Latin Amer­i­can luxe

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - STEPHANIE RAFANELLI

In the basin of snuffed-out vol­ca­noes that loom over the city, the Val­ley of Mex­ico ap­pears in the dark­ness, a gi­ant lake of elec­tric lava be­low. As my plane de­scends, the glow turns into what looks like a black vel­vet cloak em­broi­dered with mul­ti­coloured glass beads, the lights of 21 mil­lion peo­ple.

From the tips of its cathe­drals to the bow­els of its foun­da­tions, Mex­ico City is strik­ingly com­plex. Buried be­neath the 2200m-high metropolis lies the 14th-cen­tury Aztec king­dom Tenochti­t­lan, a city of canals. Lay­ered on top, church upon tem­ple, sits the so-called colo­nial City of Palaces, founded in 1519 as the cap­i­tal of New Spain. And in­ter­laced are works of the great mod­ern Mex­i­can ar­chi­tects who carry their an­ces­tors’ cre­ative DNA.

Mex­ico has ex­pe­ri­enced many post­colo­nial rev­o­lu­tions. To­day, two cen­turies after in­de­pen­dence, there’s an­other one, spurred on by in­no­va­tive lo­cal chefs, hote­liers, ar­chi­tects, de­sign­ers, eco-vint­ners and craft dis­tillers who are re­defin­ing Mex­i­can iden­tity and re­claim­ing their in­dige­nous roots.

It is to ex­pe­ri­ence this mav­er­ick en­ergy that I am tak­ing a road jour­ney from Mex­ico City, now con­sid­ered one of the safest in Latin Amer­ica, to the colo­nial heart­lands, into the dy­namic Ba­jio area and up through the West­ern Sierra Madre moun­tains to the Pa­cific coast.

I am stay­ing in Polan­quito, the bo­hemian part of Polanco DF’s lux­ury south­ern dis­trict, a placid en­clave of bou­tiques and award-win­ning restau­rants (Mex­ico is home to 10 of the 50 best in Latin Amer­ica) where traf­fic oblig­ingly stops on the grand avenidas when I step in the road. Here the well-heeled sip or­ganic hot choco­late or saunter with chi­huahuas through the ad­join­ing Cha­pul­te­pec For­est where gold Monarch but­ter­flies flit like marigold petals through an­cient wood­land of sil­very Mon­tezuma cy­press trees. The em­peror’s for­mer gar­den is now one of the largest city parks in the world.

Above this buried em­pire, two re­cently erected “pyra­mids” have es­tab­lished Polanco as the new lux­ury cap­i­tal of Latin Amer­ica. El Pala­cio de Hierro is a vast haute­fash­ion tem­ple in an im­pos­ing Aztec-in­spired com­plex de­signed by Javier Sordo Madaleno Bringas, son of Mex­i­can mod­ernist Juan Sordo Madaleno. And Museo Soumaya, Mex­ico’s very own Taj Ma­hal, is a dumb­bell­shaped struc­ture of hexag­o­nal alu­minium tiles built by telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions mogul Car­los Slim Helu in hon­our of late wife, Soumaya. The gallery, which houses his art col­lec­tion, is a fam­ily af­fair de­signed by his son-in-law, ar­chi­tect Fer­nando Romero, with whom Nor­man Foster has part­nered on Mex­ico City’s new air­port, due to be the most sus­tain­able in the world.

But the true won­ders of to­day’s Mex­ico City are independent-spir­ited, bi­jou and rooted in the past. “To­day’s rock-star chefs are rein­vent­ing their grand­moth­ers’ recipes,” food evan­ge­list Juan Pablo Balles­teros tells me over a shot of Pox, a corn liquor once used by the Mayans for cer­e­mo­nial pur­poses. The great-grand­son of Rafael, who founded the clas­sic Cafe Tacuba in 1912, owns the down­town restau­rant Los Li­mosneros, a love let­ter to ar­ti­sanal Mex­ico, with an ethos that’s or­ganic, sea­sonal and anti-monopoly. “The Aztecs be­lieved when you got drunk you re­leased the 400 rab­bits,” chuck­les Ernesto, my lav­ishly cologned guide, also an opera singer, who I meet in the old­est part of the his­toric cen­tre, the Zocalo, at Tem­plo Mayor, the only ex­ca­vated por­tion of Tenochti­t­lan. His the­atri­cal per­sua­sions bring the Aztec tem­ple alive; I can al­most see the feath­ers of the bird-ser­pent god Quet­zal­coatl ruf­fle, and smell blood on the sac­ri­fi­cial stones of the world-class An­thro­po­log­i­cal Mu­seum.

That night, at Li­core­ria Li­man­tour, her­alded as the top cock­tail bar in Latin Amer­ica, Ma­jer Te­jado, the first woman to win the ti­tle of best mixol­o­gist in Mex­ico, serves me a Ja­maica Mescal with hibis­cus-flavoured craft mescal in a ter­ra­cotta jar. After my third, I con­vince my­self I’m drink­ing from a cer­e­mo­nial Aztec urn.

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