A Feast For The Senses

Mexico City's neighborhoods offer an intoxicating study in contrasts


Cover Story

August 11, 2002|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

A pitahaya is a tropical fruit only rarely found for sale in the sprawling produce markets of Mexico City. Having just arrived in town, I decide its availability is a good omen. But when a vendor, with a startling whack of his machete, exposes the fruit's spooky interior -- dense white goo studded with black seeds -- I'm not so sure.

"Es dulce," the man says -- "it is sweet." As I raise the flesh to my lips, I'm both afraid and excited.

Fears and thrills. I've traveled to Mexico City many times, and I'm always called back by its jarring contrast of enormous sophistication and an almost elemental crudeness.

The city is paradise and hell, with no purgatory in between (if you're lucky, and drink only bottled water). Instead, there are tremors: the aftershocks of conquest, revolution, earthquakes, ferocious fertility and delirious decay. It is a place, and culture, that makes a game of mortality and each November celebrates the Day of the Dead with prancing skeletons and clanking bones. Eat, drink and be merry, for manana ....

As Mexico City's pendulum swings between life and death, one's senses become abnormally

alert, and there's always something new to see, hear, touch, smell and eat -- like the pitahaya, which, by the way, was wonderfully sweet.

In a place more than 20 million people call home, however, it's easy to become overwhelmed. And because you can't possibly see everything, what follows are the neighborhoods you won't want to miss.

Upscale Polanco

Polanco is where the affluent come to play. And, as one of my friends puts it, "When you are rich in Mexico City, you are obscenely rich."

This neighborhood has many fashionable restaurants and luxurious high-rise hotels lined up like chess pieces about to storm Chapultepec Park across the street.

The Marriott, Nikko and Intercontinental are all fine, but a few blocks away is the Habita Hotel. Minimalist in decor, it is a chic, sleek hideaway, with a seriously groovy roof bar and pool. A house DJ spins a magic vibe all day. You can turn the music off in your room, of course, but I prefer it on.

Taking a dip soon after I arrive, I loll in the afternoon sun and silently practice my espanol. Hint: Mexico has had centuries to deal with its inferiority complex with Spain; the United States is the place everyone loves to hate now. So, make the effort. Even knowing which greeting to use as the day advances -- buenos dias (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon) or buenas noches (good evening) -- can make a huge difference in how an American is perceived.

If you really want to blend, shift your body clock and eat lunch later. At 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., restaurants in Mexico City are empty; by 3 o'clock they are mobbed.

Arriving hungry at Entremar, I devoured a whole fish, split and grilled with a red salsa of four chilies on one half, and a green salsa of parsley, garlic and lemon on the other. Red, green and white: Mexican cuisine is fond of such flag-waving patriotism.

Later, it was off to the nearby National Museum of Anthropol-ogy. The building, a triumph of high-'60s modernism, is itself worth a visit.

Though little of the signage is in English, the epic scale of these Mayan, Aztec, Olmec and Toltec artifacts speak for themselves. They also are a reminder of how remarkably strong Mexico's bloodlines are.

These millenniums-old physiognomies are seen everywhere throughout Mexico City: the broadly bridged nose, high cheekbones and dark black hair. One of the astonishments for a first-time visitor is -- as in Asia -- how remarkably homogenous the population is in appearance.

After browsing some of Polanco's swanky boutiques, I had a late dinner at La Valentina, where I drank my tequila neat (no one from Mexico City would be caught dead drinking a frozen margarita), ate incredible tortillas, and swooned to the mariachi band singing ranchero songs. Only the iciest of hearts doesn't melt to this music.

Genteel neighborhoods

Up early the following day, I ran in Chapultepec Park. Perhaps you've heard the air is bad in Mexico City? It is, and gets worse throughout the day. It's wise to exercise first thing. Then it was off to tour Roma and La Condesa. Of the city's nearly 300 colonias, or neighborhoods, these two are among the most genteel.

Roma seems to be a misnomer, though, as the architecture here evokes Paris' Belle Epoque -- a reminder of France's mid-19th-century invasion of Mexico, and the installation of Maximilian and Carlota as royalty. This star-crossed couple's brief reign has been much romanticized. There is, in fact, a whole generation of upper class, elderly Mexicans who still revere all things French, and speak it as their second language.

Many of Roma's most impressive dwellings -- with beaux-arts balustrades and window grilles, coved ceilings and marble stairs -- are now galleries like Landucci and OMR, which showcase the ebullience of Mexico's contemporary artists.

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