Travel Section: Mexico City
Half asleep, eyes barely open, I had arrived in Mexico City. The orange and gold sunlight of the morning magic hour illuminated the chaotic bustle of North America’s biggest megalopolis. The creaks of graffitied, metal storefronts opening and grumbles of diesel engine buses polluted the air as traffic halted at a standstill. The city was an enormous, formidable monster emerging from sleep – one that jolted me awake with its merciless complexity, but left me enchanted knowing it’s not a beast to be tamed.
I’ll be honest, Mexico City hits you like a lucha libre. With it’s sheer might it appears utterly and completely menacing. The ciudad doesn’t mess around. It meets you with a streetwise confidence, gives you an immediate dressing down and keeps you on your toes. Its reputation has long been battered by claims of violence, corruption, and, well, smog. While crime and pollution are still real concerns (with both on the decline), D.F, or Distrito federal, cannot be defined by an oft-sensationalized bad rap. Beneath the mask is a bizarrely artistic, cosmopolitan and enigmatic city, so unequivocally hip that Williamsburg and PDX are out of it’s weight class.
D.F. has the credentials to back up it’s it factor. The once playground for surrealist painters, political muralists, and world class architects, Mexico City has an explosive creative culture and a flourishing scene of independent artists whose art you see everywhere from cafes to unassuming alleyways. With luminaries like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, it’s not a surprise that D.F. is chock-a-block with galleries, jaw-dropping street art and also brings the architecture A-game. Although, my trip to Mexico City was for a wedding, it admittedly also served as a necessary journey to Coyoacán, a picturesque borough south of the Zocalo (historical centre), to –surprise – pay homage to Mexico’s master of symbolism and first lady of feminism – Kahlo. At La Casa Azul (The Blue House) you are witness to the personal turmoil, socialist activism, and emotive talent that took Mexican indigeneity and painting to an international audience. Kahlo’s home is nothing short of poignant. Unconditionally cynical, seeing Kahlo’s final painting, Viva la Vida, put a smile on even my grouch face, serving as a simple reminder to enjoy life’s simple pleasures – such as a juicy slice of watermelon – even in times of uncertainty. Contemporarily applicable? Certainly.
While La Casa Azul is positively entrancing, the not-to-be-missed gem of Mexico City’s celebrated art scene lies further south at the largest University in Latin America, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). There stands another champion of Mexican art – the murals of UNAM Central Library. Designed by famed muralist Juan O’Gorman, the facade of the building tells the story of a nation wrestling with it’s turbulent past from pre-colonization to the modern day. Bleary eyed and without sleep, the murals were actually my first order of business after checking into the hotel. Camera in hand, I set out on foot accompanied by my trusty friend, Google Maps, and an extremely limited knowledge of the Spanish language. After getting lost on campus (there is a reason they call it ‘University City’) and dehydrated from the warm morning sun, I finally stumbled upon Las Islas, the main University Quad. Across it stood O’Gorman’s masterpiece, which utilizes thousands of stones, all from quarries in Mexico, in their natural colours to create 4 unique mosaics. Instantly, I was stricken with its engrossing portrayal of Mexico’s indigenous and colonial dualism. The murals showcase the complexity of the country in a nutshell, or rather, one building and are an absolute must for those looking to be awestruck by Mexican art.
Beneath the hustle and hubbub, CDMX, as it is commonly referred as by locals, is a city that boasts some of the worlds most fascinating and unique museums, which offer some quiet respite. In fact, Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world; you’ll find a museums dedicated to pens, Leon Trotsky, cartoons, narcotics, and – of course – tequila. The biggest lucha of them all being the renowned Museo Nacional de Antropología, which not only houses the famous Aztec sun-stone and artefacts from Mexico’s storied history, but the building itself is a fabulous example of 60s Mexican Brutalism. Just across Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s version of Central Park, is Chapultepec Castle, sitting high atop a hill looking down D.F.’s main avenue, Paseo de la Reforma. It’s a castillo fit for a king – and actually was – serving as the seat of Mexico’s first – and only – monarch, Maximilian I. Further down the Paseo de la Reforma is Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, which promotes diversity and tolerance through exhibitions chronicling the world’s most gruesome genocides and topics of social justice, such as nonviolence and altruism. Mexico City gives you no choice; you’re going to get schooled, and will likely geek out hard.
While CDMX is no doubt a tourist attraction heavyweight, it is also a lip-smacking culinary dream. Mexico itself is virtually synonymous with food and drink. You can’t experience Mexico if it doesn’t involve the stomach. While many wrongfully assume that Mexican cuisine is just tacos, queso, and street food, there is a booming café and culinary scene that is on fire, with the Wall Street Journal even declaring D.F. “the world’s greatest food city.” The old adage goes that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach and Mexico City had me sucker punched with love. The city’s central neighbourhoods Zona Rosa, La Condesa and Roma Norte will keep you caffeinated with local third wave roasters, such as Buna, which serves up some of DF’s best coffee. Outdoor patios, with strong Wi-Fi, traditional churros, and full-bodied coffee are countless and easy to stumble upon. However, it was not the just the java that had me weak in the knees. The six-course meal at Pujol was a coup on my palate with celebrity chef-owner Enrique Olvera’s refined, meticulous spin on the local gastronomy. From the smoked baby corn with chicatanna ant dusting to the thousand day-old mole, the Chef’s Table featured restaurant is a heavenly example of why Mexican food is becoming the dark horse of respected cuisines.
Mexico City is a modern, sophisticated and fashionable megalopolis that has all the trimmings of urban life comparable to that of global alpha+ cities. Though, the remnants of a prosperous pre-colonial civilization and city, Tenochtitlan, still endure in the far southern borough of Xochimilco. Prior to the Spanish conquest of the Valley of Mexico, Tenochtitlan served as the capital of the Aztec Empire and was an island city, surrounded by the brackish waters of the now disappeared Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs used causeways and canals to travel throughout the valley and at Xochimilco visitors are offered a glimpse into a great, prosperous past with a canal cruise on a trajinera boat to see the remainder of the mighty lake. Sadly, we are flooded with racialized reports of drug crime and violence in the media, which ignore the significance of Mexico's pre-conquest, indigenous past and how it has metamorphosed into a thriving, innovative mega city.
As I gently floated through the lush waterways and floating gardens of Xochimilco I better understood my privilege to experience Mexico City. It possesses a distinct, overwhelming might, but buoyant perseverance in the face of so much adversity and misunderstanding. It is a city that bears the deep-seated scars and bruises of an unjust and abusive colonial match. A tough, resilient, and striking giant was born out of a struggle for identity. To this day, CDMX fights for people to see beyond the stereotype that it is a rough and tumble mega city, not worthy of being a respected travel destination. The truth is that Distrito Federal is a champion on all fronts; it will leave you hypnotized by its fast paced rhythm, unexpected attractiveness, and unconventional charm. My bets are on this underdog luchador to come out swinging.