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Mexico City: Ancient and Modern

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And the authenic Mexican food is fresh and delicious.
By Brian Waddle
Photos by Brian Waddle

Imagine having four days on your hands that you didn’t know what to do with. No family in town, no parties scheduled, and work was even giving you a break. What would you do? Where would you go?

May I suggest a long weekend in Mexico City?

Wait—don’t stop reading. Thanks to Sean Penn, “El Chapo” has been apprehended—again—so now there’s nothing to stop you from enjoying one of the most beautiful, romantic, historic, and truly yummy cities on the face of the planet. Yes, yummy. No doubt, we have world-famous Tex-Mex cuisine right here in our hometown, but just like wine that tastes better in Paris, authentic Mexican food in the vibrant corazón of our southern neighbors is undoubtedly one-of-a-kind. You’ll discover that pastries and sweets have never tasted so fresh and delicious as when they are brought to your table warm from the oven. Coupled with Mexican espresso, it is a match made in heaven. Café de Tacuba has been perfecting this experience since 1912. The ambiance, the uniforms, and the artwork all conspire to make it a cathedral of cuisine. 

Yes, you could stay much longer than four days, but not many of us have that luxury any more. Four days in Mexico City will leave you wanting more—and maybe even planning your next visit before you even leave the airport. 

Mexico City was built in the base of an ancient volcano, 7,000 feet above sea level. What does that mean to Houstonians accustomed to being 30 feet above sea level? Research it online, but let’s just say you’ll feel tired for half a day, so plan to arrive at night in order to sleep off most of the altitude sickness. A good meal and lots of bottled water will make you feel better.

Only a few blocks from the cathedral, Brian Waddle is about to enjoy Pan Dulce served with a Mexican cappuccino at Café de Tacuba, a Mexico City culinary institution since 1912. In describing the lemon curd pastry, Waddle can only say that “the French don’t hold a patent on using butter in pastries.”
Only a few blocks from the cathedral, Brian Waddle is about to enjoy Pan Dulce served with a Mexican cappuccino at Café de Tacuba, a Mexico City culinary institution since 1912. In describing the lemon curd pastry, Waddle can only say that “the French don’t hold a patent on using butter in pastries.”

Another good thing to know is that the city is simultaneously ancient and modern. You can ride the subway most anywhere you would want to go, but for pennies on the dollar, you can take an Uber with drivers who know the lay of the land. Learn the exchange rate and how to calculate what you are being charged—not just in taxis, but everywhere. Simply dividing the number of pesos by 17 (this rate will vary) will tell you how much you’re paying in dollars. But believe me—you can ride from one side of the city to the other in a very nice Mercedes or Escalade and have less than $20 charged to your Uber account. And like Houston, Mexico City is sprawling—and I mean massively sprawling.  Metropolitan Houston has six million or so residents. And Mexico City? 25 million—all trying to get somewhere on the interwoven freeways and toll roads. Uber is not optional—it is a must.

And as in any great metropolis, you can do anything imaginable—indoors or outdoors, active or chill, it’s all up to you. But don’t try to do everything. Choose two or three things, plan your visit, and make it happen. There are pyramids to the north that pre-date many nations, dozens of Aztec temples, and historic spots perfect for taking selfies. Much like Texas, Mexico was ruled by the same usual suspects: native civilizations, Spain, and France. But unlike Texas, they have the architecture and cuisine to prove it. History and culture are at every doorstep. While you can find hour-by-hour tour itineraries on the Internet to guide you, yours truly is going to offer some personal experiences to get you started.

First, spend some time in the colonias. Much like Houston, Mexico City is a collection of neighborhoods. Santa Fe, Polanco, San Ángel, and of course, the Zona Rosa are all timeless and interesting. And as the national capital, Mexico City has monuments galore and incredible national museums. Don’t miss the one in a quiet neighborhood that’s the former home of artist Frida Kahlo. Buy your tickets in advance. The line is always long, and like most things worthwhile, it will take some effort.

San Ángel is a quiet, beautiful neighborhood with historic Spanish colonial haciendas-turned-artisan havens and markets. Jewelry, art, music, and food are all within three blocks,  and it all feels familiar and new at the same time. On the western edge of the city is Santa Fe, one of the most modern and posh neighborhoods. Think of our Galleria (if it had the embassy of the Netherlands) complete with indoor shopping, ice rink, and a movie theater. Polanco is the River Oaks of Mexico City—upscale, old money, with the boutiques and restaurants to prove it. At our dinner at Porfirios, the waiter brought a large, gorgeous wooden box to the table, filled with a selection of “reader” eyeglasses for easier reading in the low, romantic lighting. The food and service that followed was on-point. Finding incredible culinary experiences in Mexico City is not a problem.

Another required experience is the Zócalo, the aorta of the heart of the nation. Known formally as the Plaza de la Constitución, this huge central square has been the main ceremonial center of the nation—both Aztec and Mexican—for hundreds of years. It is framed on three sides by the national cathedral, the presidential palace, and the Supreme Court. One block away is the Templo Mayor, one of the main Aztec temples of the former city of Tenochtitlan. Begun around 1325, it sits in startling architectural juxtaposition to the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption, a Baroque masterpiece that was 300 years in the making, and the largest cathedral in the Americas. Rounding out the square are hotels and restaurants; try to find one with balcony or rooftop seating for a view you won’t want to miss.

And don’t miss going out to the Zona Rosa—and don’t let your limited skills in Spanish dampen your spirits. Love is the international language, so you don’t really need to talk, do you? There are LGBT bars and clubs to suit all tastes, but do your research; you won’t want to leave this part of your trip to serendipity or chance. Personally, I recommend Nicho. You don’t need to be a bear to enjoy yourself, but it won’t hurt. Chasers and otters abound. Ice-cold Coronas or Pacificos are 50 cents. Go crazy.

Finally, mezcal—one word that will change your life. This cousin of the agave plant is the Scotch of the agave world; the word literally means “oven-cooked agave.” Try it with an orange slice rather than lime. Smoky, smooth, and addictive.

So what’s the key to the whole Mexican experience? Allow yourself to be immersed in the culture, absorbing the music and magic of the atmosphere. Appreciate the beauty surrounding you—whether it’s an architectural icon or a cute boy or girl sitting across the bar. Both remind you of why you’re here: to escape from the routine. Mexico City is kryptonite for the ordinary.

Brian Waddle holds a U.S. passport and uses it as often as possible to travel near and far, working to make every day a photo op.

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