An Easter Week 2019 Visit to Mexico City

One of my close friends suggested that I join him and his father on a visit to Mexico City to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. I found a large three-bedroom, three-bath Airbnb located in the desirable Art Deco Condesa neighborhood of CDMX (Ciudad de México). We planned to meet at the Mexico City airport since we were arriving from different cities.

I hadn’t considered a visit to CDMX before, but looked forward to visiting the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. As we descended into the megalopolis, I was stunned by the sheer size of this high-altitude city surrounded by smog-obscured volcanic peaks.

I arrived an hour before my friends, so I walked around the woefully undersized Benito Juárez International Airport a bit. The previous PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) government had started construction on a massive $13 billion airport only 3 miles from the existing one that would’ve accommodated 68 million passengers annually. However, the new populist government of Andrés Manuel Lopéz Labrador, known as AMLO, conducted a referendum that resulted in a majority vote against the new airport, even though construction had already begun. As of this writing, a second airport has opened at a former airbase, though it’s smaller than the existing one and serves cargo and low-cost carriers.

Once my friends arrived we walked outside to meet our Uber driver for the short and inexpensive ride to Condesa. My basic Spanish came in handy.

We checked into our Airbnb with its private elevator entrance. It appeared that all of the apartments were being rented by Americans.

My friend and I went to a grocery store to grab some supplies. We found that it was owned by Wal-Mart, which has a big presence in Mexico. While most of the groceries were mediocre, we were intrigued by the ingenious self-carbonating water bottles. There’s probably some EPA prohibition in the US on this excellent product. 90% of CDMX residents consume bottled water, the highest in the world, owing to widespread distrust of the municipal water supplies.

We made tequila cocktails in the apartment before walking over to El Tizoncito, a well-reviewed taco place nearby. On the way, we passed some exquisite Art Deco buildings constructed in the 1930’s and 1940’s when Condesa was an elegant inner suburb. Before that, it had been the Jewish quarter. Now the whole area is gentrified and upmarket.

The taco place was excellent. We sat at an outside bar watching the attendant expertly carve the pork and toss pineapple slices in the air that landed perfectly on the freshly made corn tortillas. I could’ve eaten ten. The beer was cold and refreshing. While seated, we struck up a conversation with a nice Mexican couple and their charming daughter. The parents were both petroleum engineers with Pemex, the state-owned oil company, and traveled often to the US with their daughter for dance competitions. They lived nearby in one of the upscale historic barrios.

I woke early the next morning, Easter Sunday, and brewed some coffee and stood on the balcony enjoying the morning quiet. At 7,349 feet above sea level, CDMX is higher than any mountain east of the Rockies. Because of this high altitude, CDMX has an unparalleled mild climate, with lows around 60F and highs in the low 80’s year round and negligible humidity. Aside from the smog, the climate is enviable.

After my friends awoke and had coffee, we headed out by Uber to visit the house where Lev Trotsky, Lenin’s right-hand man, lived in exile and where he was murdered by Ramón Mercator, an NKVD agent. My friend’s father is somewhat of an expert on Trotsky and gave us a primer on his life before we set out. Although he was widely thought to be Lenin’s successor, the wily Stalin outmaneuvered him and stripped him of his party membership and deported him soon after Lenin’s death.

The Trotsky house is perfectly preserved and still contains his library and household goods. He ended up in Mexico as a guest of the state, after living in Turkey and Norway. He was friends with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, two well-known Mexican artists, and received a steady flow of acolytes. When his savage criticism of Stalin became too much for the Soviet despot to ignore, Stalin’s secret police chief Beria began to plan his execution. Mercator insinuated himself into Trotsky’s inner circle and eventually had the opportunity to enter Trotsky’s study and murder him with an ice axe to the head. Trotsky died at 60 on August 21, 1940. His grave is located in the garden.

After visiting the Trotsky house, we walked around the neighborhood and were surprised by the relatively empty churches on Easter Sunday. It may surprise visitors who assume that Mexico is a pious Roman Catholic country to find that the 1917 constitution is profoundly anti-clerical. The Church was stripped of its properties, religious orders were banned, foreign-born priests were deported and priests and religious lost the right to vote, proselytize or wear clerical garb in public. Under President Calles, even more rigorous measures were employed, which resulted in the Cristero War between the state and devout Catholics, which finally ended in 1929 through the intermediation of the US. In 1991, most of the anti-clerical statutes were repealed, but the urban population is largely indifferent to the Church, as evidenced by the empty churches on Easter.

After returning to the Airbnb, my friend’s father decided to rest up while my friend and I embarked on a long walk through Chapultepec Park to the fancy Polanco district. We had to cross several immense boulevards, including El Paseo de la Reforma, to enter the massive urban park. On the way, we passed by a military base surrounded by concertina wire, although we felt perfectly safe. We had to watch out step, though, since the frequent seismic activity had lifted up sidewalks, which lay unrepaired.

The park itself was filled with multi-generational families enjoying the balmy afternoon. I was struck by how few smokers there were and the absence of either obese or exceptionally fit people. The population appears to be right in the middle of the fitness bell curve. I also noticed an appealing lack of litter. The citizens are proud of their well-used park and keep it clean.

As we left the park, we crossed into the Polanco district, which was full of high-rise condos and apartments and towering hotels and offices buildings. All the luxury brands were represented. We popped into a cafe that sold cold-pressed juices and enjoyed one. The fruits and vegetables in CDMX are superior. On the way back, we commented on the rigorous security measures in place.

The neighborhood was surprisingly quiet for Easter Sunday night, with numerous restaurant closures. We found an Argentinian steakhouse, La Vid Argentina. The owner, from Argentina, was our server and the meat and wine were very good.

After dinner, we walked my friend’s dad back to the Airbnb and then we took off to complete our planned 10-mile daily walk, with about a mile remaining. Several sights raised our awareness. The uneven sidewalks were, of course, a hazard; however, the silent police cars with flashing blue lights were a bit odd. We saw several very slowly moving around the neighborhood. As we walked down the broad Insurgentes around 10:00 pm we passed Tom’s Leather Bar and were amused by the furtively moving patrons as they headed to the main door. Apparently, it’s quite a tourist draw.

The next day we took an Uber downtown to El Centro Histórico to visit the Zócalo and the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts). Sadly, the museum was closed on Monday, but we were able to view the entrance hall. We then walked over to the Sanborns department store since my friend’s father wanted to buy a pair of walking shorts. The store was a bit antiquated and looked like it would’ve been at home in the Soviet Union.

From Sanborns we made our way through the throngs of people to the Zócolo, which is the massive governmental center of the country. We were eager to tour the immense Gothic Metropolitan Cathedral, which dates from 1573, when construction started. The solid gold throughout the many chapels adjoining the towering nave speaks to the immense wealth of Spanish Mexico and the Church. As the centerpiece of the Zócalo, it is complemented by the neo-Gothic and Art Deco government buildings across from and adjacent to it. The Mexican flag in the plaza is the largest I’ve ever seen. The annual Independence Day military parades are staged on the Zócalo.

For dinner that night we chose Ultramar, a 20-minute walk from our Airbnb. The food was superb and the wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in northern Baja were quite fine. We made early reservations since they were closing at 7:30 that night. We had the impression that early closures might be surprisingly common in CDMX, but a recent online search indicated that the restaurant is normally open until 1:30 am.

After dinner, we took a stroll through the Condesa neighborhood to enjoy the parks and architecture. On our walk, we dropped by a lovely bakery and bought some attractive pastries from the saleswoman, dressed in a crisp white smock-very traditional. When we got back, we were dismayed that the pastries were tasteless, with the consistency of sawdust. I refer to this as the Latin American “pastry deception” since I had an identical experience in Santiago de Chile many years earlier.

That evening we took our private elevator to the rooftop patio to watch a passing thunderstorm and enjoy the smog-free evening. We could see the towers of the Santa Fé financial district and the local neighborhood from our perch.

My friend’s father enjoyed CDMX so much that he decided to stay for a few days on his own, so his son made reservations nearby at another Airbnb. I flew back the next morning. I’m pleased that I joined this pleasant excursion to CDMX. It’s become such a popular destination for American expats that the local population is beginning to lightly resent them. Covid provided an opportunity for remote workers to decamp in a lower-cost city while still enjoying the amenities that such a megalopolis provides. This immense city is certainly worth a visit, especially since it’s a decidedly foreign capital within a few hours’ flight from most of the US.

My next set of posts will focus on my 2019 return trip to Ukraine, with the addition of Belarus and the Baltic states.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: