A complex city, capital of the unexpected

An excerpt from Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler

When I tell people I live in Mexico City, the response is often bewilderment shadowed with trepidation. I’ve called Mexico City home since 1998. In that time I’ve seen it grow and change — mostly for the better.

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As one of the biggest conglomerations of human beings on the planet, its sheer size can be daunting, and everybody (especially those who have never been here) has a crime or a pollution story, the grittier the better. But as a resident explorer of the city for more than 15 years, I have come to know it well, to manage its complexities, to make it enjoyable, even delectable.

What started out as a collection of notes on my discoveries around town to share with friends has grown into this guide, a love letter to my home town, known here simply as Mexico or el DF (el day-effay), el Distrito Federal. It’s a biased book, I admit, rooted in a love that accepts many imperfections without overlooking them.

I include a number of popular tourist sites that nobody should miss, but also lesser-known places, neighborhoods, markets, and even a specific street corner where you will find the best tamales. I don’t give long descriptions of the most famous sights — I’ll assume the curious traveler can figure that out — but I try to lead you into less likely corners. My opinions are colored by my professional life as an artist and architect, my interest in good food, and my love of great cities in general.

Mexico City isn’t really beautiful like Paris or San Francisco — its gems lie in a matrix of urban hysteria. It can delight and assault the senses with equal force, and teasingly hide much of its allure behind massive old walls.

With population estimates as high as 25 million, the tumult of noise and activity can be overwhelming, and the extremes of wealth and poverty unsettling. There is a great deal of sensory input, and it takes some effort to sort it all out.

Unlike more demure European or American cities, Mexico pours out onto its streets with unrestrained exuberance. Color is everywhere: radiant magenta, acidic lime green, or screeching yellow will suddenly appear on a wall or a shirt, a balloon or a piece of fruit. Advertising is boldly painted directly on building walls, creating a delightful, if disorienting, overabundance of visual information.

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Hand-hewn stones, irregular surfaces, and cobbled streets give the city an earthy physical texture. Cracks, bumps, gaps, and tilting walls, evidence of many earthquakes, make the city seem like a child’s drawing. And with zoning laws often ignored, startling juxtapositions occur: a stately colonial building looms over a 60s gas station, or a high-rise apartment complex cuddles up to a humble taco stand. It is the capital of the unexpected.

Mexico City has a great sound track, and I often stop to listen — it’s a very musical country. Organ grinders wander about; it’s an old tradition that arrived with Italian immigrants a century ago (give a tip — it’s their only source of income).

Singers accompany themselves with guitars and accordions in the streets, in restaurants and in the metro. Every so often a marimba band will appear on the sidewalk in front of my house. The “One Man Band” is a regular in the neighborhood where I work, his crude fanfare for trumpet and drum guaranteed to wake you up from an afternoon slump.

There’s a surprising number of birds here, and on quiet holiday mornings I’ve been awakened by their song.

Market vendors have their particular calls and cadences (called pregones), knife sharpeners have their distinctive whistle (not to be confused with the whistle of the camotero who sells cooked sweet potatoes in the evening).

Even the garbage collectors have a particular sound, the clanging of a metal bar, to announce their arrival. The recorded cries of “fiero viejo” (old junk metal) collectors, or “tamales Oaxaqueños,” with their combination of humor and annoyance, are well known to all residents of Mexico City.

Many foreigners find the noise level unsettling, but volume and cacophony are more often experienced as pleasure than annoyance by Mexicans — visit Plaza Garibaldi one night to hear the mariachis and you will know what I mean.

The city smells of life in earthy ways not found in more sanitized places. Open food stalls are everywhere: a pervasive aroma of corn tortillas, roasting meats, chiles, and garapiñados (nuts cooked in caramelized sugar) are just a few of the pleasurable smells that mix with the noxious exhaust of too many vehicles or clogged drainage pipes.

Air quality has been steadily improving over the past few years, however, and there are many days with clear blue skies.

Mexico City has a bit of an old-fashioned feel; it is comfortable with its long cultural heritage, not terribly concerned with trends or fads. Old style barbershops, wooden-door cantinas, dowdy ladies’ corset shops, and glass-bottle pharmacies are found throughout the city, some of them untouched for 50 years or more.

Modern Mexico City also has plenty of slick, high-rise stuff, and lots of super-rich people living behind walls, mostly in the western suburbs. Chic hotels, elegant restaurants and designer stores are here, but they tend to have the same global feeling as elsewhere. It’s the energy of living tradition that makes this city distinctive.

You can feel a deep sense of ancient history here. The faces of many people, the food, and place names such as Chapultepec, Popocatepetl and Nezahualcoyotl reflect its pre-Hispanic past.

A sense of the world not changing and the embrace of history give this city a special character, but with the forces of globalization pounding at the gates, I don’t think it will last much longer. It’s a good time to visit.

Mexico City is not for the faint-hearted traveler. The air is polluted, the traffic is beyond belief, it’s in an earthquake zone, and not far from a smoking volcano. You don’t come to relax or “get away from it all.”

You come to be seduced by a flourishing 700-year old culture, by people whose hearts are easily opened, and by the sheer audacity of it all. Keep your senses alert and you, the curious traveler, will be richly rewarded.

I hope this book will enable you to discover Mexico City, and to love it as I do.

Originally from New York City, the author works as an artist and writer in Mexico City, which is also the subject of his blog. His book is available at the bookstore at MND Marketplace.

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  • Steve Galat

    Distinguidísimo Letrado, I live in Puerto Aventuras, Quintana Roo. Is it possible to purchase Selected Chapters (eating, lesser-known ‘barrios,’ getting around, etc) and have them e-mailed to me for perusal on my PC ?

    • Gabriel Heiser
      • Steve Galat

        Does “Kindle” mean that I can read it on my HP Desktop? Or do I need to get a “Tablet” or “Univac” or something? Thanks.

        • Gabriel Heiser

          You can download the free Kindle reader for desktop PCs, so yes, that would work for you. No tablet reader necessary.

          • Steve Galat

            Great! I’ll do it after my cruise….actually, a 14-day Crossing from Barcelona to Miami via Funchal and St Thomas….so cheap, including all drinks, I couldn’t resist. As for el D.F. in the 1980’s my wife (who was quite alive at the time) and I lived in Col. San Rafael (Calle Sadi Carnot) just opposite El Monumento a la Madre and that nice park in a 2-story floor-through and were regulars at La Calesa de Londres, Fonda del Refugio, Les Mustaches, El Cabrito, Noste, Fonda Don Chon, Danubio, Meson del Caballo Bayo and Restaurante del Lago (Chapultepec Park). Some nights, after dinner, around 11 PM we’d just take the train to Tasqueña and the bus to Acapulco, arriving around 5 AM. History may not Repeat itself but it does, on occasion, Rhyme!

          • Peter Maiz

            La Calesa de Londres? That belonged to Juan Munoz and the Creels here in Chihuahua (close cousins). I guess it’s been out of business in Mexico City for decades?

          • Steve Galat

            “La Casona” must be beautiful. No, but I did manage to pack in some good meals around your ‘Romita,’ Condesa & Zona Rosa: Domenicca, Selva Negra (Polanco), Balcón (Zócalo), Fonda Refugio, Havre 77, Mar a Mar, and a great little Indian joint “Tandoor de Ali” on Lucerne. Also found California Pizza Restaurant to be quite exceptional! So was the restaurant at my Century Hotel (Liverpool). Regards from Puerto Aventuras, Q.R.

          • Peter Maiz

            Glad you enjoy Mexican and Mexican varieties of food. If you’re interested, see La Casona in chihuahua city through the internet. At the top of the structure, you’ll see the initials LT. Both Juan Munoz and the Creels were great grandchildren of LT. Juan Munoz’es grandfather, son of the general, was co founder of what is now Cemex and Vitro. Juan Munoz has passed away and left an enormous fortune to his heirs. But the big boy in town now is Don Federico Terrazas Torres, also a great grandson of the general. His father was a co- founder of what used to called Multibanco Comermex, founded in the 1930’s as was his cousin, Don Miguel Marquez Terrazas. However, what has taken Don Federico Terrazas to the stars is Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, founded in the 1940’s. As other co-founders sold out, Don Federico bought their stock. This guy is into everything . When I met him at the passing of Don Jose J. Touche in the seventies, he was telling me about the forests he leased in Canada. His brother Enrique Terrazas Torres runs two large businesses, Copachisa and Ruba. It’s a funny thing with these members of the LT family. Luis Terrazas had his enormous fortune almost completely destroyed during The Revolution and yet some members were able to renew their fortunes.

          • Steve Galat

            ¡Fascinante crónica chihuahense! Before we met in Manhattan, my wife’s boyfriend was Roberto Trouyet. They lived in Las Brisas, Acapulco which his family owned. He told me stories of their forests and lumber fortune made long ago in Chihuahua. No my next trip (next month) will be to Argovia Finca in the Chiapas ‘Zona Cafetalera.’ I wonder if you ever heard of it?

          • Peter Maiz

            Yes, the Truyets and Banco Comercial Mexicano merged as partners. The Vallinas and Trouyet family lost Bosques de Chihuahua through the ejidal program. Vallina founded Banco Comercial Mexicano (comermex) with some of the people I’ve mentioned above. It was called Grupo Chihuahua. Unfortunately, The Vallinas lost their financial empire over time as it was Eloy Vallina that was the brain of the group and he was assassinated in front of his bank in 1961.

          • Roberto Antonio Falk

            You allowed your wife to sleep with a rich Mexican guy. Was she a professional prostitute? There are many rich German men in Chiapas but I guess your wife must be” over the hill” as they say in the US. Enjoy your trip.

  • geoffyjoe

    Kudos for mentioning that you stop to listen to the sounds of the city. Many of us are too caught up in the day to day rushing around. I’ll be in D.F. for a wedding at the end of October and will make it a point not to forget to do a little listening.

  • Dave Hensleigh

    Wonderful–the old “dey efay” is a favorite stop for our AuthenticMexicoTravel.com journeys. Recently I was thrown into a fountain in the old Alameda Park on a Sunday afternoon. I explained to my concerned guests that it is one of those delightful “complexities” that we often encounter there.

  • Kathy Lichter

    Jim’s descriptions are so poetic….we follow his guidance every time we go to Mexico City and we are always surprised by new discoveries!

  • athea marcos amir

    Mexico City is the only big city I’ve ever truly loved. When I saw it for the first time around 1960 I was smitten, and I’ve never recovered. Although I live in San Miguel de Allende, I share a small apartment with two friends in D.F., and any excuse I have to go there, I grab it and often take someone with me. It never fails to delight me. The Spanish Cultural Institute of Mexico on Donceles shows films and has a wonderful restaurant. I find it the most exciting city of all the famous capitals. And contrary to what you might here, the Chilangos are wonderful. Last time I tripped on the street there, an entire group assembled to help me.

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