Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Canada & Mexico 2011

From grasshoppers to football fans

As we had planned a good deal of sightseeing and wanted to avoid over-exposure to the midday heat, our objective was to be out and about by 0800. It will come as no surprise, then, that we had a blissfully quiet Executive Lounge in which to enjoy breakfast! I said that 'we' had planned the programme, but in all honesty the fact that we had a plan at all was down to Bruce's sterling efforts. When we set out along the Paseo de la Reforma, it was good to see that large sections were closed to traffic to allow people a little more breathing space on a Sunday morning. I was surprised by the sheer volume of people out jogging and cycling, first due to the early hour and secondly because I had no idea that Mexico was such a health-conscious society. I found the trend doubly surprising given the thin air and customary pollution levels in a city some 42% higher in altitude than the mile-high city of Denver.

Our first objective was Chapultepec Park, containing the hill after which the park was named and, magnificently set on top of the hill, Chapultepec Castle. The name is Aztec-derived and means 'grasshopper'. The Sunday crowds were already beginning to gather as we entered the park, yet we were too early for the little train that takes the effort out of climbing the hill. As we made our way on foot up towards the only royal castle in the Americas, I reflected that many of my preconceived ideas about this country and this city were already looking very shaky indeed.

Dating from 1785 but taking nearly 80 years to complete, the castle has gone through many phases in its history, playing the role of country retreat (when Mexico City was a lot smaller than it is now!), military academy, imperial palace, presidential home, observatory and finally, museum. I thought the current restoration work was superb and I was struck by the beauty of the building itself, the views, the gardens, the glasswork and the artwork. I could scarcely imagine a more impressive introduction to this unfamiliar city with a press coverage that often seemed less than flattering.

After completing our tour of the castle, we wandered back down the hill, noting that mechanical assistance was now available for those making the ascent. Despite this, we were both glad to have completed our visit before the crowds built up in earnest. Next stop was the nearby Museum of Modern Art, which looked hideous from the outside but had a likeable, funky interior. There were some great photographs on display, which were an interesting mix of the documentary and the artistic.

Our next objective was the area around the Museum of Anthropology, and we found that the best way to get there was to use the park section of the Paseo de la Reforma - a stretch that featured some striking artwork. Realising that we were well up on our schedule, it occurred to us that a mid-morning refreshment might be in order and as we drew close to the next museum, we spotted the unexpected sight of a bookstore in this leafy, parkland location. Realising that books and coffee are often found in partnership, we crossed the road to investigate and found one of the coolest bookshops ever, right beside Chapultepec Lake and complete with its own café.
ABOVE: Spectacular art in the Park section of the Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec Lake and the coolest bookshop ever. 

Of course it was far too hot for regular coffee, so I had an ice latte while Bruce had an ice tea, and we split a panini to keep the hunger pangs at bay. It was a welcome break and a chance to reflect on just how well this was going so far! Our original objective across the street was not actually the Museum of Anthropology itself, but the possibility of taking in a performance by Los Voladores ("the flyers"). This would have meant witnessing an ancient tradition from Veracruz that was also a colourful, breathtaking and dangerous spectacle involving five men attached by rope to a spinning 150-foot pole, in an upside-down position. Sadly, there was nothing doing. Perhaps it was not considered a suitable Sunday morning pastime.

BELOW: Lunch stop  We therefore pressed on into the upscale Polanco neighbourhood, an area that reminded me of Palermo in Buenos Aires. The nicely groomed streets were named after a mixture of mathematicians, scientists and writers, including Leibniz, Kepler, Darwin, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe. The midday heat was quite daunting by now and it was both impossible and quite unnecessary to hurry; we decided to go native and took everything nice and slowly. Despite this, we found ourselves so far ahead of schedule that we weren't hungry when we reached our intended lunch stop. We therefore kept going along the Avenida Presidente Masarik, the so-called Fifth Avenue of Mexico City, and into the Calle Gutemberg, although we did make a stop at a Starbucks branch in order to cool down a little with some chilled mineral water.

Eventually, we found ourselves back on the familiar surroundings of the Paseo de la Reforma and soon spotted a suitable candidate for a late, Mexican-style lunch: the Los Canarios restaurant of the very plush Hotel Marquis Reforma.

True to its name, the restaurant featured canaries in cages and it seemed to be popular with local family groups as well as tourists. We had a huge amount of food, after a bit of successful up-selling by the waiter. Bruce started with Ceviche, while I had a chicken consommé. We both had tacos to follow; mine featured beef while Bruce's were filled with a more imaginative mixture of crispy pork, avocado and guacamole.

We made our way back to the Sheraton through gathering crowds of football fans: it seemed that local team the Pumas had just won the national championship. Bruce had already warned me that the whole country was football-crazy, when I commented that many restaurants seemed to be showing the match on TV. Back at base, we went up to the rooftop pool to relax for a bit after our sightseeing, as the ever more massive and noisy hordes gathered. The focal point was the Angel of Independence, which was encircled by police to make sure that it didn't suffer any indignities at the hands of the mob. The crowd went absolutely crazy when their heroes finally appeared in an open-top bus.
ABOVE: Football fans begin to gather, but this was as nothing compared to the throng that crammed the streets later.

Sadly, my camera was in the hotel room safe at this point: it was a lesson for me that, like a good boy scout, it is better to be prepared at all times. All I could do was watch and listen as the fascinating spectacle unfolded far below: an army of human beings that looked more like tiny ants swarmed around their heroes in adulation and celebration, while at the same time filling the air with cheering and snatches of song that were almost overwhelming in their sheer volume. In due course, as the bus managed to forge a path through the throng, the sound slowly began to recede, occasionally punctuated by the startling report of a firecracker or two.

After freshening up, we then had pre-dinner cocktails in the Sheraton's attractive lobby bar, which proved to be an instant hit with both of us. Bruce had a Martini and I maintained the local theme with a Margarita. As most of the upscale restaurants were closed on Sundays, we had decided to have a Chinese dinner at El Dragon, in the Zona Rosa. It may seem a strange choice for a Mexico trip, but it came highly recommended by one of Bruce's clients, it was pretty much on our doorstep and the Zona Rosa is one of very few parts of the city that are reckoned to be safe for walking in after dark.

We had a nice Chinese meal, albeit not the Peking Duck that had come specifically recommended, but then suffered the mild indignity of being sneaked out through the fire escape. The manager apologised, but explained that they had pulled down the shutters after hearing that the football mob were starting to head back in this direction.   Although there was no immediate need for panic and the streets were even more full of police than usual, we wasted little time in heading back to the Sheraton. Despite having thought earlier that a nightcap in the lobby bar would be a nice way to end the day, we decided that in the event, we weren't up for it.

Without a shadow of doubt, it had been a hugely successful first full day in Mexico and an impressive introduction to this somewhat daunting metropolis.

Sunday 22 May

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