Saturday, February 21, 2009

Floating Through Mexico City Drinking Cerveza

Our barge had barely pushed away from shore before we were surrounded by other boats, all painted in equally bright colors. On one side, an old woman glided her skiff next to ours to offer roasted corn on a stick, the blackened kernels coated with lime and salt. On the other side, a floating bar sailed by in a canoe. We hailed them and in a flash, two ice-cold cervezas were passed aboard.
Up and down the canal, dozens of boats jockeyed for position, filled with families, children, even a Mariachi band…all enjoying picnic lunches and a relaxing afternoon on the water.
Welcome to Mexico City, a place that many will tell you ranks among the most dangerous urban centers in the world. Well, nonsense. For six days in January 2009 we toured this fascinating city and discovered that it is experiencing a renaissance that makes it rival any capital city of Europe, at a fraction of the price.
Throughout the Centro Histórico (Historic Center) and most popular neighborhoods, the streets are immaculately clean and free from litter, police are found in abundance, illegal vendors that used to line the sidewalks are gone (in many areas replaced with outdoor cafes), and there are even stations providing free bicycles, an attempt to cut down on the city’s legendary pollution. It certainly worked while we were there – from a terrace bar above the Zócalo, the air was so clear we could actually see smoke rising from the city’s still “wide awake” volcano, Popocatépetl, more than 30 miles away.
We rode the Metro, Metro Bus, the new light rail, and deluxe inter-city buses, all of which put many U.S. public transportation systems to shame. But most important, we felt safe and welcomed. Publicity of Mexico’s crime in recent years has hurt tourism, particularly from the United States. At popular areas such as the pyramids of Teotihuacán and the famed National Museum of Anthropology, there were, amazingly, far more French visitors than groups from the U.S. If you overhear English being spoken, it’s as likely to come from a Norwegian tourist as an American.
Which is a shame, because right now Mexico City is one of great travel bargains of the world. Through Expedia, we booked the Hotel Imperial on the Paseo de la Reforma for $60 a night. The first-class, Parisian-style historic hotel, once home to dictator Porfirio Diaz, would go for $200 to $300 a night in any other city. At upscale restaurants, even the legendary Sanborns in the courtyard of a former palace, it’s possible to eat and drink for $10-20 each, while an abundance of equally tasty food can be found in hundreds of taquerias, small restaurants and bakeries for a couple of dollars.
One thing hasn’t changed, Mexico City still offers the most amazing collection of architecture and history in all the Americas.

Touring Historic Mexico City
Start at the Zócalo, allegedly the second largest city square in the world after Red Square in Moscow. Just northeast of the square is Templo Mayor, the literal “center of the universe” of the Aztec civilization. This is thought to be where the Aztecs saw a vision of an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its beak – the symbol of Mexico today. In 1325, they began construction of a temple here, enlarging it over time, often accompanied by human sacrifices, with as many as 20,000 sacrificial victims occurring in a four-day period.
Cortes and the Spaniards had the temple torn down in the 1520s and the stones were used to build the plaza, a palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral that now ring the square. The huge Mexican flag in the center of the Zócalo is lowered each day in a ceremony worth viewing at 6 p.m. Grab a beer at La Terraza del Conquistador, one of a half dozen outdoor terrace bars overlooking the plaza. The view is great and four beers were $9.
The 34-block neighborhood around the Zócalo contains 1,500 historic buildings and has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. In recent years, politicians have placed a huge emphasis on this area, cleaning up the buildings, adding dramatic lighting and widening sidewalks. Restaurants, hotels and clubs have moved in. It in the daytime, it is a swirling mass of humanity and fun to discover its many treasures of old wooden doors and incredible stone carvings. At night, the crowds thin, but we found numerous police patrolling the area on foot.
For a beer, stop in La Opera Bar on Av 5 de Mayo and ask them to point out the bullet hole in the ceiling, put there by Panco Villa.
And don’t miss Plaza Garibaldi a few blocks away. This is Mexico City’s center for mariachis. From 8 p.m. on, the square and surrounding bars are filled with dozens of mariachi groups. Cars pull up to hire the bands to play a song for them for birthdays and special occasions. It’s a wild scene, with little outdoor bars selling shots of tequila. The best bar here is Tenampa. Opened in 1925, the walls are covered with Art Deco murals of famous mariachi singers, there’s a band playing continuously….and they have Bohemia dark on tap, a rarity in Mexico City.
Paseo de la Reforma is the city’s principal tree-lined thoroughfare, packed with impressive modern skyscrapers and towering monuments and fountains. As you get closer to Chapultepec Park, there are numerous free bike stations where you can get a bike, helmet and lock for exploring what is called “the lungs” of city -- its largest park.
Chapultepec “castle” was the residence of Emperor Maximilian in 1864 and the site of a battle with U.S. troops in 1847. The history museum has everything from Santa Ana’s wooden leg to the famous portrait of revolutionary leader Zapata, but (for American Civil War buffs) is disappointingly short on exhibits about what is called “the American Invasion.”
The jewel of Mexico City, the Museum of Anthropology, is a short walk away and every bit deserving of its fame as one of the great museums of the world. The great Aztec calendar (seen on everything from kitchen magnets to silver jewelry) is here, but what they don’t tell you is that it’s 20-feet in diameter. It was actually built to be a floor where gladiator fights would take place. The feather headdress that Montezuma gave to Cortez is also a knockout.
Surrounding the park to the north is Polanco, the “Beverly Hills” of Mexico City with upscale shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes.

Excursions from Mexico City
Hotels can offer tours to the pyramids of Teotihuacán or if you want more time there, it’s just as economical to take a cab. Conventional advice is to never hail a cab on the street nor take the cabs that wait outside restaurants. There have been instances of people being robbed in cabs hailed this way. Instead, have your hotel arrange a cab for you, often with English speaking drivers. For two of us, our hotel-arranged-cab took us to both entrances at the pyramids (50 km away) and waited four hours while we explored them for $35 a piece.
Most people assume the pyramids were built by Aztecs, but actually they are much older, the largest – the Piramide del Sol (the third highest pyramid in the world) was finished in AD 150. The museum here is terrific and the view from the top of the pyramids is worth the effort to climb them.
At 15 cents, Mexico City’s Metro is a bargain of a ride, though it can be overwhelmingly crowded. Use common sense. Don’t carry a lot of cash or credit credits, keep your wallet in a pocket with your hand on it, and if the cars are overcrowded, let a few trains go by. Passengers come in waves, so while one car is over-packed, we often found the next train or the one after that to be nearly empty and with seats available. The Metro makes it easy to explore places like Coyoacán, once an outlying colonial-era village with cobblestone streets, now just a few metro stops from the center of the city. The Frida Kahlo museum is here in the house where she was born, lived and died. It’s beautifully done, but there is not much in English so the more you know about her beforehand, the better. The gift shop has her work printed on every imaginable souvenir.
Day trips or overnight excursions to further attractions are easy to arrange on deluxe buses. We took one to the mountain silver-mining town of Taxco (100 miles away) for just $9. The Volvo bus had both men and ladies rooms on board, reclining seats and dvds.
Taxco is a dream of a town with whitewashed buildings covered in flowers climbing up a mountainside. The Parroquia de Santa Prisca, one of the most famous churches in Mexico, is in the center square, and the town has literally hundreds of silver shops. John Kennedy stopped here on his honeymoon. The streets and alleys of the town are a maze, lined with fruit markets, and the higher you climb, the most spectacular the views. We got a hotel off the center square with two balconies for $42. La Parroquia is the best rooftop bar.
And the modern light rail system makes it easy to get to the floating gardens of Xochimilco. Mexico City was originally built on a lake with canals between islands. Some 180 km of waterways still exist. On weekends, thousands of families rent a colorful barge and hold picnics on board, as pilots negotiate the boats using long polls to push them up the canal, past party boats of floating mariachis. We boarded one for about $20 for two hours….a perfect way to end a surprisingly relaxing stay in the world’s third largest city.

IF YOU GO TO: Mexico City
While there is a wealth of information for free on the Web, it is well worth $19.99 to buy Lonely Planet’s Mexico City Guide, which contains maps and a complete history in English of everything you’ll see. Nearly every tourist we encountered was carrying a copy of this, or the larger complete Mexico volume. Mexico City’s official Web site is: http://www.mexicocity.gob.mx/index.php?idioma=en
Web site for Mexico is: http://www.visitmexico.com/

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