I love that feeling when you wake up after a long night (and/or day of travel), dazed and confused–momentarily forgetting where in the world you are. Then you slowly blink your eyes open to see a strange room streamed in sunlight. And you remember.
Ah right, Mexico City. My stomach grumbled.
I’m not going to say this is “what to do” in Mexico City. Obviously, we barely scratched the surface. There are a million ways to do it and fumbling your way through the masses–navigating the overwhelming size of it all and probably making a couple mistakes along the way–is what makes the experience. But, recommendations from a few people who had spent some time in North America’s largest city certainly helped us find our bearings.
Anyway, we based ourselves in Condesa and went where the tides took us.
Our first morning was a Saturday and we started with barbacoa: tender lamb roasted in a pit and traditionally eaten on the weekends. We had it packed into soft dark corn tortillas with our first medley of salsas, along with jugo verde to wash it down–made, I think, with prickly pear, handfuls of herbs, and some other tropical fruit.
They sent an English-speaking waiter to us–the only foreigners in the busy weekend breakfast spot, from what I could tell–to try upselling us a delicacy. When he recommended one of three insect specialities, I decided we had to give in this time.
We went with escamoles tacos, an ant larvae. Pan-fried with butter and simple spices, they have a surprising decadent, nutty, almost cheese-like taste. At about $20CAD for two tacos, they were by far the priciest dish we bought over the trip, but for good reason.
Then we hit the pavement–walking thousands and thousands of steps, as is typical during the first couple days in a city–in pursuit of the next delicious bite.
We sauntered through peaceful green parks, tropical birds singing our welcome and dog walkers trotting alongside a dozen canines. Quiet ponds, old men on benches, and students studying in hammocks lined the pathways. We passed colourful murals and museum after museum. We visited the Museum of Anthropology, the largest museum in the country.
We hopped on the city’s packed but conveneint and uber cheap metro (about 30 cents per ride) the rest of the way to the historic centre. And then, we were on a street filled completely with stores selling sound systems, Latin club music blared from each one as the crowds kept beat.
But everywhere, there was food. Tacos being slung, quesadillas fried, steaming liquid dropped into bowls, sandwiches stuffed with an array of meats and spicey, pickley things.
We reached a hole in the wall that glowed with the light of an angel’s gaze. A simple list of words in Spanish was nailed next to the window where a man quickly grabbed pieces of meat, chopped them, wrapped in a tortilla, and handed off to the next pair of hungry hands. We went with the one word we knew–suadero, a thin cut from the ribs–and a random pick: lengua, which turned out to be the delicious cow’s tongue.
There’s something meta about tasting the organ another animal used to taste.
As the hours and days progressed, we encountered many more tacos–from street food stops to swanky eateries, from chicarrón (pig skin) and Al Pastor (spit grilled pork), to chille rellenos and grilled steak with prickly pear.
But there was so, so much more I had to get my hands on. So I kept my eyes peeled for dishes I’d heard whispers about.
We tried molé with shredded chicken, café de olla, chiles en nogada (even though we technically missed the season, oops), another Yucatan-style stuffed chilli, chilaquiles, heuvos rancheros, tamales, sopa de tortilla, champurrado, enchiladas, and the cheesiest tastiest quesadillas with an array of fillings.
When dessert called, there was one obvious answer. We made our first trip to the original El Moro, home of the churro empire. The line wrapped around the block but moved very quickly. We watched in amazement as giant stacks of churros were lugged out of the fryer and rolled in cinnamon before our eyes by a machine-like conveyer belt of cooks in white hats.
After a couple mezcal cocktails at a fancy hipster bar, tortas (packed sandwiches sold on any street corner) were calling our name. We approached a nearby cart and attempted to ask for whatever the three guys sitting at the counter were already having. But one fella jumped up and offered us his own sandwich by way of hand gestures.
We tried to say we could buy our own but he insisted that he was stuffed, so we thanked him and took a bite. His friend, who happened to speak perfect English, cautioned us against the spice. When we replied that it wasn’t too bad, he cried, “Ah this guy must not like me–he loaded mine with chillis!” He asked us where we were from and we chatted about the PNW. Turns out he and his wife had spent some time in Seattle, hence his excellent English.
We decided to join an AirBnb experience and tagged along with a group to a Lucha Libre fight at Arena México. Our host told us about the history and rules of the sport, infusing the experience with her personal memories of watching it over the years with friends and family.
Seeing the masked men soar over the ring, slam into their opponents and backflip off the stage was entertaining, yes. But the crowd itself was just as energizing. They cheered their favourites, booed the others, screamed curses and words of encouragement, fists shaking, beer sloshing, smiles plastered as far as the eye could see.
Once a few days had passed, we hopped on a bus and headed a couple hours south to the town of Taxco. As the bus approaced, the vistas formed before our eyes–layers of picturesque white buildings and terracotta roofs built up along steep rolling hills. Famed for its historic silver production and known as one of the country’s “Pueblo Magicos”, it looked like a painting from an Italian village.
After settling into our AirBnb and meeting our hostess who spoke about the same amount of English as I do Spanish, we set out to wander around. In Taxco, a casual wander quickly turns into a workout as nearly each street is a steep climb up before it meanders back down. I was shocked to see eldery women making their way up and down the most dramatic stairs and pathways, slowly but surely. Tourism has replaced silver as Taxco’s main ‘industry’ these days, but the streets are still sleepy (besides the taxi traffic) and the grand majority of tourists appeared to be from Mexico.
A lively little town centre surrounded the city’s Church of Santa Prisca and day and night people gathered to sit and chat, while kids chased eachother in circles.
We stumbled upon the main market’s inconspicuous entrance and were greeted by a wonderful underground world. An intricate maze of pathways were filled with people selling produce, meat, textiles, and everything in between. Fresh tortillas were cranked at rapid speed, a mini food court-type space offered barbacoa, tacos, and other tasty things to eat on the spot. Women hawked fresh quesilldillas and one talked me in to sitting down to enjoy a perfectly grilled, four-cheese creation.
In an attempt to see Taxco in all it’s beauty, we hiked to the “cristo” at they very top of town. Armed with water, pinepple slices, and chips, we made our way up and up, past small gatherings of locals at various levels of altitude. The higher we got, the quieter it was.
When we got close to the top, a boy of about 10 joined with a cheery “hola” and became our personal guide. When we finally reached the viewpoint, he pointed out his house, a volcano in the distance, the cristo’s original sculpted hands that apparently had fallen off years ago. We gave him a few pesos and a bag of chips that he munched happily, chatting as much as my lack of Spanish allowed, taking in the beauty of his home.
When we finally parted ways with the boy and the view, we headed back towards the town centre to enjoy a beer at one of the tourist-targeted restaurants with a picture perfect view of the church before heading to a bustling “pozoleria” called Tia Calla. For what? Pozole, of course–a comforting traditional soup made with hominy and chicken and garnished with crispy pok rinds, chile peppers, onion, garlic, radishes, avocado, and limes. Con una cerveza.
We returned to Mexico City for our last couple days, to do a little more site seeing, to eat a lot more. Without any agenda at hand, we enjoyed the pace of the city. We splurged on a gorgeous loft ($70/night) in the heart of Roma Norte, crossed a few more eateries off the bucket list, explored the Chapultepec Castle, and sipped a little more mezcal.
She’s big, bold, and beautiful. She’s hectic and peaceful, loud and quiet, old and new, delicious, friendly, spicey and insanely green. She’s the kind of city I can see myself returning to again–to hopefully stay a little longer, to jump off and explore more of this incredible country that I had “written off” as “that place with the resorts” for many years. So, just go. Flights are cheap and it’s not too far. Find your own way of exploring it.
Go get a taste of Mexico City.