Mexico City

I arrived in Mexico City feeling excited and positive about the city. I had come to believe the city’s scary reputation no longer held true – the Distrito Federale (‘DF’ for short) has managed to clean up its act over the last decade or so to an impressive degree, clamping down on a lot of the street crime that once made the metropolis a dicey destination for visitors and locals alike. But to outsiders, its crime infested image still persists, and Ben still had dire warnings of robbery and kidnapping swirling through his head when we touched down at the airport, having so far only spent time in relaxed, unintimidating Baja California.

Well, in four nights in the city, we walked the streets day and night, rode the metro everywhere, hailed cabs off the street at all hours, and followed some locals to some kind of crazy warehouse party (I’m still not sure WTF was going on in there?), all without getting stabbed, shot, abducted or forcibly relieved of any of our possessions. I’m definitely not saying all of these activities are 100% safe, but we had fun doing them, and never once felt threatened.

So, with that out of the way… Mexico City is fabulous. We’ve been staying in the Roma Sur neighbourhood in the spare room of a house full of artists – painters, sculptors, street performers. There are numerous artists’ enclaves in the DF, with many houses like the one we stayed in – liveable and lived-in exhibition spaces and drop-in centres for young artists from all over the city, the country and around the world.

On our second day in the DF we visit the outlying suburb of Coyoacan, probably the most famous hotspot for artists, since here you’ll find the casa azul (‘blue house’) where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera once lived. Coyoacan is one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods we’ve visited, with wide, café-lined European style streets, leafy avenues and colourful splashes of street art everywhere. The Coyoacan food market perfectly reflects Mexico City’s insane street food obsession, with endless places to try fresh produce and eat fresh-cooked traditional fare.

Our food-themed explorations continued with a 9 course degustation at Mexico’s most famous fine dining establishment, Pujol, in the upscale district of Polanco. Every plate was rooted in Mexican tradition yet unique and inventively presented. Indulgent and educational. The best dishes of the night were the baby corns in an intense, complex sauce that included chipotle, coffee and powdered ants, a whole chilli (far too spicy to be served in a normal ‘tourist’ restaurant) stuffed with sailfish tartare and the incredibly moreish ‘kale chicharron’ (really just super crispy deep fried kale – the secret to not making kale taste like bitter arse!). All washed down with a bottle of excellent Spanish red.
Getting around Mexico City has been pretty easy – transport is good and on the whole people are very patient when dealing with our dreadful broken Spanish. In general, very little English is spoken, but most of our contact with people ends with congenial smiles despite the language barrier.

It’s even pretty clean as far as big cities go (in the nicer neighbourhoods at least). It’s just the chilly July rainstorms in the evening and the cracked, uneven pavement that turn the streets into a muddy mess. Mexico City is essentially built on a filled-in swamp, and it’s also extremely earthquake prone (Ben reckons he felt a tremor while sitting on the throne) – and as a result the city is slowly sinking, and most of the buildings are visibly wonky. Mexico City has both scruffy charm and immense artistic beauty. It’s more liveable than the uninitiated might expect, and easier to love than we ever imagined.