D.F., a.k.a. Mexico City
Mexico is a country with a real center. In the United States, New York, Washington, and maybe even Los Angeles vie for cultural centricity, but in the physical center of the country, there's nothing but corn fields. Here in Mexico, the center of the country is the center of (at the very least) Mexican culture, art, finance, government and transportation. When you live in Mexico, then, you will at some point find yourself traveling to Mexico City, either for business or pleasure.
A few days in 'Day-Effay' (that is, D.F., which stands for Distrito Federal, in case you just moved here…) is usually enough for most Yucatecos. Mexico City is only an hour and a half and about $200 US away from Merida by airplane (three days by car). But the experiential difference is practically intergalatic. Join the Working Gringos, the expat country bumpkins, as they explore Mexico City, the Big... Chile?
The day after Navidad (Christmas), the Working Gringos boarded a very comfortable CLICK Mexicana airplane for the painless experience of flying to Mexico City. The seats were soft, leg room was better than most and the cost was the lowest we could find… lower even than the supposedly bargain flight on Interjet or Volaris, which would have landed us in Toluca, 45 minutes and a van-ride from our final destination at Mexico City’s zocalo. We traveled fully loaded: winter coats, sweaters, hats, scarves, long pants, shoes (& socks!), guide books, recommendations from friends and camera equipment. We were going on a photo shoot and fully prepared to work hard, visit museums, eat in great restaurants and wear our almost-forgotten winter clothes.
We arrived and picked up our four pieces of luggage without incident. Walking out towards the taxi stands, we bought a ticket from the first place that was selling tickets. We paid twice what the NEXT taxi sales booth was charging ($200 pesos, as opposed to about $115), but we did get to ride in a big white SUV with plenty of room for our camera equipment and luggage. Still, next time…
Our destination for this trip was a private home called Seminario 12, the address of this casa particular (private home), probably the last remaining one on the zocalo. Our mission was to fully experience the residence and take photos in anticipation of creating a website to advertise the house’s new function as a small boutique hotel. We would be staying in the existing one apartment (additional suites are planned for renovation in early 2008) and we would be the only ones in the home, with the exception of Don Crispin, the caretaker.
Unfortunately for us, due to the excellent location of our accommodations (right next to the main cathedral on the zocalo) and the crush of humanity visiting the zocalo during the Christmas holidays, the closest our SUV taxi could drop us was about two blocks away. The two block walk, through throngs of visitors while dragging four aforementioned pieces of luggage, was enough to make us wish we’d left those winter coats behind. By the time Don Crispin answered the 18-foot high wooden and metal-studded door, we were hot and tired. The gracious gentleman let us in and insisted that we leave our luggage at the bottom of the stairs. Having no energy or motivation for arguing, we followed him up a long set of ancient stone stairs to our home for the next five days. As we rested and washed up, Don Crispin lugged that luggage up those stairs, earning our blessing and gratitude. Over the next five days, that long stone stairway was our equivalent of a Stairmaster and sitting back in Merida, our muscles are still aching.
Once left alone to fend for ourselves, we explored our new surroundings. What we found was a very old building (built in the 1600’s originally), that had been restored as part of a general restoration movement in Mexico City’s Centro Historico back in the 1990’s. The current owners found the building in a general state of ruin and had spent four years and many pesos restoring it back to its former glory. The place is now an elegant house in three stories, with wood floors, oriental rugs everywhere, stone doorways, wrought iron balustrades, European-style furnishings, modern appliances and art on the walls representing all the intervening centuries since the house was first built. We unpacked our clothes and made ourselves at home.
For the next five days, we would be accompanied in our photography work by the constant drumming of Aztec warriors on the zocalo, as well as the sounds of the crowds and the cries of people whose puestos (stands) set up just outside the building were selling everything from fresh tacos to cheap bracelets. Standing on the front balcony or on the roof of Seminario 12, we could see the temporary ice skating rink that is built on the square every Chirstmas, and a large bamboo structure being built by Colombian workmen, which in January 2008 will house an exhibit of photography by Gregory Colbert (something we are sorely tempted to return to see… Go to ashesandsnow.org and be tempted yourself!). At night, we could see all the Christmas lights that had been installed on the buildings surrounding the square, as well as the crowds of people milling around, playing on the hopscotch and Twister boards painted on the pavement, being blessed by the Aztec dancer/shamans, or eating tacos, tamales and elotes. We were definitely right smack dab in the center of Mexico, with all its noise, smells, crowds, fun and lights. We found there was so much to do there in the Centro, we never actually went anywhere else (Chapultepec, Polanco, Zona Rosa, etc.).
Here’s a list of some of the places we went that you might be interested in visiting on your next trip to the center of the Mexican universe:
Franz Mayer Museum (http://www.franzmayer.org.mx/)
This museum contains an ongoing exhibit of furniture, pottery, silver and other decorative arts from Mexico’s past, especially from the Colonial periods. It is heavy on Spanish-style furniture and paintings. In the past we have seen an excellent Art Deco exhibit there, and this time around were treated to a very modern exhibit about the art of glassmaking in Mexico. The exhibit focused on about ten Mexican glass artists and the exhibit itself was as exquisitely designed as the glass. The Franz Meyer Museum also has a lovely and peaceful courtyard in which to sit and escape from the busy city, as well as a museum coffee shop. The gift shop at the front of the museum has an excellent book collection, including books on modern design, photography, typography and other graphic arts. We bought a lovely little piece of pottery that is totally useless but charmingly pretty.
Palacio de Bellas Artes (http://www.bellasartes.gob.mx)
The building is a work of art. The Palacio anchors one end of Alameda Park, and is a joy to behold from its sunset-colored glass dome to its marble steps. Enter under the marble statues that adorn its façade, and be treated to as perfect an example of Art Deco design as you are likely to see anywhere. We just missed the Diego Rivera exhibit (they hadn’t even removed the art yet… we could see a few pieces wrapped up and ready to ship as we gazed longingly through the locked doors of the exhibit hall). But we were still able to enjoy again the murals that grace the interior. These murals were painted by Rufino Tamayo, David Siqueiros, Jorge Camarena and Diego Rivera. They are each powerful and beautiful in their own ways and are on permanent exhibition in the balcony areas of the building. Jorge Camarena’s mural called Libertad is probably our favorite, though Rivera’s complete recreation of the mural that he painted for Rockefeller in New York City and that was consequently destroyed is also breathtaking. The Bellas Artes also has a lovely coffee shop (not open until 12:30 PM, according to the waiter, and not really serving until 2 PM) and a large bookstore with mostly art books. Of course, Bellas Artes is first and foremost a performing arts center, but this is an aspect of it that we have not yet had the pleasure to experience. By the way, the Diego Rivera exhibit was just one part of a National Homage to Senor Rivera in 2007, which included exhibits in six locations, one of which we did manage to see at the National Museum of Art.
Museo de Arte Popular (http://www.map.org.mx/)
This museum is fairly new and we were operating with an old guide book, so we had just a vague idea that it was near the Alameda Park. We finally found it just behind the Sheraton that faces Alameda Park on Avenida Juarez. The museum is housed in an all-white building, formerly an orphanage and government offices. Now the museum takes up all four floors with its well-designed exhibits of the best of Mexico’s artesanias. There are old and antique offerings as well as examples of handcrafts made from living artists. If you follow the exhibits in order (beginning at the top floor), the first exhibit talks about the abundance of natural beauty in Mexico and how it is an inspiration for the works you are about to see. The following exhibits proceed to amaze with the beauty and breadth of those works. We were happy to see that the Yucatan Peninsula was represented by works from artisans in Izamal, Merida and Campeche (jewelry made from seeds, silver filigree, embroidery and carved horn objects). As usual, we were drawn to the pottery, copper and other works that come from the state of Michoacan, where we have our second Mexican home. The museum celebrates the art of everything from katrinas to piñatas, and should not be missed.
San Idelfonso (http://www.sanildefonso.org.mx)
The former monastery has been turned into a large contemporary art museum. On this trip, besides just taking in the beautiful old building, we enjoyed a photography exhibit by a man named Rene Burri, a photographer whose career spanned decades and who photographed everyone from Pablo Picasso to Che Guevara. We also saw the Biennale from the city of Monterrey, but the preponderance of poorly executed conceptual art left us unimpressed.
National Museum of Art (website not working or missing entirely…hard to tell)
What a beautiful building! What a great collection of art! This museum is easily reached from the Zocalo and is surrounded by other interesting buildings worth investigating, as well as one of our favorite restaurants. The museum building itself was the old Ministry of Communications building, apparently, and features a lovely central stairway with views into a central courtyard. Here we saw one of the Diego Rivera exhibits (Diego Rivera’s graphic and illustrative arts). We also enjoyed the museum’s collection of paintings and sculptures from Mexico’s long ago and more recent past. There are some great Mexican artists who are represented here: Remedios Varos, Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, as well as Camarena, Velasco, Dr. Atl and others too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that the quality of art here rivals that in any large city museum, and anyone interested in art and art history owes this place a visit.
The Post Office
Just across the street and down a block is Mexico City’s main post office. It still functions as a post office, but the building itself is a museum. The exterior and interior are covered in rococo plaster details, with a lovely colonnade at the top of the exterior reminiscent of a Venetian palace. The interior staircase and galleries are made of beautifully sculpted bronze, forged in and brought all the way from Florence, Italy. There’s a forgettable exhibit on the top floor of mailboxes and stamps from days gone by… the real star is the building itself.
The Torture Exhibit
At the side of the Palacio de Mineria, which was not open, we briefly visited a traveling exhibit of torture instruments. This exhibit was well attended, crowded even, but having seen something similar in San Gimingiano, Italy, and having lived through the last few years of stories of Abu Ghraib, we found that the subject matter not only didn’t interest us, it rather bothered us. The smell of Fabuloso being mysteriously poured over the floors in one area of the exhibit made us suspect that perhaps someone else had been disturbed by the subject matter as well, and we got out of there rather quickly.
Museum of Economics (Museo Interactiva de Economía or MIDE)
We walked by this museum two or three times without going in, but eventually, the bright green signage drew us in. We had planned to quickly travel the three floors of this museum about Mexico’s economy, but on the elevator ride to the top, we made the brief acquaintance of two young girls, workers dressed in bright green jackets. They decided that because we were gringos, we needed escorts through the museum, and they proceeded to sweetly and professionally guide us through EVERY exhibit of this museum, explaining how things worked and what to look for at every turn. They were the epitome of sweetness and sincerity, and we could not bring ourselves to tell them we were tured and would rather be napping. Two and a half hours later, we emerged from this award-winning museum, with its plethora of multimedia and participatory exhibits (mostly designed for younger people), exhausted but thoroughly educated on the history of money, banking system and economic conditions in Mexico.
Trying hard to overlook the pushy waiter who seemed to resent the fact that we weren’t taking his suggestions for what to eat, we prepared ourselves for another mediocre meal. We were pleasantly surprised by the best food we ate on the whole trip. Working Gringo’s carnitas de pavo were done to perfection and accompanied by tasty guacamole and chipotle sauces. Working Gringa had a spinach salad with avocado slices, fresh Oaxaca cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds and a spicy dressing that had her in green-leafed ecstasy, followed by a tasty chicken and rice soup with habanero chiles and chopped onions, served on the side and thrown fresh on top. For dessert, we shared a pay de camote (sweet potato pie) that was accompanied by an incredibly light but semi-sweet chocolate sauce that complemented the sweet potato taste in a totally unexpected way. Mango margaritas with salt and red chile flakes around the outside of the glass topped off the perfect meal. We planned to go back for dinner but we were too tired (and still not hungry) hours later, so we didn't return on this trip. You can bet we’ll be back next time, despite the waiter with the big city attitude and the $18 peso per person cover charge. (Total meal: $551 pesos, not including tip)
This is an upstairs Spanish restaurant that has been open less than a year. We had a delicious Tortilla Espanola there, which is like a thick potato pancake, and when it's good, it's wonderful. The meat and fish entrees were just okay, but we were hungry and tired and they did the trick. The tortilla leftovers were good enough to want para llevar. And the vintage 70’s rock and roll music on the sound system was curious and yet oddly comforting.
Casa de Los Azulejos (Sanborns)
We didn’t eat here this time, but if you are in Mexico City for the first time, do drop by if only for a cup of coffee. The interior of the building built in the 1500’s, including the mural by Orozco, is well worth visiting. It’s also interesting to note that Sanborn’s was once an American-owned business, started in Mexico City by two brothers, and has since been bought and is owned by the richest man in Mexico (and the world!), Carlos Slim.
Riedel Wine Bar at the Sheraton
This fairly new restaurant on the ground floor of the Sheraton was our second choice for dinner when we found out that El Cardenal, our first choice, was only open for lunch. We were sorely disappointed, because it looked interesting and had been recommended. But as we went up the escalator to check out yet a third restaurant, Los Dones (totally NOT interesting), we spied the new Riedel Wine Bar. We’re fans of Riedel wine glasses from our wine-aficionado days in Central California, so we were intrigued. When we saw that osso bucco and risotto were specials that evening, we were sold. We sat down and prepared to be pleased. Now, understand, we talk about our wine-aficionado days in California, because it is almost impossible to be a real wine lover in Mexico, especially in the Yucatan. Red wines don’t do well in the tropics, and Mexico is just waking up to wine. Even in this wine bar, there were only a few offerings from California, but there were also a few Super Tuscans, and even a Gaia. We decided on a Santa Helena from Napa Valley, but upon ordering it, were told that they did not have that year that was on the menu. Instead, the more recent year was available for twice the price. (sigh) This is such a common occurrence in Mexico (the wine bait and switch) that we had been prepared, but were still disappointed. We went for the more highly priced wine, however, and were not disappointed. The elegant young waiter opened the bottle and proceeded to pour it all into a duck-shaped wine decanter. Just as we were remarking about how awkward the decanter looked, the waiter held it in just the wrong way and dollars worth of wine began to spill out one end. Eeek! The problem was quickly remedied, and we were later given a discount on the wine, the mop having enjoyed a portion of the bottle. Our asparagus appetizer was done to perfection, covered with a crust of parmesan cheese. The osso bucco turned out to be served on a bed of spaghetti pomodoro, a poor choice and an unfortunate change to the traditional sauce used for cooking osso bucco. The risotto Portobello was tasty but a bit soupy. Still, we soldiered on and the evening was rescued by chocolate truffles in blackberry sauce that paired so perfectly with the last glasses of that Santa Helena cabernet that we floated out to Avenida Reforma on a chocolate raspberry cloud.
This is a youth hostel with a great location, overlooking the back of the main cathedral on the zocalo. It just so happens to have a little café that is a perfect place for a light lunch. One day we were consumed by midday hunger, so much so that we did not want to venture too far from home. Hostel Moneda was practically the first place we came to, other than the places on the street serving tacos, and we sat down not expecting much but too hungry to care. We eventually were served up two of the most delicious tunafish sandwiches, although on white bread, with ice cold cokes and perfectly done French fries. We left totally happy. Sometimes, you just want comfort food, you know?
Casa de Las Sirenas
We both huffed and puffed up the two flights of stairs to enjoy what we both agreed is one of the loveliest views from a restaurant in the Centro. One of us had a great soup here. The other one of us had fish in a terribly heavy sauce. The outdoor dining room at the top of this restaurant makes up for a lot of gastronomic mistakes, with its view of the tops of the old historic center and the domes of the cathedral. With a view like that, who needs to eat? Next time, we’ll go for drinks and soup only. Total cost? $466 pesos, including the nearly ubiquitous cover charge of $18 pesos each.
After six years, we actually have learned to like some of the candy in Mexico. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but now we actually crave some of it on occasion. When we heard about this dulceria, one of the oldest in the country, we wanted to check it out. Just a few blocks from the zocalo on Madero, Dulceria Celaya is housed in a beautiful little building with vintage glass windows and an art-deco sign. Inside, the candy is displayed in glass cases and measured and packaged for you the same way it has been done for over a hundred years. The homemade cajeta circles, separated with rice paper (called obleas) were to die for. The coconut “brownies” were scrumptious. But the pig cookies just weren’t as good as the ones you buy on the streets and highways around Puebla and Xalapa. We discovered those cookies (ginger snaps made in the shape of a pig) on our last roadtrip and have loved them ever since. These were relatively tasteless brown cookies also shaped like a pig, but obviously masquerading as their more delicious cousins. Four cookies and four candies cost $83 pesos.
Hotel de Cortes (www.hoteldecortes.com.mx)
We stopped here the morning we were looking for the Museo de Arte Popular. Turns out we were on the wrong side of Alameda Park, but finding this place made the detour worthwhile. The hotel looks like it might be a charming place to stay, a bit of old world close to the Centro that isn’t too pricey. We ate breakfast in the covered central courtyard while birds flitted in and out, singing to the songbirds in cages. The buffet breakfast cost $93 pesos each and was absolutely delicious. Fresh cut melon and papaya, fresh orange juice and a few cooked dishes, including tamales, chiliquiles and a mushroom sautee that were absolute taste treats. You can be sure we’ll go back... we might even stay there next time.
Café de Tacuba
The first night we ate here, we landed at the safest and most recommended tourist restaurant in the Centro, we think. We actually ate there the last time we were in D.F., and not because we thought the food was particularly great. This time was no different. The total price was $552 pesos for two meals and we can’t even remember what we ate. There is a lot of pretty tile and several Victorian murals on the wall, though, and we didn’t get sick eating there (faint praise, to be sure).
Used bookstores on Calle Donceles
We love books, and we love old books. There are a five blocks along Calle Donceles, just two blocks north of the cathedral, that are heaven for people like us. We spent hours pouring through old art and history books. What fun! We came home with very dirty hands.
Puestos in Alameda Park
Alameda Park is like a miniature Central Park about six blocks from the zocalo, with the Palacio de Bellas Artes on the nearest end. We strolled through the park during the day and the evening. During the day, there are stands set up in various places selling food, pirata DVDs, handmade goods from around Mexico and the world. What did we buy? A handful of finger puppets for no particular reason other than that they delighted us, and a few simple blusas (blouses) made in Chiapas. And yes, a few DVDs. Now we're piratas (pirates)!
Museum gift shops
Every museum we went to had a gift shop; some were better than others. The shop at the Franz Meyer Museum has some wonderful contemporary pottery. The MAP (Museo de Arte Popular) has a huge gift shop where you can buy almost everything you saw in the museum, though perhaps not as large and elaborate (but sometimes, even that!). If we hadn’t been flying home and hadn’t sworn not to buy anything until AFTER our house was built, we could have gone mildly crazy in there. As it is, we bought some Huichol pompoms for no reason in particular other than that they were pretty. We'll probably hang them from ceiling fans... or something...
Recommended destinations we didn't have time to visit... hopefully next time!
- Art Market in Parque Sullivan on Sunday mornings
- Art Market at San Angel on Saturday mornings
Guides to Mexico City
We are certainly not the best guides to Mexico City... we just know what we like. Here are a few websites with more comprehensive Mexico City information:
All About Mexico City - A nice list of the museums here, though the rest of the site is pretty commercial
Lonely Planet - This favorite guidebook has a nicely organized guide to the highlights of the city. Not very comprehensive, but a good beginning.
Mexperience - A good but somewhat shallow guide from a guy who has lived there.
Wikitravel - Knowledge from the collective consciousness. Very comprehensive. Includes a list of flea markets.
The Economist - Who would have thought to look here? But there's a lot of good information, geared to the business traveler.
Fodor's - An old favorite. Has a nice long restaurant list.
Mexico City From Above - aerial photos of the biggest city in the world.