A neighbourhood guide to Mexico City

If you know where to go, Mexico City has never had more allure, from the haute cocktail bars and rejuvenated veteran theatre scene of Colonia Juárez to the buzzing food and flower markets of Jamaica.

Monday, September 7, 2020,
By Michael Parker-Stainback
Tourists browsing the offerings at a colourful stall in Mercado Jamaica, one of the largest flower ...

Tourists browsing the offerings at a colourful stall in Mercado Jamaica, one of the largest flower markets in all of Latin America. 

Photograph by Getty

Mexico City is now on everyone’s wishlist. Smog, traffic and chaos be damned, after decades of bad press Mexico’s notorious capital is enjoying a visitor boom. And it’s a boom that’s surely sustainable. Mexico has a longstanding tradition of receiving foreigners, and the sunny welcome, even in the frenetic capital, is extraordinary. The charms of the city’s showplace precincts — particularly Condesa and Roma, the Centro and posh Polanco — are often self-evident, but shouldn’t be missed. However, be sure to poke around in other, lesser-known, less-polished barrios: the city’s secret cool. Those who stray from the beaten path will discover welcomes just as warm and revel in the authentic urban adventures they reveal.

Colonia Juárez

“They haven’t been able to completely gentrify it,” says local art historian Aldo Solano, over black coffee at Café La Habana. The circa-1954 diner, all but unchanged since it opened, gained fame as a hangout for local journalists and is where, they say, exiles Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara planned the Cuban Revolution.

Formerly one of Mexico City’s most exclusive districts, post-Second World War ‘progress’ saw the wealthy leave Juárez for newer, more suburban tracts, leaving grand old buildings to languish in subsequent decades; auto parts suppliers and other downmarket retail moved into once-genteel ground floors. In recent years, booming property prices in Condesa and Roma pushed arty youth to Juárez in search of still-affordable vintage digs. These creative newcomers brought on buzzy dining rooms and sleek cafes; the vibe injected new life into a veteran theatre scene. 

“There are still people who’ve lived on the same street all their lives,” says Aldo. Unpretentious joints — like dumpy-but-loveable Gabi’s Café, for no-nonsense coffee and newspaper perusal — are hanging in there. “You can live a traditional Mexican and hipster life here,” says resident Mirelle Leider. “It has a kind of a small-town feel where everybody knows everybody.” 

The tiny, diamond-shaped quarter is set between nondescript Centro and the flashy trashy Zona Rosa. Benign neglect has conserved numerous fin de siècle mansions and apartment houses topped with turrets and mansard roofs, plus eclectic local touches like blue talavera tile and marvellous double-doored balconies that invite Mexico City’s temperate, sunny weather into high-ceilinged, belle époch parlours. Uncut by major thoroughfares, its streets are quieter, pleasantly shaded by trees.

Plop down at Parker & Lenox, a vintage-look luncheonette, then slip, speakeasy style, through a back door into a dusky, nostalgic jazz cabaret famed for excellent haute coctelerie (fancy cocktails) and live music. Notable dining rooms, like industrial-chic Amaya or the informal but delicious Lucio, draw smart crowds from all over the city. And at much-loved, hard-to-reserve Havre 77, acclaimed chef Lalo García and his team prepare scrumptious French-bistro classics with impeccable local ingredients.

The Soumaya Museum in Plaza Carso is one of Mexico City's most iconic buildings. 

Photograph by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock

Jamaica 

“These darlings were running around the yard this morning,” declares Rufina Yáñez, owner of Mercado Jamaica’s Pollos Yáñez poultry stand, as she lifts a dead bird from a cooler. Her cold-storage system is in fact two defunct refrigerators, lying sideways on an irregular pile of junk. “We kill them early, then bring them in, every day,” she says. The stand is spartan — an oilcloth over a table, chicken viscera galore, comically oversized scissors. Satisfied customer Araceli Piña tells me they’re the freshest birds anywhere in this enormous, working class market. “Come early, they sell out,” she advises. 

The small colonia (neighbourhood) known as Jamaica (pronounced ‘ha-MY-ca’, which means ‘hibiscus flower’), just under two miles southeast of downtown, barely extends beyond the hundreds of stalls that make up its market. Visitors who love the exotic food at Mercado San Juan in the historic centre or the homestyle comforts at Mercado Medellín in Roma will fall all the more for Jamaica. This vast food forum offers fruit and vegetables, meats so fresh they’re not refrigerated, cheeses rustic and fine, seafood and practically everything else in between. 

The hungry should head to Carnitas Paty, a local landmark for fried-in-lard pork carnitas. They’re served taco-style with onions and coriander or wrapped in butcher paper to go. An army of garrison-capped waiters hustles all day long, fetching customers’ preferred cuts (lean or fatty, organs, entrails, tongue, a nip of skin). You cut the spice with a sweet, tea-like brew called tepache, lightly fermented and served at room temperature. Neophytes start with one dainty glass; I’ve come to love it in half-litre doses.

Duck behind the produce sections to reach Jamaica’s mind-boggling flower market. Dodging carts and avoiding puddles, explore two aisles jammed with gorgeous, multihued roses, daisies, sunflowers, gerberas, birds of paradise, chrysanthemums, irises, lilies — and that’s before you’ve even got to the houseplants. You’ll see everyone from trendy design types to septuagenarian church ladies and just regular joes loading up on blossoms. Spring for a cheap-but-cheerful vase and brighten your hotel room.

Last stop: avocadoes. Next door to a busy stand serving up delicious squash blossom quesadillas (they’re well worth the wait), lies Viviana Quiroz Hernández’s avocado stand. Somewhere in the centre of this labyrinthine market (after numerous visits I still get lost), her table is spread with hundreds of gorgeous, ripe avocadoes. Daughter Lourdes splits open a sampler for potential customers, tossing out the pit and pinching the fruit. Move in for a bite of luscious, creamy flesh; don’t forget the salt. “This is a market unlike any other,” says Lourdes. “It’s a place where generations have built their lives; I grew up among these stalls. I like the solidarity and the tradition.” 

Market vendors unload piles of of marigold flowers ahead of Day of the Dead festivities.

Photograph by Alamy

Santa María La Ribera

My friend, Mexico City native Jesús Chairez, and I take a Sunday stroll along the Alameda, the tree-lined plaza at the centre of raffish but irresistible Colonia Santa María la Ribera. A mile or so northwest of downtown, the neighbourhood’s streets are lined with a combination of down-at-heel mansions alongside art deco and modernist apartment blocks. Jesús points out the plaza’s famed Kiosco Morisco, a jewel-hued Moorish gazebo that represented Mexico at long-forgotten world’s fairs. No dead relic, today it hosts everything from ballroom dancing and rock gigs to political rallies, rap poetry slams and courting couples. Along the plaza’s edge, crowded sidewalks lead to hipster restaurants plus old standbys, like much-loved Kolobok and its house speciality Russian empanadas. On the western edge of the plaza stands the venerable Museo de Geología, home to dinosaur skeletons, fossils and other curiosities, all displayed in beautiful old-fashioned wood vitrines.

The neighbourhood’s most popular cantina, Salón París, is a glorified proletarian lunchroom. Here, tables are abuzz with every slice of local life. Part of the attraction may be the kitchen’s selection of botanas, surprisingly substantial ‘snacks’ — including Thursday’s succulent chamorro roast pork shank — thrown in for the price of your beer.

The Santa María arts scene is burgeoning at places like the National University’s El Chopo museum, on the district’s eastern edge, a prestigious showcase for the edgiest vanguards. Another standout is Acapulco 62, in the ground floor of a mansion right on the plaza, a new gallery for contemporary painting and photography. 

The plaza beckons once more, as the sun sets. Children shriek and scamper, old folks gossip, teenagers flirt or just hang out; an imposing flock of squawking birds roosts for the night in the surrounding trees. No one is in a rush for Monday to come. “I love it here,” says Jesús. “Night or day, seven days a week, there’s always something fabulous to see.”

 People gather at the Kiosco Morisco, a beautifully intricate structure located in the centre of the main park in Santa María La Ribera.

Photograph by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock

When in Mexico City

Taco omakase
Five-star restaurant Pujol is on every gastronome’s list. Celebrity chef Enrique Olvera applies Nipponese perfection to a dazzling array of flavours and sensations. pujol.com.mx

Riding high
Despite the city’s infernal traffic, local cyclists rejoice at the bike lanes, which are increasing in number. Best of all are riding Sundays (strolling, skating, dog walking) from 8am to 2pm on stately Paseo de la Reforma.

Riviera rediscovered
Don’t miss Diego Rivera’s colossal sculpture of Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, at Chapultepec Park’s Cárcamo de Dolores, a newly restored and dazzling mid-century structure that’s both temple and municipal waterworks. Avenida Rodolfo Neri Vela, Chapultepec Park (second section) 

Street food
Keep your eyes peeled for stands that attract a crush of passers-by. The selection is vast: unending taco varieties, torta-style grilled sandwiches, seafood cocktails, chicken stews and churros both solid and sweet-injected.

Desert dash
Desierto de los Leones National Park, 20 miles southwest of the city centre, is a reserve that surrounds the remains of a colonial-era Discalced Carmelite monastery. Explore the ruins or hike into cool highland glades. Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones; Delegación Álvaro Obregón

How to do it

Journey Latin America offers six days in Mexico City starting from £1,636 per person based on two sharing, including five nights at Hotel Geneve, B&B; a city tour with a visit to the Teotihuacan pyramids; and direct flights from London. 

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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