Ciudad de MÉxico December 2016

Mexico City has been in my backyard my entire life, but it wasn't until the beginning of 2016 when the NYT released it's "52 Places to Go in 2016" list [along with the opening scene from Spectre] that it registered on my radar of potential places to visit. Unfortunately, the perception of the city, and Mexico in general, throughout my childhood and adulthood thus far has been largely negative. Any one reading this is familiar with the stereotypes that surround Mexicans in the United States, and popular media depiction of Mexico usually revolves around drug cartel violence [not helped by shows like Narcos], illegal immigration, and scenes of third world style poverty. While all of these things certainly do exist and are major problems that the Mexican government has to grapple with, Mexico City itself unfairly suffers as a result. I found the capital city to be absolutely captivating - vibrant and rich cultural treasures [museums, street art, parks, architectural gems] amidst a sprawling, energetic city and culinary offerings made from the stuff of a foodie's dreams. The briefest way I can characterize it from my own experiences, though a gross oversimplification, is Europe-meets-India: wide tree-lined avenues dotted with inviting cafés, restaurants patrons dining en plein air, and brightly colored apartment buildings of eclectic architectural styles combined with street-corner parked food stands, scents and sounds of sizzling meats and spices teasing you to indulge, trinket-hawkers yelling advertisements for their products, and the right amount of overall grunge and disrepair of the street pavement and buildings to make things feel worn but not dilapidated. Language and communication wise, while a grasp of Spanish would no doubt be helpful, I crash coursed the language a couple weeks beforehand and communicated in mostly subject + infinitive style sentences [for which I may be put on trial at the Hague for crimes-against-the-language], but I was generally able to express myself. Also, enough people speak at least bits of English so at the very least, simple words and gestural dances can get the point across.

No mere words can do justice to any city, but hopefully the words and pictures spur you to go check the place out for yourself, and with a current USD exchange rate of 20:1 [at time of writing], it's a budget traveler's dream come true.

Catedral metropolitana, Zócalo, CDMX

SIGHTS

Mexico City's rich history extends back hundreds of years before the story of Hernan Cortes and the pillaging of Tenochtitlan come into play. CDMX sits surrounded by mountains in a basin that was originally an inland lake system at the impressive elevation of 7,350 ft / 2,240 m. It was chosen by the Aztecs in 1325 because this is where they saw the prophesied eagle sitting on a cactus chowing down on a snake. I'll skip the details [mostly because I don't know them myself] - but there are treasures to be seen in the city and its environs that range from pre-Aztec pyramids north of the city in Teotihuacan [almost a thousand years before the OG Aztecs] to still-standing buildings from the time of Cortes and the consequent Spanish colonial development, to finally, some of the most stunning examples of Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and contemporary modern architecture I've seen in any city [e.g. Museo Soumaya - thanks rich boy Slim]. Because of the being-built-in-a-basin-on-a-former-island-thing, many of the buildings are slowly sinking into the ground. Another complicating factor is that earthquakes have rumbled the foundations of these heavy structures, further compromising their integrity and resulting in a HIMYM Marshall-Lily apartment style unquieting, slightly vertiginous sensation for their visitors.

Pyramids at Teotihuacan: TOP Pyramid of the Moon as seen from Pyramid of the Sun; BOTTOM L: Pyramid of the Sun, front view; BOTTOM R: A lone cactus growing on the north side of the Pyramid; BELOW: Vantage point from apex of Pyramid of the Moon onto plaza and Avenue of the Dead.

An old Aztec market, pillaged by Cortes's party during the sack of Tenochtitlan in 1521. And where once a great pyramid stood, bit by bit the grand symbol was taken down and the stones used to erect one of the first missions in Mexico City. To the victor go the spoils.

The Three G's of Conquistadoring on full display at the Catedral Metropolitana
Basilicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe: new hotness (L), old and busted (R)

The variety of construction styles in the buildings was pleasantly refreshing. Although it was jarring to see an Art Deco masterpiece of yore crumbling away next to a technical marvel of glass and steel with a small turmeric-hued and graffitied townhouse wedged between, that sort of helter-skelter organization added to the charm of the city and was a welcome change from the oft uniform minimalist structures of wood, glass, and steel that characterize modern developments. Similarly, the Aztec remnants and European classical churches scattered around the historic districts dwell on the same blocks as masterpieces from the 1800's and 1900's - soaring marble behemoths ornately decorated and modern metal monsters, twisting up from the ground, gleaming the bright Mexican sun onto their centuries old neighbors.

Palacio de Bellas Artes (1934)
Art|Deco|AF
Light, shadow, and foliage toying with two starkly distinct and painfully stunning apartment façades; CDMX 12/16
Museo Soumaya [Top] & Museo Nacional de Antropología [Bottom] & a nice Mexican family [Right]

FOOD

I honestly have no idea where to even begin in an attempt to summarize the magical goodness that is Mexican cuisine. Diverse and rich in color as it is exciting in flavor, there wasn't one regrettable meal I had in CDMX [also in part to Eater's awesome guide]. I had the chance to sample things encompassing the entire spectrum of the culinary hierarchy from makeshift food-stand Dorilocos, a mysterious mouthful of sweet, spicy, creamy, crunchy deliciousness served in the familiar nacho-cheese red bag, to the veritably phenomenal work that Mr. Jorge Vallejo is doing at Quintonil with traditional Mexican ingredients re-interpreted in one-of-a-kind ways.

Feast your eyes on a classic Oaxacan snack item. This, my friends, is a tlayuda: a thin, lightly fried, slightly crispy corn tortilla smeared with a layer of refried beans, then topped with freshly cut and seasoned onions, cilantro, nopale [cactus], and finally, finished with a pinch of cheese, sprinkled with a quick dance of the fingers and wrist-flick squirts of red and green sauce. The best approximation I can come up with is it's like a plate of nachos all conspired to lay out on a plate and then autobot into a smooth, large, ovoid motherchip, mounding all of their collective toppings into a colorful nebula that you scoop up two handed and hurdle towards your tastebuds.

A perfect accompaniment with an agua de jamaica for a wander through stalls of huaraches, beaded jewelry, pottery, hand-sewn textiles, and other things I shouldn't be buying.

Dorilocos: [L] = pre-mix; [R] = post-mix
No, these are not the bloodied remnants of some poor animal, but instead the spice stained innards of a green coconut. Its cool, refreshing waters fully drained and slurped to enjoyment until that super annoying at-the-end-of-your-drink straw sound bugs the hell out of everyone around you, the vessel is then splayed and the pasty flesh is fiercely scraped out, haphazardly chopped, and then tossed in a plastic bag with healthy portions of lime juice, paprika, and red pepper. [hand model credit, Saurabh Shah, a.k.a. Dad]
Quintonil tasting menu, December 2016.

Two noteworthy desserts. The first [top] was churros & hot chocolate from famed CDMX churreria El Moro. The only other place I've seen the level of activity and quick turnover in a dessert shop was Angelina in Paris - who knows, maybe it's a hot chocolate thing. The churros were fried to order and adroitly plunged into a bowl full of granulated sugar. Served four at a time they existed in the perfect balance between the fried crispy exterior and the fluffy doughy interior. Surprisingly, even after the sugar bath they were not teeth-achingly sweet and paired quite nicely when dunked into the hot chocolate [Español variety], which like Angelina's, was thick and gooey, a viscous avalanche of chocolate coating every surface of your mouth, like an Exxon-Valdez chocolate spill on your tongue, except one you never want to clean up. The second treat [bottom] was from Lardo, a vaulted-ceiling Parisian café style eatery with walnut floors and tall windows welcoming in the bright sun to twinkle through crowded colorful bottles hanging on a railed shef above the rectangular bar that dominates the middle of the restaurant. Another Eater find, Lardo's menu revolves around pastas, pizzas, and the fresh breads that are constantly spit out of its massive wood fire oven, leaving a distinctive boulangerie scent hanging in the air. Pictured is a fig leaf ice cream [yes that's right, ice cream made from the leaves] with sliced figs, silvered almonds, and pie-crust crumbles served in a granite bowl. It was an absolutely stunning and unique grassy-yet-sweet-and-a-little-tart flavor that we voraciously dug into, spoons clinking on rock before we knew it [and would have liked].

Enchiladas rojas - an immensely satisfying classic.

family

Because, really, most the fun of going somewhere, seeing wonderful things and eating tasty food is being able to turn to the person next to you all eyebrow-raised and wide-eyed and get confirmation for how-freaking-awesome-this-is. Just the three of us, sadly, during this trip no thanks to the shackling bonds of corporate America - missed you, Jimbo, mi hermano.

1) Mom checkmates a statue; 3) #casualsquad 4) Dad summits a pyramid and subsequently Captain Morgan's that SOB; 5) Mom tames the cactus version of the Whomping Willow; 7) Hats fulfilling their utilitarian purpose so Mom & Dad can throw some shade; 9) #fancysquad; 10) "Uno mas tequila, señor..."
Couple o' cuties, killin' it since '85.
Portrait of the author. All words and photos are my own and I [unfortunately] do not receive any compensation for any of this work nor from any of the sources. For queries, comments, and praise, please contact ronilshah619@gmail.com. For complaints, criticisms, and insults, kindly go to hell. -RS 01/03/17
Or "El Fin," technically, I suppose.

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