gone anyway.
As in most major cities, getting around Mexico City has never been easier because of the advent of Uber. Like it or hate it, it has taken much of the mystery and expense out of traveling from one neighborhood to another. Including drives to and from the airport and several shorter trips each day, we spent less than $60 on transportation.
An issue bigger than cost is the amount of time you can spend in traffic. If it is worse anywhere else, I don’t ever want to see it. In other words, if you ever visit Mexico City, do not drive. Do not rent a car. Do not try to cruise through in your RV.
Topping the list of highlights was the Frida Kahlo house and museum in the pleasant Coyoacan neighborhood on the city’s south side. If you’re not familiar with the artist Frida Kahlo, you should stop reading now and do some serious reading elsewhere. She and her husband, Diego Rivera, are Mexico’s best known painters. Rivera is famous for his murals, which usually exalt the workers and trumpet communist ideals. Kahlo is known as well for her politics and her vibrant painting that incorporated the styles of indigenous cultures, realism, surrealism and others.
She was born in the gorgeous house in 1907 and died there in 1954. For many of her admirers from around the world, a visit to the brightly colored Kahlo complex is a spiritual experience. It was a lovely way to spend several hours. As if by magic, the leafy courtyard was at least 10 degrees cooler than the surroundings.
Rivera’s giant murals at the National Palace were the centerpiece of a visit to the downtown Historico District and the giant Zocalo square, where folklorico dancers and craftspeople of every sort compete for your coins. There were giant crowds of young people. I’m guessing they were folks from small towns in the region visiting the big city for the day.
I can’t forget about the restaurants. Mexico City is a foodie’s paradise. Not every meal was perfect, but most were close. The best tacos I’ve ever had were at a vegan place in Roma, La Pitahaya. The tortillas were a bright pink courtesy of hibiscus blossoms.
Tacos Orinoco was also exceptional. Same for El Tizoncito, multiple locations. I have had lots of very good Mexican food in Salinas and Seaside. These places were much better in ways that I don’t truly understand. More complex, I guess.
One disappointment was that I wasn’t able to chat with many residents. My Spanish is nonexistent. One Uber driver spoke very good English and we shared some Donald Trump horror stories but most of my conversations amounted to using hand signals to find the restroom.
At the Museo de Arte Moderno, I enjoyed a large metal sculpture featuring words and terms Trump has used to describe Mexicans — bad hombres, rapists, etc. — and words that have been used to describe Trump — fascist, dictator, liar, racist, etc.
The most entertaining and politically incorrect experience of the trip was Sunday evening at the Lucha Libre show at Arena Mexico. That’s the Mexican version of old-fashioned “professional wrestling” a la Gorgeous George and Haystack Calhoun. The Mexico City show features outrageous masks, loud crowds, barely dressed women on stage and various bells, whistles and air horns.
The lineup we saw featured four-man tag teams, a three-woman tag team and one event featuring several little people, including one very little person who, of course, was the hero. My favorite character was a lingerie-wearing nun called Seductoro.
It was a big crowd including several Japanese men, who are said to be attracted to the Kabuki-style masks.
I have been to Mexico before, to Cabo and Tulum, Ixtapa and Tijuana, of course. I once spent several nerve-wracking days in Guadalajara chasing a news story that I was not equipped to pursue. I found Mexico City to be far more interesting and significantly more important than those places.
I was impressed with how well such a huge city functions even while I was wounded by the number of people trying to scrape by, the trinket merchants crowded into marketplaces with dozens or hundreds of other trinket makers, the street sweepers with their ancient brooms working deep into the evenings, the buses filled with tired people headed home after a hard day.
All in all, I’m glad I didn’t listen to the folks who wrinkled their noses when I mentioned the trip to Mexico City or the filmmakers who made it out to be a place of endless decay. I’m particularly glad that I didn’t listen to my own uninformed opinions about a place that I now understand at least a tiny bit.
I’m glad I did listen to the writer Aldous Huxley, who once said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
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