Friday, January 23, 2015

Mexico City Provides a Safe, Satisfying Fiesta of Art, History and Culture -- Travel Recap

(Note: This is an overview/recap of a recent trip to Mexico City; for my daily summaries, please see my dedicated travel blog,

Until shortly before I decided to go to Mexico City, which was about 2 months prior to my trip last week, I can't say I had ever much considered visiting the Mexican capital.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, I've been to over 50 major international and U.S. cities before heading south of the border, so to condemn or chastise "Americans" for avoiding such a relatively nearby, world-class city would be both disingenuous and hypocritical.

As corroborated by multiple hospitality/tourism workers I spoke to while in Mexico City, very few Americans--used as shorthand to primarily denote U.S. residents aside from those with family ties to Mexico--make one of the world's most populated cities a travel destination.

While Mexico's coastal resort cities, including Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Cozumel, Los Cabos, Mazatlan and others remain popular, for many stateside tourists Mexico City serves primarily as an airport connection, at best.

This was anecdotally confirmed by me being unable to find souvenir t-shirts or shot glasses in the international terminal monogrammed "Mexico City," rather than simply "Mexico."

Terrifying tales of murderous drug cartels, kidnappings and crooked cops have served to make Mexico--outside of the  highly-secured beach resorts--seem like one of the most dangerous places on earth.

This reputation was only furthered this fall with the horrifying abduction and murder of 43 students from the town of Iguala.

So although I have traveled, alone, devoid of tours--except occasional local ones--to cities that others might find daunting, including Jerusalem, Cairo, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, New York (multiple times) and elsewhere, I was especially keen on assaying personal safety concerns before deciding to book my trip. 

My interest peaked when a Facebook Friend posted positive impressions and beautiful pictures after visiting Mexico City with her husband, I was initially hoping to travel with my multilingual friend Paolo, who had previously been to the metropolis.

His interest waned due to Patriotic anticipation of the American football variety--which oddly has resulted in both elation and deflation--but having already zeroed in on a workable 5-day span in January, I decided that I would go solo. (At the time of planning/booking, I was working and somewhat expecting to still be so, but alas I'm not.)

Paolo, who has traveled far more extensively than me, was adamant that with a few minor adjustments & sacrifices--no jeans, no Springsteen t-shirts, no baseball caps, no Canon Rebel--Mexico City should be no more dangerous, or even intimidating, than any other big city I've been to. 

Including Chicago. 

Two other close friends who had also been to Mexico City this millennium echoed Paolo's "be smart, be wary, but it needn't be scary" sentiment, and though I was subjected to more paranoid exhortations by an acquaintance who had lived in the city 30 years ago, I embarked on my trip fully expecting it to go smoothly.

And I'm happy to report, it did. 

Mind you, beyond the aforementioned precautions--and believe me, relying on a digital point-and-shoot rather than SLR was quite a sacrifice given how central photography is to my love of travel--I did some things that I probably always should abroad, but usually don't. 

I left my ATM and Credit Cards in my hotel room, and carried the day's cash in two separate pockets. Since I was wearing Dockers and not jeans, back pocket buttons gave me a greater sense of securing my wallet and iPhone from pickpockets. 

In other words, while hoping not to be kidnapped, I essentially planned for something to go awry but tried to limit the ramifications if anything happened. 

But nothing did. 

And there really weren't any moments where I felt frightened, or even daunted. 

I decided to skip a few lower-agenda items--the Floating Gardens of Xochilmilco, Plaza Garibaldi with its Mariachi battles, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe--that I felt a bit more wary of doing on my own and/or at night. 

But I comfortably walked the streets near my hotel--Zocalo Central, right by Mexico City's vast square, the Zocalo, in the historic center--including at night, and rode the Metro to get to Chapultepec Park with its multitude of museums. (Mine was the only white face on the subway, but that's been the case in Chicago as well.)

I did opt for a private taxi tour guide to get to & from the Frida Kahlo Museum, rather than take multiple subway lines and stroll through the unfamiliar streets of Coyoacan, about 30 minutes south, but especially as the entire trip came in under budget, not only are there times when assurance should trump frugality, but this option also made for one of the trip's more illuminating experiences. 

It would be easy to rue not seeing some of the places/things I didn't get to--most especially the Diego Rivera murals that adorn the National Palace, the seat of Mexican government and just steps from my hotel, but closed to the public due to a recent fire caused by protestors--but the truth is that I've been to New York and London a combined 24 times and still not seen everything of note in either city, let alone in Chicago.

But pretty much everything I did in Mexico City I enjoyed immensely. So although there are many other places in the world I'd like to explore, including some in Mexico, I would hope to get back to the "DF" (distrito federal) someday.

As mentioned at top, you can see a rough chronology of what I did in Mexico City on my Travel Blog. And in the days or weeks ahead, I intend to cull some of my best photos and make a gallery that I will point to in an upcoming blog post.

So below I will try to cite much of what I did, saw and enjoyed, organized by category. Of course, many of the the sights could easily fit into 2 or 3 categories, but seems the most prudent way to cover my trip's many highlights.


Murals by Diego Rivera and Others - While not getting into the National Palace, which is supposed to be mind-blowing, I nonetheless saw a sensational selection of work by the preeminent Mexican Muralists. 

I was most blown away at the Secretaria de Educacion Publico, where murals by Rivera encircle three vast floors overlooking a courtyard.

Two more Rivera murals, including the famed Man, Controller of the Universe that was initially commissioned for New York's Rockefeller Center, prominently adorn the splendiferous Palacio de Bellas Artes, which also includes huge murals by David Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, among others.

Museo Mural Diego Rivera has just one mural by its namesake artist, but it's a doozy: Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central, shown below. The museum also has some intriguing early works by Rivera, from his college years.

Although the Chapultepec Castle atop a hill in the Bosque de Chapultepec is quite worth seeing for its architecture, plush rooms used by Mexico's rulers of yore, beautiful gardens and more, there is a tremendous mural by Siqueiros, as well as other impressive ones by Juan O'Gorman.

I saw several other murals, some by famous painters, some by lesser-known ones, in various other buildings, even if not specifically art museums of the like. I only learned about the Antiguio Colegio de San Ildefonso, with a Rivera mural and more by others, after I got back home, but must have walked by it.

Frida Kahlo Museum - Located about 30 minutes south of the heart of Mexico City, La Casa Azul is a blue house in which Frida Kahlo was born, raised, lived with her husband Diego Rivera--though they also had other homes--and died. There are quality artworks by Kahlo and Rivera, but just as fascinating is seeing the couple's kitchen, studio, bedrooms, etc. The collection of Frida's dresses now in the temporary exhibition space is also terrific.

Museum of Modern Art - The Two Fridas, by Kahlo, is the the highlight of this museum in the Bosque (Park) de Chapultepec, but the permanent collection is satisfying in full, if not all that huge.


Templo Mayor / Museo Templo Mayor - After Spaniard Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs in 1521--when Mexico City was called Tenochtitlan--their former temples were destroyed, and on the Zocolo, the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral were built over the ruins. But the ruins of another Aztec temple right next to the Zocalo were excavated in 1978.

For a single admission ticket equivalent to $4.38, I was able to walk through the Templo Mayor ruins and tour and extensive 4-story museum that holds many amazing artifacts found at the site.

National Anthropology Museum - Many pre-Columbian civilizations occupied Mexico, including the Teotihuacans, Toltecs, Olmecs, Oaxaca, Mayans and Aztecs, and this vast museum has huge galleries teeming with amazing artifacts from each culture and age.

I can't say I likely learned as much as I should have, as a good deal of accompanying text was only in Spanish--though there was a good bit also in English--but there was just so much to see and digest (and photograph).

While I did not categorize this as an art museum, like the Egyptian Museum I visited in Cairo, it really is one, and in seeing all the works of beauty and often stunning size & scope dating back 1000-2000 years, I couldn't help but think that artistic expression was much more advanced way back when then it is now.

The original Aztec Sun Stone is just one of many highlights.

Teotihuacan - Before going to Mexico City, I'm pretty sure I was confused between Tenochtitlan, the former name of the city, and Teotihuacan, a city and civilization that existed about 25 miles northeast of modern-day Mexico City.

With the information varying by source, Teotihuacan arose around 100 B.C. and lasted until sometime around 700 A.D., with 125,000-175,000 inhabitants at its peak.

I opted to go on an early morning tour with a private archeologist, that I found and purchased through The local tour agency is called Amigo Tour, and a van with around 20 people was led by a woman named Lise.

At the grounds, extensive walking and stair-climbing was required--with nary a porta-potty in sight--but I handled it fine while getting a good explanation of the pre-Columbian city and the various remaining structures. I did not climb either the larger Pyramid of the Sun (I did walk up to the first landing) or the Pyramid of the Moon, just as much out of fear of not getting down safely as not getting up.

But Lise didn't climb the stairs either, and the tour was quite worthwhile.

While fully respecting the sacred nature of the grounds, I would vote for tasteful rest room and refreshment facilities being added to accommodate the tourists.

And though I also respect that souvenir hawkers make their money off the tourists, they should be encouraged to be less aggressive. They kept hounding and hounding, and even after I bought something, they hounded even worse to buy more, not taking, "No, thank you" for an answer.

I've encountered street peddlers in many foreign cities, and generally enjoy the experience, but a few at Teotihuacan were far too insistent.

After our tour of the grounds, we were taken to a nearby souvenir stand/restaurant, where we were shown how paper is derived from plants, and given a sampler of some local liquors. I enjoyed the green Licor de Nopal; it tasted like KoolAid.

Architecture / Churches / Landmarks

Metropolitan Cathedral - Built in sections from 1573-1813 upon what had been sacred Aztec land, the largest cathedral in the Americas dominates the north end of the Zocalo. The inside is rather impressive, as far as huge and ornate churches go.

I also wandered into the nearby Santa Domingo church, and on my private taxi tour to Coyoacan, the guide Norma took us to the St. John the Baptist church on land that had been donated by the conquistador Cortes.

Back in the Centro Historico, street after street contains striking examples of mostly-Spanish influenced architecture, making Mexico City feel rather European.

The gorgeous Palacio de Bellas Artes, with majestic murals and a magnificent theater inside, dominates the east end of Alameda Central park, while the Post Office and Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) are just two other remarkably resplendent structures I saw nearby.

Designed in 1964, the exterior of the National Anthropology Museum is rather impressive, while the vast Chapultepec Castle atop the hill in Chapultepec Park has some beautiful features, including its tower.

Music and Dance

Unlike several other cities I've been to, in Mexico City I attended neither a rock concert nor a work of musical theater, and although I found Zinco Jazz Club--supposedly the city's best--just 5 minutes from my hotel, I opted not to wait around for the music to start at 11pm after arriving at 9:00.

But yet, I heard a good amount of really fine music, and attended a performance of the famed Ballet Folklorico, a showcase of traditional Mexican music and dance held within the theater at the Palacio de Belas Artes.

On two straight nights, I wandered upon a swell-sounding jazz outfit called Burocracia Cosmica playing in an alley outside the House of Tiles.

Also by chance, in arriving at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera just before 4pm on Sunday, I got to hear a terrific hourlong performance by a Latin Jazzish combo called El Kato Club.

There were also bits of Mariachi in various places, a variety of buskers including a violinist and a fine traditional singer/guitarist at the restaurant in Teotihuacan.

I'm not sure if it was a protest, demonstration or simply a showcase, but I also enjoyed an impressive display of traditional Mexican drumming and dancing outside the city's main Museum of Art.

And I was glad I was able to get to a Ballet Folklorico performance on Sunday night; everything about it was impressive, even if by intermission I had seen all I really needed to.


I was advised to avoid street food, so I didn't partake in any push-cart tacos, but otherwise enjoyed several terrific meals at a variety of levels.

Pujol - I had read a recommendation of this upscale restaurant in Travel & Leisure but didn't realize until after I went that it has been ranked as the best restaurant in Mexico and the 20th best in the world. It features a prix fixe menu such as I've had at Chicago's Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, and Picasso in Las Vegas, but was less expensive than any of those were, and much less so than other comparable restaurants (such as The French Laundry, Per Se or Atelier de Joel Robuchon). It was a truly fantastic experience, even if not quite as mind-blowing as other prix fixe indulgences, and perhaps not even as satisfying a meal as I had the night before at...

Azul Historico - Another place I learned about through Travel & Leisure, but much more modestly priced than Pujol. It's in the Zocalo area, just a few minutes from my hotel.

I enjoyed a wonderful fish dish called Tikin Xic Fish that included plantains and avocado. I also had an excellent soup, and a chocolate tamale for dessert.

Balcon de Zocalo and El Mayor Cafe - The food at both of these places where I ate breakfast was good, but the views were even better.

Balcon de Zocalo was on the 6th floor of my hotel (Zocalo Central), overlooking the Metropolitan Cathedral. I partook in a decent if a tad pricey breakfast buffet.

El Mayor Cafe overlooks the Templo Mayor, and the Enchiladas with Eggs that I had were very tasty. 

Cafe de Tacuba - Inspiring the name of a Mexican rock band (minus the "de"), this beautiful yet comfortable restaurant has existed on Tacuba Street since 1912. I enjoyed a thin Carne Asada accompanied by Enchiladas Suiza. I also ordered Quesadillas with Guacamole and was surprised to find then shaped more like empanadas rather than flat.

El Horreo - Though in an area frequented by tourists--on the west side of Alameda Park--I wandered into this restaurant just because it was in the right place at the right time, and it felt distinctly local & homey. I had a nice piece of fish with garlic.

I also ate at the cafe of the Anthropology Museum, where both I and the patrons at the next table experienced order problems due language confusion, but I wound up with a good dish of Pork Tacos.

Also enjoyable was grabbing some gelato on the go, getting a churro with pineapple filling in Coyoacan and stopping at the Pasteleria Vasconia bakery near my hotel. Supposedly it is long-standing and well-known.

Around Town

Hopefully from all of the above, you've gotten a good sense of what I saw and did in Mexico City. But of course, on any trip, there are several in-between type of moments. So just to mention it, I enjoyed riding the Metro (subway), seeing the upscale Polanco district and Presidente Masaryk Street (supposedly the poshest in Mexico), walking several streets around the Zocalo area, finding my way through the Bosque (Park) de Chapultepec and strolling along the Paseo de la Reforma, with El Angel and other impressive statuary. Heck, I even walked through a book fair I happened upon.

All in all, my initial journey to Mexico City--Tijuana being the only other Mexican city I've ever been to, long ago--made for a terrific trip. I had numerous wonderful experiences, and absolutely no problems, in terms of safety, confusion, digestive or respiratory issues (given the altitude) or anything else.

I fully realize it's never easy to figure out when, or to what level of priority vs. other options, but more Americans--and other travelers--should visit Mexico City. To end, before a few more photos, with some of the little Spanish I know, it's...

Muy bueno. 


1 comment:

Ken said...

Via Condios amigo!!