I was not prepared for Mexico City. I don’t know why, but I had the idea that the sprawling metroplex would be like one of the large Asian cities I had visited with choking pollution, insane traffic, tangles of wires running from building to building in random nests of connectivity, hawkers and street food vendors crowding the sidewalk, a sort of delightful chaos that I love, but is also a little gritty, overwhelming and dangerous.

We avoided the toll roads from Guanajuato to Mexico City, taking the scenic country roads over the mountains instead. We arrived after dark, so it wasn’t until the next morning, waking up in the Centro Historico, next to the Zocalo, when I was met with the reality: a very large version of Madrid. With tacos. We took a turibus around the city… to walk it is impossible, we covered 7 miles in one direction the first day. There are so many city parks, the buses have recently switched to biofuel, there’s a new city bike program that just started and the streets are often lined with trees. There’s historical monuments, sky-high statues in the middle of roundabouts, but also modern architecture, art, and the old estates – giant houses that have been preserved, and seem to just exist between skyscrapers, the remains of what Mexico City used to look like.

Why had I avoided coming here so long? I think the lingering impression that it would be too overwhelming, too polluted, and not enough to see. Instead, I found a beautiful city that was relatively easy to navigate, with lots of museums and neighborhoods worth exploring, amazing food at all levels from their nearly endless street food to their world-class restaurants.

Hmm. Mexico City, who knew?

Some photos:

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I was surprised by the amount of green.

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Or the fact that you’d be walking down a city street and suddenly a beautiful old home like this would appear, plunked down in the middle of everything.

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At night the city is even better.

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Especially the center.

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But this part of the city seems to shut down completely by 10 PM.

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I am going to write more about the food, but it was fantastic. It’s worthy as a culinary destination for so many reasons. I would love to live here just for that. There’s so many great bakeries too, something we don’t really have in my area on the Pacific coast.

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I was charmed by the architecture.

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I know Mexico City isn’t Madrid, but sometimes you can’t even tell the difference. I think it’s a good shorthand for describing it, because at least for me, the expectations and reality are so conflicting.

Also, we had our first introduction to the protests that are going on right now across Mexico. We were warned to avoid Morelia because there were some issues there (locals are angry that the government isn’t providing more security so they took up arms and became vigilantes, until the federal government stepped in) but there’s also a separate issue with labor reforms. We came across the downtown encampment:

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Later when I was looking through my photos (I think the one below is the Bella Artes, correct me if that’s not right) and I noticed I had accidently caught one of the signs for the protest. It says, “No a la Reforma Laboral, Señores Legisladores: Basta de reformas a la constitution en beneficio de unos cuantos. No al marco juridico a conaculta trabajadores in Bellas Artes.”

Which basically says, No to the Labor Reforms, Members of the Legislature: Stop the constitutional reforms that benefit only a few. No to the legal framework for the conaculta workers in the Bella Artes (Conaculta is the acronym in Spanish for the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes or the National Council for Culture and the Arts). I asked a local why the government was taking away benefits from workers and he said, “Because the government is assholes.” Well there you go.

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Mexican SWAT team members (or equivalent) watch passively.

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For the most part though, it was entirely possible to not notice the protests. Considering the size of the city and country, it was a really small group, contained around a single monument. Elsewhere, the city continued as usual.

By the way, here is the eco-friendly bicycle program I mentioned (there are also biodiesel buses as well).

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The city caught me entirely off-guard. It had never been on my list, despite my love of Mexico and art and food. I need to spend a few weeks here some time and just tour all the museums. Oh and probably eat my weight in street food. More on that in the next post.

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