First Timer in Mexico City

SIX DAYS AGO, I got back from two weeks in Mexico. It was supposed to have been a three-week vacation, but fears of the U.S.-Mexico border closing suddenly and the possibility, if flights were cancelled, of having to rent a car and drive cross country from Baja California to NYC (38 hours – I checked), caused my holiday to come to an abrupt end.

When a friend and I left JFK on Tuesday, March 3, there were a couple hundred coronavirus cases in New York. I had heard about it, and checked three drug stores for hand sanitizer before I left (to no avail), but it wasn’t something that would cause me to change my long-arranged travel plans, for gosh sakes. When I got back to NYC on Tuesday, March 17, the number of cases was in five digits.

I hadn’t ever been to CDMX (the new official acronym for Mexico City, for Ciudad de Mexico). I expected chaos, noise, maybe a little danger. Instead, I found it as rich in art and architecture as a European capital and cleaner than New York City, with parks full of jacaranda trees in purple bloom. Our two-bedroom, two-bath Air B&B was ridiculously inexpensive and more luxurious than my normal lifestyle, located in the Roma neighborhood, just around the corner from where the movie of that name was filmed.

Roma and Condesa, the adjoining nabe, about 3 miles from the Centro Historico, are both terrific, but Condesa is where I’d live if I lived in CDMX. It was built in the 1920s and ’30 around the jungle-like, oval-shaped Parque Mexico, on the site of a one-time racecourse. I wandered around, taking in the Art Deco architecture that flowered in Mexico City after the devastating economic effects of the 1910 Mexican Revolution had resolved.

All this wonderfulness was enhanced by the fact that I wasn’t paying much attention to the news.

My main goal was to see the murals of the great social realist Diego Rivera, with visits to his monumental works at the Palacio National (nothing less ambitious than the history of Mexico from pre-conquest times to the 1930s); the futuristic “Man at the Crossroads” mural at the Palacio des Bellas Artes, which also has towering murals by Orozco, Tamayo and Siquieros, and another at the Diego Rivera Museum, a personal and political riff on Seurat’s painting “Sunday on the Grand Jetté,” at the head of lovely Alameda Central park.

And we weren’t about to miss what is surely one of Mexico’s top tourist attractions, Frida’s Kahlo’s famous “blue house” in the Coyoacan neighborhood, a 20-minute taxi ride from the center, as well as the extraordinary modernist home and studio built in the nearby San Angel neighborhood for Rivera by his friend and neighbor, architect Juan O’Gorman. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, they astounded.

A street food tour with Eat Mexico was a highlight. It satisfied my curiosity about the famous Mexico City street food stalls without my having to risk digestive upset. The small-group tour took us to a central business district, Cuahutemoc, where there are tall glass office towers. It’s mostly office workers and construction workers who find these carts, set up in the morning and broken down at night, some that have been in the same family for decades, so convenient.

The food we tried at a dozen stops, ably guided by Ariana Ruiz, was uniformly fresh and delicious, and incredibly high in carbs. There was atolle, a warm sweet rice drink; samples from several tortillerias (of 65,000 in the city), round discs of corn dough, salted and eaten as a snack; cemitas poblanas, another bready thing, with string cheese, avocado and an herb called papalo. I also tried chamoy, a sweet/salty salsa, Asian- influenced, with tamarind, papaya, pineapple and other fruit; pombazo, a way to use day-old bread by soaking it in salsa and frying; shrimp burritos and a seafood tostada, Veracruz- style. It’s cooked ceviche, basically, sushi-fresh and delivered daily from both coasts, each 5 hours away by truck.

Food in general was a highlight of CDMX. We ate everywhere from a retro lunch counter in an 18th century Baroque building entirely clad in blue and white tiles, to the vegan cafe down the block where we sat outside one evening under string lights, to Dulce Patria, a fancy restaurant for which we had made advance reservations, that took us into Mexico City’s poshest neighborhood, Polanco.

We did many of the things you have to do your first time in CDMX, including the 14th century Templo Mayor excavations and museum, dating from when Mexico City, called Tenochtitlan, was on an island linked to the mainland by causeways, and the dizzying, world-class anthropology museum. I’m not sure one of the things you have to do is take the subway, but we did, as an adventure. It was impressively efficient. But Ubers are too, and hardly more costly.

Five days in Mexico City was perfect for must-dos and a bit of wandering, with guidebook in hand. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to carry one around.

By the time we left for Oaxaca March 8, the coronavirus news was casting a pall. We encountered worried Americans there, which we had not in MCDX. Mexicans, too, were conscious of it and big on the hand sanitizer.

Oaxaca, sleepy by comparison to CDMX but of great charm and interest, will be the subject of another post. I’ll have plenty of time to put that together, from quarantine here in brownstone Brooklyn.

Hope you are all doing well in your seclusion during this weird, anxious time. I have faith it will eventually be over, and we’ll get back, not to the old normal, but hopefully better. After our enforced staycations, we’ll be well-rested and well-read, less crazed consumers, more appreciative of the low-wage workers who keep us going, less frenetic, more introspective. We’ll have caught up with old friends and cleaned out our closets. And I, I hope, will have revived my dormant blog.

World’s Wackiest Buildings

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Nautilus House, Mexico City, Mexico. Arquitectonica Organica, 2006. The inside is just as extraordinary; to see it, go here.

WHEN IT COMES TO ARCHITECTURE, give me crazy over boring any day. Along comes an e-mail — OK, a forward, and I apologize if you’ve seen it before — with 35 of the “world’s most unique buildings.” A few are familiar — a Gaudi in Barcelona, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, and a couple from expos and World’s Fairs, which one expects to be far-out — but most I’d never seen. All of them are just plain fun to look at.

Here’s a sampling of 10. If you’d like to see the entire group, leave a comment on this post, and I’ll forward you the e-mail.

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Cubic Houses, Rotterdam, Netherlands, Piet Blom, 1984.

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Basket Building, Newark, Ohio, 1997.

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House Attack, Vienna, Austria. Erwin Wurm, 2006.

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Conch Shell house, Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Octavio Ocampo. A vacation rental!

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National Theatre, Beijing, China. Paul Andreu, 2004. Stunning, IMO.

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Low Impact Woodland Home, Wales. Simon Dale. For a peek at the interior, go here.

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Kansas City Library, Kansas City, MO

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Stone House, Guimaraes, Portugal. Built between two existing boulders.

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Crooked House, Sopot, Poland. Szotyńscy & Zaleski, 2004.