The Magic of Mexico City
Days 342-344 (July 5-7, 2017):
In the wee hours of the morning, we said good-bye to Smo at the airport as she boarded a plane bound for the U.S. and we boarded one headed for Mexico. We were starting the last country of our trip in the capital of Mexico City. After a brief layover in Panama, we exited the airport and hopped in a cab to the city center. We were staying at a hostel right on the Zocalo or Plaza de la Constitución, across from the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (yea, it’s a mouthful). Adam and I arrived a couple hours before check-in, so we dropped our bags and headed out into the city to get some grub. We found a little place down the street and settled into plastic chairs to enjoy our first taste of authentic Mexican cuisine. And let me tell you it did not disappoint. You will have to forgive me if I speak of food a lot in my remaining posts, but of all the countries we visited this year, Mexico’s food was some of the best I had. I cannot even tell you the name of the first dish we tried, as I had not heard of it before, but the owner recommended it and it reminded a bit of fajitas which we loaded into blue corn tortillas and slathered with homemade red and green salsas. We washed the meal down with some beer and gushed over our excitement at being in Mexico. After we finished, we went back to the hostel, checked-in, and promptly passed out. We were both super tired, not having gotten much sleep on the plane ride. We were awoken a few hours later by a familiar sight. Our friend Snyder from home had finally arrived. Stoked to see him, we got up and hugged and swapped stories of our travels here (his were pretty harrowing). After he settled in, we decided that we should once again go and get some food – notice a theme here – and set off into the city. It was dark out now, and the Zocalo was practically deserted. Minus the police. There were police patrolling all over the city center, and we did not at all feel unsafe walking at night. I had been warned that parts of Mexico City could be rough and a couple of family members were worried about us even going there, but I found the city to be just like every other big city we visited: while there are bad neighborhoods you should avoid (and locals, hosts, and other friends will more than likely tell you where those are), most of the city is safe as long as you aren’t acting a fool. So, we walked to another local restaurant and got some more food. Adam and Snyder got enchiladas and I got some delicious tostadas, once again swigging down some cold Tecates with it. We opted to take it kind of easy that night, settling for ending the evening at the bar on the roof of our hostel, looking out over the city.
The next morning we decided to take part in a free walking tour of the city. While waiting for it to begin, we began talking with a German girl named Eva. She became an instant friend and hung out with us for the rest of our stay in Mexico City and later in Oaxaca. We had a great time on the tour exploring the Metropolitan Cathedral, Palacio del Belles Artes, national history museum, national palace, Zocalo, Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Palacio de Correos de Mexico (palace post office), and several neighborhoods near the center. The tour also did a very good job at explaining some of the traditional customs associated with Mexican quinceañeras. This included taking us into a district that sold the dresses. And let me tell you, there were just shops and shops full of the biggest, poofiest, most rhinestone-covered and glamorous looking gowns I have ever seen. They were truly unique. We also went into a giant famous bakery called Pasteleria Ideal and headed for the second floor where they sold quince cakes, all of which were huge, but some of which were twelve tiers and taller than my head by at least a couple feet. I was stunned they could construct these behemoths and shocked people could eat that much cake at one party. But as our guide explained, quinceañeras were serious business in Mexico. After the tour ended, we grabbed some tacos al pastor at a small shop called El Huequito I found recommended on a blog as a “best street food” locale. Once again, I was in heaven enjoying the taco invented right there in Mexico City. After lunch we decided to hop in an Uber to the Chapultepec Park where we made the short hike up the hill to Chapultepec Castle. We spent a decent chunk of time wandering through the castle, learning about its history and snapping pictures of its amazing rooftop garden and the surrounding views of the city. We even got to bear witness to a marriage proposal. Eventually, we made our way back down the hill and decided to walk back, rather than take another Uber. Along the way, we decided that tonight was going to be the night for a fancy meal. We decided on a restaurant called the Azul Condesa, which was recommended by a friend. Overall we thought the meal was okay, the guacamole topped with toasted crickets being the highlight, but the staff was somewhat rude and we had honestly found better food from smaller street vendors. Full but a bit disappointed, we made our way back to the hostel. Adam, Snyder, and Eva decided they were ready for a night on the town and headed out in search of cheap beer and a good vibe. However, I was ready for a night in my bed, so I headed straight for my bunk and curled up under the covers.
The next day was my favorite in Mexico City. It was food tour day. By researching review sites, blogs, and other sources, I compiled a list of a dozen or so street food places Adam, Snyder, and I were going to hit up as we made our way around the city. Our first stop turned out to be real highlight. We stopped in at an unassuming place called Tacos de Canasta los Especiales. They specialized in, you could have guessed it, tacos de canasta, or basket tacos. Basket tacos are taco prepared in large batches with basic ingredients such as refried beans, chicharron with salsa verde, and meat with adobo sauce that are folded up and stored together in large baskets so the heat from all of them steams the tortilla a bit. We made our selections, topped them with pickled peppers and carrots and a homemade spicy avocado salsa verde and enjoyed. For six pesos a piece (about $0.33), they were pretty much unbeatable. Our next stop was a small cart on the street called El Caguamo specializing in seafood tostadas. This was one of my personal favorite stops of the day. The woman working the cart was incredibly nice and allowed us to try all of the different topping on crackers before we made our selections. We ended up splitting a shrimp and two ceviche tostadas, all served with lime and topped with avocado. They tasted amazingly fresh and light, and I was instantly in love with their acidity and creaminess. It was heaven. Already needing a tiny break from eating, Snyder grabbed a coffee and we took a decent stroll around the neighborhood. Along the way, we walked past an interesting looking building that appeared to be open. We wandered inside and found that it was a library. What was interesting about this library was that the entire inside was covered with murals depicting modern political views, historical events, and culturally significant shapes and images. The librarians allowed us to wander around taking some pictures of the place, taking in the high ceilings, spiral staircase, and crazy colors.
After our brief stop, we continued on with the food tour. Our next stop was to try tortas, or Mexican style sandwiches, at a place called Tortas Been. This was one of Snyder’s favorites. We decided to split the torta pavo ahumado, or smoked turkey sandwich, and torta de pierna, or roasted pork leg sandwich. While we sat at the cart, shoveling the sandwiches into our mouths Adam and Snyder made friends with an older Mexican woman in broken Spanish. We got a picture of the place before heading out. Our next locale was a hole in the wall place on the second floor of a kind of sketch looking building called Pozole Doña Yoli. We were going to try a red pozole, a traditional Mexican stew made with hominy, chicken, chiles, and broth. It was delicious. The three of us were able to split one giant bowl of it. The flavor was very rich, acidic, and warming. We knew it was a good local spot when a group of police officers walked in to have lunch there. Afterwards, our bellies were once again full. So, we decided to make our way over to the National Palace to see a mural called the History of Mexico by Diego Rivera, famous muralist and Frida Kahlo’s husband. The streets along the way back to the Zocalo were filled with people creating a fun but chaotic scene as we navigated our way through the streets. When we got to the palace, they allowed us in for free so long as we left an ID with them (we used a driver’s license just to be safe). We found our way to the stairwell where the mural was painted and took it in. The painting was incredible. He managed to blend Mexico’s history into a single scene that changed slowly as you looked from the left side to the right side. The colors he used were very vibrant and you could feel the emotions he was trying to convey with each character as stared at it. I thought it was well worth the stop. Also while there, we walked up to the second floor and explored more murals and an exhibit on Mexico’s history, as well as taking in the architecture of the building and the grounds of the palace.
After leaving the palace, we got an Uber to the neighborhood of La Roma where we met up with Eva. She was going to join us as we sought out some delicious carnitas at a place called La Reina de la Roma. We ordered a half pound of the meat, which came with tortillas, salsa, onion, lime, and sautéed vegetables. We feasted street side and downed a couple of cold beers with our food. Absolute perfection. We left the restaurant and went in search of more goodies, but came up empty handed a couple of times as the vendors had moved or closed. However, we did manage to get our hands on some Tlacoyos, thicker, football shaped corn tortilla pockets stuffed with cheese or beans and topped with napoles (cactus), salsa, and avocado. To round out the tour, we headed back into the city center and back to a bakery we had visited on our tour called Pasteleria Ideal. The common practice when going into this enormous bakery is to grab a tray and wander around selecting different pastries, cakes, tarts, and other desserts and loading your tray full of them. The four of us picked out four desserts, and then carried our selections to one of the many counters for purchase. The desserts were one of more expensive food-related purchases of the day, but a worthy way to cap off our tour as we strolled back to the hostel. Having gained several pounds, we took turns napping and showering and getting ready for the night’s activities.
That evening we signed up with the hostel to go to see Lucha Libre, a traditional Mexican wrestling match where the wrestlers wear these masked you may have seen in such awful movies as Nacho Libre. Buying tickets with the hostel meant we got three free shots of Mescal with them on top of the beers we purchased so we were feeling very nice by the time the group headed out. The area is in a sort of sketch part of town, so we were happy to be with a large group. We waited outside for the gates to open. Adam left the line to go find a bathroom and had not returned when we were being filed in past security. I kept trying to get in touch with him as the show began. Eventually, he called me back and explained he was just too intoxicated to stay out any longer and had called an Uber. Snyder, Eva, and I stayed for the beginning of the match. It reminded me a bit of WWE with the different “characters” including one who was supposed to represent Donald Trump who then promptly got the snot kicked out of him in the ring. I began to feel bad about Adam, however, and told the others I too was going to head back. They insisted on coming with me, so we all took an Uber back to the hostel. I checked on Adam, who was not a very happy camper, but would recover fully with a night’s sleep. Snyder, Eva, and I headed back out, not ready to call it a night. We had some beers at a local place not too far from the hostel. We also enjoyed some tequila shots chased with lime juice and then tomato juice at the bartender’s insistence. Man was it good. I never would have thought to do a tequila shot like that, but I certainly will again. We talked and listened to the music before eventually calling it a night. The next morning Snyder, Adam, and I were leaving the city to see what else Mexico had to offer.