words by Rachel
Mexico City is one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit. I can’t remember the first time I saw a photo of this immense human settlement, but I do remember seeing pictures of houses built up the sides of mountains and for some reason this captured my imagination. Finally getting there just shy of my 42nd birthday, I wasn’t disappointed. Mexico City was as intense and as magical as I had hoped it would be.
How does one describe Mexico City? It is so immense and there are nearly the same number of people here as the whole of Australia. The enormity of the city of blows your mind. Unlike, say, Shanghai, there are very few high rise buildings so the urban sprawl seems to go on and on and on. And like the pictures I remembered from my childhood, the houses are literally built up the sides of the mountains. It is also a city that is prone to earthquakes and which is surrounded by mountains, including a very active volcano, Popacatépetl. On a clear day you can see the smoking volcano from the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, which stands proud in the Centro Historico and towers above everything surrounding it.
The Centro Historico is an enormous 668 blocks, containing over 1,500 buildings that have been classified as historic or art monuments. Enough to make this little Aussie’s head spin! When walking through the Centro Historic I was almost falling over my chin as it dragged on the floor, mouth agape at the stunning buildings that face you on every corner and every turn.
We wanted to spend around 2 weeks in Mexico City, or DF as the capital is known locally (District Federal), as we had decided to buy a car. We thought we would probably need a couple of weeks to find one, get it checked over and sort out the paper work. (Check out Gary’s account of getting this all sorted – challenging, to say the least!) Also, we knew we would probably be behind on school work, given the preceding month was in Cuba with little Internet access and a very busy itinerary (we were right, we were very behind when we got to DF). So we booked a 2 bedroom apartment in the Centro Historico, a few blocks from the Zócolo and Catedral Metropolitana, and one block from the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
We had been hoping to stay in La Condesa, a funky, fashionable neighbourhood where all the hipsters hang out, complete with parks, bars and cafes, and where the dog-to-person ratio is about 1:1, however we couldn’t find anything for our dates. As it turned the central location was perfect. The kids immediately felt at home, it was really safe, and our hosts some of the kindest people around.
We treated these couple of weeks like a mini-break from the travelling. Our apartment had a full kitchen, washing machine and dryer (heaven! I never thought I’d say that…) and possibly the most comfortable beds in Mexico. On our first night we visited Walmart and came home with almost 2 shopping trolley’s full of food, art supplies for school, toiletries and the requisite tequila, limes and cointreau for cocktail hour margaritas. We set up home and settled in very quickly to a routine of school work, car hunting, cooking, exercising and sightseeing, sprinkled with a bit of going out and sleeping in. After a month in Cuba we were pretty travel weary, and after 3 months on the road the kids were really needing a bit of ‘home time’.
To really make it feel like home, Gary and I found an excellent CrossFit gym in Condesa, Cygnus CrossFit, which we visited a few times each week. Our first proper training session in 3 months at 2,500m above sea level got the heart pumping so fast I nearly keeled over.
Thankfully we acclimatised pretty quickly, and felt that over the couple of weeks we did our trainers back home, Graeme and Lynn, and CrossFit Maroubra, proud.
We had a really fun Saturday morning session at Cygnus with the girls learning how to walk a slackline. Got those old Theatre/Media juices flowing again that’s for sure.
Cygnus Crossfit had a great setup and some of the most professional and quality trainers we’ve come across. They made us feel welcome from the first session. I can’t recommend them highly enough to anyone lucky enough to get to Mexico City.
The thing about home is that the place is usually accompanied by friends and family. We were lucky enough to be able to add some friends into the mix as well during this magical few weeks. My friend Kat and her friend (now our friend) Julia happened to be in DF for the weekend just after we arrived.
We had some funny moments together cruising around the capital, and some awesome meals. Nothing like a friend from home to help justify a budget blow out. Dinner at Limosneros has hit the top 10 best meals – awesome Mexican fusion, great wine and cocktails will do it every time.
We were also lucky enough to catch up with Bjorn, who we had met in San Pancho at Christmas. Bjorn was touring with Mumford and Sons, so on top of reconnecting with a friend we scored backstage passes and great seats to see Mumford and Sons, Ruby’s first ever gig.
Fun times… And to top it off, Gary had been introduced to a local couple, Alex & Gabby, via a friend in Australia, who live in Coyoacán, a colonial village-esque suburb about 10km south of centro. We had met Alex and Gabby (and their divine Beagle, Dasher) before going to Cuba and developed an immediate rapport. On our return we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon together soaking up the scene of buskers and weekend-holiday-makers in Coyoacán’s main plaza. It was great to have friends in this huge city, who more than once helped us navigate tricky situations, such as buying our car. If we hadn’t realised before, Alex and Gabby confirmed everything we had begun to suspect about Mexicans in general. They are warm hearted, generous, fun to hang out with, interesting to talk to and excellent chefs. Spending time with Alex, Gabby and Dasher will be some of our best memories of DF and yet another reason to return.
If I had to describe this wonderful city in a few words I think they would be: friendly, fun, stunningly beautiful, creative, foodie heaven, vibrant, edgy. Sure, the traffic is hideous and it can take an hour to travel 12km by cab, but when you’re not in a hurry who cares? There’s street art everywhere, which has pretty much redefined the word graffiti for this family, so even if you are stuck in a cab, with the buildings, the street food vendors, markets and street art, there’s plenty to look at and to fire the imagination.
Despite the school-catch-up-car-buying routine we did manage to fit in a lot of sights. You can read more about them in Lonely Planet or Mexico Tourism, so I won’t bore you too much here. Needless to say we had some favourites:
- Museo Nacional de Antropologia – one of the best museums we have ever visited and almost too big to take in in one visit. It pretty much shows the entire history of Mexico and has some impressive artefacts (although Amalia did pause to say that perhaps there were ‘too many rocks’).
- Zócalo – also known as the Plaza de la Constitución and at the heart of Mexico City. It is one of the world’s largest squares and is surrounded by magnificence. On the east is the Palacio National and the north the Cathedral. Great just to stand around in and people watch
- Catederal Metropolitana – wow, wow and wow. Even if you don’t like churches this one is pretty impressive. In Mexico there are churches and cathedrals everywhere, and even the girls have come to appreciate the art and the architecture (well, sometimes). This one is worth the visit just to see the organ.
- Palacio National – a freebie where only 150 visitors can enter at any one time. Don’t forget your ID to enter, you need to leave it at the entrance to get in. The drawcard here are the Diego Rivera murals which were painted between 1929 and 1951 and show the history of Mexican civilisation. As a special treat for us there was a mask exhibition which is one of the best exhibitions we’ve seen. Masks from ancient to modern, we got a real insight into Mexican culture.
- Torre Latinoamericanas – a visit to the 44th floor is well worth it, but make sure the day is clear to get the best view. We got a great perspective of the city and realised just how close Mexico City is to Popacatépetl, a live volcano that had smoke billowing up from it’s snow capped peaks when we saw it.
- Palacio de Bellas Artes – recently made famous by the opening scene in the latest Bond film, Spectre. This is the building that looks like it belongs in a fairytale from the outside and the inside. We were lucky enough to buy tickets to see Amalia Hernandez’s Mexican ballet – a veritable feast for the senses. The music, dancing, costumes and puppetry were legendary and I can’t recommend it enough. After the performance head up to the coffee shop at Sears (across the road) to look down on the magnificent rooftop of the Palacio.
- Frida Kahlo’s house – a bit further afield in the suburb of Coyoacán, a visit to Frida’s house is a must on any trip to DF. Everywhere you go in Mexico you will find t-shirts, key rings, statues, pillows, pencils, shoes, you name it, all with Frida on them. A visit to her house in Coyoacán, which she later shared with her husband Diego Rivera, gives a great overview of her life and work. After the museum cruise around Coyoacán – the central plaza has another stunning cathederal, buskers and great restaurants.
- Condesa and Roma – great hipster suburbs with fab bars and restaurants. Easy to while away a few hours or more.
I’ll sign off by saying that one of the great things about this fabulous city is that it is so big which means that when we return (I have no doubt that we will) there will still be so much to explore. We’ll love returning to the places we’ve already visited, but we also look forward to making it to Xochimilco to cruise on the canals, visit the plethora of museums that dot the city and checking out a few more bars and restaurants. Me gusta DF.
We stayed: Donceles 26 – Livia, Gabrielle, Louisa and the team were amazing. Nothing was too much bother, and they made us feel like we were staying in our own home. They even helped us translate with mechanics, insurers and car salesmen when buying our car.
We trained: Cygnus Crossfit – uber professional Crossfit gym with awesome coaches, great classes and the ever-friendly & welcoming Mexican attitude. We loved it.
We used: Uber – much cheaper and safer than regular taxis, and with complementary water. Nice touch.
We ate: Best meal was at Limosneros – everything from tacos to deep fried beetles to excellent Mexican Rose. Don’t miss the chocolate desserts and mezcal to finish off the evening.