Revisiting Mexico City, which has unexpectedly become a luxury destination

A cultural renaissance is described by the writer, a onetime resident

By Luisita Lopez Torregrosa / New York Times News Service

In the hourlong traffic jam from Mexico City International Airport, on a road clogged with cars, buses and trucks, I keep glancing out the window, looking for familiar signposts, streets, neighborhoods, threads of childhood memories.

This is the city where I learned to read and write, where I first went to school, where I first visited a museum, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and first saw the murals of Diego Rivera, José Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros. This is where I learned to roller skate, on the tiled courtyard of our colonial-era apartment building on Calle Genova in the Zona Rosa, and where I learned to ride a bicycle, at Chapultepec Park, and crawled up the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacan and floated in gondolas down the flowering canals of Xochimilco. I remember getting lost at the circus; walking to school, my mother holding my hand; the smell of corn on the cob grilled over coals at roadside stands.

Now, a lifetime later, I am returning to this place. Just minutes after checking into a hotel in Colonia Roma, an eclectic bohemian neighborhood of cafes, galleries and plazas, I head out into this confounding city, to see it on foot, from the ground, to touch it and smell it. The doorman warns me that a storm is coming, but I set off anyway down the tree-canopied streets and busy, crisscrossing avenues. Although it had been decades since my last visit to Mexico City, I am sure I will find my way around, even in the evening, even in the rain.

I have a destination, a mezcal dive called La Clandestina. I want to celebrate my arrival in Mexico with my first taste of mezcal, and I had been told that La Clandestina is the coolest mezcaleria in town. I stroll up and down streets. Vendors and policemen, waiters and bartenders offer directions, pointing in every direction, sending me around in circles. The rain is now coming down. Sidewalks and gutters flood, outdoor cafes and storefronts empty. I am soaked when I come upon a fellow in dreadlocks leaning in the doorway of a dark storefront. La Clandestina? I ask. He grins, obviously expecting the question.

“You’re here,” he says, and waves an arm toward a backroom. A couple seated at a corner table glance over at me and go back to their drinks, their faces difficult to make out in candlelight. High-pitched laughter is coming from a foursome throwing back shots in a partly enclosed room. A server appears with a mezcal menu, and the dreadlocked guy pulls up a stool beside me, lines up several shots filled halfway. I wince with every gulp and beg off after the sixth shot. Instead, I order a mezcal Negroni. I sip, pay the tab and manage to find my way back to my hotel, on foot, in the dark, in the rain. The hotel staff tells me the next day I am one lucky girl. I think it’s magic.

Mexico City comes at you fast, in multitudes, on streets lined with funky bars, glass towers, rundown houses, taco stands, cantinas, designer shops, fancy restaurants, artsy hotels. Life is lived out on the streets, in plazas and parks, in the mercados and commercial strips, in the elite colonias and poor barrios that spread far into the mountains. Few places are as maddening, as beautiful and mysterious, as mystical.

Today, against all odds — drug cartels, kidnappings, killings, corruption — Mexico City is a world-class luxury getaway, bursting with fine cuisine and hotels, salons and exclusive nightspots, the playgrounds of tourists, celebrities and the sons and daughters of the country’s richest families.

Tourism is booming in this megalopolis of 22 million people, which The New York Times called the No. 1 Place to Go in 2016. The most progressive city in Latin America, Mexico City had 6.3 million foreign visitors in 2015, a jump from 4.9 million in 2012, and is home to 700,000 U.S. expatriates, retirees, writers, artists, executives.

Overall, tourism in Mexico is enjoying a banner three-year run; the country stands at No. 9 in the world. The total number of international tourists jumped to 32.1 million in 2015 from 23.4 million in 2012, according to the Mexico Tourism Board. Most come from the United States, Canada, Britain and Spain. That may taper off because of the election of Donald Trump — whose views on immigration have made U.S. relations with Mexico less certain — and the rise of crime in the nation.

The capital, but not the rest of the country, legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, a rarity in Latin America, and the tourist industry is marketing itself to gay travelers to increase its $17.1 billion haul in 2015, which was up from $12.7 billion in 2012.

Often set against a grim image of poverty and violence, Mexico City vies with São Paulo, Brazil, for the title of richest city in Latin America. With a per capita income of $18,000 a year — higher than that of many Latin American cities — Mexico City has an expanding middle class and claims the 30th largest world economy.

It should have been little surprise that the tourist’s Mexico City largely overlapped with my own, since tourism has subsumed the city in some ways. As I wandered around the historic Centro on a bristling Saturday this summer, I pushed my way through crowds of families, couples and tourists, herds trampling down streets encircling the Zócalo, the city’s epicenter, a large stone square built by the Spaniards over the ruins of the ancient Aztec city Tenochtitlan.

Here, on weekdays, the business of the federal and local governments goes on inside magnificent Spanish-era palaces. But on weekends it turns into tourist central — local and foreign visitors snapping photos, posting selfies, standing in line at the entrance to the baroque Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace.

Sports bars on the side streets of the Zócalo were packed that day with soccer fans howling at a Germany-France match on television screens. Shoppers shuffled along the Avenida Madero, massing around ice cream stands and taco dives, streaming in and out of discount clothing shops and the Gandhi bookstore. A few blocks away, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a short line of visitors waited at the ticket booth (60 pesos a person, no U.S. dollars or credit cards accepted), young mothers with toddlers slogged up the steep marble staircase to reach the great murals.

Little had changed at the museum since I first saw it as a child. It was still a cathedral, intimidating, august, and other than an arts bookstore behind a glass wall, there were few signs that much time had passed since I was an awe-struck schoolgirl. Outside, the scene felt familiar: Vendors spread souvenirs on sidewalks, protesters handed out pamphlets, teenagers smoked and jived, and, across the street, families picnicked at the Alameda Central park.

Cutting across several streets, I reached the Mercado de San Juan, so famous it’s listed in travel guides. Dozens of pollerias, open-air poultry stands stacked with freshly killed chickens, lined blocks around the mercado. Inside, I walked by boxes showcasing glossy fruit (those cherries!), spotless vegetables from everywhere in the world, and rare delicacies, like 15 varieties of Japanese mushrooms. After I made a few rounds, recalling the dusty, fly-covered street mercados of my childhood, I saw why the airy, clean halls of Mercado de San Juan draws chefs and foodies.

On the way back to the hotel in Colonia Roma, I took a detour to Zona Rosa, where I lived as a child. We had come to Mexico City from Puerto Rico, so my father could study medicine at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. While he spent hours in school, my mother, a lawyer, did the household chores. After three years in Mexico, we returned to Puerto Rico — she to resume her career and he to finish training and start his own practice. Now our apartment building on Calle Genova is gone. I couldn’t find my old school, the Van Dyke Academy, a cloister of bespectacled nuns and high gates. The neighborhood is now a hive of gay night life, clubs and shops. Those markers of my childhood were erased from the real world and exist now only in my mind. I made my way back to Roma.

There, La Cervecería de Barrio was gearing up for the evening weekend crowd. I grabbed a stool with a view of the Fuente de Cibeles, a replica of the Fuente de Cibeles in Madrid. It’s the neighborhood’s plaza, a traffic circle furnished with crayon-color folding chairs and umbrellas, tables. Bars, cafes and small shops encircle it. Neighborhood regulars, runners and bikers gather around the plaza, a scene common to the city’s moneyed colonias like Roma and its neighbor La Condesa, a quiet and more exclusive enclave of boutique hotels, art deco and California architecture and tree-lined esplanades along historic Calle Amsterdam and Parque Mexico. Colonias Roma, Condesa and Polanco form the city’s fanciest triangle. If Roma and Condesa recall the Marais in Paris, Polanco channels Beverly Hills, California.

Great cities usually define themselves through literature and art, fashion, theater, music, diversity. Mexico City has plenty of all that. Now in this millennial city, where the median age is only 27, a new generation of chefs is leading a cultural surge, creating a gastronomic movement and giving the city a new cachet.

“They are visionaries,” Carlos Puig, a columnist for the newspaper Milenio, says over lunch at Aguamiel, a no-frills restaurant in Roma specializing in Oaxacan food. “We’ve always had visionaries,” he says — but this time they are not just looking inward; they have a global vision. He and his wife, Yissel Ibarra, a film producer and documentarian who works for the Instituto Méxicano del Cinematografía, know their way around the restaurant scene. They agreed, after some discussion, that Enrique Olvera, the celebrated, 40-year-old chef at the highly acclaimed restaurant Pujol, is the leader of the Mexican cuisine revolution.

Although it was suggested by local residents, it’s safe to say that Pujol’s reputation is baked in by now. It is the darling of local foodies and international critics and chefs. The restaurant, 16 years old, had its breakthrough in 2010, when René Redzepi, the chef of one of the world’s top restaurants, Noma, in Copenhagen, visited Pujol and went away raving to the world.

The gastro scene in Mexico City exploded. “There was lots of combustion,” Olvera told me in July over coffee at his popular New York City restaurant, Cosme (he is to open a second restaurant in Manhattan, New York, this year). The food revolution in Mexico “surprised everyone, but I knew it would happen,” he said.

“I dreamed about this when I was younger,” he continued. “I knew that we had the potential to create a new cuisine.”

So I went to see it for myself. On a leafy street in Colonia Polanco, Pujol announces itself quietly. The staff speaks in whispers and steps softly around an intimate space of dark gray walls, delicate artwork and candlelight shadows. It has the elegance of a jewel box and the solemnity of a church. The menu arrives in a sealed, parchmentlike envelope, like a royal edict. Couples, small groups of friends and society beauties fill the room. Dishes come and go, more than I can count, more than I can properly appreciate, all exquisitely presented. The evening proceeds slowly, at a choreographed pace. The noise level never rises. I am in awe. Nothing like this existed in Mexico City when I was a child, and although I later grew up going to elegant restaurants, Pujol stands in a class of its own even today.

“I think Mexico has had an inaccurate and bad rap until recently,” said Trisha Ziff, a British documentarian and filmmaker who has lived in Mexico City for 12 years. We were at lunch at Maximo, where an Olvera protege, Eduardo García, is turning out some of the town’s best French-accented Mexican food.

“Being the recipient of endless attacks creates a strange kind of freedom, a creative anarchy,” she said. “We take risks because we have nothing to lose. This culture takes risks. That’s why it’s so vibrant. It’s the same with food, with music, with fashion. It’s the youth and energy which gives the city its dynamism.”

The city’s tourism and cultural boom did not happen overnight. It reached critical mass in the past year or so.

“It’s the young generation,” said Patricia Mercado, an economist who helps run the city government from an office overlooking the Zócalo. Breaking away for a few minutes from government business, she listed the influences that shaped the city’s rise: liberal policies, human rights and education, legal abortion and same-sex marriage, and a powerful feminist movement in which she is a major voice.

The city’s secretary of culture, Eduardo Vázquez Marín, put it this way: “This is a city of refugees, a city of immigrants, a city of great cultural diversity.”

We met at the cavernous Museo de la Ciudad, and he was saying that the city’s refusal, in 2006, to join the federal government’s all-out military-style war on the drug cartels helped explain how the capital has remained relatively secure in a country where 100,000 people have died in drug violence in 10 years.

But the cartels are not the only malignant forces involved in the bloodletting. Mexicans and international human rights activists fault the federal government for bungling the inquiry into the disappearance of 43 college students two years ago in Guerrero state. The students were abducted and presumably killed by drug gangsters in collusion with police officers. But the government’s investigation reached no final conclusion, and in September the chief investigator in the attorney general’s office resigned.

The memory of the students is much alive in Mexico City. A large, red sculpture in the shape of the number 43 stands in the main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma.

Looking back decades, Vázquez traces the turning points and intersecting factors leading to his city’s resurgence. He goes back to the devastating 1985 earthquake, which galvanized the capital and created a lasting spirit of unity. Then, in 1997, the city elected a liberal government that promoted social and economic reforms. Abortion was legalized in 2007 and same-sex marriage in 2010, defying Mexican traditions and the Catholic Church, pulling the city into the 21st century.

“The city is the locomotive,” he says. “It’s the future of the country.”

After six days at Hotel La Casona in Roma, I check into Las Alcobas in Polanco, on Masaryk Avenue, the city’s Rodeo Drive. Las Alcobas is not far from Ricardo Legorreta’s 1968 masterwork, the Camino Real hotel, a dazzling apparition washed in brilliant yellows and pinks. The facade of Las Alcobas pales by comparison, but the concierges greet you like royalty, and the compact lobby, centered on a rosewood spiral staircase, reflects the hotel’s luxurious and comfortable design.

With no schedule to follow, I take a long walk along the Paseo de la Reforma through Chapultepec Park. The park had been a favorite place growing up, where I learned to bike and ride donkeys. Under the cover of giant trees, I meander, taking in a sidewalk photography exhibit and a display of giant soccer balls designed by Mexican artists. Orange and blue pedal boats dot the placid lakes. Long lines stand at the boat rental gates and at the taquerias and food carts. It’s a weekday, but it feels like the Sundays in the park I remember.

A few hours later, on my last evening in Mexico, I am coddled on a red velvet banquette at one of the city’s most talked about restaurants, Dulce Patria. The room evokes the dazzling colors, architecture and art of Mexico. Frida Kahlo inevitably comes to mind. The chef, Martha Ortiz, is one of very few female top chefs in Mexico, and, at 49, is older than most of the new celebrated chefs. Her restaurant provokes extreme reactions. Some people I know hate it; others love it.

My entree, a pork loin prepared with rare Mexican plants and vegetables, arrives on a plate decorated with sweeps of color brush strokes. The plate alone is worth framing. At dinner’s end, Ortiz stops at my table. She is tall, thin, with dark hair combed off her angular face. She leans down and extends a thin hand. Then, just as suddenly, she is gone.

I stroll back to Las Alcobas, thinking about the swirling colors on the plates and the scarlet and ruby shades, the emerald greens and indigo blues of Dulce Patria. So Mexico.

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