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Three Perfect Days: Mexico City

One of the world’s biggest cities is bursting at the seams with energy, culture, great food and enough surreality to keep it endlessly fascinating

Author Joe Keohane Photography Holly Wilmeth

Lifting the lid on an artful dish (baby corn in coffee mayonnaise) at upscale eatery Pujol

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DAY TWO | Start with breakfast at Las Alcobas, with the fresh fruit plate, a sculptural tower of kiwi, apple, melon and dragon fruit, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and drizzled with honey. It is, without question, the lightest thing you’ll eat all week. To make sure your stomach doesn’t get the wrong idea, you chase the fruit with a plate of eggs in rich mole sauce.

Outside, you walk down Calle Oscar Wilde, past a park with a tranquil pool in which older men pilot their remote-controlled boats on the weekends (one man with a submarine is wreaking havoc on a cheerful orange vessel piloted by another in a captain’s hat), and head for Bosque de Chapultepec (1), the main park in a city that should be better known for its green spaces. Paseo de la Reforma, D.F.’s ordinarily congested central artery, is closed to cars on Sundays. Savor the peace and quiet while you admire the art exhibits mounted on the fences lining the park, and the sculpture garden running along the median.

The next stop is the Museo Nacional de Antropología (2). Inside, you find an unmatched collection of Mayan and Aztec artifacts, including an otherworldly jade mask discovered in the tomb of seventh-century Mayan ruler Pacal, and an exhibit on pulque. Here you learn that the Aztecs limited consumption of the highly alcoholic drink lest they fall under the spell of Cenzon Totochtin, or “Curse of the 400 Rabbits.”

Leaving the museum, you stop at one of the many food carts arrayed outside and order a cup of esquites. It’s nothing more than corn, hot peppers, lime, cheese and chili powder, served in corn liquid in a styrofoam cup, but it’s a terrifically flavorful meal unto itself (and, more important, a great vanquisher of residual pulque rabbits). You eat it on the way to El Centro, the historic center of Mexico City. When you get there, you navigate through the throngs of people to the Catedral Metropolitana (3), on the edge of the Zocalo, the main plaza in El Centro. When Hernán Cortés vanquished the Aztecs, he ordered their temples leveled, and had a Catholic church built here. The one standing today, consecrated in 1667, replaced that first one. You take a look at the grand altar and the mammoth organ, and note how the chandeliers are hanging at an angle — the result of the sinking ground beneath El Centro.

Next is the Palacio Nacional (4), the government headquarters built by Cortés on the site of Montezuma’s palace. You walk into the handsome courtyard and climb the staircase to take in several historical murals by Diego Rivera. Then travel back in time, via the intensely crowded and cacophonous street Moneda, to the Templo Mayor (5), one of the Aztecs’ main temples (and the site of some of the most copious sacrificial bloodletting). It was built in the 14th century, and after that, each succeeding ruler built a new layer on top in a representation of Aztec expansion. Lost for centuries, it was accidentally discovered by utility workers in 1978, and is still being excavated. Today, you can see the broken concentric shells and peer into its very core.

You amble west along Madero, taking in a pedestrian mall teeming with performers, riotous drum bands, mariachi musicians walking to work, teenagers and guys in homemade movie costumes posing for photos. (Batman is doing a brisk business; Predator, who is fashioned largely from washers and vacuum cleaner hoses, is less of a draw.) Pass the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and arrive at the Alameda Central (6). The park is packed with vendors and Chilangos hustling and hanging out on a pleasant Sunday. There are bands playing in different corners of the park, each inspiring whirlpools of impromptu salsa dancing.

The sun has gone down, and you’re feeling the altitude, so you make your way back to Chapultepec, buy some mango slices and roasted fava beans in chili powder from a vendor (most restaurants are closed on Sunday nights) and return to the hotel. Thus settled in, you order up a glass of wine, climb into the spacious tub by the window overlooking the street and call it a day.

One Response to “Three Perfect Days: Mexico City”

  1. Eric Mazur Says:
    November 9th, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I noticed that the last three “Three Perfect Days” articles are not available in pdf format (the last one was Stockholm). I do have the Hemispheres iPad app, but I don’t usually walk around foreign cities with my iPad in my hand. It’s nice for reading, but not for sightseeing. Nor do I have international data roaming plans that permit me to pull up the web based versions while traveling overseas.

    Could I convince you to continue the practice of posting the pdf versions in addition to tall the other dissemination?

    I really love the articles and have followed the recommendations of many of your Three Perfect Days articles — with a printed copy in my hands!

    Eric Mazur
    Professor of Physics
    Harvard University

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