The first thing that you notice when you land in Mexico City is how it stretches on and on in every direction and the grey smog that sits over large parts of it. So Delhi. But the Mexican capital has so much to offer that you quickly shake off the déjà vu. While Cancun and Cabo feel like extensions of America—beach towns tailor-made to cater to the dollar tourist—Mexico City is the place to mingle with locals, find food distinctly different from the Tex-Mex fare served at Mexican restaurants the world over, and discover that distinctly spicy national flavour in everything from beer to ice cream.
Mexico City is a great mix of the new, the old and the ancient. In the capital city, the Zócalo (the generic name for the open square that every Mexican town has at its centre) is surrounded by Spanish-era cathedrals, presidential palaces, and the ruins of ancient Aztec temples unearthed just a few decades ago. It is also ringed by fashion stores, bars, coffee shops, American fast food chains and at the Metropolitan Cathedral, a fairly new statue of Pope John Paul II made from keys donated by Mexicans after he visited.
The Palacio de la Bella Artes, Mexico City Museum, National Palace and the extremely ornate head post office are also within walking distance of the Zócalo, as are the artisan’s market and a flea market. There are many street food options including fresh fruit, tacos and corn-based dishes, and you will find some of the most laidback bars at Calle Regina, a pedestrian street about half a kilometre from the Zócalo. The historical centre gets very crowded, so steer clear. The chic neighbourhoods of Condesa and La Roma are where youngsters hang out. Both districts have plenty of parks. All along Calle Amsterdam are restaurants offering both local and international fare, specialty mescal bars and trendy pubs and nightclubs. La Roma is a neighbourhood that is excellent for graffiti spotting.
If you are in the mood for more museums, visit Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s private Museo Soumaya, housed in futuristic buildings designed by local architect Fernando Romero. Named after Slim’s late wife, this museum displays Slim’simpressive collection of 66,000 artworks, from local Mexican art to works by the Masters. No trip to Mexico City is complete without a visit to Frida Kahlo’s residence and museum at La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, in the popular Coyoacan area. Coyoacan is also famous for its marketplace, which is a one-stop-shop for any tourist on a food or souvenir hunt. Before you head out of Mexico City, make sure you go for a live performance of Lucha Libre, which is the more fun Mexican version of WWE. It is quite something to watch wrestlers flying around the rings, pulling off extremely agile moves.
Mexico City is ideally located for day trips. Its expanse means that a lot of interesting places are just an hour away by Metro and public bus. One such option is the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, dubbed ‘the pyramids’ by English-speaking tourists. The pyramids are actually temples that are part of an architecturally significant ancient Mesoamerican city, thought to be the largest of its time—almost 2,000 years ago—in the region. There are also fascinating family compounds and murals that shed light on life in A.D. 1 in this part of the world.
A more relaxing day trip from Mexico City is to Xochimilco, where you get off a bus and get into a boat to visit floating markets and see the city from its canals. A trip to Xochimilco is incomplete without a visit to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which is usually included in all package tours. If history, museums and markets get boring, head to Nevado de Toluca, just 80kilometres from the capital, where you can hike up an extinct volcano and also find yourself on the country’s fourth highest peak. Climb the various craters at the Nevado and build up a stock of Instagram pictures as you discover one beautiful spot after another. Some of the craters are so tourist-friendly that one can actually slide down them and create new hashtags for close encounters with volcanoes.
Oaxaca, compared to Mexico City, is much calmer and less congested. However, rush hour traffic here too is bumper-to-bumper. That said, the centre of the city around the Zócalo is more pedestrian friendly, and discovering the city’s museums, old churches, and cathedrals (especially the main one, Our Lady of the Assumption) on foot is a sheer joy. As you walk past pretty, colourful colonial houses, you are likely to find many people stopping and posing for pictures. Oaxaca is famous for its museums, art and, more recently, cuisine. Top chefs, including those with Michelin stars, make regular trips to Oaxaca to add to their culinary skills and menus. For good and clean food options in Oaxaca City, Mercado Benito Juarez is where you want to be.
Situated in a valley, it is also ideal for day trips to stunning locations. At Monte Albán, just 10 km from central Oaxaca, are the ruins of an ancient city of the Zapotec civilization. The ruins are extremely well preserved and it takes little imagination to picture what an advanced civilization it was based merely on their planning and layout. Monte Albán is easily accessible by car, bus and shared cab. But the more fun way is to run up to the archaeological site, which involves running through Oaxaca city for 5 kilometres followed by a constant climb of another 5 kilometres. Hydrate yourself with the ice-cold horchata being sold by local vendors before entering the Zapotec-era city. Of the other day trip options, my personal favourite is the hour-long drive to Mitla (more ancient ruins) and from there another half-an-hour up to Hierve el Agua. A hidden spot, Hierve el Agua is actually pretty popular, and rightfully so: not too many places can boast a natural infinity pool on top of a mountain. There are plenty of food and drinks options, mostly street vendors, at Hierve el Agua and after all the trekking that you’ve done to reach it, the food and drink taste divine. For other interesting hikes, hit up Hoofing it in Oaxaca (www.hoofingitinoaxaca.com), which organises treks from November through March when the weather is the best.
From tacos and quesadillas to soup and black beans; from rice to fresh, pop-coloured tropical fruit, this is a world of tongue-tickling adventures. In Mexico City, fully loaded huaraches, gorditas and crunchy tostadas are hot favourites.
Huaraches are extra-large tortillas piled with heaps of cheese, vegetables, and a meat of your choice cooked together. These are served on large platters with sides of fresh tomatoes and cucumber, jalapeños and a choice of salsas. Gorditas are tortilla stuffed with meat, vegetables and cheese; in essence, stuffed parathas. A more convenient version of tacos, they do not spill over when you bite into them. One of the best places in Mexico City to chomp on gorditas and huaraches is the hippy Coyoacan market. When it comes to tacos, there is a huge variety to choose from around every corner. Try tacos with black corn tortillas wherever you find them—they are deliciously different. The most fun element in all of these dishes is the wide range of salsas — from the mild jalapeño to the extremely hot Habanero— that you can find at each taco cart. Most vendors make their own salsa, hence it tastes different everywhere. One fish taco chain, El Pescadito with branches across Mexico City, stands out with its fish-only options. It operates between 7:30 a.m. and 3:40 p.m., serving breakfast, brunch and lunch only. Don’t be surprised to find locals, office executives in suits, expats and travellers standing in a queue patiently as they wait their turn to place orders and find a seat. There are enough options for vegetarians too, such as the local cactus called nopales, which is cooked and used as a filling for tacos, gorditas and tlayudas. One can also choose from mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes, spring onions, spinach and other greens. Tlayuda, Oaxaca’s signature dish, appears finely constructed compared to the messy huaraches. A large tortilla, about the same size as a medium pizza, is warmed on a flat pan and a layer of black bean paste is distributed evenly on top of it. Your chosen fillings are spread across the entire disc, which is topped off with Oaxaca’s local stringy cheese, folded into half, cooked a little longer, and served with salsas and fresh salad. For dessert, trade the overly sweet candied fruits for the local ice creams and paletas (popsicles) at La Michoacana in Mexico City. Do not pass on the pineapple popsicle, with fat chunks of the fruit and red chili powder.
Erase from your head popular images of Corona, Coronita (frozen margarita with a mini Corona poured into it) and tequila shots. Instead, find your Mexican spirit in the gem of a spicy beer cocktail called michelada. The simplest way to describe it is as a spicy Bloody Mary with beer instead of vodka. If you are a beer purist, there are a whole lot of local lagers like Modelo, Tecate and Dos Equis to pick from, and a growing craft beer scene in the big cities. Both Mexico City and Oaxaca offer several tours of mescal factories, where the specialty distilled spirit, made from agave plants, is processed. These include walking through the factory, an explanation of the mescal making process and a short tasting session.
Keep orange slices and a salt-chili mixture within your reach as you raise your glass to “Salud.” Should a mescal daze take over, you’ll know it’s just another day in Mexico.
Shrenik Avlani is a newsroom veteran on a break from full-time work since 2012. He uses his newfound freedom to travel, get fit and undertakes odd jobs, including writing, to pay his credit card bills on time.