Mexico City

I think I may have summed up my feelings on Mexico City best when I said goodbye to my friend and wonderful host this morning: “I feel okay leaving because I know I will be back.” Since my first night here I have felt connected to the city, immediately liking walking around its neighborhoods and continually fascinated by the kind spirit of people I met – even if we didn’t share a common language. So I can’t imagine a life where I wouldn’t return to this city that so easily found its way into my heart.

My first impression of Mexico City was awe. Flying in over the urban expanse my jaw dropped – this is sprawl to the extreme. I had heard how large Mexico City was, but nothing prepared me for this. Not since Sao Paulo had I been so stunned by the breadth of a city, and even that was smaller. But once inside, that overwhelming impression faded away.

It probably helped that I was staying in incredibly nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood, between Condesa and Roma, and on a charming street, Avenida Amsterdam. My first day I wandered these areas, through one park full of dogs, one with a David replica, and one with an antique etc. market. The architecture was surprisingly familiar, partly European and partly Gramercy in NYC. I kept thinking, “I could totally live here.” I stumbled across murals on the sides of buildings and a small exhibit about vernacular Mexican architecture on display in a public plaza. I ended that day with a piano concert in the gorgeous Castillo de Chapultepec followed by my first tacos and horchata, which were, of course, delicious. Not a bad first day.

Up next was Sunday and I decided to walk Reforma. I was not prepared for what that would be like. The street was shut down and covered with activity: bikes by the thousands, a large dance group in one of the roundabouts, and plenty of observers out for a stroll like me. I walked all the way to the historic center, through the beautiful park Alameda Central to the Palacio de Bellas Artes and on to the Plaza de la Constitucion, encountering a market, a brass band, and a parade along the way. It seemed like everyone was out and about. Since museums are free for locals on Sundays the lines for Museo del Templo Mayor and Palacio de Belles Artes were prohibitively long, but I was happy to just walk around and take it all in. Plaza de la Constitucion is lined by impressive, stately looking buildings that give the impression that important things happen inside (which is appropriate considering two of these are the Palacio Nacional and the Catedral Metropolitana). The Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de Mexico is massive inside, and I happened to be there during a service, something I am very unfamiliar with. I was struck by the gravity of it all. I met up with friends to climb the tower up to the bells and ended up getting way more out of it than expected. We did see the huge centuries-old bells, but then we climbed all over the roof to get to another group of bells, all while a guide told us the history of them (in Spanish). I definitely recommend doing it if just to see the Cathedral and Plaza from above. I also recommend eating at El Mayor, where we had lunch, which overlooks Templo Mayor – great view, fantastic mole.

Two things in downtown struck me as very strange. First, the security guard at the Apple store entrance was holding a shotgun. Seriously? A SHOTGUN? Is that really necessary? Second was the abundance of people dressed as action heroes or Disney characters along the main pedestrian street. Batman was hiding behind a news kiosk, a minion was waving to people crossing an intersection, and Alien was offering 3 photos for MX$15. What strange amusement park had I wandered into? A friend tried to explain it by telling me, “We have a weird fascination with the US.” It was definitely weird.

My last day in Mexico City was dedicated to museums. After a leisurely two-course breakfast at Matisse, I walked the now-familiar route to the park in search of the Museo Nacional de Antropología. It was the most recommended museum from everyone I talked to so I figured I should see it. I was not disappointed. From the minute I walked into the courtyard and saw the giant carved pillar supporting a modern cantilevered roof I was taken with the building. As for the exhibits, it was all about the Mayan and Tenochtitlan rooms. Intriciate carvings, architectural recreations, and interesting history in digestibly lengthed descriptions came together in a captivating study on early Mexican civilizations. The upstairs dioramas, however, I breezed through in 10 minutes. Just not my thing.

Refusing to leave Mexico City without seeing at least one art museum, I switched gears and went straight for the contemporary Museo Rufino Tamayo. The building again instantly caught my eye – a contemporary concrete structure with a coffered ceiling and whitewashed parquet floor – but the temporary exhibits were a bit of a let down. Then I made it to the permanent collection and was completely won over. It’s a small exhibit, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in content. There’s just a handful of contemporary Latin American artists on display, but each one is given a wall with a description of their history and a few examples of their work. I couldn’t help but think of the MALBA in Buenos Aires when I saw most of them, and then my hunch that I had seen these artists before was confirmed when I reached Le Parc, who was featured in the incredible solo exhibit I saw last year at MALBA. I wrote down two names from this exhibit about who I hope to find out more. On my way home I took a detour through Polanco to see the more fancy neighborhood, which of course looked fabulous, and I vowed to one day return to Mexico City with more money and spend some time lounging at one of its restaurant’s outdoor tables.

Mexico City was a spectacular introduction to Mexico. There were some surprises both good and bad, such as the abundance of trees and parks scattered throughout the city and the constant presence of police in kevlar vests, respectively. But I left with an overall positive impression. I was introduced to the sights of Mexico – a diverse architectural makeup and a rich history next to a modern era; the sounds of Mexico – the call of the furniture/mattress selling/buying pick-up truck and a subway serenade; the tastes of Mexico – three ways of eating cactus and traditional dishes featured on a chef’s menu in honor of Mexico’s independence; and the people of Mexico – my gracious hosts, the genial maître d’ who took care of me at Matisse restaurant, the many patrons and employees of the cafe who tried to help me find a post office despite not speaking a word of English, and the man at the airport who picked up my check and wished me a pleasant stay in his country. The spirit of the Mexican people is warm, and that alone impressed me.

And with that, I left. Despite my obvious fondness of the city, I felt like I had to move on. The coast was calling my name and I couldn’t say no. But like I said, I know I’ll go back one day, because Mexico City has joined an elite group in my mind: Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and now Mexico City are the cities in Latin America in which I could see myself living.

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