“Oh boy, it sure does reek of smoke in here!” I whispered to Slawek – my longtime travel-partner-in-crime – as we settled into the back seat of the cab that was to take us on the roughly five-mile ride from Mexico City’s huge, busy international airport to our hotel in the Historic Center. “I wonder why he hasn’t cracked a window?” Slawek whispered back. I thought about it for a minute and replied, “Well, there’s a pretty simple explanation! This town is probably full of carjackings, and so it would be a security risk to drive with the windows open. Kind of like in Johannesburg…”
I had scarcely finished the sentence when all four windowpanes rolled down simultaneously, accompanied by a loud expletive from the cabbie. He turned back at us (not the smartest thing to do while driving during the evening rush hour in the world’s second-largest city, IMO!) and, in a voice pregnant with indignation, demanded “Excuse me, but who exactly put such a ridiculous idea in your head? There are no carjackings here … this town is perfectly safe. There, the windows are down now! Feel better?”
OK, so he spoke perfect English. Actually, upon closer examination, he looked very much like a retired schoolteacher. Time to make amends. “I’m so sorry,” I said, switching to Spanish in an attempt to get back on his good side, “but that’s what the folks in Guadalajara told us.” We had just flown in from Mexico’s second-largest city that evening. “Guadalajara … ugh!” the cabbie exclaimed. “Those idiots living out in the provinces are unbelievable. They’ve never set foot in the capital and yet think they know everything about it. In fact it’s up there, in Guadalajara, where untold numbers of pendejos have been murdered by drug gangs. Carjackings, my ass. Look outside, does anybody out there look like they’re living in mortal fear?”
I looked around me at the crowded streets, the teeming sidewalks, the bustling shops. Old ladies, young girls, families with children … everybody going about their lives amongst the balloon sellers, tamale vendors, and shoeshine boys seemingly without a care in the world. Maybe the man had a point. It didn’t look any different from Bangkok, Istanbul, or any other global tourism hub … except for one major difference. There were hardly any international tourists here to mob the attractions and create the kind of mile-long lines that are the absolute curse of places like Bangkok and Istanbul.
Which is kind of happy and sad at the same time. On the one hand it is awesome to be able to walk into a world-class museum , historic site, hotel, or restaurant with the confidence that you will not need to jostle or elbow your way in, or compete for their business with a gazillion deep-pocketed (and often ill-mannered) tour groups from around the world. On the other hand, though, it is pretty mind-blowing that a giant megalopolis with such an extraordinary wealth of top-class attractions should be so completely off the tourist trail, and be known around the world only for all the wrong reasons. There aren’t too many megacities with 25 million inhabitants on planet Earth where you can walk around feeling like it’s your own precious little secret, your own private Eden (if you can ignore the traffic).
Take our favorite, go-to hotel in Mexico City, for example. It’s an architectural jewel dating back to the 1800s and is managed by an international hospitality chain that has expertly updated it to offer ultra-comfortable rooms while preserving all of its original historic charm. For around US$85-90 a night (including a full, hot breakfast) you get to stay a stone’s throw away (no pun intended!) from the Presidential Palace. In how many capital cities in the world can one do that? Step out of the hotel and you are right in the middle of everything that makes Mexico City so magical and unforgettable. The stately, centuries-old architecture echoes Madrid and Paris, while the patient, friendly, super-approachable people and the wafting aromas of finger-licking-delicious food set you down firmly in Mexico.
Stepping into the cavernous Metropolitan Cathedral you can feel the palpable presence of generations of archbishops, cardinals, popes and saints, while a few short city blocks away in Alameda Park numerous gay and lesbian couples can be seen walking arm-in-arm without fear of harassment or intimidation.
If you want to see museums there’s probably one for every day of the year. Some of my favorites include the jaw-dropping Museo de Arte Popular, the justly famous Museo Nacional de Antropología with its iconic Aztec Sun Stone, and the heartwarming Museo de la Charreria (a.k.a. the Mexican Cowboy Museum) that’s worth its modest price of admission simply to meet its caretaker, a hilariously eccentric retired cowboy whose overwhelming passion for the art of traditional Mexican horsemanship and everything connected with it is a wonder to behold. If you are into superlative culinary experiences you cannot go wrong here whether you grab a pair of fresh, hot tamales or tacos from a street vendor or if you sit down in the white-tablecloth luxury of El Cardenal restaurant to dine on fine Mexican cuisine that you’ve never seen the likes of anywhere else on Earth. Best of all, eating your way through this city will not bust your bank account … an impossibly elegant and delicious breakfast at El Cardenal may not set you back more than US$10 per person unless you really decide to be a pig. If you’re into drinking – which Slawek and I are not – there’s plenty of choice for that too, ranging from downing refreshing cervezas in the company of Mariachi bands at festive Plaza Garibaldi to sampling top-flight tequilas and mescals at chi-chi skyscraper-top lounges looking down at glitzy Reforma Avenue.
There is so much to write about this multi-volume epic poem of a city that one cannot even begin to capture it all in a single article or blog post. Stay tuned for more!
Deepak Prem Subramony has been in 31 countries across four
continents thus far. Within US territory, he has covered 42 states
(including Alaska and Hawaii), Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
His favorite language is Spanish, and he is happiest when he is
anywhere between Tijuana and Tierra del Fuego.
All Photographs Courtesy of: Deepak Prem Subramony