TRAVEL Mexican Standout

Remnants of an ancient civilization break through the veneer of contemporary life in Mexico City.

I was skeptical. The papers were splattered with news from Mexico. “Students Riot in Matamoros.” “Three Deaths Reported.” I wasn’t sure where Matamoros was in relation to Mexico City but it didn’t matter. Mexico was Mexico. An American tourist could get hurt. My wife and I took off with the farewells of our friends and fellow workers ringing in our ears. “Don’t drink the water,” they said.

We love Mexico City. Even the cloud of smog that has settled over the valley’s 12 million residents does not dull its flavor. The city lights in the cool evening air are alive with color: Neon splashes of bright red and hot pink. Brand names of beer and tequila blinking on and off. A huge Coca Cola sign, whirling like a pinwheel against the black sky.

Cars jam every street. Volkswagens and Renaults dare each other to cut into the tiny gaps in the stream of traffic. The people of Mexico City play the game well: Traffic rolls on most of the night and day without accident.

One way to break into the traffic is by taxi. They are difficult to find and usually full, but the ride is worth the effort. The fees, which range from 16¢ to $2 within the city, are most often a surprise because the drivers rarely bother to turn on their meters. Many add a little spice to the ride with an emotional rendition of a Spanish ballad or two.

An alternative to the bustle of the city streets is the shelter of the Metro below. The modern subway system has three lines, and expansion is underway. Trains speed along silently and safely on rubber wheels and somehow remain unsullied by graffiti. A ride on the Metro costs about 6¢; the art in the stations is free. The Pino Suarez Station has an Aztec pyramid on display, uncovered during subway excavation.

Everywhere we turned, we saw a church. The most famous was the Jesuit Mission in the village of Tepotzotlán, an hour’s drive from downtown.

The 16th-century mission is said to be the finest example of church art in Mexico, built in a style called “Churriguer-esque,” a lavish extension of Spanish baroque architecture. Inside are ornate carvings and statues, and a massive altar of gold. The church is set in manicured grounds with a museum next door, on the site of an old convent.

A sampling of Mexico’s archeological riches is displayed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park. The gigantic monolith of Tlaloc, the rain god, guards the museum. The modern structure is divided into several halls, each devoted to a pre-Columbian civilization: Teotihuacán, Mexica, Toltec, Oaxacan, and Mayan. Each period is represented by skeletal remains, carvings, murals, jewelry, stone pieces. It would take days to see everything in the musem, but you can get a good start with the morning tour, conducted in English. Entrance fee is about 50¢

Mexico’s Museum of Modern Art is also located in Chapultepec Park. Its two round buildings bring together a permanent collection of some of Mexico’s finest contemporary artists, such as Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and Jose Clemente Orozco. Fee is about 25¢.

While in Chapultepec Park, visit the Art Deco Zoo and ride the Montana Rusa (Russian Mountain), the largest rickety roller coaster in the world. The view is just as spectacular from Chapultepec Castle, where Empress Carlota and Emperor Maximilian lived in the 19th century.

The Diego Rivera Museum and Frida Kahlo Museum are inconspicuously located in the charming old neighborhood of Coyoacán. Rivera, Mexico’s best known mural artist, devoted much of his energy and most of his fortune to completing his museum, collecting about 60,000 pieces of pre-hispanic art and 3,000 paintings and drawings of his own.

Kahlo was married to Rivera. Her surrealist art reflects the sadness in her life, much of which was spent in a wheelchair. Her museum occupies the house where she was born and raised. Significant works by Kahlo, Rivera, and distinguished friends such as Wolfgang Paalen and Paul Klee are on display. Admission to both museums is free.

Then there are monuments. The Angel of Independence spreads her golden wings over Mexico City, and there’s a statue on practically every corner: Pancho Villa, Benito Juarez, José Maria Morelos, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. Some of Mexico City’s tributes to the great were planned, some weren’t – like the Monument to the Revolution, an office building scaled down to a monument when construction funds ran out.

Both natives and tourists walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of San Angel to go to the Saturday Bazaar, a popular place to buy the work of Mexico’s craftsmen. There’s a good selection of ceramics, copper, jewelry, clothing, and all sorts of Mexican trinkets. Vendors are difficult to bargain with, but the quality of their work is outstanding.

The shops surround an open courtyard where mariachis play lively music. Across the street from the bazaar, peddlers spread their wares on blankets. Here they will bargain, but quality is questionable.

A few hours at the Saturday Bazaar will invariably result in a lot of purchases, but if any names remain on your “Bring Back from Mexico City Gift List,” Sunday should include a visit to the huge Lagunilla Market downtown.

In the midst of all the junk, a perceptive shopper can find some things of value. Fine antiques are frequently mixed in with the imitations. The Lagunilla Market is also called the Thieves’ Market, though it is never certain whether the buyer or seller is doing the stealing.

After you weave through the hordes of shoppers at the Lagunilla and haggle with the vendors over pesos, a visit to the Zona Rosa is a nice change of pace. The Pink Zone is a haven for tourists. The clean cobblestone streets of the district run along nice shops, fine restaurants and swank hotels.

But even in the Pink Zone defenseless shoppers should beware of “bargains.” Not long ago Newsweek cited several elegant Cartier shops in Mexico City as fakes. Gucci and other famous designers are also victims of counterfeiters in Mexico and several other countries.

The place to get away from the fast pace of city life for a while is Cuernavaca. The road climbs over green mountains and leaves only a memory of Mexico City in the rearview mirror. Then it descends 3,000 feet below the altitude of the big city into the tropical village of Cuernavaca. The new super highway provides a safe route for night driving, but the scenic old road is the way to go in the daytime.

Cuernavaca has little but relaxation to occupy the tourist’s time. Cort6s’ Palace, one of the oldest buildings in the Western Hemisphere, sits smugly across from the main plaza. One of the oldest churches in Mexico is only a few blocks away and the Borda Gardens are not far. But the main attraction in Cuernavaca is its simple way of life.

For a late night meal in Mexico City, hit the Hipocampo on Insurgentes – tosta-das, chalupas, tortas, and burritos, nothing like the Texas versions. Lunch at the Fonda del Refugio in the Pink Zone will bring tears to your eyes – spicy tears of pain mixed with joy. The initial shock of seeing blue tortillas should subside when you bite into one; they are made with blue Mexican corn.

Mexico City has much more than good Mexican food to offer. Try the herrring at Skandia, a deli that rivals New York City’s finest. Bellinghausen, an institution in the Pink Zone, is known for its Filete Chemita, a tender heart of beef loin prepared to perfection. Pile on the pasta at Da Rafaello’s on Insurgentes. Experiment with Chinese food on Dolores street, all that remains of Chinatown. Feast on French food at La Casserole, where the menu features a section for those individuals with delicate stomachs (from too many tacos).

The tacos al carbón, containing charcoal-broiled beef and grilled green onions, are hard to pass up in the many cafés along the streets. A savory chicken roasting over a fire in the window of Los Guajolotes is a strong temptation. And you can get fresh breads from bakeries that offer hundreds of varieties.

Sample the syrupy sweet candies: chila-cayote, a mixture of squash and sugar; muégano, a chewy glob of flour and brown sugar; and jamón de pepita, a combination of pumpkin seed and sugar. The Dulceria de Celaya, a candy store established in 1874, is a tiny jewel hidden on Calle Cinco de Mayo downtown.

The fruits of Mexico are beautifully displayed in stands all over the city. Odd shapes and glorious colors. Sweet and juicy pineapples and melons. Tropical delights like the mango, guanábana, tamarindo, mamey and tuna, which is the fruit of a cactus. Eat them as they are, try them in ice cream (the best at Neveria La Siberia by the tranquil plaza in Coyoacán) and drink them in juices (the best at La Ciudad de Colima in Polanco).

The Chapultepec is Mexico City’s newest luxury hotel and possibly the nicest. The Camino Real, also in Chapultepec Park, is the established luxury hotel in Mexico City. The Del Prado is the largest downtown hotel; Rivera’s mural of the Mexican revolution is proudly displayed in the lobby. The city also has fine small hotels, such as the Londres, and quaint colonial hotels, such as the Cortes. A room at the Chapultepec or Camino Real starts at about $35. The Del Prado has rooms in the $20’s and the Londres and Cortes offer singles for about $16 and doubles for about $20.

In self-defense: After two days in Mexico City, my wife and I got sick. She trieda diet of Lomotil with Neomycin; I stuckto sulfa pills. Then we were introduced toSidral, a carbonated apple drink that settles the stomach, and Sanborns, a chainof department stores appreciated for theirmild, American-style club sandwiches.On a diet of Sidral and Sanborns, ourperiod of recuperation was brief. (Theoriginal Sanborns, located downtown in a16th-century tile house, makes a nice stopfor lunch, turista or no.)


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