Tuesday, November 6, 2007


First published in Atención San Miguel Feb 9, 2007

Like cherry blossom time in Japan, jacaranda season in Mexico is a great time to visit. Springtime in Mexico City begins with thousands of jacaranda trees blooming like soft purple clouds above the streets and parks. Floating clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers adorn the city with their exquisite color, a blue-lavender, reminiscent of violets, lilacs, orchids, and the sky, a color at once peaceful and intense. The trees are seen all over town, but here are some suggestions for enjoying the best of the jacarandas along with el D.F.'s most interesting tourist attractions.

Not far from the Zócalo, Mexico City´s vast main plaza, is the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Argentina #28 near Venezuela) where jacaranda- filled courtyards are decorated with murals by Diego Rivera, painted here between 1923 and 1928. There is too much to see in one visit, so I recommend beginning upstairs on the 3rd floor, where Riveras’s later work exhibits greater control of design and color. The murals are an allegory of the Mexican Revolution, with scenes of triumphant workers and decadent capitalists united by a long scroll painted with lyrics of Revolutionary songs. These are my favorite Rivera murals in the city, full of movement, opinion, and colors you want to sink your teeth into. Rivera used wife Frida Kahlo as a model for an armed revolutionary in the panel “The Arsenal” near the top of the stairs. Murals on the first floor depict traditions and festivals of the Mexican people. Passing beyond the back patio you enter a colonial building (the former Customs House), where murals by David Alfaro Siquieros, Rivera´s famed contemporary, enliven the large stairwell with their bold imagery and energetic technique. .

Eight blocks west of the Zócalo is the Alameda, an oasis of green in the city center, a perfect place to relax under an umbrella of jacarandas, get your shoes shined, and watch the world go by. Surrounding the park are some of Mexico City’s best sights. The recently renovated Palacio de Bellas Artes, looking like a giant wedding cake at the end of the park, is the principal venue for opera, concerts and ballet. The museum upstairs has murals by Rivera, Tamayo, Siqueiros and Orozco among others, and there is a Museo de Arquitectura (separate admission ticket) on the top floor, well worth visiting for the up-close view of the dome over the lobby.

Attending a performance at Bellas Artes is the only way to see the magnificent Aztec-Deco interior of the theater, with its Tiffany stained-glass stage “curtain”. Events are listed on the wall in the front lobby, where you will see ticket booths (taquillas). The Ballet Folklórico presents colorful dance performances every Sunday and Wednesday; the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional has concerts on Friday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 12 noon, with tickets for as little as 80 pesos.
Directly across from Bellas Artes you will see a Sears store, whose 8th floor café is perfect for viewing the jacarandas in the Alameda below—and the coffee is good, too.
On the north side of the Alameda, on Avenida Hidalgo, is the Museo Franz Mayer, with a fine collection of colonial art housed in a lovingly restored 16th century building. Be sure to visit the museum’s tranquil cloistered garden to best enjoy the elegant colonial architecture here.

South of the Alameda, behind the high-rise Hilton Hotel, is the Museo de Arte Popular (Revillagigedo and Independencia, www.map.org.mx). A top-notch collection of Mexican handicrafts is beautifully displayed here in a renovated Art-Deco building. All proceeds from the store here go to the artesans.

The most dramatic display of jacarandas is found in Colonia Condesa. Take a taxi to Avenida Michoacán in Parque Mexico, where you will see a statue of a buxom nude holding two jugs spouting water. This marks the middle of the park, where you can also find a taxi sitio for your return trip. Ambling through this cool, shady neighborhood park is a pleasure, especially on weekends when you might encounter a used book sale, art classes for the kids, or an impromptu tango milonga near the duck pond. The park is a large oval whose perimeter is defined by Avenida México and by a larger concentric oval, Avenida Amsterdam. Walking along these streets will give you a good feel for the mix of nature and architecture that characterizes this colonia--and you can’t get lost in this otherwise complicated neighborhood, as the oval shape returns you to your starting point.
Weekly markets, known by the Aztec name tianguis, are set up in the streets as they have been for centuries; here you might see a woman with a Chanel bag buying handmade tortillas from a country woman in braids and a rebozo. Sounds of an older Mexico are heard in Condesa: the whistle of the knife sharpener, the cries of men delivering gas or water, the hoot of the camotero who sells sweet potatoes from a push-cart at night, or a one-man band playing trumpet and drums.

On Avenida Michoacán, about five blocks from Parque México (walking in the direction of the traffic) , is the commercial center of Condesa, with lots of places to shop, eat, or sit and watch hip, young “chilangos” (as D.F. residents are known) looking great and having fun. At Café La Gloria (Vicente Suarez at Amatlán) you can admire the work of established Mexico City artists on display while dining on bistro-style food. Artefacto (Amatlán 94) sells home accessories that mix traditional materials with sleek design. El Milagrito (Mazatlan 152) features whimsical gift items with images of Mexico’s twin goddesses, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Frida Kahlo. You can cool off with a gelato at Neve-Gelato (on the corner of Michoacan and Cuernavaca).

Start at Avenida Michoacán in Parque Mexico, where you are surrounded by jacaranda trees—you will see a statue of a buxom nude holding two jugs spouting water, which marks the middle of the park. Ambling through this cool, shady neighborhood park is a pleasure, especially on weekends when you might encounter a used book sale, art classes for the kids, or an impromptu tango class near the duck pond. The park is a large oval whose perimeter is defined by Avenida Mexico and by a larger concentric oval, Avenida Amsterdam. Walking along these streets will give you a good feel for the mix of nature and architecture that characterizes this colonia--and you can’t get lost in this otherwise complicated neighborhood, as the oval shape returns you to your starting point.

The nearby Condesa DF Hotel (at the corner of Veracruz and Parque España) is a fashionable hotspot, with a spectacular display of jacarandas, best enjoyed from the rooftop. Take the elevator to the top floor, where the wood-planked terrace, complete with hot tub, seems to float on waves of jacaranda trees lining Avenida Veracruz.

In Xochimilco at the southern end of the city is The Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, an idyllic place for a spring visit. Olmedo, a rich socialite patron of Diego Rivera, opened her house and collection to the public in 1994. Manicured lawns are planted with jacarandas and flaming red colorin trees; strutting peacocks and waddling ducks lead you to her 16th century hacienda. Out front is a fenced-off area where several xoloitzcuintzles, rare hairless dogs of pre-hispanic origin, are frolicking or sleeping. The ceramic sculptures of these dogs from the state of Colima are a highlight of the museum’s small but impressive pre-Hispanic collection. The museum features works by Diego Rivera, including a roomful of luscious small paintings of sunsets, his best lithographs, and early work from his cubist period. Frida Kahlo has her own room, the largest collection of her paintings anywhere.

Visit the website (www.museodoloresolmedo.org) for more information and directions. Make a copy of their map, as many cab drivers have trouble finding this place. The museum is near to the La Noria metro station.

Perhaps the best place to view the jacarandas is from the air--if you are arriving by plane, be sure to get a window seat.

If you think of Mexico City as a big ugly metropolis, visit during jacaranda season and see if you don’t change your mind.


First published in Atención San Miguel June 29, 2007

The earthquake that struck Mexico City at 12:42 A.M. on Friday, April 13 reached 6.3 on the Richter Scale, the strongest I had felt so far. Nick and I stood under a doorway, watching the ceiling light in the living room sway back and forth, listening to the Venetian blinds rattle, and realizing, in silent awe, that our entire four-story apartment building was undulating. The quake’s center was hundreds of miles away, near the beach at Acapulco, eighteen miles below the earth’s surface. No one was hurt and there was little property damage reported, but a piece of the planet had moved, and the physical sensation etched itself into my body’s memory. “Don’t forget to put on a bathrobe in case we have to run out into the street or if we’re found under the rubble,” Nick thoughtfully reminded me.The next morning, after a few “Did you feel that?” conversations with friends, life went back to normal.

Maintaining a sense of equanimity in Mexico City is a tough job. Living with 20 million neighbors in a place that shakes on occasion requires constant attention, so I’m always on the lookout for spots that provide an oasis of calm in the urban storm--the best places to visit after an earthquake.

The busy area behind the Cathedral in the Centro Histórico recalls an older Mexico City. Bustling Plaza Santo Domingo, where type-setters work under a sagging arcade as they have for centuries, is the most intact Colonial space in the city. Superb murals of Diego Rivera are found at the nearby Secretaria de Educación Pública, and, just around the corner is the San Ildefonso museum, one of the city’s best, located in a former Jesuit college. The area is full of street vendors, hawkers, noise, traffic, life, sometimes reaching an exhausting level. A visit to the church known as La Piedad (Calle Doncelles near Argentina) provides a haven of tranquility amidst the commercial hubbub. Its proximity to the Templo Mayor, where Aztecs offered human sacrifices to their gods Huitzilopotzli and Tlaloc, adds to its aura of sanctity. The baroque interior, a celestial fantasy of carved wood and gilded plaster, inspires awe and the desire to worship a deity.

The Museo Franz Mayer, facing the green park known as the Alameda in the Centro Histórico, is one of the city’s gems of colonial architecture. In its peaceful garden patio you can sip a cappuccino, listen to birds sing, and be transported, in a flash, to another, more innocent Mexico City. A beautifully tiled central fountain is surrounded by beds of small shrubs and flowers; a well-proportioned arcade envelops the patio, providing a shady place to sit and observe. The heaviness of this building, the sense that each of its stones was lifted into place by hand, provides a grounding comfort, somewhat humbling, that feels just right after an exhausting bout in the big city.

Not far from the Zócalo is the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico (Pino Suarez #30, near República del Salvador) which has changing exhibits (of variable quality) and a permanent exhibition about the city’s history. The most interesting thing here, however, is the studio of Joaquin Clausell, located on the second floor (mention it when you buy your ticket as it is sometimes locked.) Clausell (1866-1935) was a Mexican painter who studied impressionism in Paris. His wealthy in-laws owned the building and gave him a studio to work in. For years he painted, doodled and sketched directly on the four walls of his atelier, creating a fascinating mural of the artist’s working process. The room is dark, cool, and quiet, and furnished with some very comfortable upholstered chairs, making it perhaps the most peaceful public space in the Centro.

Mexico’s famous architect, Luis Barragán (1902-1988), is known for the simple, at times austere, lines of his buildings, for the use of earthy, indigenous building materials, and the introduction of bold colors. A visit to his home and studio is a lesson in the difference between “architecture” and “construction”. His spaces, with their dramatic changes of light and scale, are at once warm and cozy, cool and abstract. The famous ‘floating staircase’ displays his propensity for poise and delicate balance. You feel removed from the city in his garden, an urban jungle of tumbling vines and tropical plants; the tall, richly colored walls of the rooftop terrace block out everything but the blue sky above; the hum of traffic seems to be coming from another world. Barragán was a religious man, a fact instilled into his architecture. His home/studio was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. The Casa/Museo Luis Barragán is located at General Ramirez 114 in Colonia Tacubaya, (close to Metro Constituyentes). Call to reserve in advance at 5515-4908 (English spoken).

If you’re seeking more oxygen, head to Parque Mexico in Colonia Condesa, a small but luxuriant park built in the 1920’s in a neighborhood filled with art-deco buildings, restaurants, cafés and bookstores. Pathways meander among towering palms, graceful jacarandas, and huge banana trees surrounding a duck pond and an artificial geyser. There are benches, like small rustic cottages, where you can sit and read.

The Museo del Carmen, a former 17th century convent in San Angel, in the south of the city, is a cloistered enclave with a hushed, expectant mood. You can see a fine collection of religious art from the Spanish colonial period, as well as a cellar filled with mummified nuns, but simply sitting and enjoying the feeling of weight and security--of survival--in the stones here is what makes this spot so soothing.

Finding a peaceful and quiet hotel room in Mexico City can be a challenge. Ask about noise (and ventilation), especially in older hotels, as rooms vary greatly.

Two hotels in quieter parts of the city are the Hotel Maria Cristina (Rio Lerma 31, Colonia Juarez, tel. 5703-1787, www.hotelmariacristina.com.mx) and La Casona (Durango 280, Colonia Roma, tel. 5286-3001,


I’ve never heard anyone say they are coming for a relaxing weekend in Mexico City, but the experience of peace and quiet, once you find it, takes on a delicious depth in this city. The flamboyant urban hysteria of the city quickly blurs any thoughts of natural disaster with its resounding call to life, but, just in case, I’m going to renew my earthquake insurance…next week.


First published in Atención San Miguel March 9, 2007

When my friend Dottie returned to Colorado after spending a year in San Miguel with her family, she wrote me the following e-mail: “I went to the grocery store today and burst into tears. Everything is wrapped in plastic. There are no smells of fruits or vegetables or flowers. The avocados are hard as rocks. I miss the real thing.” She was referring to el mercado, the place where Mexicans have traditionally done their shopping before the arrival of Gigante and Commercial Mexicana. In San Miguel there are two mercados, El Nigromante near the center and El Merdcado San Juan on the western end of town. If you haven’t spent time there, you are missing a big piece of the cultural picture of life in Mexico.

In Mexico City’s neighborhoods tall red and green ‘Mi Mercado’ signs are a familiar sight, and although statistics show that more and more Mexicans are shopping in American-style supermarkets each year, in the big city the traditional market is going strong.

Mercados bring the farm, the earth, the past into everyday life. At the Museo de Antropología in Mexico City a diorama of a mercado in Aztec times looks remarkably like those you see today. In the Palacio Nacional, Diego Rivera’s panoramic mural of an Aztec market depicts a butcher offering a human arm for sale, but otherwise the same goods are still sold. Corn, beans, squash, avocados, metates for grinding corn and molcajetes for grinding chilies, baskets and woven mats are just a few of the things that connect today’s mercados to their Aztec past. And, of course, the best tortillas are being sold by women who sit on the ground outside as they have for centuries, their baskets covered with hand-embroidered napkins.

Most market stalls are small family-run businesses, so there is an intimate feel of a village in the mercado. You can still ask for ‘un aguacate para hoy’, a recommendation for the best melon, or get a free apple as a ‘pilón’ from your friendly local greengrocer. Vendors beseech you with ‘Que vay a llevar?’ or ‘Que le damos, marchanta?’ and there is a chatty, bustling feel to the proceedings, and usually, somewhere, music.

La Merced is the mother of all markets in Mexico City, where the experience of a village mercado is enlarged to gargantuan scale. Formerly surrounded by a network of canals crowded with delivery boats, the site has been a commercial center for centuries. The humongous but more business-like Central de Abastos, far south in the city, has replaced it as the main center of food distribution for the country, but La Merced embodies the heart and soul of Mexico City. Arriving by metro brings you right into the middle of the main market building (exit at forward end of train). Huge piles of corn husks and banana leaves for making tamales, spiraling drums of nopal cactus, walls of dried chilies, and seemingly endless rows of garlic, potatoes, tomatoes and fruits surround you. The main building is the size of several football fields; smaller nearby buildings house candy vendors, fake flower sellers, wholesale kitchen suppliers and more in vast quantities. Wandering through La Merced, soaking up its rich, noisy, crowded exhuberance, is an energizing and sometimes dizzying experience. (Avoid Saturday afternoons when crowds are dense.)

A few miles south of the Zócalo, the Mercado Jamaica offers a laid-back and scaled-down version of La Merced, plus more—it is the city’s wholesale flower market. Beyond the beautifully displayed fruits, vegetables and piñatas are several aisles lined with masses of cut flowers and curious formal arrangements that might include apples, plastic dolls or live goldfish. In the main covered building look for the Tepacheria ‘Paty’ where you can get a refreshing glass of tepache, a traditional drink made of lightly fermented pineapple juice. There is a metro stop at the Mercado Jamaica on the #9 line and a taxio sitio behind the flower market

The Mercado San Juan (on Ernest Pugibet in the Centro) is not the most picturesque place, but it’s where gourmet cooks, professional chefs and French people go to buy their food. Fist-size shrimp, button-sized squash, exotic fruits, chinese vegetables, imported cheeses, wild mushrooms and more are found inside the building. Outside you might find crispy fried grasshoppers or fresh gusanos, worms of the maguey cactus that are eaten live, rolled in a tortilla with salt and lime. The dapper Argentine gentleman by the outside wall of the Mercado San Juan sells excellent empanadas de elote.

The Aztec word ‘tianguis’ is still used to describe once-a-week street markets where the vendor comes to you, a distinctive feature of Mexico City neighborhoods. Where I live in Colonia Condesa there are two weekly markets, both colorful and lively affairs. The Tuesday tianguis rivals anything seen in Paris, with enticingly displaced produce glowing under pink awnings. At the corner of Pachuca and Vera Cruz you wll find the best tamales in the city (get there by 11am)—especially good are the tamales oaxaqueños wrapped in banana leaves with mole. The Friday tianguis at Campeche and Nuevo Leon is a compact and colorful affair, a perfect example of a neighborhood street market.

My apartment in Mexico City is midway between a traditional mercado and the Superama, and like any smart urbanite, I take advantage of both. But the mercado offers a grounded feeling of knowing that my fruits and vegetables come from someplace real. It’s one of the delights of city life.