The first time I remember really seeing Mexico City was when I was 23 and watching the movie Man on Fire. In it, Denzel Washington, a bodyguard with a troubled past, is looking for Dakota Fanning, a kidnapped little girl from a rich family.
It’s a great movie.
It was also the first time that Mexico City entered my conscious thoughts as more than a vague idea of somewhere that existed on a map.
But movies like Man on Fire solidified the perception of the typical American, the middle class, the suburban like me, of Mexico – and Mexico City in particular – as a peril. Marked by films, politics and anxious news reports, we considered our southern neighbor to be a country ruled by cartels and corrupt politicians, where Americans were ambushed or, like Dakota Fanning, kidnapped. Outside of cruise ports and Cancun, they did not want to spend time there.
While it became clear to me a long time ago that no place is the way the media paint it, it wasn’t until recent times shut down much of the world that I finally explored Mexico and realized what I had been not found for so long.
Like so many Americans, Mexico has never seemed so exotic to me. It was so close and therefore less urgent to visit. It would always be there.
I wanted to travel the world, not my backyard.
Among these not found places in Mexico? Mexico City.
Over the years, many of my friends had visited and came back with wonder and culinary adventures. “You have to go,” they would rave. “How have you not been, of all things?”
In their stories, it was not a place of roughness, but of art, literature and high-end gastronomy.
Only recently, when I spent nine days in Mexico City, I realized how right they were. The large green areas, the colonial and Art Deco style buildings and the intoxicating beauty delighted me. As in Oaxaca, there was a magic in it, a pulsating energy that flowed through the people who had lively discussions in coffee shops or gathered around seemingly endless street carts, who ate tacos, even the dogs who played in parks.
The eclectic art galleries, lively food markets and grandiose historic buildings made me feel like I was in New York City — but affordable, with more street food and markets and more open spaces. (If only in the United States, as predicted, we would have taco trucks on every corner.)
The city is vividly green, with boundless parks and many tree-lined streets, through which I liked to wander. In some neighborhoods, you literally feel like you are in a urban jungle. I especially liked the Chapultepec Park, the oldest and largest urban park in Latin America. There they could watch people, walk around a lake, have a picnic, go jogging or even visit a castle that became an art museum. It’s Mexico’s answer to Central Park.
I also thought it was great that this was a place that worked best between sunset and sunrise. It is a night city. When the sun went down, it really came to life: people were walking their dogs and filling park benches, while dance groups were practicing in front of gazebos. They stay out until the early hours of the morning, drink, fill markets. No matter what time or place, there was a food truck ready to serve inexpensive and delicious dishes.
But what appealed to me the most was the focus on the arts there. Mexico City has a long history of art that goes back hundreds of years. It was the home of great artists such as Frida Kahlo, the mural painter Diego Rivera and the abstract painters of the Ruptura movement. This is a place that appreciates art in all its forms.
The city is also full of bookstores, Art Nouveau buildings, open mic nights and colorful murals, all of which convey that creative types rule in Mexico City. It is a paradise for artists.
Throw in all the street food and markets, cool restaurants and greenery, and how could I not help but fall in love?
During my hike, I was reminded of other places I call home: Hong Kong, Bangkok, New York, Tokyo and Paris. They all share a long history of exquisite cuisine, rich culture, vibrant nightlife and celebration of the arts, so it’s no wonder that I felt at home after seeing all this in Mexico City as well.
My trip was a very superficial view, seen through the prism of tourism. There are social and political topics that I would like to learn more about on my next visit (I’m especially curious to see how so many digital nomads moving there have changed the city).
I know it’s a cliche to say, but I can’t wait to return. I left too much of my heart there not to do it. There’s just too much more to learn, eat and discover.