City life: Mexico City

Mexico's capital thrives at the corner of grandeur and squalor. Above seven centuries of civilisation, street-level markets and dives provide life's best little pleasures, for those prepared to embrace them.

By Michael Parker-Stainback
photographs by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock
Published 10 Oct 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 12:13 BST
The front gardens of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

The front gardens of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Photograph by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock

"Isn't it great to leave the window open all day long?" asks my friend, Blair Richardson, a charming Virginian who's spent the past 10 years in Mexico City working as a graphic designer. Her observation might seem elementary, and yet that window is, well, a window onto something. 

Blair may have to abandon a studio space she maintains nearby that was damaged by last September's earthquake. But her townhouse was, happily, unscathed, and its big, beaux arts casements stream Mexico City's fantastic light throughout the artsy and rather magnificent residence she shares with her architect husband, Jorge, who hails from Guadalajara.

Like liquid gold, the gleam flows across the house's bold antique furnishings, high-design fixtures and impeccable kitchen. "But that window beckons me out," Blair adds, as if speaking of some irresistible force. "It whispers 'hit the street; see what's out there'."

My open balcony lures me out most days, too. Out into Mexico City's ancient, half-crumbling, not-quite fashionable downtown neighbourhood, the Centro Histórico. A few blocks' stroll from my building on Calle República de Cuba takes me down some of the city's most beautiful (and a few of its most woebegone) streets.

A left turn leads to a long-gone Spanish grandee's 17th-century colonial pile. Now it's a shop stuffed with poufy, candy-coloured dresses for working-class debutantes. A turn onto Cinco de Mayo takes me past stately offices and arcades, fin de siècle bars and old-school clothiers, with a dead-end at the impressive Palacio de Bellas Artes concert hall. It's a lustrous wedding cake of domes, terraces, allegorical statuary and Tiffany glass, yet it and the whole street sit atop the city's ancient, often foul-smelling sewage system. You have to take it all in — dazzling, appalling Mexico City.

Fellow writer David Lida asks me out to an old-school lunch at the Casino Español. A Centro social club dating from 1903, it's a neo-Alhambran, neo-Venetian, neo-I-don't-know-what-else fantasia, complete with swirling Solomonic columns, Cinderella-worthy staircases and one of the few positive portrayals of conquistador Hernán Cortés you'll find anywhere in Mexico.

An upstairs dining room attracts fat cats, banking and business types. Paella and suckling pig are house specialities. "This is the kind of place I imagine a senator's daughter telling Daddy she's become a Maoist," David quips. 

Mexico's late lunches (no earlier than 2pm; 4pm isn't out of the question) often slosh into cocktail hour and we decide to venue-change for just one more. We walk around the corner to La Faena, an abject, borderline-filthy dive — a place even veteran tipplers call de mala muerte (well-suited to a shameful demise).

Its once grand saloon is now pocked and run down. Wainscot and enormous bullfight-themed paintings are scratched, if not shredded; wobbly plastic tables rest on kaleidoscopic, mosque-worthy tile floors. Pencil-pushers from nearby offices share space with rich kids on urban safari; and there are drunks with heads that sink slowly into beer mugs. The tableau plays out beneath a huge, deco-baroque glass chandelier that hangs lopsided, from one very iffy wire.   

Bar tab settled, David and I return to streets haunted by the ghosts of inquisitors and viceroys, revolutionaries, rogues, and millions of people from every historical period. For each gleaming, blue-tile palace or gilt altarpiece, there's an overflowing bin lorry, a static-y speaker booming songs no one could possibly like, or a vendor blocking the pavement with a full inventory of ladies' unmentionables; 20 pesos, your choice.

Street-level luxe

Mexico City is the smallest town of 20 million you'll ever know. So I'm not surprised to run into a friend, Jorge, while fondling mangoes at the Tuesdays-only tianguis (open-air market) on blocks lining Agustín Melgar in Colonia Condesa, a district now on the mend after sustaining the city's worst earthquake damage. The quake added some still-visible scars to the urban topography. But a busy city cleaned up quick and travellers are returning to relish the high-low mix that's the essence of Mexico City. Cracked and patched, tumbledown — even without the tremors — Knightsbridge it ain't. But that's precisely the point.

Mexico City is about life's best little pleasures — like this glorious outdoor tianguis, where stalls groan beneath perfectly ripe tomatoes and avocados; enormous cheeses from nearby farms; freshly butchered meats; and Carmen Miranda-style tropical fruit displays. There's also a section filled with taco, barbacoa (slow-cooked barbecue) and seafood stands, to which Jorge and I repair for a catch-up. Two fillets are battered and deep-fried on the spot; the fish-and-chips trip is pure nostalgia, yet Mexicanised with mayo and salsa picante, served too hot to eat.

Jorge and his husband, Beto, both have day jobs, but their passion is Casa Jacaranda, the 1917 Colonia Roma residence where they put on culinary happenings for both visitors and locals. Participants meet at nearby Medellín Market to select what's best that day, then stroll back to their artsy, elegant house to cook a traditional recipe.

Jorge claims his grandmother wouldn't be happy he's giving these recipes away. But surely she'd approve of what's going on; each morning's lesson culminates with a shared lunch (late, as always) on the rooftop terrace, beneath the serpentine boughs and lavender blossoms of an age-old jacaranda tree. The spread can be anything from cochinita pibil (an orange- and tomato-infused pork recipe from the Yucatán) to a rich, smoky mole over chicken or fish with a vinegary, dried-chilli marinade. Lubricate with artisanal mezcal and the conversation flows, often till nightfall. 

Back at the market, Jorge waxes rhapsodic. "Look at this bonanza — this luxury!" he cries, smiling, with a flourish that leads my eye across the high-piled, mouth-watering stalls. "So much variety, so fresh, and everybody, high and low, can eat it." I wince as I remember mirthless produce sections, even in 'fancy' stores, back in the States.

Time to round out my basket. Down-home, hard-sell (sometimes hard-luck) vendors thrust samples my way (papaya, fresh tortillas, grapefruit); corny jokes and raillery cajole me into purchases. I also pick up a scrumptious loaf from Lardo, one of the city's hottest tables (and bakeries). Its dining room, filled with a high-toned, highly coiffed crowd, opens onto the market's raffish chaos. Being here in downtown has me craving the salad I'll make. Whoever heard of craving salad? 

Easy like Sunday

It's easy to have 'one of those days' in Mexico City. Too much gotta-get in too many sprawling districts, with lots of time wasted in apocalyptic traffic. The metro is jam-packed; buses roar and belch exhaust; everything seems under highly destructive construction. Horns blare and there's no room on the pavement; another dispiriting protest march for nobody knows what.

Then comes Sunday. Businesses close, folks stay close to home and a particular peace prevails. Birdsong and cathedral bells serenade strong morning coffee. 

In a megalopolis of too many cars and cruel social inequalities, Sunday's all-city bike ride is homily and Holy Communion in one. Each week, cyclists take over on major boulevards in several central neighbourhoods (motor traffic strictly banned), especially along the city's Champs-Élysées-like Paseo de la Reforma — an avenue that extends from ultra-posh Polanco to the teeming, gritty blocks surrounding the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and its pilgrim hordes.

The ride is wildly popular and attracts denizens (and pooches) from every corner and class, on bikes, foot, skateboards, roller skates, even unicycles. It's a carousel of the fit and the young, seniors on constitutionals, and people in expensive workout togs, alongside barrio Joes on a lark. Call me a sap, but it's rare I don't shed a tear of joy as I fly along with all the rest, beneath stately palm trees and colossal new skyscrapers, around fussy, Belle Époque traffic circles, or on a bench-break for world-class people-watching. 

For nostalgic types, Sunday also means the outdoor flea market in not-as-rough-as-they-say La Lagunilla, just north of downtown. Picture booth after booth of everything from the sorriest plastic junk to exquisite, antique paintings, musty tomes, fabulous Victorian sideboards and nifty-Fifties Steelcase desks.

Other dealers specialise in Mexican movie memorabilia, frilly housewares, lounge-singer LPs, '68 Olympics paraphernalia, Barbie dolls loved — or tortured — to death. You've also got great strolling vendors peddling carnitas tacos, freshly squeezed pineapple juice and a surely illegal (no one asks) beer cocktail known as a michelada, a full litre-cup of suds plus lime juice and optional add-ons like salt, chilli powder, fruit syrups and gummy bears. 

One morning, I meet Aldo Rojas for one of those 'chelas (lime and chilli only for me) — and a stroll through the market. A design historian who moved to the capital from his native Xalapa, Aldo is in thrall to the trash-and-treasures mix. "This is Mexico City," he declares. "Beside the vendor who practically has a doctorate in what he sells, there's a yokel with no idea what he's sitting on. And they've both got something fantastic." Lagunilla's flea market has been the most renowned here since at least viceregal days (or so the legend goes), and now regulars carp about too many foreigners driving prices too high. "But somehow it refuses to gentrify," Aldo notes.

An irrepressible theorist, he ties it to Mexico's comfortable relationship with death and the vanity of all human endeavour. Which makes sense in a city where so many centuries of urban grandeur — and squalor — have littered the landscape with innumerable relics. "No matter what brilliant book you write or how exquisitely you craft some furnishing or artwork, it all ends up at La Lagunilla, on the ground, dented and for sale again at whatever price," Aldo concludes.

Treasures in hand, including postcards from Acapulco's glory days, a kitschy soft drinks tray, a plate depicting a 19th-century general, we head to Cantina U de G, a workingman's lunchroom and tavern, famed for roast viscera platters and other Mexican pub-grub classics. There's mariachi music and, later, tunes courtesy of Casablanca, a covers band that does everything from soft rock ballads to the deadliest torch tunes.

Sunday is for families; three- and four-generation groups pack in. Over there, a couple of doughy, middle-aged lovers making out like adolescents. A claque of slumming hipsters puts away a bottle of high-end tequila. Many dance and most sing along. We'll deal with Monday tomorrow and not a minute sooner.   


Getting there & around
British Airways has five weekly flights from Heathrow to Mexico City International Airport; Aeroméxico has six. Other European, US and Latin American carriers have indirect flights.

Average flight time:  11h30m.

The neighbourhoods of most appeal to visitors (Centro, Roma, Juárez and Condesa) are easy to do on foot or using the public bike-sharing scheme. The metro and taxis are cheap, efficient and safe.

When to go
Mexico City is mild year-round; hottest in May (averaging 18C) and coldest in December (13C). 

More info

How to do it
Journey Latin America has seven nights in Mexico City from £927 per person, including return flights, transfers and hotels.

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Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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