Why Mex­ico City is a world-class des­ti­na­tion

It’s huge, and maybe a lit­tle un­known to some, but there is fab­u­lous food, art and fash­ion to be found

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - KAVITA KU­MAR

In­side the mag­i­cal court­yard gar­den of famed artist Frida Kahlo, the strik­ing cobalt blue walls are rimmed with green and red ac­cents around win­dows and door­ways.

Long, pointed leaves of pot­ted plants and tow­er­ing trees breathe life and green into the space.

In­dige­nous stat­ues dot the grounds; they were hand-picked by Kahlo and her hus­band, mu­ral­ist Diego Rivera, and pro­vide a glimpse into their artis­tic muses and styling.

Wan­der­ing the gar­den, I couldn’t help but feel in­spired.

So did other vis­i­tors, I noted, who were not shy about tak­ing a pic­ture of them­selves, cam­eras held at arm’s length. Given the breath­tak­ing back­drop, it shouldn’t have sur­prised me that La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, has be­come a prime spot for that more mod­ern art form. I laughed out loud as I saw the dra­matic, moody ex­pres­sions of other vis­i­tors’ faces as they snapped away on their cam­eras and phones in the court­yard.

Be­fore too much eye-rolling en­sued, it oc­curred to me that there was per­haps no more ap­pro­pri­ate place for pic­tures than in the house of Frida. Af­ter all, she was, of course, most well known for her self-por­traits. So in a way, we were all just pay­ing homage to the orig­i­nal queen of self­ies, right?

Kahlo’s im­age is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a re­bound at the mo­ment, her dis­tinc­tive face show­ing up on Tshirts, cook­ing aprons and pil­lows in Mex­ico and be­yond. In­ter­est in Mex­ico City, where she lived much of her life, is re­bound­ing, too.

Still, the sprawl­ing, bustling city had not yet made it onto my own list of the top places in the world I wanted to visit. So when one of my fre­quent travel bud­dies sug­gested we meet up there, I needed some per­suad­ing.

“What would we do there?” I texted her.

Her re­sponse was im­me­di­ate and de­fin­i­tive: “Art. Fash­ion. Food. Ar­chi­tec­ture.” It was hard to ar­gue with that. A month or so later, I soon found out for my­self why Mex­ico City, whose rep­u­ta­tion was once marred by sto­ries of kid­nap­pings and high crime, has in­creas­ingly been con­sid­ered one of the next up-and­com­ing hot travel des­ti­na­tions.

As my plane de­scended into Ci­u­dad de Mex­ico last Au­gust, I stared in won­der at the dense city be­low me with its many clus­ters of tall build­ings that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see. I shouldn’t have been sur­prised; it is, af­ter all, one of the world’s most pop­u­lous cities.

A quick — and rel­a­tively cheap — Uber ride took us from the air­port to an apart­ment we rented through Airbnb in the bo­hemian neigh­bour­hood of Roma Norte, known for its bars, restau­rants, art gal­leries and bou­tiques.

With adrenalin pump­ing at be­ing in a new city, we quickly dropped off our things and im­me­di­ately hit the streets in search of a late-night snack and some mescal.

We ended up at a hip, darkly lit mez­ca­le­ria a cou­ple of blocks away that could have eas­ily been trans­posed from the Lower East Side of New York. Skilled mixol­o­gists — who laughed kind-heart­edly at our ter­ri­ble Span­ish and helped fill in our gaps with their lim­ited English — pre­pared some tasty li­ba­tions for us. We toasted to our first night in Mex­ico City. It was an aus­pi­cious start.

The next morn­ing, the first item on the agenda was caf­feine. Luck­ily, a cute cof­fee shop, Buna, was close by. Drip cof­fee was nowhere to be found here. Rather, stylish baris­tas hand-poured each cof­fee drink, an­other sign we were stay­ing smack dab in the mid­dle of a hip­ster mecca.

Over the next sev­eral days, we strolled many of the city’s pic­turesque neigh­bour­hoods, of­ten stop­ping to chill out at the serene parks and plazas that make the city feel very Euro­pean. They were per­fect spots for peo­ple-watch­ing — and dog-watch­ing, as hired walk­ers of­ten en­ter­tained and hus­tled to keep track of all of the pets on their leashes.

Con­desa, a neigh­bour­hood near our rental with some of the city’s best restau­rants and bars, has two par­tic­u­larly lovely parks with canopies of trees and a duck-filled pond.

And then there’s the grand­daddy of them all, Cha­pul­te­pec Park, a mas­sive ur­ban oa­sis that re­minded me of New York’s Central Park. At a large lake there, lo­cals rent orange and blue pedal boats. Through­out the park, nu­mer­ous stands of­fer an eclec­tic mix of tchotchkes and salty snacks.

The park is also home to a cas­tle, once the stamp­ing ground of Mex­ico’s rulers atop a hill; the hike up is well worth the ef­fort. We am­bled up the slop­ing walk­way and ar­rived at the top just a half-hour or so be­fore it closed. So we found our­selves speed­walk­ing through its beau­ti­fully man­i­cured court­yard, blackand-white checked floors, and rooms with stained glass win­dows. The cas­tle is a feast for the eyes — and so is the view of the city spread out be­low. We wished we had more time to ex­plore it; that feel­ing be­came a re­cur­rent theme dur­ing the trip.

When it comes to art, Mex­ico City’s boun­ti­ful of­fer­ings go well be­yond Kahlo and Rivera, though they are a ma­jor draw for tourists. And for good rea­son. I could have spent hours study­ing and ad­mir­ing Rivera’s revo­lu­tion­ary mu­rals at the Na­tional Palace.

But I quickly found that there is a whole lot more to see be­yond that. Of the abun­dance of art mu­se­ums, we hit sev­eral. One of the high­lights was the Museo Univer­si­tario de Arte Con­tem­po­ra­neo, which

seemed to be pop­u­lar with young Mex­i­cans, not sur­pris­ing since it’s lo­cated on a col­lege cam­pus. We were lucky enough to catch an ex­hibit by Bri­tish sculp­tor Anish Kapoor (the artist be­hind “Cloud Gate,” the “bean” in Chicago’s Mil­len­nium Park) re­plete with many of his fun­house-type mir­rors and fan­tas­ti­cal art in­stal­la­tions. Mex­ico City’s self-por­trait photo fetish was alive and well at this spot, too.

We didn’t have to go out of our way to find art — we bumped into it ev­ery­where we went. Colour­ful, edgy and some­times po­lit­i­cal street art­works dot the city’s con­crete walls, of­ten in sur­pris­ing places and around un­sus­pect­ing cor­ners.

Food, we dis­cov­ered, was just an­other art form, and we ate our way across Mex­ico City.

A num­ber of highly ac­claimed chefs have put the city on the map as a grow­ing hot spot. Be­cause of the gen­er­ous cur­rency con­ver­sion that favours the U.S. dol­lar, we didn’t feel too guilty about splurg­ing on more ex­trav­a­gant mul­ti­course meals at some of the city’s finer restau­rants. But we didn’t have to go fancy to eat well.

We were a bit wary of try­ing out the vi­brant and tempt­ing street food scene of taco stands that re­minded me of the food truck scene in the U.S. But we got our fill of tacos through other means.

Our Airbnb host pointed us to one of our most mem­o­rable meals. She rec­om­mended El Par­ni­tas, a pop­u­lar place among lo­cals that was about a 10-minute walk from the apart­ment, right when it opened at 1 p.m. to avoid hav­ing to wait for a ta­ble. We got there a good 15 min­utes early, but still weren’t the first ones in line.

The restau­rant it­self, with its sim­ple decor, didn’t look that im­pres­sive. But we knew we were in for a treat when our server brought us a refreshing (and free) ap­pe­tizer of ji­cama sticks splashed with a spicy sauce.

Then we went a lit­tle taco crazy (when in Mex­ico ...), or­der­ing sev­eral tacos from the menu’s extensive list. Wrapped in house­made tor­tillas, they were oh so tasty, es­pe­cially when topped off with the ar­ray of colour­ful sal­sas brought to our ta­ble.

When it came time to shop, the city’s many maze­like mar­kets of­fered an end­less sup­ply of bright and pas­tel-col­ored Mex­i­can peas­ant shirts and frocks of var­i­ous qual­ity. For the nicer stuff, we found our­selves re­turn­ing again and again to the bou­tiques of Carla Fer­nan­dez that can be found across the city. An ac­claimed fash­ion de­signer, Fer­nan­dez works with in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties to make tra­di­tional tex­tiles that she styles into loos­e­fit­ting, con­tem­po­rary de­signs. My friend and I both found some pieces to add to our wardrobe.

To be sure, we mostly kept to the city’s more af­flu­ent neigh­bour­hoods, where the wealth could be jaw-drop­ping. It was not un­usual at some restau­rants for servers to bring out stands on which to place your hand­bags, and I would sheep­ishly hang up my banged-up purse.

While wan­der­ing around Polanco, which is like the city’s Bev­erly Hills, I felt like I could bump into Car­los Slim at any mo­ment and not know it among the sea of men in well-tai­lored busi­ness suits.

It was a much dif­fer­ent scene in the city’s crowded and bustling Cen­tro His­torico, where we shared the streets with an eclec­tic mix of peo­ple from all walks of life. The area is jam-packed with a num­ber of tourist sites — the stun­ning Pala­cio de Bel­las Artes and the mas­sive square, the Zocalo, flanked by or­nate build­ings such as the gilded Metropoli­tan Cathe­dral.

Get­ting to and from this part of the city in the af­ter­noon also in­tro­duced us to an­other fact of life in Mex­ico City: mind-numb­ing traf­fic.

On our last full day, we headed out to the neigh­bour­hood of San An­gel to visit its fa­mous art mar­ket. On week­ends, artists sell their paint­ings in the square and other ar­ti­sans sell weav­ings and hand­made pot­tery. The mar­ket has grown so big that it now spills out into nearby streets.

A con­tem­po­rary open-air mall across the street also of­fers some higher-end Mex­i­can de­signer fash­ions and wares.

Af­ter shop­ping, we had a mem­o­rable last meal at one of the restau­rants around the square. I chowed down on an un­for­get­table chili rel­leno that looked like it was float­ing in tomato broth; I washed it down with a Paci­fico beer. And, of course, there was an end­less sup­ply of fresh-made tor­tillas that kept com­ing to our ta­ble. It was the per­fect last day that hit on all of the main themes of the trip.

Since I re­turned to Min­nesota, many friends and co-work­ers have quizzed me about what I did in Mex­ico City and why I would go there on va­ca­tion. I rec­og­nize the same cu­rios­ity — and skep­ti­cism — in their voices that I had when my friend first sug­gested it to me.

Just like she did, I be­gin my re­sponse with four words: “Art. Fash­ion. Food. Ar­chi­tec­ture.”

… edgy and some­times po­lit­i­cal street art­works dot the city’s con­crete walls …

KAVITA KU­MAR, TNS

Diego Rivera’s fa­mous and con­tro­ver­sial mu­ral, Man, Con­troller of the Uni­verse, can be found in­side the Pala­cio de Bel­las Artes.

The view from the plane when de­scend­ing into Mex­ico City gives a glimpse not only of how big the city is and its tow­er­ing sky­scrapers, but also of some of the moun­tains that sur­round the bustling me­trop­o­lis.

This is one of many stun­ning mu­rals that greet vis­i­tors in Cha­pul­te­pec Park.

PHO­TOS BY KAVITA KU­MAR, TNS

This im­pres­sive foun­tain in the mid­dle of the Museo Na­cional de An­tropolo­gia.

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