Jaime Camil's Guide to Mexico City
Jaime Camil rounds up his favorite hometown haunts.
As is often the case these days, the love affair started online.
I’d been clicking through user reviews and Top 10 lists trying to find a vacation destination for my sister and me. We’ve already been around the world together, so it was a challenge to find something that felt new and also met our appetite for adventure, creativity and imagination.
During my search, I received an email from my friend Becca, suggesting we try Mexico City. As a child, she’d spent summers in the city’s Coyoacán neighborhood near the Blue House, where artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera once lived. Becca told me her mother has vivid memories of the couple painting outside.
Frida probably wouldn’t recognize her hometown today, Becca said. The city has become a collage of cultures — aristocratic European influences and ancient traditions combined with an uprising of urban art and global culinary talent.
I’ve traveled through Mexico City several times on my way to other parts of the country, but I’ve never taken the time to explore the city, mainly because of its reputation as being polluted, overcrowded and overrun with crime.
But in 2014, Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, committed $13.8 billion to the country’s infrastructure, aiming to make Mexico a global player in tourism by upgrading airports, roads and cruise ports, along with public spaces and cultural institutions. Mexico City saw urban renewal on a grand scale — it now has more than 150 museums and has gained a reputation as one of the burgeoning culinary centers in the Americas. Mexico City is also, as I was about to find out, a surprisingly welcoming destination for the solo traveler.
As is so often the case with the best-laid plans, mine went awry when my sister informed me she’d be delayed for two days. Not willing to waste precious vacation time holed up in a hotel, I set off to explore on my own.
The first day, I woke up at dawn and, in full-on tourist mode, boarded a bus headed north to Teotihuacan, the ancient Mesoamerican settlement that mysteriously emptied around A.D. 600. Archaeologists have a theory that the city-state experienced internal civil unrest and lengthy droughts that eventually led to its collapse. By the time the Aztecs arrived in the 13th century, even local memory of the ancient Mesoamericans had been lost and the Aztecs assumed the city had been created by the gods.
As we left the city center, the bustling traffic and vibrant street murals fell away, and the vastness of Mexico City revealed itself. For about an hour, the bus passed rolling hills covered in brightly colored cinder-block homes. When we arrived at Teotihuacan, I was struck by the grandeur of the preserved, almost pristine site, anchored by two massive pyramids believed by the Aztecs to be the birthplace of the sun and the moon.
Thankfully, I’d booked an early tour, so I was able to stroll through the main thoroughfare, eerily titled “Avenue of the Dead” — the Aztecs thought the ruins alongside the avenue looked like tombs — virtually alone, taking my time to examine the carvings of serpents and the bulging eyes of the god of wind at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.
I ambled up and down the hundreds of steep steps of the Pyramid of the Sun. The sun was at the center of Aztec theology, and people still honor the ancient ritual of gathering here at noon during the spring equinox to receive a blessing from the sun as it rises above the pyramid. By the time the tour left, just before noon, the site was packed with tourists, and the temple climbs, tricky enough without the crowds, looked treacherous.
If Teotihuacan is the “place where the gods were created,” Mexico City gives itself over to more earthly pleasures. In recent years, the city has gained a reputation as a gourmet hot spot, thanks to celebrated chefs including Daniel Ovadia, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and Enrique Olvera.
That night, I headed out for a self-guided tasting tour. First stop: the swanky Polanco neighborhood and Olvera’s Pujol restaurant, which is consistently ranked on the San Pellegrino list of the best restaurants in the world. The minimalist, modern dining room was packed with well-dressed people seated around square and circular tables. On the plate, bone-marrow tamales; suckling-pig tacos and “street snacks” of grasshopper salsa; huitlacoche (corn fungus) and powdered ants represent Olvera’s take on the traditional Mexican fare of his childhood. The salsa was spicy and tangy; the huitlacoche salty and addictive.
Next, I headed to Rosetta. Not far from Pujol and housed in a grand Belle Époque mansion, Rosetta is owned by Elena Reygadas, a chef trained in New York and London, and is a San Pellegrino favorite. Lush plants, pastel hues and stencil art on the walls define the dining space. The rotating menu combines Italian fare and regionally inspired dishes like roasted piglet with rose mole sauce. I savored each morsel of the homemade pasta and veal ragout, which rivaled anything I’ve had in Rome.
Despite its increasingly upscale dining scene, Mexico City is still the place to throw street-meat caution to the wind on a local taco tour (ask your hotel concierge for recommendations). Note: When Mexicans say tacos, it’s probably not what you think. There is no crispy shell, no orange cheese, no lettuce or tomatoes and not a dollop of sour cream in sight. There is, however, pulled pork or stewed beef, crumbly queso fresco, cilantro, chopped onions, avocados and a variety of homemade salsas on a soft tortilla — often sold from rickety stalls and from the back of pickup trucks. It may sound a little sketchy, but the stands and trucks have been here for -generations. All the components are homemade, and when the food is gone, the stands close.
I concluded my tour the following afternoon at El Parnita, an antojeria serving traditional street fare in a bistro setting. The crowd was urbane and the wait staff was friendly (read: patient with my pidgin Español).
I sat at the end of a long communal table and ordered four kinds of tacos, the ceviche of the day and a juicy pork torta. I ate it all and then ordered a dulce de leche-esque dessert. It was that good. To ward off a food coma, I strolled past the gleaming skyscrapers and trendy cafés of Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s main thoroughfare, on the way to Parque Chapultepec, one of the largest parks in the Western Hemisphere. The 1,700 acres house a handful of museums — including the National Museum of Anthropology, filled with rare 16th-century artifacts — the national cemetery, a castle, a zoo, several outdoor cafés and open markets.
Strolling under huge ahuehuete trees in the oldest section of the park, I passed families mingling among the park’s many bookshops, coffeehouses and street stalls; couples flirting on benches; children posing for photos with face-painted performers; and some people, like me, just losing themselves in the moment.
As the sun began to set, I made my way out of the park and came across Mexican artist Jorge Marín’s sculpture of two bronze wings, spread as if in flight. Part of the former exhibit “Wings of the City,” Marín’s art is a perfect metaphor for a city beginning to soar. Looking up at those wings, I was reminded of Becca’s description of Mexico City as “a life force.”
That night, when my sister finally arrived, she asked if everything was OK — if I was all right after being in the city alone. I laughed. I was more than all right. I was in love.
This charming colonial neighborhood has several parks and museums, including the Frida Kahlo Museum. Head to Calle Malintzin market for lunch and grab a tostada from one of the locals’ favorite restaurants, Tostadas Coyoacán.
Resident Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world, built this museum to house the artwork he has collected (including murals by Diego Rivera and bronze casts of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta”). Entrance is free. Museosoumaya.com
The ultimate in Mexican entertainment, Lucha Libre bouts take place at the Arena Mexico in Mexico City on Tuesday and Friday nights. The events include a lot of hair pulling, women in bikinis, men in singlets, screaming and vows of vengeance. You know, a typical Friday night.
Located in the hip Roma area of town, this food market, comprised of about 60 vendors, is reminiscent of Chelsea Market in New York City. Arrive hungry and take your time roaming the aisles, picking up tacos, tortas, tlayudas (a version of a Mexican pizza) and pozoles — a spicy, hearty soup — from the stands. When you’re done eating, head to the rooftop Biergarten Roma for a cerveza with German treats (bratwurst, salty pretzels) while overlooking the town. Mercadoroma.com
Situated in the historic Roma neighborhood, this intimate bar has an art gallery on the second floor, a retractable roof in the courtyard and huge windows and balconies that open onto the street below. It’s the chic new spot for people watching and sipping potent libations. Blancocolima.com
This cocktail lounge opened earlier this year in the Four Seasons hotel, headed by master mixologist Mica Rousseau. It’s the place to see and be seen lounging by the fire on a plush sofa or outside in the courtyard. Order from the tequila and mezcal list or have Rousseau mix up one of his creations: the Louis XIV, with Johnnie Walker Gold, citrus bitters and chamomile tea; the Bugs Bunny, with Tanqueray gin, carrot juice and three chiles bitters; or Rousseau’s interpretation of a classic, the Inside Manhattan, with bourbon, vermouth and Angostura bitters. Fourseasons.com/mexico/dining/lounges/fifty_mils/
Located in the historic center of town, Bósforo is a renowned dive bar which specializes in limited-edition bottles of mezcal made by artisanal producers.