MEXICO CITY — The stone steps of the Pirámide de la Luna seem steeper now than the ones our family ascended 20 years ago, and more narrow and treacherous upon descent. This time I watched as our son, Alex, now 29, bounded down fearlessly while I clung carefully to the cable handrail, stepping down with great care.
Alex took off jogging along the broad, gravel-paved Calzada de los Muertos, the Roadway of the Dead, past the surrounding 13 smaller pyramids that form the Plaza de la Luna, back toward the taller La Pirámide del Sol. We had ascended the pyramid earlier that morning, all 248 steps, to sit with a handful of other visitors as the sun rose to the east of Cerro Gordo and cast the ancient indigenous complex of Teotihuacán in a soft light.
I was content to move more slowly on a day when we would surpass 18,000 steps in all, a satisfying achievement at the 7,464 foot elevation. All along the way, local vendors dressed in native garb offered fabrics, simple jewelry, and obsidian knives, as others piped on wooden flutes or blew into devices to imitate snarling jaguars.
There is an invisible, but unmistakable sense of spirituality in Teotihuacán, left behind by a nameless civilization that predated the Aztecs. While Alex climbed another pyramid I stood contemplating the passage of time in the complex that dates to at least 100 AD, remembering my own visits, first as a young man in the 1970s, again in the 1980s, and then with my wife, Monika and two young boys in the 1990s. This would probably be my last visit and I wanted to capture all of it in memory.
Teotihuacán is one of Mexico’s 37 UNESCO World Heritage sites, several of which are in or near Mexico City. We were smart to arrive so early from our apartment in Colonia Condesa in Mexico City after splurging on a 50-minute Uber ride that only cost $27. By mid-morning, hundreds of people could be seen climbing the Pyramid of the Sun as the temperature climbed, too, throughout the shadeless complex.
We had come early on a Monday, knowing the weekend crowds would be huge, especially on Sunday when admission is free. Mid-morning or afternoon traffic can lengthen the ride to and from the center of Mexico City by more than one hour.
Tuesday, July 11, was a landmark day for Alex, a history and government teacher at Central Catholic High School, as he completed the Masters in Education Leadership program at Trinity University. The next morning we boarded the Interjet nonstop flight to Mexico City for a father-son sojourn, a seven-day whirlwind exploration of Mexico City’s history, culture, and thriving culinary scene. It would be his first visit as an adult, an opportunity to put his improving Spanish to the test.
Our visit to Teotihuacán on our last full day in Mexico was the capstone of the trip. It ended with a late lunch at La Gruta, a restaurant dramatically staged in a cavern located a short walk outside Gate Five to the complex.
The week began with a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Historia, where we paid a modest fee for an hour-long orientation from a bilingual guide before setting off on our own. Like all great museums, there was far more to see and absorb than could be accomplished in a single visit. Still, an appreciation for the richness and complexity of Mexico’s pre-Colombian past is best gained by starting at the anthropology museum, one of 10 museums located in the great Bosque de Chapultepec, Chapultepec Park.
From there we made our way on foot through the park to Chapultepec Castle for a hike up the steep roadway to take in the mid-19th century European opulence enjoyed by the ruling class under Emperor Maximiliano I and the Empress Carlotta.
A young woman street hawker lured us into one of the park’s open air restaurants for a mid-day break. A look at what passed as the kitchen stall told me to settle for bottled water, but Alex ordered a chicken plate without any consequences. Years of experience have left me a less enthusiastic consumer of street food. I’m not fastidious about it, and we enjoyed a delicious breakfast seated on stools at Antojitos Mexicanos ‘Sandy’, a food stand in the Mercado de Coyoacán, and dinner at a Condesa venue whose name claims, falsely, to be El Creador del Tacos al Pastor.
Mexico City is a destination more San Antonians should consider as an attractive escape from the South Texas summer heat, one of the world’s great cities located so close by. While some parts of the sprawling metropolis of 22 million people are off-limits after hours for the sensible traveler, the central city and surrounding colonias are quite safe. Mexico City today is a far more sophisticated and international city than the one I first came to know 40 years ago.
The two-hour flight is affordable, the peso economy is a bargain for foreigners, and July temperatures ranged from the low 70s by day to the high 50s at night. Our second floor walk-up, two-bedroom apartment found on Airbnb was ideally located in Condesa just blocks from Roma Norte and the Parque México and Parque España. It cost about $75 a night, including fees and taxes. The hosts, two sisters named Galia and Adina, were gracious and very responsive.
The streets of Condesa and Roma teem with pedestrians walking dogs and cyclists using EcoBici, the city’s seven-year-old bikeshare network which boasts more than 450 stands, 6,000 bikes, and more than 100,000 users. If a city government serving eight million people can establish a network of clearly marked bike lanes and provide a safe option for commuters, I thought to myself, why can’t San Antonio do it?
Well-preserved historic structures blend in with more contemporary architecture, and several of the principal avenues feature wide pedestrian pathways shaded by mature tree canopy that run down the middle of the boulevards and divide vehicle traffic. Sidewalk cafes, savory, open-air taco stands, locally owned shops, and some of the city’s best restaurants and bars are all within walking distance.
We spent most of the week just walking. San Antonio will never be a comfortable, year-around, walkable city. It’s simply too hot half the year, and to date, City leaders have lacked the funds and political will to redesign the center city’s principal streets to make the urban core truly walkable. But the city’s 2017 $850 Municipal Bond approved by voters will bring dramatic improvement to Broadway and a number of other city streets. A more comprehensive plan to plant trees and allocate space for bike lanes should be made part of whatever becomes of SA2020 and SA Tomorrow under the new administration of Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
I still don’t hail street cabs in Mexico City, although friends there say there is less evidence now of the ’90s-era crime spree that arose with the advent of ATM machines. Unscrupulous cab drivers would pick up unsuspecting riders and then stop for armed accomplices who would force foreigners to withdraw cash at gunpoint. The experience was best captured by Texas writer Jan Reid in his 2002 memoir, The Bullet Meant For Me.
I’ve never been a fan of Mexico City’s Metro subway system, either. Male riders groping women became such a problem years ago that stations offer women and children separate platforms spaces for entry into select subway cars, while men are left to push and shove their way into badly overcrowded cars. Alex and I boarded the subway from Chapultepec Park one day, intending to transfer over to the line that reaches Condesa. Instead we exited after two stops as men struggled to enter cars stuffed beyond safe capacity.
The good news is that Uber drivers in clean, late-model cars are now ubiquitous in Mexico City and universally regarded as a safe transportation option, with waits typically ranging from 1-3 minutes. Even at Teotihuacán, located 35 miles outside the center city, an Uber driver arrived in less than five minutes. The fares are low compared to U.S. rates.
A week in Mexico City means we left as many places unvisited as those we experienced. Some of our best hours were spent wandering through the old center city, past Sanborns de los Azulejos and Bar la Opera, around the massive Zócalo, the city’s main square currently closed for resurfacing, the nearby Aztec ruins at Templo Mayor behind the Catedral Metropolitana, and through the bustling crowds in Alameda Central, the city’s oldest park.
Sadly, the 17th century Hotel de Cortés behind the park on Avenida Hidalgo, once the city’s oldest operating hotel, is now closed. It was my home away from home in 1982 when I was sent there as a reporter to cover the peso collapse and experienced an earthquake that claimed the lives of a dozen people, nothing compared to the 1985 temblor that killed more than 5,000 in the city.
I showed Alex other hotels that I frequented as a reporter, including the magnificent 19th century Art Nouveau Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico, housed in what once was the first department store in the Americas. We visited the hotel’s rooftop terrace restaurant overlooking the Zócalo, which features a mediocre buffet and stunning views.
We also wandered through the richly wood-paneled Hotel Geneve where I first stayed in Mexico City for the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in 1978. The hotel lobby is as elegant today as I remembered it, but the surrounding Zona Rosa is no longer the center of night life in the city. It’s shabbier and overrun by American fast food chains.
Our visit was as much about food as it was about history. We were unable to get a reservation at Pujol, Mexico City’s most celebrated restaurant. A quick look Saturday suggested the next available reservation is Sept. 5 at 6:30 p.m. in case you are going. A screwup on my part cost us a visit to Quintonil, where I was especially eager to experience the cuisine of Chef Jorge Vallejo, highly regarded for his creative menu and for Orígines, his project launched with other notable chefs to collect and preserve traditional foods, recipes, and cooking techniques from throughout the Americas. Next time.
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We did eat at several destination restaurants, including the intimate, romantic Rosetta the bustling, people-watching seafood destination Contramar, and Lardo, with its Spanish-Italian fare, all in Colonia Roma. Afterwards, we visited the upstairs bar at Huset, where the three bartenders gave us a tutorial in artisanal mescal while describing their lives commuting two hours back and forth to home each day.
When I lived and worked in Latin America, a 10% tip from a foreigner was welcomed, and locals often left nothing more than loose coins. Today a 15% tip brings a sincere word of appreciation from waiters charging a credit card with a smart phone or hand-held device at tableside.
Alex and I brought home some beautiful hand-loomed weavings and blankets purchased from Silvia and Rene Barrientos at Tejidos Típicos in the Mercado Ciudadela, the city’s best source for artisanal, handcrafted works all under one roof. As a young man I bargained hard for such purchases, I told Alex as we left, but no longer. The Barrientos introduced their children to us, including their oldest son who proudly demonstrated his fluency in English. They gave us a small discount for paying cash, and that seemed fair to me. Bartering for even more now strikes me as wrong.
Our father-son week sped by, and by its end, we were both ready to return to San Antonio. Alex would start planning for the new school year that begins in early August, and I would join members of the Rivard Report‘s board of directors and fellow staff members to interview candidates for our editor-in-chief job. It was time to come home.