Mexico City: CDMX’s Famous Hotel in the “Pink Zone”

Regional History, Travel

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After a couple of nights staying at the Metropol I heard through the tour grapevine that we were changing hotels for the rest of our stay in the Mexican capital. I got this unofficially, second-hand, from my travelling companions because my Intrepid travel agent had neglected to inform me of this switch…she was too busy off on another holiday of her own! (she did contact me several days after the move mentioning that I was probably already at the new hotel by now! – very helpful indeed…thanks for coming, duh!).

The new hotel, the Hotel Geneve was in a part of the capital known as the “Pink Zone” (Zona Rosa). The check-in was unfortunately far from seamless…a process needlessly prolonged because the front of house staff (or perhaps it was Intrepid itself) transposed all of our names on their tour list (Chinese nomenclature style!) and kept telling us they had no bookings for us! A state of inertia and confusion that was mercifully ended when Hector, our guide for the Mexico tour, turned up and was able to bring light and clarity to the situation (no points for perceptiveness on the part of the staff, being incapable of figuring out by themselves that they had our names there in front of their eyes all along, just in the wrong order!).

Lindy memorabilia
As is my wont, after dumping my bags in my room I went on a bit of reconnoitre of the hotel’s immediate environs but found it a bit drap and pedestrian (we were now a long way from the city centre and the tourist precinct). I used most of my free time before the tour introductory meeting and dinner exploring the common areas of the hotel itself. The Hotel Geneve has quite a history in itself, famous in Mexico for its “who’s who” inventory of international guests that have graced its rooms over the decades. The hotel has an appearance of being a tad past its prime now, but the management has assiduously made a concerted effort to preserve that rich history in the memory of visitors and guests. Just beyond the reception area there are a series of exhibits in the foyer, mainly in glass cabinets, displaying a miscellany of pre-war items associated with the Geneve…this ranges from the old uniforms worn by the porters to early 20th century relics of luggage bags and some colourful old city maps which would fully engage the curiosity of a dedicated cartographer!

‘Viva Zapata!’
Also decorating the foyer are several glass-encased displays reminding us of the past stays at the hotel of famous international guests. The stand-outs of these were probably one honouring the American aviator and polemical, authoritarian public figure in pre-war US politics, Charles Lindbergh (an exhibit entitled “Lindy’s Post”), together with another celebrating Marlon Brando’s stay at the Geneve in the early ’50s. The actor was resident at the hotel whilst filming the story of the legendary Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata (Viva Zapata!) on location. Other equally famous hotel guests during its nearly 100 years to get a mention in the Geneve’s annals include Winston Churchill (the Geneve was apparently one of Winnie’s fave away-from-home stays), Marilyn Monroe and opera singer Maria Callas, plus a host of Mexican luminaries, no doubt famous to every Mexican but nondescript names to me.

Hotel Geneve: foyer study
The real highlight to me though was located in the rear of the foyer section…management has given it a retro makeover so that it resembles a 1930s/40s fashionable, upper class gentleman’s drawing-room/study with an extensive in-wall library, period furniture and large landscape period paintings. The setting had a very stylised look to – the sort of thing I could easily visualise in a typical English country estate mansion. Very landed gentry English in fact…no doubt about it, Winnie would have felt totally at home here in his silk dressing gown, comfy slippers, cosy open fire, a copy of The Times in hand and a tray filled with his favourite after-dinner beverages.

The Zona Rosa district where the Geneve is located is something of an Asian restaurant hub…by walking either north or south to the nearest cross-streets I was able to find a host of eating outlets which gave me a wide choice of Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian. One of the bonuses of travelling through Mexico was a chance to taste authentic Mexican cuisine (rather than the dreadful Tex-Mex abominations that masquerade as food in Australian and American eateries), however the availability of Asian options this night provided a welcome respite from the gastronomical onslaught of all those corn tortillas breakfast, lunch and dinner!

On the way back to the hotel the sight of a delicious pasteleria (cake shop) teased my sweet tooth and weakening, I popped in for a little after-dinner treat. Inside the shop there was a young uniformed female attendant behind the counter on which was a glass cabinet with various postres (deserts) and large tarta. I looked around and saw what I was after, pastels (small cupcakes) and pan de dulce (sweet bread) in rows of bins in the middle of the shop. I noticed though that there were nether tongs to pick out my selection with nor any small paper bags around to put them in. I wavered round hesitantly for several seconds before the attendant beckoned me over and gave me a small square of clear plastic (like a strip of cling wrap). While I stared at the piece of plastic wondering what I was supposed to do with it, she made a fist and simulated a snatching hand motion. I picked out an enticing small cake and following her example enclosed it in the plastic sheet and placed it on the counter. The attendant picked it up and in one rapid, wrapping motion, twirled the plastic around the cup cake until it formed a tightly knit bundle and handed it back to me. Ingeniously simple…tong-free, bag-free handling!

Pastries, cakes and sweet breads are an essential culmination of any Mexican lunch! I appreciated this even more after my farewell lunch in Mexico City – I went to the extremely popular La Casa de Tono opposite my hotel where I had a workman-like quesadilla (no better than that!), washed down with a local Indio drink. As I was finishing the mayor comida, a waiter lugging a wooden display box full of pan dulces and pastels asked if I wanted to have one…I declined his offer but a short while later changed my mind – only to discover that they had all been snaffled up by the lunchtime punters within 10 minutes! Those Mexiqueños sure do love their sweet treats.

Modelo Especial
A word on Mexican cervezas
Before coming to Mexico I associated Mexican beer exclusively with the extremely popular and well-known Corona cerveza (although since returning I have seen Dos Equis (XX) in Sydney bottle shops). Over there I discovered two things about Mexi- beer, the industry is dominated by just two producers, Grupo Modelo (who make the best-selling export Corona) and FEMSA; and the preference among locals is not for pale lagers like Corona but for dark beers. During the tour I road-tested most of the local dark brews. Modelo, Indio, Leon, Bohemia, Noche Buena (the Christmas beer!), Tecate, Estrella, in fact all well-known Mexican brands have a negra beer. My own preference though was for the Modelo Especial, an excellent pilsener brew.

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Mexico City’s Story Etched in Murals of Epic Struggles

Regional History, Travel

Museo Frida Kahlo, Coyoacán
For the artistically and culturally-inclined no trip to Mexico City is complete without a taste of its monumental art. Regrettably, due to a combination of a double-booking in the tour itinerary and the distance from our hotel, I wasn’t able to fit in a visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum during my few days in the capital…its location in Coyoacán (“place of coyotes”) was down in the southern afueras of the city. I had hoped to redeem the omission on my return to Mexico City after our stint in Cuba, however I found myself doubly thwarted as my only full return day in the capital was on a Monday (the day of the week all museums, in this city with the most number of museums in the world, is closed!✱).

Stairway triptych on the Conquista
Having missed out on seeing Frida’s colourful azure casa made me more determined to at the very least take in a truly representative sample of her partner Diego Rivera’s public and very political art. Before the trip I had promised myself to try to get a glimpse of Rivera’s famous mural at the University of Mexico, but I gave that up when I discovered it was located a bit too far away in the opposite direction. As a compromise (but a very good compromise as it turned out) we opted to stay around Centro and make for the Zócalo, the mayor square of CDMX. On one side of the Zócalo sits the imposing fortress-like Palacio Nacional to view Rivera’s great “History of Mexico” series of murals. Palacio Nacional or the grounds on which it lies in Cuauhtémoc has been the seat of power in Mexico since the Aztec Empire.

Palace gardens
Entrance into the National Palace was free but queues coupled with heavy security held things up and made the process a bit of an obstacle course. Passports had to be shown and tourism police were en mass at the entrance and liberally sprinkled all over the complex. To reach the colonnaded central courtyard of Constitution Square✥ we first passed through a spectacular and varied Mexican desert garden, a botanical bonanza full of agaves, cacti, yuccas and other hardy desert plants intersected by circular and diagonal pathways.

The murals took up huge slabs of wall space on the first floor of the palace, each mural depicted different phases of Mexican history starting with a scene from life in Pre-Columbian indigenous society. Rivera’s murals are all about social commentary, especially articulating the attitude of the conquerors towards the indígena peoples after contact – the mistreatment and abuses exacted on the Aztecs and other Meso-American Indians. One of the politically committed Rivera’s societal concerns in the mural project was to express through his art a counter-view to the prevailing European perception at the time which tended to wholesale denigrate the mestizo and native populations.

On the staircase between the ground floor and the second floor a very large mural is devoted to Rivera’s take on 20th century Mexico, his summary of society in the first-third of the century…the vast canvas is peopled by an eclectic mix of historical characters with portraits of his beloved Frida, Mexican political figures, American capitalists like Rockefeller, powerful revolutionary warlords Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and in accord with the artist’s communist allegiances, Karl Marx. This panel is in fact part of a ‘triptych’ of murals which on the stairway – the other monumental sections, reaching up to the ceiling almost, convey the ferocity of Cortes’ assault on the Mexica and the indigenous determined attempts to resist the Conquistadors.

The staircase’s massive scale mural
The history murals are a very large body of work undertaken on a massive scale, a monumental project which took Rivera around six years (ca 1929-35)…the murals were intended to encompass all four open corridors of the square building but he never found the time to complete it. There are other large-scale panel paintings by Rivera (does he ever do small-scale?) on the third floor of the building, but the mural depiction of Mexico’s course of history from pre-Hispanic period through the Conquista up to the 20th century are the principal attractions of this magnet for tourists wanting to experience more of CDMX’s distinctive cultural ethos.

On our way out we popped into a side wing of the palace which houses the chamber of the Parliamentary Assemblies, a vacant spatial entity whose sanitised condition and sombre burgundy, claret and vermillion colours give it a feeling of sterility. Revisiting the Mexico jardines on route to the exit for a final glance and picture we noticed some unofficial residents of the palace, a couple of sleek looking cats who, unperturbed by our presence, seemed very much at home in the garden grounds.

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✱ missing out on the Kahlo house also meant I missed the house (now also a museum) of Leon Trotsky just a block away (where he was assassinated on the orders of his rival communist leader Stalin in 1940)
✥ this open courtyard with a central fountain, from which the Diego Rivera murals look down from the second floor balcony, is a favourite place for visitors to the palace to take selfies against a backdrop of elegant white arched columns

From Tenochtitlan to Teotihuacan: Modern Mexico City’s Pre-Columbian Past

Regional History, Travel

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The day after I saw the excavated ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (Templo Mayor) in Centro Historico which the Conquistadors under Hernán Cortés had razed in 1521 to build what became the Spaniards’ capital of New Spain, Mexico City❈, I took an excursion to Teotihuacan to see a preserved and restored native city which long predates the Aztec capital.

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It was a longish drive from central Mexico City as Teotihuacan is situated about 40km to the north-east. A few hundred metres before we got to the Pyramides (or ‘Piramides’ as it was written on highway signposts), the well-paved highway road morphed into an uneven, roughly cobble-stoned path in keeping with the ancient site of Pre-Columbian civilisation. Teotihuacan was as touristy as I imagined it would be (ie, totally!) but such a spectacular vista into a pre-modern past that was well worth the effort of traipsing several kilometres all over the vast site. It was even worth the effort of having to put up with an extremely annoying battalion of souvenir sellers at every turn. They tested our patience though especially with one particularly annoying habit of theirs…as we walked from one temple to another, every single time we got within cooee of a new group of hawkers camped strategically on the edge of a monument, one or more of them would commence to blow for all their worth on little jaguar whistles emitting a noise approximating the growl of a member of the big cat family! By the 12th time this happened I was experiencing the sort of reaction one gets when someone very slowly and deliberately drags a fingernail down a blackboard! My instinct was to get past and away from them ASAP…unfortunately this wasn’t possible as in the echo chamber of that wide valley the sounds made by the jaguar imitators reverberated all over the site.

Templo El Luna
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Teotihuacan was so well-preserved (or restored) that the layout of the city at its height could be easily reimagined⊙. Dominating the complex of buildings were two great temples, the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun, bisecting them is a central roadway known as the Avenue of the Dead. Nearby is a third, smaller and less impressive pyramid, the Temple of Quetzacoatl. Climbing to the very top of the steep Moon and Sun pyramids was no walk in the park (although the rail was a big aid). The narrowness and condition of the ancient steps made them tricky to climb up but the taller El Sol could be broken down into several stages rather than the one long, sharp climb of El Luna. Once at the top though we were rewarded with a 360° panorama of the surrounding valley from fantastic vantage points. While we gazed into the distance our guide explained the mathematical dimension of the temple complex: Teotihuacan was laid out according to geometric and symbolic principles. The two pyramids were intentionally positioned by the indigenous inhabitants in such a way to be aligned astronomically with each other.

Temple ornamental detail

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Back at ground level we visited a more recent archaeological discovery on the city’s outskirts. This much smaller temple had suffered more wholesale damage than “Sol and Luna” and was in the slow and painstaking process of being extensively restored to something resembling its former state and symmetry.

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The heat of the midday sun (quite a shock to our system after the distinctly cool weather of Mexico City) was sapping our energies so we trudged laboriously back to the car park, stopping first at the gift shop where we didn’t loiter once we got a sighter of its heftily over-priced items. Outdoors, sampling the range of choices and much more favourably prices of the souvenir stalls, I picked up a little memento of the place, a five centimetre-high black graphite ‘replica’ pyramid with Aztec hieroglyphics…I use the term replica incredibly loosely as the model bore no resemblance to any of the ancient, stepped pyramids we had just visited, save for it having a square base and four triangular sloping sides in a very stylised sort of way.

PostScript: The bus trip back to Mexico City was largely uneventful, a chance to rest our fully extended hamstrings after the strenuous Piramides climbs. Two-thirds of the way back we passed a hill that framed a pleasant picture, dotted as it was with a kaleidoscope of different coloured houses. An amusing ‘incident’ on the return journey initially startled me: as the traffic banked up on the road into Centro I looked across at a vehicle in the adjoining lane and noticed what I momentarily believed was a corpse with a limp leg dangling off the end of a flat-back truck (photo)…in reality merely a tired-out worker taking the opportunity for an early afternoon siesta!

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❈ as the Spanish conquerors of Peru under Pizarro did in the city of Cuzco a decade or so after Cortés
⊙ the original inhabitants of Teotihuacan prior to the Aztecs (Nahautl-speaking people but of uncertain ethnicity) disappeared suddenly from the region ca 600-700 AD

Turismo Mexico City 2: Exploring the Colonias of Cuauhtémoc by Day

Regional History, Travel

After the rollicking good time we had on the previous night’s Urban Adventures tour of the capital (‘Turismo Mexico City 1: A Taste of the Capitalino Nightlife, Mezcal, Mariachis and Luchadores’) we decided the best way to catch more city highlights on our last full day in Mexico City would be to do the free city walking tour run by Estacion Mexico✼. We followed the tourist brochure’s instructions to look for a large pink umbrella…upon arriving at the designated meeting spot outside Catedral Metropolitana (AKA Catedral Mayor), despite the crowds milling round the cathedral, sure enough we were able to pick out the walk guide Mar, both from the pink umbrella she was brandishing and from her pink Estacion T-shirt with the upper case words “MAKE MEXICO GREAT AGAIN!” cheekily emblazoned on the back. Mar turned out to be a young “glass ¾-full” architectural student with a passion for the city’s heritage architecture which became readily evident as the tour progressed.

Cuba Street fashions
The walking route comprised a roughly rectangular course, fanning out from Centro and exploring the northern and western colonias (neighbourhoods) of Cuauhtémoc, the delegacíon (borough) which encompasses the oldest parts of the city, then circling back to Av Madero. Mar took us on a broad sweep of Cuauhtémoc including some of the less well-known back streets off the main drag of Turismo Centro…in Calle Donceles, away from the shiny, glossy 21st century shops of the city commercial hub, we saw a street with antiquated books (and bookshops) and an old theatre whose facade retained only a modicum of its past glory; in Calle República de Cuba we encountered a small shopping block which specialised in over-elaborate, ridiculous-looking bustle style ball dresses¤. Mar valued-added along the way…recounting various historical snippets, anecdotes and folklore about her city, a real insider’s perspective of the town which really enhanced our appreciation of Mexico City’s uniqueness.

Palacio Postal
One of the absolute stand-out sights architecturally we were indeed fortunate to see was Palacio De Correos De Mexico on the Eje Central. Also known as Correos Mayor (the Main Post Office), Italian-designed (same architect/engineer as the nearby, magnificent Pallacio de Bellas Artes) and built in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style with many eclectic features…but it’s Correos Mayor’s interior that is the real gem. Pride of place is the exquisite central stairway (laterial staris) with its two gilded ramps converging in sweeping fashion on the landing. By now means in the staircase’s shade is the building’s sublime elevator, a gorgeous feature which blends harmoniously with the interior’s gold-encased bars of the service windows. The bronze and iron window frames also set off nicely against the marble floor.
Palace of Fine Arts: Mexico City’s cultural hub and finest building. Constructed over 30 year period interrupted by the Mexican Revolution and CDMXs notorious soft soil issues (Designer: Adamo Boari)

The free walking tour wound up in the western end of Madero in Historico Centro at an early 18th century church (San Francisco) opposite the House of Tiles, another unique CDMX building (the end of a good five hours spent!). We thanked the ever enthusiastic Mar for her vibe, expert knowledge and insights into an enormous city we had only barely scratched the surface of…I’m sure she appreciated the positive feedback and the glowing affirmation of the tour’s merits more than the small quantity of pesos we were more than happy to hand over as a parting token of our thanks.
Entrance to Church of San Francisco in Av Madero

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✼ I first heard about free walking tours when I was in Lima several years ago but it wasn’t until I was in Warsaw in 2015 that I really took advantage of this far-sighted tourism initiative and went on three or four city tours led by the local Warszawa legend Pse (this may be self-evidently obvious but its the skill of the actual tour leader in getting across the spirit and ethos of the place in only a few hours of contact time that really makes the experience memorable especially for first-time visitors)
¤ these utterly impractical dresses, shaped like grotesquely swollen vases, look like something Cinderella would wear, but I’d like to see some Mexican Señorina Cindy drive around the narrow streets in one of Mexico’s minuscule clone smart cars wearing this!

Turismo Mexico City 1: A Taste of the Capitalino Nightlife, Mezcal, Mariachis and Luchadores

Regional History, Travel

Having really enjoyed my first organised tour around the city markets and food outlets I opted to follow it up with one or two other city tours in the couple of days we had left in the capital. First, Urban Adventures’ night walking tour. We met up at six with our guide for the night, a relaxed, amiable guy with the unhispanic-sounding name of Milton, at a small design museum just down from the Zocálo. Milton took us first to nearby Cinco de Mayo (5th of May Street), a street notable for its restaurants, cantinas and drinking houses with names like Pata Negra, Sálon Corona and La Popular.

Cinco de Mayo
We stopped outside a fairly upmarket- looking establishment with velvet curtains and shimmering chandeliers called La Opera Bar whilst Milton explained the story of its particular fame. During the 1910s when Mexico was gripped by revolutionary fervour, the cantina had been the scene of a celebrated meeting between revolutionary bandit leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. At La Opera bar, Villa and Zapata, Mexico’s two powerful warlords got together to discuss their plans to carve up the strife-racked country. Villa immortalised the occasion by shooting a hole through the bar’s ceiling which is still visible today. Another more recent celebrity who frequented La Opera as a favourite watering hole was Columbian expat and literature Nobel laureate Gabriel Gárcia Marquez.

The tour then took us to Avenida Juárez and an elevator ride to the top of Mexico City’s tallest building, Torre Latinoamericanos, where we sipped cool cocktails (I had a frozen strawberry margarita) whilst admiring the 360° views of Mexico City from Level 37. Over drinks Milton talked about his environmental work for Greenpeace and mentioned that Mexico City had an ongoing major water problem (he hinted that one of the more affluent areas of the city has some sort of monopolisation of potable water which affects supply to the rest of CDMX!).

Surreal sculpture
Back down at ground level, we strolled through the small garden park next door, the area had been given over to a public exhibition of 23 bronze sculptures by Spanish surrealist painter and celebrity oddball Salvador Dali. The famed Catalonian artist’s most famous/notorious paintings of warped clocks, burning giraffes and women with implanted drawers were on display as sculptural representations in a nice garden setting. Rejoining Calle Francisco I Madero I ask Milton about the various guys I have seen on the street wearing military style uniforms, playing organ grinders (sans monkeys!) and asking for money. Milton says it’s an old tradition of the city dating back to around the 1930s when ex-army officers were given permission to do this, and it became an established convention. It’s so widespread that it seems to me that this is another variant of begging so common in the city, but with a bit more structure and embellishment to it.

Two mariachis looking for their instruments?
The next chapter of our tour linked up mariachi bands, cantinas, tequila and mezcal. We sampled some of the legendary hard liquor made from the agave plant to the accompaniment of raucous mariachi bands…in between songs Milton explained how a lot of the city’s many, many mariachi groups work. The mariachis congregate around Garibaldi Plaza, musical bands comprising violins, trumpets and guitars,who play randomly for people who turn up to hear them so as to hire a group for an upcoming wedding, party, etc. The musicians are effectively auditioning for jobs in the plaza! Mariachi band members are usually distinguished by their charro style dress (upmarket garb of Mexican horsemen), usually but not always in white, tight-fitting outfits with the broad-brimmed sombreros.

Upstairs after the tequila and mezcal sampling we explored a little Tequilia y Mezcal Museo/Tienda, finding out about the complex process of making these drinks (involving several stages of fermentation and distillation). The museum highlight for me was the staggeringly immense range of tequila and mezcal bottles and containers on display (characteristically the Mexican fatalistic obsession with skulls and the symbolising of death comes through strongly in the design of drinking vessels).

Trios match
We topped the evening off with a bit of a cross-country hike via the Mexico City Metro…travelling on a uniquely colour-coded network of lines following Milton as he went confusingly from the Pink Line following an alternate colour line that took us to a separate platform in the opposite direction, so that we eventually about 10pm reached Arena Mexico across town in time to catch the last few bouts of Mexico’s other national obsession, professional masked wrestling. Known in Mexico as Lucha Libre (Sp. “Free fight”), this took place in a huge, cavernous old stadium. The dyed-in-the-wool, rusted-on Lucha Libre-obsessed fans (just about everyone else here!) cheered on their masked favourites…the most popular type of contests are trios contests (three-man tag teams). However I was more intrigued with the reactions of the fans themselves, their unrestrained enthusiasms for their heroes and equally unchecked abuse for the luchadors (wrestlers) assigned to be villains. They all just seem to buy it, 100 per cent! Most venom and opprobrium on the night was reserved for a luchador called Sam Adonis, introduced to the crowd as an American (interestingly “US Sam” at the end of the bout grabbed the microphone and harangued the crowd in fluent Spanish for a full five minutes!)

We made a slightly premature exit from Arena Mexico – nothing was spoiled, we weren’t psychic but somehow we sensed the “good guys” would triumph in the deciding third fall (tres caídas) – to avoid the end-of-night rush. Back at Colonial Doctores station, clutching our cheap souvenir luchador mask, we boarded one of CDMX’s strange box-shaped carriages for another zig-zagging journey on the Metro to Centro. When we alighted at our nearest Metro station, the obliging and ever affable Milton walked us back to our hotel near the Almeida Park.

Mexico City De-Texmexified: the Authentic Comida Experience

Regional History, Travel

Venturing outside of our hotel in Calle Luis Moya, the first thing that struck me about Mexico City was how cold it was. It was night and winter time but I somehow supposed its proximity to the Equinox meant the climate would generally be fairly tropical✼. Certainly, the attire of the Mexiqueños I saw on the street indicated that the locals themselves clearly felt the cold – puffer jackets, coats, scarfs, beanies and (always) long trousers were the fashion de jour.

The universal adoption of long trousers by the locals puzzled me a bit, it seems that Mexicans, even the youth, don’t tend to wear long pants – it isn’t the done thing culturally in the country apparently even in the stifling temperatures of summer. This immediately marked me out for all to spot as 100 per cent tourist…I wore shorts most of the time, a Hungarian military style cap and either an Hawaiian shirt or a T-shirt. A hasty examination of the contents of my luggage revealed that I was well short on warm clothing, I had only brought one pair of long trousers (and these were lightweight Italian-designed jeans) and one warm pullover. On reflection I had the distinct feeling that my normal reductionist approach to packing was going to catch me out on this trip.

When I got out and about for my first exploratory saunter around the central part of Mexico City, I quickly became familiar with a characteristic of the city’s urban terrain, footpaths were consistently uneven, there were often large holes where concrete had broken up and been left unrepaired so long that people tended to use them as impromptu garbage bins! Walking on darkly-lit streets after nightfall proved hazardous…a couple of times I nearly came crashing to earth (actually concrete) when walking from a step onto thin air, not expecting the long, unseen (and unseeable) drop below to the ground. An added potential pitfall for pedestrians was the unevenness of steps, descending a series of small steps to suddenly find a large one meant you had to keep your wits about you at all times. Even on what you assumed was level ground you had to be wary, the pathway had a tendency to undulate all over alarmingly – this was probably the result of two related factors: the fairly regular seismic activity that CDMX was prone to✥, and the fact that the city, built as it was on a large lake, was slowly but inexorably sinking!

Crossing the road at intersections with significant car traffic proved challenging. The safest and wisest approach was to follow the locals, but you still had to be decisive whenever you set out to cross, Mexican motorists were uncompromising in their lack of restraint in using their horns at the slightest suggestion that pedestrians were taking liberties with the lights.

Being close to the old historical centre of the city my perambulations soon took me via the long pedestrian plaza of Francisco I Madero to the Zócalo. The Zócalo is very much the city’s hub. Easily spotted from the start of Madero by its steepling Christmas tree, the Zócalo is CDMX’s main square with a somewhat incongruous ice-skating rink on its perimeter. On one side is a line of grand government buildings including the National Palace, to the other is Mexico City’s main Cathedral. Just one block away from the Zócalo (= plinth) is the unearthed foundations of the Templo Mayor, In pre-Spanish times this was the principal ceremonial centre of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. In recent history the square has been the favourite venue for political protests (eg, 1968 university students opposed to police oppression, Zapatistas, etc).

Succulent cacti
Given the limited time we’d be in the capital we reckoned that signing on for a series of city tours was the best way to get to the heart of what Mexico City was about. The first day tour (of food and markets) was one offered by Urban Adventures. The food quest took us to the big central markets Mercado Abelardo L Rodríguez where we, wisely having skipped breakfast at the hotel, sampled the authentic diet of the masses. We started with different flavoured corn tortillas (vanilla maize tortillas a bit strange and challenging to the palate!) and later some delicious mixed tamales for lunch. The markets revealed a comida smorgasbord of idiosyncratically Mexican foodstuffs – from an exotic mix of spices and peppers to white corn to edible cactus leaves.

The massive, sprawling Rodríguez markets also does a sideline (very large sideline in fact!) in flowers and it was here that I discovered that the ubiquitous poinsettia plant (Euphoria pulcherrima, a Christmas favourite with its striking red and green foliage) though indigenous to Mexico was named after a Gringo from North of the Border! (1820s US minister to Mexico and botanist Joel R Poinsett).

Although I didn’t really appreciate it when I signed up for the trip to Mexico, a chance to taste real Mex-food rather than the bastardised and vastly inferior Tex-Mex substitute offered up in the West, was one of the best reasons to visit Mexico. Only then and there on the ground in Mexico can you evaluate its national cuisine properly and confirm among other things that the old Billy Connolly joke, thought funny and clever, is stereotypical and essentially wrong₪.

An interesting side excursion took us across town on a rickety old public bus crowded with locals. Like I had noticed in parts of Peru four years earlier, formal bus stops per sé didn’t exist, the people here also just somehow knew, from precedent and habit I guess, where to wait…the bus would duly stop at regular points on the journey to load and unload passengers. What I wasn’t expecting on the bus was the various hawkers who would get on the bus, travel a few stops without paying the conductor, and launch into a full-blown sales spiel for various products. One such Mexican “Joe the Gadget Man” who caught our eye (couldn’t but be aware of him!) was this chubby, perspiring guy who prowled up and down the aisle loudly proclaiming with speed-gun rapidity the virtues of some kind of ‘medicinal’ marijuana (in small green-topped tins labelled ‘Mariguanol’). Having made two, three quick sales within a short distance (to my great surprise) he promptly dismounted the bus to await the next ride. Our guide Pancho told us that many Mexicans believe in the healing powers of ‘grass’ for muscular ailments and the like.

Tarta temptation
When we too alighted the bus, Pancho took us to a couple of other shops which showed that the Mexiqueños’ love affair with food extended well beyond the merely savoury. These popular patisserie shops are often known locally as Dulcerías (essentially candy stores), where sweet-toothed Mexicans can buy all manner of sickly-sweet indulgences in pastels (cakes), tartas (tarts) and postres (deserts). Dulces de leche (caramel-tasting milk candies) and rompope (an eggnog concoction dipped in rum) are two of the Mexican comestibles much in demand. One famous shop (Ideal Pasteleria) we visited specialised in huge celebration cakes – signs on the tall and lavishly decorated cakes for birthdays and such occasions included the weight of the cake in kilos! This is practical information indeed allowing prospective purchasers to work out what size cake was needed to match the anticipated number of guests at the upcoming party/celebration! And of course, as our travels were to enlighten us, no decent restaurante in Mexico would fail to include at the very least pan dulce (sweet bread) or more likely an elaborate array of pastels on its menu!
A 50kg cake – perfectly fitting the bill for a king-sized party!

PostScript: Whither Chocolaté in Mexico?
For a country whose indigenous people gave the world the cocoa bean and therefore chocolate, Mexicans surprisingly tend not to eat slabs of chocolate as the rest of the world do…their cocoa preference is decidedly for chocolate caliente (hot chocolate drinks). Even confectionary sold in the sweets aisle labelled as chocolate is usually wafer biscuits with icing rather than the real thing.

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✼ had I done my prep homework a bit better, the significance of Mexico City’s location atop a standard elevation of 2,250 metres, should have provided me with a few salient clues in this direction
✥ uncomfortable as this news was at the time, one day after I had paid for the Mexico trip, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake tore up part of the city
₪ “the thing about Mexican food is that its all the same, they just fold it differently!”

Four Hours in ESTA-land: Enervating and Unavoidable Encounters with Homeland Security at LAX

Travel

Getting to the land of corn tortillas and agave plants via American Airlines meant 12-13 hours in the air plus a tortuous three to four hour stopover at LAX. The dragged-out 16 hour total journey, such as it was, meant that it was of little solace to me that we reached our ultimate destination, Benito Juárez International Airport, around 3 o’clock (only four hours later than we had left Sydney on the same day – courtesy of flying ‘backwards’ across the International Dateline!) The process of connecting to a flight to Mexico via the US had already proved a taxing exercise with an unexpected and costly twist even before I had left Kingsford Smith.

My frustrations began with several fruitless attempts to secure a boarding pass through AA’s Sydney electronic ticketing system. An airline official intervened at this point advising me that I needed to obtain something called an ESTA* before I could proceed with my trip. This was news to me as my travel agent hadn’t mentioned this requirement to me during the preparations for my Central American tour. Arggh, bad start! The official directed me to a nearby Flight Centre office where I obtained the ESTA (at a moderate cost of $US14 – $A18.95) only to discover the sting imposed by Flight Centre who ripped me off to the tune of an additional $45 just to photocopy the single sheet document!

Being well and truly monetarily stitched up by Flight Centre was only the first travesty or inconvenience I had to endure in order to progress through US territorial jurisdiction successfully (but no means unscathed). By the time I had hit the tarmac at Tom Bradley International Terminal in LA my mind was confused as a result of a US Customs and Borders inflight video…the guy in the video was offering me, it seemed, two choices of entry to the US. In my jumbled head I had been still trying to come to grips with the significance of ESTA, and now he was rabbiting on about something called APC…and what was this Global Entry whatsamajazz thingy he mentioned as well?).

In the arrivals terminal, feelings of bewilderment as a consequence of an overload of Customs bureaucratic jargon was exacerbated by chaotic scenes of passengers streaming this way and that way from one end of the terminal to the other…airport officials were shuffling arriving passengers through never-ending lines like rudderless cattle through shutes✥. Why was it, I pondered frustratingly, that all these people were emptying off planes at the same time?). After several false starts and blind alleys (wrong queue, wrong forms … miss-a-turn, go back to the end of the other queue, do not pass Go! etc) I eventually worked out what queue I should be in and what documents I needed or didn’t need to fill out.

Even after I had got past the electronic interrogator with its game of 20 questions, the whole boarding process continued on and on with no apparent end in sight – positively labyrinthine I concluded! Collecting and reassigning my luggage was followed by mandatory de-belting and de-shoeing at the insistence of Customs Nazis barking orders and commands with Third Reich-like zeal (OK, yes American customs officers have no monopoly on bluntness or lack of manners…but they are certainly world-class in that department if my two horror stretches through the LAX maze is anything to go by!).

Finally free of electronic conveyor belts and scanners for a second time, I took some brief respite from the airport obstacle course by momentarily stepping outside the terminal long enough to get a sighter of the LA smog together with an accompanying olfactory dose of LA air before darting off to the departure gate for my connecting flight to Mexico.

Mercifully the second leg on AA2546 – from LA to Mexico City – was a much shorter and thus more tolerable experience, one fortified by an opportunity to sample the local Mexican cervezas…the aircraft however only carried Corona (which I was already familiar with being widely available in Australia) but I was to discover more and varied brands upon arrival in Mexico.

Yeah, sure!

FootNote: On the ESTA form Customs and Border Protection heralds its new program called Automated Passport Control with a boast that it “expedites the entry process for eligible Visa Waiver Program international travelers”… umm, if that was fast-tracking, then I wouldn’t want to see it in operation on a slow day when someone had thrown a gigantic spanner into the works!
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* “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” – a visa waiver necessary to travel to/through the USA in this age of world-wide terrorism vigilance
✥ I can’t help but wonder what that cinematic cynical observer of modernity Jacques Tati would have made of the LAX spectacle of countless waves of humanity in the automatonic thrall of a Dalek-like army of little machines