Latin American luxe
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.