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DESTINATION: MEXICO

Going Native for a Capital Time

Getting past the tourist hustle-bustle into neighborhoods and parks with Aztec, colonial and modern authenticity

October 22, 2000|MOLLY MOORE and JOHN WARD ANDERSON | WASHINGTON POST / Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson now report from the Washington Post's Istanbul bureau

MEXICO CITY — Forget the dance clubs. Forget the cantinas. The best party in this mammoth Mexican metropolis is aboard the brightly painted boats that ply the centuries-old canals south of the city.

On weekends, Mexican families arrive at the canals of Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-MIL-ko) by the hundreds and pile onto festive wooden boats powered by sinewy men and boys using wooden poles. Long, narrow tables accommodate picnic-style lunches. If you didn't have time to stock your own lunch basket, don't worry. The canals are a veritable marketplace of beer boats and floating kitchens that will cook a custom-ordered lunch of tacos and tamales. Flower boats offer bouquets to adorn your table, mariachi boats serenade you and photographers on camera boats will snap your picture--sombrero and serape thrown in free.

The floating festival at Xochimilco--boats rent for about $10 an hour, poler included--was our favorite weekend diversion in 4 1/2 years as newspaper correspondents in Mexico. The canals are hundreds of years old, created by the Aztecs as part of a network of gardens for supplying fruits and vegetables to the city. The floating gardens still produce many of the flowers and ornamental plants sold in Mexico City, about 35 minutes to the north.

Because many foreigners associate Mexico with beaches and exotic Mayan and Aztec ruins, the capital city is one of Mexico's most overlooked tourist destinations. And that's a shame, because it offers enough to keep an energetic tourist busy for a week. Within a few blocks, you can be transported back 600 years to the steps of an Aztec temple, stroll the arcades of a 4-century-old colonial Spanish plaza and lunch on nuevo cuisine in a snazzy modern cafe.

In what is arguably the world's largest city--an estimated 22 million people in the greater metropolitan area--traffic and pollution are bad. Crime also is a growing problem, but with common sense (use ATMs only in daytime, in well-trafficked places), a few precautions (don't wear jewelry or carry cameras or purses on straps) and some big-city savvy (ask the hotel or restaurant to call a cab for you), there's little reason to be any more paranoid about crime here than in most other big cities.

To get you out of the traffic and noise, we propose visits to lesser-known parts of the city that will give you a sense of Mexico's variety.

You can feel the tranquillity of Old Mexico in the charming colonial neighborhood of Coyoacan, south of the city center. Once a community of weekend haciendas for wealthy city dwellers, it has been absorbed by the megalopolis. But strict historic preservation has kept tacky modern architecture and traffic congestion at bay.

The Coyoacan plaza is an oasis of clipped boxwood hedges and leafy trees flanked by 18th and 19th century homes and chapels. Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes had a villa here; a government office building stands on the site.

The bars and restaurants on the fringes of the square are great spots for people-watching and for sampling Mexico's new boutique tequilas. These are not the tequilas of your college days; these are meant to be sipped. With some brands priced at more than $100 a bottle, you want to savor the flavors.

Stroll under the arches of the plaza entrance and walk down Calle Francisco Sosa, reputedly the oldest street in Mexico, a narrow cobblestone passageway flanked by 15-foot adobe walls, many with tiny niches housing statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint. Try to peep inside the walls when residents open their doors or garages. Behind the simple facades are some of Mexico's most gorgeous homes and gardens, brilliant flower-filled yards, gurgling fountains and grand arched passageways.

An even more gentrified version of Coyoacan is the neighboring colonia of San Angel, a charming community of tiny, twisting streets between ancient stone walls dripping in the neon magentas, reds and oranges of bougainvillea.

The most popular shopping stop for every visitor we've hosted is San Angel's Bazaar Sabado, the Saturday Market, open, as its name suggests, only on Saturdays. Two tree-shaded squares are jampacked with local artists selling their work--some exceptionally good--at reasonable prices. Inside the covered market area just off one of the plazas is a two-story warren of tiny shops crammed with handicrafts, clothes, jewelry and pottery.

The first stop for many tourists in Mexico City is the historic center, with its 13-acre square, the Zocalo, one of the largest city plazas in the world. The Zocalo--officially Plaza de la Constitution--is dominated by the behemoth Metropolitan Cathedral and the block-long National Palace.

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