Sure you can OD on straw sombreros, tequila and enchiladas. But to get a real taste of this richly diverse and incredibly colourful city, you need this guide
Mixed parentage has lent the city a wild and untamed beauty. Mixed forms of architecture are commercial buildings today, and all the more interesting because centuries of culture surround you as you shop. Don’t miss Art Nouveau motifs at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Baroque influence on the Palacio Nacional, with one of Mexico’s most gifted artist Diego Rivera’s murals, and the ongoing excavation of Aztec temples on the Zocalo.
What you must return with, at the risk of being charged for excess baggage, are Mexican handicrafts. This is the stuff that triggers coffee-table conversations that start with: ‘I was at this Mexican flea market’ and end with: ‘…and the shopkeeper said the pot owner was never seen again.’ A mix of European and Mexican techniques and designs offer up a kaleidoscopic range of papier mache dolls, wooden kitchen accessories, woven baskets, and glazed pottery.
The Muralist movement between the 1920s and 1940s echoed the country’s confusion over identity and reform and three artists in particular, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros helped create walls of intense colour that exploded with answers. Stroll through them to get an idea of Rivera’s folksy wisdom, Orozco’s take on the harsh effects of the Mexican Revolution, and Siqueiros’ vision for the country’s future.
Think of this aquatic tour as nature’s own water theme park, with rides and climbs, to be completed between five and eight hours. Porous rock formations have created natural showers in the Matacanes Canyon and tours walk you through waterfalls, caves, and underground springs and rivers. If you’re particularly brave, try rappelling over the falls.
The agave plant is a particularly popular one with twenty-somethings, although they might be completely unaware of the fact. It’s the source of mezcal, a variety of which is party favourite, tequila. Mezcal has been distilled from agave for more than 400 years and the spirit is meant to be sipped and savoured and not really shot. The pulque is agave sap, and looks milky and tastes a bit sour. But it’s called agave nectar, is incredibly refreshing and is sold in every market corner.
Like with most exceptional street food, it’s best not to question the source of your meal. Especially when the shop doubles as an auto repair shop in the morning and serves some of the best taco at night like El Vilsito. Combine the roasted marinated pork with freshly spiced salsa, cilantro, onion and a roasted slice of pineapple. Gulp down hot with horchata, a milky, rice-based drink.
Lucha libre is the unadulterated form of Mexican entertainment, on a fantasy scale that only soap operas can reach. Passion, colour, ludicrous fashion, and a very involved audience create one of the country’s most colourful spectacles. The city also offers a number of wrestling tours. Remember, this is superhero stuff being played out in real life – the wrestlers fight in masks at night to cloak their identities, returning to be unassuming desk clerks by day.
Instead of gondolas with gondoliers serenading you, you get to hop onto trajineras and mariachi bands strike up your holiday soundtrack, as you float by Aztec built floating gardens or chinampas. To step farther back in time, head to Teotihuacan (city of the gods), an ancient city just outside the city, frozen at its peak between 200 BC and 800 AD, complete with pyramids dedicated to the sun and moon.
Artist Frida Kahlo has been one of the most prominent Mexican faces, thanks to her incredible self portraits and a volume of work so rich that it still plays a vital role in today’s contemporary culture. Her birthplace is equally remarkable, a loud vivid blue building in a quiet suburb of the city. Her home is now preserved along with her personal effects in the rooms. Typical Mexican architecture and her own work create one of the best museums in the world.
Deep-fried strips of pork skin? Why say no? Chicharrones are eaten like potato chips but are infinitely tastier. Flutes filled with potatoes, chicken, or pork are deep-fried and served with sour cream – that’s flautus, a different avatar of corn tortillas. Don’t leave Mexico without a bite of pambazos, with chilli marinated bread stuffed with chorizo, sour cream, lettuce etc. Vegetarians must try the tlacoyos – corn patties with a variety of toppings.