Happily ignoring warnings about Mexico City

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Palacio de Bellas Artes in the center of Mexico City (photo by the author)

Happily ignoring warnings on Mexico

(A piece I wrote in January 2014 for the Redding (Calif.) Record-Searchlight)

Don’t go.

Don’t eat the street food.

Don’t take the subway.

About a year ago, when I told family and friends of plans to spend my 60th birthday in Mexico City, that was some of the advice I got. Even some well-traveled folks thought I’d lost my head, or was in danger of losing it, literally (grisly drug cartel murders dominating our news about Mexico).

Mexico City is stereotyped as a sprawling, polluted, crime-ridden mess.

Several business trips — in the late Eighties and in 2001 — had given me glimpses of something much different: a vibrant capital city, the “Chilangos” (slang for Mexico City residents) a hard-working and entrepreneurial people, and a sophisticated arts and culinary scene that rivals Madrid or Berlin.

We ignored all the well-intentioned advice — took the usual precautions (see below) — and had a blast.

Charming walks

Mexico City sprawls, like L.A. but up close it has charming neighborhoods, like Colonia Condesa, where we stayed in the delightful Red Tree House bed-and-breakfast, co-owned by a retired theater instructor at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

We walked through leafy parks with fountains and sculptures, past examples of colonial and Art Deco architecture, and sipped coffee and dined at European-style sidewalk cafes while being serenaded by wandering street musicians.

Street food

Some of the best food we had was sold by vendors on the street or working out of hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Like tacos al pastor, a specialty of Mexico City and a legacy of Lebanese immigrants in the Fifties. Or churros and hot chocolate, a favored early morning or late-night snack.

We loved walking through the colorful food markets — the Mercado San Juan (popular with foodies and chefs) or the sprawling La Merced, a commercial crossroads since the 17th century.

Good, cheap meals can be had at the market. A “comida corrida” comes with soup, rice, an entree, dessert and often a beverage. It will set you back only a few bucks.

By following what I call the “law of crowds” I’ve never gotten sick eating street food. Look for lots of people around a vendor or crowded into one of Mexico City’s “fondas” or “comedores.” High turnover means the food is likely fresh and well-prepared.

Going underground

How to get around this city of 20 million-plus? My first choice is the subway. Sure, it can be crowded at times (great for people watching) but it beats being stuck above ground in a hellacious traffic jam.

Even after a recent big (and controversial) fare increase it’s still a bargain at five pesos (about 40 cents). Most guide books have subway maps and the color-coded system is relatively easy to navigate. (On a business trip once the president of the Mexican Stock Exchange expressed amazement that I’d venture underground; that was for “la gente baja,” the lower classes, he said.)

Some general words of caution: Don’t wear jewelry, lug expensive-looking electronics or flash large amounts of money in public. Leave valuables at home or in your hotel safe.

Keep your money, passport and other important papers in a money belt (not a fanny pack). Be aware of your surroundings, especially at night (that goes for Redding, too.)

Some must-dos

There’s so much to see in Mexico City — a week was hardly enough time.

Some highlights: a performance at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (a wild mix of French Belle Epoque and Art Deco styles with a Tiffany glass stage curtain), Diego Rivera’s famous murals off the Zocalo in the Centro Historico, the “blue” house he shared with Frida Kahlo in Coyoacan, walking around the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, a leisurely “tequila y sangrita” at the landmark Bar la Opera in Centro, the magnificent stained-glass ceilings at the Gran Hotel, the marble, cast iron and brass of the 1907 Correo Nacional (main post office), the must-see Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, one of the world’s great museums. And, of course, the awe-inspiring 2,000-year-old pyramids at Teotihuacan, about 35 miles northeast of the city (have your hotel order a taxi or take a bus from the Terminal Norte).

For some suggested walking tours (and many parts of “D.F.” or “el Distrito Federal,” as Mexico City is known, are walkable), I recommend buying longtime ex-pat Jim Johnston’s slender “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.”

I’ve kept my copy for our next visit. Which I hope will be soon.

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