Our first guests in Mexico City, Walt LaLiberte and his friend Doug Cureton arrived on Wednesday February 6 from Florida. Walt has been a dear friend of ours since 1996 when we met at a road race in Newton. We have run many other races together over the course of 23 years including the New York City and London Marathons.
Walter has hosted us and countless friends at his beautiful waterfront home in Brewster Massachusetts numerous times over the years. We are thrilled to be able to return the favor. The evening started with cocktails on our beautiful deck before going across the street to our favorite neighborhood taco joint where our meal, drinks & tip came to $7.50/person. We are constantly amazed at how inexpensive life can be here. The next morning we took Walter on a run/walk to Chapultepec Park.
After 3 + weeks here Jim has done well to acclimate to the high altitude and Sandy is getting better but remembering how difficult our first run was we decided to go easy on Walt and stopped several times to walk. After the run we enjoyed a great breakfast at Matisse, a local restaurant recommended for breakfast by Hugo our Airbnb host. That afternoon we took a hop-on-hop-off bus tour to get an overview of the city. It was quite the experience. We purchased on-line tickets but when we got on the bus they would not accept the e-ticket and said we would have to get off at the next stop and print a hard copy at Office Max which we did. On attempting to board the next bus they said that we now had to take the hard copy to their bus stand where we each had to sign and date the ticket before finally receiving our official wristbands allowing us to ride the bus all day. The tour itself was pretty boring as it was spent sitting on the top deck of the bus in the blazing hot sun while we were assaulted with the most annoying music and very little narrative. Most of the time we were just sitting in traffic.
This is the fourth Hop-on-hop-off bus tour that we have taken and three of the four have been downright bad. We bailed out at the Zócalo and headed for much needed margarita’s at another of our favorite watering holes, El Balcon del Zócalo a fancy rooftop restaurant overlooking the square. After drinks and a light lunch we returned home to meet up with James Deaver, another friend of Walter’s who had just arrived from NYC. The evening was spent in the Zona Rosa with dinner and a stroll through this lively neighborhood known for its shopping, nightlife, gay community and recently established Korean community. It is located just west of the historic center.
Friday morning we stayed home while Walt and friends went back to Mattisse for breakfast and on to Chapultepec Park to see the Castle before meeting up with us at Museo Nacional de Antropología.
We started with lunch which then left us with less than an hour for our initial tour of this massive museum which traces the history and culture of Mexico so we left feeling as if we had only scratched the surface. Our next tour began at four, we met up with Rafa Rios from Stylewalk MX tour company for a History Hopping and Mexican Cantina Tour. First stop was the beautiful Post Office, then a small but interesting Mexican Army and Air Force Museum which houses pieces of artillery, firearms, knives and documents.
Our first Cantina was La Opera which got its name because of its proximity to the Opera House. This Cantina opened in 1876 and the decor of velvet drapes and chandeliers is rather uncharacteristically ornate for a Cantina. We ordered margaritas and specially prepared octopus which Rafa recommended. Directly above one of the booths is a bulett hole in the ceiling. It was reputedly put there by Pancho Villa but our guide questioned the validity of this.
Cantina’s were mostly rudimentary bars with few tables and chairs whose golden age was in the 1940’s and 50’s, a time when no Mexican film seemed complete without the hero drowning his sorrows in their shadowy embrace. As we strolled to our next stop Rafa continued to point out interesting buildings and their significance. Our second Cantina was Mancera. This is a true historic Cantina that hails from over a century ago. It is housed in a beautiful historic building. The walls have various sports memorabilia including a boxing glove of Mohammed Ali. Sandy ordered a glass of Sangria but Jim and Walt were more adventurous and ordered a tequila drink with crispy grasshoppers floating in it and rimmed with powdered grasshopper. Jim even ate the critters.
As we entered our third Cantina Rafa said welcome to the wild side. La Faena is a bull fighting museum and also one of the oldest and most traditional Cantinas in the Historic Center of Mexico City. It is only a door away from El Bar Mancera but a sharp contrast in decor with its plastic chairs and tables and a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The walls are adorned with bull fighting posters and outfits in glass cases. Founded in 1954 it was the meeting place of Mexican Novilleros, these were aspiring bull fighters who have not yet attained the rank of matador. There is a juke box in the middle of the room that blares out American songs in Spanish. We played it safe and opted for Mexican beer here. Our walk to the final Cantina took us through the main square or Zocalo and it was a magical sight to see the Cathedral, National Palace and Government buildings lit up at night in all their majesty.
Along the way we stopped to interact with an age old Mexican tradition, the hurdy-gurdy man or organ grinder. Organ grinders are a long standing tradition and common sight and sound in Mexico City. They arrived here in the late 1800’s from Europe. Their traditional khaki military uniform dates back to the revolutionary war. It is said that an organ grinder accompanied Pancho Villa’s troops. One of the signature sounds of this city probably would never have taken hold if an itinerant family of organ grinders hadn’t turned up nearly a century ago in Berlin and began to manufacture hand organs. The Frati family handiwork ended up as a German gift to Mexico sparking a love affair. The organs can weigh as much as 80-90 pounds. Sadly the organists are losing fans. Many young people forced to listen to their music while out in a restaurant or in a square pay them to leave. The ranks of older patrons who recall them with nostalgia are thinning. We tend to be generous with them. You have to watch this video of Sandy playing the organ.
Our last Cantina of the night was Salon Espana located in one of the first official streets of the Historic Center. It is one of the most traditional and folkloric Cantina’s in the city. The Cantina was founded by Spanish refugees in 1925 who gave it its name. There are bullfighting paintings and objects of bullfighting on the wall. It has such a touch of Mexican essence with posters of the golden age and a valuable collection of photos of the revolution. We sampled various tequila cocktails here before Rafa made sure that we were safely in our Ubers home. The next morning Sandy took our guests to the San Angel Saturday Market. Jim decided to take a pass on the market but joined them for lunch at The San Angel Inn. Our house guests continued from lunch to two Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera house museums. Jim & Sandy returned home to start this blog. On Sunday morning we all attended the Ballet Folklórico de México at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. This was our first opportunity to gain access to this performance hall with its magnificent Tiffany glass curtain which reportedly weighs 27 tons. The theatre itself is a work of art with an orchestra level, two balconies and three levels of private booths on the side.
This Mexican folklore ballet was started in 1952 by Amalia Hernandez and is much bigger and better than ever over six and one half decades later. It is now under the direction of her grandson. The ballet works and musical pieces reflect various regions and folk music genres of Mexico. It was a lively and colorful spectacle with performers popping up in the aisles of the orchestra section and in the side booths. Photography, video and recording were not restricted but it seemed quite rude to be holding up the lighted screen of a cell phone in a dark theater. Our official photographer, Doug, very subtly got some great pictures. Our reactions to the performance were quite mixed from “spectacular” to “too long with no ongoing explanation of the dances significance”. Our recommendation is to see this performance only if you have plenty of time in CDMX to complete your must see list. We walked from the Palacio to the main square or Zocalo as the boys wanted to see the interior of the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. We had lunch on a third floor balcony of La Casa de las Sirenas with a pleasant view of the side and back of the Cathedral. Great very tart margaritas but a forgettable typical Méxican lunch. Jim had his second chicken with mole sauce and he finds the breasts too large with a bit much heavy mole sauce, and Jim likes his breasts and sauce. We went home and did the Sunday NYT crossword, James packed and took an Uber to the airport for a flight to LA for business while the other boys met up with a friend of Doug’s who lives here and a friend of Walter’s, Tom O’Toole, from Boston who is spending an extended time just wandering through México. Monday morning our guide Santiago also from Stylewalk MX picked Sandy and guests up for a six hour tour of the pyramids. Jim opted not to go as the tour was for four people only and we have the same tour booked with other guests in one week which we will write about at that time.
Tom O’Toole mentioned above was taking the tour with Doug, Sandy and Walter which left Jim as the odd man out. Tuesday was Walter and Doug’s last full day here. Walter was unable to run due to cranky legs from climbing two pyramids but we took him for a walk around our neighborhood. He was so impressed by the clean shaded Avenida Amsterdam which is an oval two way road loop around Parque Mexico with a shady pedestrian pathway between the two lanes of traffic. There is actually very little traffic on Avenida Amsterdam as cars tend to take the wider thoroughfares. We had a large breakfast with Walter at Pasillo de Humo which specializes in Oaxacan cooking overseen by an up and coming chef, Alam Méndez. It was a bit heavy at breakfast for us with mole and dark bean sauce. We are returning here for dinner on March 18 with some of our foodie friends. We returned to the Archeological Museum as Walter could spend days in this massive building. It was actually quite interesting for us also as we spent most of our time in the Teotihuacan section which is the pyramids that Sandy had already visited and Jim was able to preview his upcoming Sunday visit. We had another small meal at the museum restaurant. For our last meal with Walter and Doug we opted to return to one of our favorites, Blanco Colima in the Roma Norte Colonia. Tom also joined us for dinner in one of the dining rooms followed by drinks at the bar. We all had great meals and agreed that it was a fitting farewell dinner. Walter, Doug, James and Tom we had a great time with you and would welcome you staying with us again as we continue our travels.