By Dorri Olds
When I told people I was headed to Mexico City I was met with friends’ furrowed brows and warnings to be careful. The idea that it’s a dangerous place full of drug lords is totally false image. As a native Manhattanite I wasn’t worried, besides, I’d done my research. Mexico City has a sophisticated system of video surveillance cameras to deter crime. It is a cultural metropolis that welcomes more than 12 million visitors a year. It houses 160 museums, 100 art galleries and 500 movie theaters. Foreign Policy magazine ranked Mexico City as one of the world’s top 10 cultural destinations. I was gung ho to go.
My trip was in early November, in time for the multi-day Mexican celebration similar to our Halloween, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It’s a time of festive, colorful costumes and artworks of dancing skeletons. Candles lit up the night for the traditional holiday that honors the departed. Mexicans partied hearty in the streets, danced, and played music with abandon.
The weather was warm and breezy. Due to its high elevation of 7800 feet, Mexico City is mild all year. Winters are cooler but they’re nothing like our New York City frigid temperatures. Their “cold” months average 70 degrees. No matter when you go, though, bring a light sweater for the breezy evening and early morning air.
I took a taxi from the airport to the boutique hotel, Condesa DF, located in a quaint neighborhood with sidewalk cafes and the large park Parque España. It’s a great place to jog because the path is in a loop so you can’t get lost. We were advised to stay out of the park after dark but that’s just common sense.
The hotel was built in 1928. The rooms have charm and there was a fully stocked mini-bar and a basket full of snacks. Condesa DF boasts a treadmill, bike, terrace, bike rentals and a five-minute walk to a fully equipped gym. The staff was warm and gorgeous.
Be sure to get to the fun local attraction, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. It has 23 rooms of artifacts including Aztec Calendar Stones and Mayan treasures. Guided tours are available.
Xochimilco, a borough outside Mexico City, is known for its canals which reminded me of Venice. The preserved waterways and chinampas—squares of land for growing crops—a vestige of pre-Columbian times. Colorfully painted gondola-like wooden boats called Trajineras are available for rent at 300 pesos (about $22 dollars) per hour. It’s the same price for one person or 20 and a guide is included.
The Mexican government is doing much to preserve this area. The water in the lagoons is clear and the wildlife protected. It is illegal to shoot birds there. At this time of year there’s a big influx of Pelicans from South Canada because there are so many fish for them to eat.
Lunch was served on the boat—a sweet bread snack along with Horchata, a warm rice and milk drink similar to hot breakfast cereal. I loved the tasty little lumps. Other people on the boat indulged in ancient delicacies—fried grasshoppers, baked worms, ant eggs and bright red mini shrimp that looked like bugs. I did not partake. Thank goodness there was “normal” food available. I enjoyed guacamole, tortilla chips, black beans and rice.
Another Xochimilco adventure, and a highlight of the trip, was an afternoon spent at the Dolores Olmedo Museum which boasts the largest collection of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo art anywhere in the world. “Lola” Olmedo was a Mexican businesswoman, an entrepreneur who made all of her own money—mostly in real estate—and became extremely wealthy. She was friend and patron to Rivera and Kahlo. In 1962, Olmedo bought the estate, including a dilapidated mansion—a large colonial home from the 1600s that was in ruins. She restored everything with meticulous attention to detail. Stunning peacocks wandered the enormous grounds amidst bright yellow flowers and neatly mowed lawns. Olmedo was a fan of the Mexican hairless dogs, Xoloitzcuintle (try saying that three times fast), and Olmedo left money to maintain a pack of them on the grounds with their own caretaker. When asked, the caretaker brought out a few dogs for visitors to see up close. They looked threatening, like pit bulls, but gently nuzzled their heads against my leg. It was weird when I petted one, the hairless skin felt like warm rubber.
I learned that Mexican food is not the same as the American translation. Portions are smaller yet tastier, hence more satisfying. Dishes contained less cheese, grease and fat.
The following day I went for lunch at Arroyo Restaurant and learned of their seventy years of tradition. The first dish was tlacoyo; oval shaped toasted cakes made from corn dough stuffed with refried beans and cheese. Delicioso! The music and festive atmosphere was the main attraction. Exquisite looking Mexican men and women danced, sang and played an assortment of instruments. The costumes were bright white for the men and for the women, vivid colors and dresses with layers of ruffles.
The tastiest meal I had was dinner at Rosetta. Chef Elena Reygadas is famous for her Italian fare served in a restored Belle Epoque mansion in the historic Roma neighborhood. The appetizer was beetroot with goat cheese and red wine reduction, followed by butternut squash ravioli, with amaretti and sage. I ordered the house specialty main course of Robalo fish in sea salt with crusted herbs and creamy polenta. Dessert was a sinful chocolate mousse with fresh whipped cream.
On the last day, I experienced what felt like a magical mystery tour in Zócalo, the huge town square in the historic center of Mexico City. In honor of Dia de los Muertos, the Museo de Arte Popular annually sponsors a competition of alebrijes—brightly colored, over-sized paper maché monsters, dragons and fantastical animals.
It was a short yet thrilling trip and I will definitely go back.
For more information visit mexicocityexperience.com