Mexico City

All things Aztec

Usually, the time between Christmas and New Year is an indolent week at work catching up on projects, trying outlandish experiments, and celebrating the end of the year with the few that remain. The holidays are hard for travel because of congested airports, the threat of blizzards, and high ticket prices.

This year, the company shut down between Christmas and New Year, stripping employees of three vacation days and sending us to the street. Then I must travel. Yet not home: I saw family in the Boston area for both June and October.

Brother Ray and I used to travel a lot together. However, with his academic schedule and my few vacation days, we have not linked up recently on a trip. The planets aligned because of the company closure, and this December we had the same time off.

We sought destinations that were warm (no Iceland in December), affordable, and did not celebrate Christmas extensively. For strongly Christian countries, we feared a week of closed attractions and restaurants. We looked into Morocco, but calculated a trip there would take 22 hours and $2200. Rio proved similarly exotic and expensive.

What about Mexico? Ray and I toured the Yucatan Peninsula ten years ago in an exploration of all things Mayan. This time, we could check out Aztec Mexico which meant the central area around Mexico City.

Ray invited Lee, his college friend. Lee could drive! I invited my graduate-school friend Ruben. Of Mexican heritage, Ruben could translate! So off we set, four recently-single 40 year olds on holiday in Mexico. Sounds like the set-up for a Judd Apatow film.

We booked nine nights in Mexico. The capital city might be overwhelming so I wanted an initial break somewhere smaller. We would land in Mexico City, drive from the airport to the small city of Puebla to spend the night there to eat Puebla’s famous mole. In the morning, we would drive further south to highland Oaxaca. There, we could take a cooking class, eat well, and check out Oaxacan markets. We would swing the car around for five nights in Mexico City, flying out on New Year’s Eve to get back to the States in time for 2013.

Unfortunately, shady AirTran Airways called me in San Francisco the night before my flight to announce that my flight out to Mexico City had been cancelled. AirTran could rebook me on another flight, but not until 3 days later! I argued and lost. Panic. Furthermore, if I arrived later, the other 3 travelers would have already left Mexico City for southern Oaxaca.

While I jumped around my apartment, Lee and Ray from Houston coaxed me into looking into last-minute flights on other carriers. United could fly me open-jaw one day later to Oaxaca and then send me home from Mexico City. Trouble was the obscene $1800 price tag, a thousand more dollars than the original flight. I hemmed and hawed until Ray reminded me that it was only money.

One day later than expected, I flew out early morning from San Francisco to Oaxaca. I had sent pictures of Ruben to Ray and Lee so they would know whom to meet in the Mexico City airport. I stupidly left my phone at home, making me anxious whether the group would find me in the Oaxaca airport or leave me to fend for myself. As I gathered my bags from the small airport carousel, I did happily see three familiar faces with a rental car. We were re-united for our Mexico adventure.

We had no rain for nine days with warm – almost hot – days and brisk nights. Our business resort hotel in Oaxaca had a chill outdoor pool in which I tried laps one morning. Ray got sunburnt tromping through the ruins of Monte Alban; the rest of us wore sunscreen.

I was once infamous for my Gestapo Tours – rushed adventures through sites, topography, and cuisine. Breaks during these tours were few because there was so much to see. Despite budgeting more time on this Mexico trip – three days in Oaxaca and five in Mexico City – we were still often on the move.

Oaxaca is quite the sleepy highland town, and a fine introduction to Mexico. One afternoon, we took a cooking class with Oscar who led us in the morning through a grocery market to buy provisions for lunch. Back at his restaurant, our group made two types of tortilla on a metal press, cooked a chocolate mole with 18 ingredients, blended four kinds of salsa (one with avocado leaf, another with an agave worm), boiled a squash-blossom soup, soaked rice with almonds for an horchata drink, and froze chocolate ice cream. Oscar efficiently orchestrated the four hours to prepare many dishes. Just as much fun as the cooking were the other participants: two Dutch girls, an American and Australia that jokingly called us “pathetic spaghetti,” and a family from Mexico City that took a lot of photographs.

In Oaxaca, we checked out the large church, poked our head into an art gallery, had weird bagels and local coffee, and shopped for tequila. Our last night in Oaxaca, we ate dinner grandly outdoors at Casa Oaxaca. I had venison in mole with a bottle of Mexican red wine.

Since it was the Christmas season, we got drawn into the Oaxacan festive calendar. Mexico’s native religion is more a celebratory blend of Catholic and pagan traditions. December 23 was “Night of the Radishes,” in which local artists sculpt figures and scenes into large red-and-white radishes. We though the city might be dead Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Not at all! Unlike in the United States, Christmas is a time for outdoor parties. On Christmas Eve, each of the surrounding villages parades a float with a flotilla of children around the main square. Men carry poles topped with fireworks, and others wave large puppets of Jesus, Mary, and even Bart Simpson. We drank beer at a café on the main square and realized how far away were the snows of the Northeast.

We spent Christmas at the nearby ruins of Monte Alban, the best known of the Zapotec sites. We climbed pyramids, looked into excavated tombs, and had tequila at the museum. Ruben can handle heights, but only if he is at least a little tipsy. Lee poked at a huge black tarantula.

Every one of us got a little ill during the trip, necessitating a night in. On Christmas Day, I left the other three to play billiards late at the Oaxaca hotel so I could sleep early. On another night, Ray felt squeamish from something he ate. Ruben faded on our last day in Mexico City.

We checked out of the hotel in Oaxaca on December 26 for the long drive back into Mexico City. Lee expertly navigated the chaos of the roads. Most of central Mexico is high desert, punctuated by brown hills, green saguaro cacti, and expensive tolls. We fortunately did not run out of gas and returned the car to the Mexico City airport before dark.

Five nights in Mexico City, a city of 23 million people, approximately the sixth-largest agglomeration in the world. I feared implacable crowds, unending squalor, and deafening chaos. When you set your expectations this low, a place can really impress you: Mexico City is quite wonderful.

We booked two Holiday Inn hotel rooms in the very center of Mexico City, overlooking the busy Zocalo. The main square was decked out for three weeks of the winter season with a skating rink, ski slope, and snowmobile loop. Ruben and I checked into the fifth floor, while Lee and Ray took the second. The rooftop restaurant was a great place to have a sunset beer or for Ruben to finish grading exams.

Our first step out of the hotel, we got crushed by the Mexico City’s early-evening crowd. Surrounded by wall-to-wall people, we got swept along the pedestrian corridor. Dispirited, we settled down for dinner at the fancy branch of Sanborns’s department store.

We later inferred that Mexico City is a monoculture. With many inhabitants of the same area, religion, and tradition, the city moves to a unified rhythm. Shops get slammed in the late afternoon; the city center empties of people around ten at night; everyone sleeps in. As long as you think differently than the herd, you can avoid the crush of the crowd.

A city this large has something for everyone, and we sampled a lot:

Mexico City congregates the country’s best museums. Ray and I explored all things Mesoamerican at the impressive Anthropology Museum. We surveyed scale models of Tenoctitlan and Teohuacan. We learned about the horrors of Aztec sacrifice, gazed at the enormous Aztec sun stone unearthed from under Mexico City, and found giant Olmec heads from one of Mexico’s oldest civilizations. Mexico for centuries has been home to a large number of peoples: Olmecs, Toltecs, Mixtec, Zapotecs, Mayans, and Aztecs. In one wing of the museum, we stumbled on cut-rock sculptures from a contemporary artist, quite a welcome change from all the text in the rest of the museum.

On Sunday, the free museum day, we hit the Modern and Contemporary Art Museums. Although the Rufino Tamayo collection did not impress us, we did enjoy the museum building and the unexpected lack of a crowd. It was a different story next door in the Modern Art Museum. The collection there of female surrealist art proved one of the strongest art exhibitions I have ever seen. I spotted two famous Frida Kahlo portraits and some awesome surrealist art.

In Mexico City, we ate both high end and low end. One night, we took the subway to the fancy district of Polanco where the Porsche dealer lies conveniently next to the Cartier shop. In Polanco, we settled down for dinner at Izote restaurant, the supposed birthplace of nueva cocina Mexicana under chef Patricia Quinta. I ate a great fish crusted with mole, preceded by a corn and poblano soup. Ruben tried a quesadilla with huitlacoche quesadilla, the dark gray fungus that grows on corn.

For low end, we ate lunch from a stall in Allende Square. Ruben had the street version of a huitlacoche quesadilla while Ray and I sampled the local Chilango snacks of pambazo and huarache. While the chef grilled up our food, we shot bee-bee guns at small silver targets; the bored police came over to see why adults would shoot at a kids’ game.

We toured the huge edifices of the opera house and palace, both of which house amazing Diego Rivera murals so intricate that I spent thirty minutes identifying the characters. The Belles Artes opera house is the best example of art deco that I have seen: chunky silver chandeliers, signs with old fonts, roof faces in the shape of Aztec eagles.

Mexico City wasn’t all eating and art. We drank plenty, and the full gamut of beer, wine, and liquor. Mexican wine is having a bit of a renaissance, and much of it comes from Baja California. Ray picked out a good red at Casa Oaxaca; Ruben followed up with an excellent Mexican cabernet sauvignon at Izote restaurant.

Mexico has many brands of beer, most of it lighter lagers, and most of it in bottles. Ray quickly identified darker Indio as his favorite. Mexicans have an odd tradition of mixing their beer with other substances to form a Michealada. Standard Michealadas consist of beer and lime juice or beer and bloody-mary mix. One night at a Michealada bar in the Condesa distrct, Ruben saw on the menu Marisco Michealdas (seafood!). He ordered an oyster drink and wound up with a double oyster on the half shell perched on top of his beer glass. The waiter suggested he tilt the oyster into the beer; unfortunately, oysters don’t float like ice, but sink like sewage. Nasty.

Tequila is the fermented, aged, and distilled agave nectar from the region surrounding the city of Tequila. Mescal is the same product, but from anywhere in Mexico (or the world). We drank a lot of both tequila and mescal, usually neat, sometimes on the rocks. I dislike the wormy taste of some mescals. However, if Mexican beer proves too low in alcohol, mescal helps to get you where you want to go: drunk.

Pulque is the un-aged, undistilled sap from the agave plant. Pulqueria shops are making a comeback from former old-man dives to current hipster hangouts. On the bar row of Condesa, we ordered up three half-liter of pulque. Ruben and Ray found formidable the effervescent, slimy white beverage, but I degree it refreshing.

A bit tired of ruins and museums, Ruben wanted to see contemporary Mexico, especially where the kool kids hang out. Saturday night, we started out in La Zona Rosa in search of fun. Too bad this district proved a wild goose chase of chain restaurants, touts for strip clubs, and uncertain blandness. We redirected our hunt into the Roma and Condesa districts, but had to walk dark blocks from one possible bar to the next. Ray got frustrated leading a grumbling posse

What we eventually found were amazing: two “entradas,” venues like underground clubs or European squats. Both entradas had the goth look that Ruben likes, and both were a warren of rooms. The second spot “Paranoid Visions” had several bars within, great sculptures, cool lighting, interesting people, no cover, and even a great band. We watched a little of the Swedish vampire film, “Let the Right One In,” while dancing to Cure songs. I don’t remember how many beers we had, but everyone was happy.

We hired a car to take us 90-minutes north to the ruined city of Teohuacan, better known in Mexico as Las Pyramidas. The largest Mesoamerican city was not Teohuacan, but the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan; in its heyday of the 16th century, Tenochtitlan was second in population to Rome. However, Cortes and the Spanish not only destroyed Tenochtitlan; they built Mexico City over it. Teohuacan’s apogee was a thousand years before Tenochtitlan; Cortes didn’t destroy it because Teohuacan was already abandoned and overgrown upon Spanish conquest.

Because of its age and lack of surviving documentation, not much is known about the Teohuacan ruins we visited. The people who built the structures were precursors of the Aztecs and had similar urban planning. We stood in line to climb the giant Sun Temple, the second largest pyramid in the world (Cheops in Cairo being the first).  We all got a rush of vertigo navigating the narrow unrailed walkways on the various levels of the pyramid. The views, of course, are amazing. After descending from the Sun Temple, we climbed up the smaller Moon Temple.

Many call Mexico City the “Big Taco” in reference to New York’s appellation as the “Big Apple.” The two cities have a similar overwhelming, cosmopolitan atmosphere, but Mexico City’s crush can be thicker due to its monoculture. The two cities also treat congestion differently. In New York, people orderly queue up with citizens brusquely policing each other. If the rules are not followed, society breaks down. In Mexico City, you must be loud to survive the fray. Many shops and stalls have loudspeakers. In the subways, salesmen and saleswomen hawk everything from bootleg CDs to gum.

The flight back to San Francisco took just four hours. I’m surprised how close by sits this other world of Mexico City, teaming with masses on the subway, full of great food, despised by most Americans, and yet truly wonderful. I’m glad our band of four did not exhaust our itinerary in a week. I want to return to see more of Mexico’s capital.[gallery_bank_album_cover album_id=1]