“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Weekend in Mexico City

Mexico City has been on my radar for a number of years. It's a brief flight from Chicago, the fares can often drop to attractive prices, and the street food is supposed to be famous. I have kept an airfare alert for Mexico City for a few years.  On my trip to Rio a few months ago, I was bumped from a connecting flight and the agent was kind enough to give me a flight voucher for my trouble. As luck would have it, my airfare alert went off when the fare to Mexico City dropped to nearly the same price as my voucher, and during Memorial Day weekend, no less.  Fortunately I have some dear friends who patiently tolerate my travel bug, and Nette agreed to join me south of the border for the weekend.  I have Friday and Monday off from work, so a quick jaunt was in order.

For safety's sake, I wanted to find accommodations off the tourist path.  No hotels, nothing that might appear to make us a target, be followed, or be taken advantage of as vacationers.  And I've learned the joys of staying at local B&Bs where we can get personalized service and advice from the staff.  There were a few options in the neighborhood of Condessa.  We came to find out that this is known as the restaurant district, and it certainly wasn't short of options of all international sorts.

Friday was an extremely early flight but it got us into Mexico City by lunchtime, when we dropped our luggage off and wandered out for a bite. We didn't drift far since we were just starting to get to know the area.  A quick post-lunch nap and we headed out again for dinner. We found a place called Bacán which served Mediterranean fare.  It reminded me of a French bistro, with tables outside, dark awnings, and serious yet friendly servers.  The weather was warm and we sat outside at a sidewalk table and ordered wine and some light snacks and soup.  A perfect topping to a long day.  The crowd as attractive and quite international.  

Who knows what we did to deserve the way we felt the next morning, as we commented we may as well be senior citizens since we were dragging the next day and felt a little sore.  Maybe the result of dragging luggage around  and the early hour we woke up.  At any rate, our plan for the day was to visit  Chapultepec Park in the center of the city.  At breakfast met a couple from Tucson who said they were taking the subway there.  It was such a nice day that we decided to walk the mile and a half. So many of the streets we wandered down had wide pedestrian medians in the middle, lined with palm trees and other greenery and occasional flowers.  We took a small detour through Parque Mexico in the center of Condessa with a lovely fountain.  Every few blocks were bicycle rental stalls.  Apparently with Mexico City's notorious pollution, they recently started taking steps to improve the air quality, which includes the bike initiatives and low-emission bus service.

Chapultepec Park was a beauty.  Wide avenues for running, biking, and walking.  Fountains, botanic gardens, a lake for paddle-boating, a castle, and more museums than you can shake a stick at.  The day was sunny, the park air was cool and clean, and lots of families were out for a stroll and enjoying the amusements, food, and vendors that lined the park avenues.  We made a pit stop under some trees for some deliciously simple tacos then made our way to the biggest attraction on the list, the National Museum of Anthropology.

I have heard that this is one of the great museums of the world, and possibly the only reason to visit Mexico City if you don't do anything else.  I wanted to find out what the hype was, and for a mere $4 entry fee we were on our way.  It did not disappoint.  Not only the contents of the museum, but the architectural design of the building was stunning. It was a museum in its own right, a tribute to modern, yet understated design.  For any architecture buffs, this is not to be missed.  I have never seen a finer museum.  Granted, the Louvre is spectacular on so many different levels, but it's a palace of a different sort.  The museum had a massive inner courtyard that was open to the elements and partially covered by a roof suspended by only a single column.  Galleries opened to the courtyard, as well as opened on the back side to more gardens with winding paths to explore transplanted Mayan temples that were relocated to the museum grounds.  Mexico should be proud of the collection, to have the majority of their rich history displayed with the respect it deserves.  I was in awe throughout the visit.

On our way out we walked back east down the Paseo de la Reforma, which is known as the Champs d'Elysees of Mexico.  It wound through the park, a wide boulevard with large statues in the medians.  At one section we found ourselves in the middle of an international food festival.  I was itching to stop at nearly every booth, but the crowds were thick for the weekend and we though we would be heading back this way the next day to explore the Reforma on Sunday when they close it to traffic.  So we ducked into a side street when Nette spied an Italian restaurant.  A small, imitate place, it looked ideal to escape the crowds.  We sat on the upper floor next to a window and looked out over the Reforma.  She ordered spaghetti with red sauce and I a carbonara that knocked my socks off (I'm a sucker for carbonara so I may be easy to please with this dish).  We joked that when we woke up that morning we were senior citizens and maybe we should hit the early bird special at 4pm for dinner.  Sure enough, it was 4pm when we sat down for our late lunch.  

Our walk back took us through Zona Rosa, and it drizzled a bit, but we still enjoyed the warm temperature.  Back at the B&B we loaded a movie on the iPad and relaxed.  A few hours later we decided we were too tired to venture out for dinner and it was still raining, so we ordered Domino's.  A tasty 4-cheese pizza and a couple sodas hit the spot as we hunkered down for the next day.  Did you know that pizza in Mexico comes with a side of ketchup and picante sauce?

The plan for Sunday was to visit the historic center, do some shopping, and walk down the Reforma.  Since the historic center was much further away than the park, we decided to navigate the subway instead of waste our energy on walking... We'd be doing a lot more of that later.  And how could we resiste the subway?  It was only 3 pesos, or about $0.25!  We asked around a bit first to see how safe it was, and the vote was 3-1.  Subway it is.  It was pretty clean, trains came very quickly, and since we carried a subway map, we found our way around very easily.  

We started out in the zócalo, which is the third largest public plaza in the world behind Tienamen and Red Square.  It was bordered by the Palacio Nacional and a massive baroque church. The palace was free to enter, but somehow we just didn't have the bug to go in.  Maybe on my next trip.  I hear it had some phenomenal Diego Rivera murals inside.  As we took in the main square, we detoured down a side street that turns out was an entirely pedestrian way full of shops on each side.  We popped in and out of various jewelry stores.  I had heard that silver was very inexpensive here, but I just didn't find anything I liked.  Then we spotted Zara.  Now, we have a Zara in Chicago.  But almost the moment I walked in, I had at least a dozen garments in my arms.  I was pulling things off the racks left and right. The selection was so much better than in Chicago, and the prices were nearly half the price.  I believe we spent nearly an hour in there trying things on.  I left with a dress, pants, shirt, and a fantastic necklace that could double as a weapon.  Nette secured a fabulous trench coat.  For as much as we purchased, it was a fraction of what we would have spent back home.  Score.  

The shopping left us hungry, and we realized we were near El Cardenal. Now let me back up here.  My cab driver in Chicago had recommended this restaurant.  When we arrived at the B&B, the guy there also mentioned it.  I also spotted it in my guidebook, and saw it listed as the #1 restaurant in Mexico City on TripAdvisor.  This had to be a sign.  When we were out shopping, we spotted the awning.  So after Zara, we put our names down for a 15 minute wait (not bad) and were seated right on time.  The building and staff reminded me of a classic French bistro, once again.  We were seated on the second level, our napkins placed in our laps, our bags hung up (on these small stands that every restaurant seems to have table side), and were offered hand sanitizer.  We were presented with a lovely selection of breads, as well as a green salsa with avocado slices, queso fresco, and warm corn tortillas.  Followed up by a delicious lunch of pollo con mole negro, it was very satisfying and recommended.

We continued shopping along the pedestrian avenue when drizzle set in.  Nette took advantage of the opportunistic entrepreneurs selling umbrellas and we made our way back toward the B&B. I did want to stop at a shop called Desigual and also an artisan market, but with the rain and a chill setting into the air, a nap sounded far better.  Besides, we had just about exhausted ourselves with shopping. We took the subway back and I made some mental notes along the way.  When an elderly gentleman stepped on to the train, Nette got up to give him her seat.  A younger man stood up, motioned for Nette to sit back down, then gave his seat to the old man.  I often don't see that on public transit in Chicago.  We also noticed a few people on the train with large backpacks with speakers in them. They would play music from an attached CD player and selling the music for a few pesos.  The city was full of such entrepreneurs selling anything from trinkets to gum.  It is a bit annoying to be sitting at a sidewalk cafe having lunch and someone approaches you to try to sell you something, but a simple "no gracias" seems to do the trick.

Upon arrival in Mexico City days earlier, we learned that Sunday night would be the final game of the Mexican national soccer league, and the two teams facing each other were both from the city.  People were out in droves on Sunday wearing their favorite team jersey in anticatipation of the game.  So after camping out a bit in our room, we dolled up a bit and headed up to a local pub for some drinks and to watch the game with the locals.  We were rooting for the team with the sponsor Corona on their jerseys.  The bartender Oscar was kind enough to enlighten us on the finer points of how the game was played, and just exactly how much time was remaining.  Afterward we walked home in a light drizzle in the warm evening air.  

I feel as though this was a good primer for Mexico City.  There is so much more I want to see and do there, such as visiting the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, cruising the canals of Xochimilco, see Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nacional, visit the Frida Khalo museum, walk down the Reforma in a Sunday afternoon, and seriously shop for silver jewelry.  There was no way we would have time to accomplish all that in a single weekend, so this warrants another visit.  I was also pleased that my Spanish has really developed since the last visit south of the border.  I can't say I'm fluent yet, but definitely conversational and learned a handful of new words over the weekend.  I want to continue traveling south so my language skills can improve.  Immersion is key.

I was pleased. Mexico City is a vibrant, cosmopolitan international city.  It was well worth the visit to break down any stereotypes or impressions, to bring back stories that this is a spectacular city to visit, so much more beautiful and rich than I had ever imagined.