Posted by: Alex MacGregor | February 7, 2014

Two Nights in the DF

My last stop in Mexico is among my favorite places: Distrito Federal. Mexico City. Caroline and I visited in 2009, so I spent most of my time checking about the pyramid and just did some cursory wandering in the evenings. No major tourist attractions this time.

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Like the US, Mexico’s capital is its own state-level district. But, unlike in the US, the entire country of Mexico revolves around its capital. It would be like combining Washington DC, Los Angeles, and New York into one city.

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Even though it’s decidedly working-class, central Mexico City is a great place to start exploring. This was a major focus of Spanish imperialism, built literally on top of the Aztec capital. Grandeur abounds.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral, right on the Zocalo, is exquisite.

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Mexico’s National Palace

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Centro is the city’s commercial heart. The streets bustle with activity.

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Gotta love the restaurant getting converted into a jewelry mini-mall without even changing the sign!

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The streets north and east of the Zocalo have always entranced me. It’s basically an endless, sprawling market that most people would probably avoid, but that I just can’t resist!

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In this district, grand colonial buildings have been converted into a spider web of specialized mini-malls. Centro has largely recovered from the blight of thirty years ago (when I imagine it resembled modern-day downtown Rio), but it’s still often criticized for not living up to its potential. As big-city historic districts go, it has no match in this hemisphere: Havana is the only place I can think of that comes close. Some people feel it ought to be smart and chic, like central Paris or Barcelona. Perhaps if this colonial mansion were a proper boutique hotel instead of a ramshackle clothing market, foreign critics would be appeased–but that would also be a whole lot less fun, wouldn’t it?

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If you’re looking to fill up on the cheap, the market district is a great place to do it. This is yet another plate of tacos al pastor–over the course of the trip, this became my go-to. If there’s any country worth putting your meat-restricted diet on hiatus for, it’s gotta be Mexico. I probably ate 50 tacos in the week I was there.

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Part of the reason these markets fascinate me so much is their connection to Tepito. If you walk due north ten blocks through the markets, Centro gives way to Tepito, a lawless market district.

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Tepito is sort of like the shadowy place Mufasa tells Simba about in The Lion King: “You Must Never Go There”. For me, Tepito ranks among Managua’s Mercado Oriental, Rio’s City of God, the western half of Lagos Island, Cite Soleil in Port-au-Price, and Johannesburg’s Hillbrow: all incredible urban no-go zones that I’d love to see up-close but probably never will. It’s so strange, given all the perhaps illadvised things we’ve done, that I can’t bring myself to simply walk ten minutes down a road and see what I see. Until I muster the courage, passing by in a taxi is the best I’ll ever do.

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Returning to the aspects of Mexico City that normal people care about, Centro’s more prosperous streets are west of the Zocalo, and have more in the way of nice shops and a pleasant sidewalk atmosphere. This area has been gentifying for years.

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A big-time cake display!

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One curiosity of Centro is that lots of the older buildings are sinking into the ground, owing to the Valle de Mexico‘s swampy beginnings. See how this building starts to taper off towards the right?

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This cathedral resembles a sinking ship…

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…while this city block has a notable bow to it.

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The buildings sinking into the ground can apparently pave the way for the avant garde. Take this old church, two blocks from the Zocalo. See how it’s sagging severely away from the street?

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Well, the floor in the inside is slanted just as much, so they apparently decided to turn the church over to installation artists. These audio-coordinated immersion tunnels were pretty cool.

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The interior of the church remains mostly intact, although false floors had to be built in several rooms because the slope is getting too severe. (Perhaps not the best centuries-old building to spend too much time in…)

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Some of Centro’s less-beleaguered historic structures, west of the Zocalo. Throughout Atlanta’s history, its wealth has always gravitated north. In Mexico City, the wealth has seemed to migrate west over the generations in a similar fashion.

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A ten-minute walk west of the Zocalo, you arrive at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a cultural center and art museum which certainly lives up to its name. Caroline and I visited this on our previous (pre-blog) trip, so I didn’t take the time to stop by this time.

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The Torre Latinamericano…

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…and Mexico City’s famously ornate post office are nearby neighbors of the Palacio.

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Being just a couple blocks away, I checked out DF’s Chinatown. Recalling Havana and Santo Domingo, I knew Latin American Chinatowns have a tendency to underwhelm, and are mainly just notable for the bizarre cultural contrast. Let’s just say Mexico City’s Chinatown didn’t buck the trend.

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Moving further west still, the Reforma is the backbone of a district called Zona Rosa, favored by foreign businesses.

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A touch of Gaudi along Reforma. Architecture and businesses are definitely up to western standards in this area.

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A few blocks off Reforma, I stumbled upon the Monumento de la Revolución on accident. (This is the best-case scenario when you lose your guidebook–aimless wandering leading to legitimately noteworthy places!)

A sprawling tent city surrounds the western half of the monument, akin to America’s Occupy Wall Street Movement. This seemed a bit more established and permanent than OWS in the US: if you look closely at the foreground, you can see that there’s a full-service taqueria within the tent city! (In hindsight, I simply can’t fathom why I didn’t stop by for yet more tacos. I need to get better at life.)

I wondered how free I was to wander around in the tent city, but nobody seemed to care.

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“There’s nothing sadder than to see happy slaves.” PRI and PAN are Mexico’s two main political parties.

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I took a trip up the monument for the view.

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Looking back towards Centro

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The tent city below. Note the police barricades in front of the palm tree in the center.

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Among the other guidebook-less wanderings, I ended up in a neighborhood of Mexico City called La Condesa. The friends I made on the local bus back from Teotihuacan that afternoon were headed there, so I tagged along, which was good because I wouldn’t have discovered this on my own. The area is home to lots of hip, local coffee and wine joints, and is definitely the sort of place I would actually want to live if I were to move to Mexico.

I mean, if a neighborhood has a two-toned living wall like this, it’s gotta be cool.

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And what’s this? Addictive salads?! After a carnivorous week, I was hungry for some major vegetables, and these just weren’t on offer in Centro.

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Thus began one of the most awkward parts of the whole trip. I don’t know the Spanish words for a lot of these things, and I often felt pretty foolish struggling to point things out through the thick glass and asking what things are called.

Me: “Como se dice esto?” (pointing at broccoli)

The guy behind the counter: “Brócoli

After a painful ten-minute ordeal, I was chowing down and ready to head back to the US.

Not a bad couple evenings of wandering in Mexico City. But, nonetheless, I’m picking up another copy of the Lonely Planet for my next trip!

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  1. […] time I went to Mexico City, I talked about the postcard tourist attractions of the Centro Historico and the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. But the world’s great tourist cities don’t just have […]


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