Revisiting a city after a long absence is always a gamble: will it live up to your fond memories, or has time cast a rosy glow over a place that wasn’t quite so rosy? Arriving in Mexico City after an absence of more than 40 years, my first impression was: I don’t remember it being quite this gritty.
To be fair, the last time I arrived in this city, I was just out of university, on my first solo trip. And I arrived by bus rather than by plane. Which may be why the drive in from the airport, through the traffic chaos and the run-down barrios, was a disappointment. There were some quaint streets and lovely squares along the way, but the feeling was, “this town needs some work.”
But cities have many faces, and as I arrived at my hotel in the “nice” part of town, everything changed. The mean streets turned to tree-lined avenues, the ramshackle buildings to shiny new office buildings and expensive hotels. This was the affluent Mexico City, and I was just as glad to be there.
I’m staying on the edge of the Zona Rosa, the trendy neighbourhood where the hoi polloi have always gone to eat, drink and be merry. On my first trip, my friends and I would come to the Zona Rosa and drink tequila in a friendly bar — to the pleasure of the waiter, since most of the Mexicans around us were drinking Scotch.
Walking through the shady streets on my first afternoon, I could see it’s still the trendy part of town. And reaching the centre of the district, I came upon the tourist hub, a pedestrian mall filled with statues, greenery and patio restaurants (photo at top). Only problem was, half the restaurants were big American fast food chains like Burger King and Subway. It didn’t help that many of the streets around the mall were being torn up — I guess I picked the wrong moment.
I did get a laugh, though, to see the Subway restaurant offering a special sub — made with Canadian bacon. Did they imagine that Canadians would find this a taste of home, or is it considered a delicacy in these parts? Or, is it a nod to the one of the Three Amigos Mexico can still call a friend? (By the way, that price is about $2 Canadian, at current exchange rates.)
A little farther on, I came to the real nerve centre of the new Mexico City: La Reforma, a broad avenue lined with huge office buildings and jacaranda trees, which happen to be in full bloom right now. The street is divided by a boulevard featuring historic statues, including the golden angel that is the symbol of this city,
There are also classical statues of lions and Mexican heroes, striking a strange contrast with a background that’s become as modern as downtown Manhattan. Nearby are the pricey Marriott hotel and Reforma 222, a glitzy, three-storey mall with chic shops selling designer clothes and jewellery.
So, a mixed bag of impressions on my first day in Mexico City: the good, the bad and the ugly. But there’s lots more to see in this huge, interesting city. Walking distance from my hotel is the huge Chapultepec Park, which boasts one of the best anthropological museums in the world. And elsewhere in town, they’ve excavated the ruins of one of the Aztec temples the Spanish covered over when they constructed their European city here.
There’s also the art of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, on display all over town, as well as museums devoted to the famous pair: in fact, Mexico City has more museums than you can shake a stick at. It’s going to be a challenge in my few days in town. Stay tuned.