Slow Travel in Mexico City

Can a family of agenda-driven guidebook addicts learn to love slow travel?

Mayan mask, Mexico City, image

Mayan masks like this one are on display in Mexico City.

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And on the evening of the fourth day in Mexico City we rested. The fifth day was kind of quiet, too, and, well, tell you the truth, we didn’t do a heck of a lot on the sixth either. And that was exactly the point. Usually when my family visits a place like Mexico City, we pack our itinerary as tight as our suitcases. Before we depart, my wife, Donna, consults guidebooks and makes agendas to ensure that we see every sight. This time, however, we decided to stray from our usual if-it’s-Wednesday-it-must-be-the-museum tourism. Many modern travelers insist that vacations are best spent living like the locals: renting a home in a neighborhood rather than staying in a hotel, visiting small shops and coffeehouses rather than museums. These untourists call it slow travel. Although our trip lasted only a week, it was long enough for me to taste a whole new journeying style—one that may just furnish a blueprint for future forays.

With all that Mexico City has to offer, and our limited time, we couldn’t bring ourselves to abandon our old approach altogether—there was simply too much to see. So we set out from our rooms at the Four Seasons, guidebook in hand.

Day 1. You could spend an entire day exploring the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park. I couldn’t. I spent my museum hours with the Aztecs, learning about a culture that took its ball game so seriously that the losers were sometimes decapitated. It was the Mesoamerican version of playing for George Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

From the museum, a quick metro ride took us to the Zócalo, the city’s symbolic center for enturies, where Aztec ruins, the colonial cathedral, and the Palacio Nacional, which houses the president’s office, stand around a huge paved plaza. We got a crash course in Mexican his-tory, albeit from a Marxist perspective, through the Diego Rivera murals inside the Palacio Nacional. We were particularly taken by the section depicting the legend of Quetzalcoatl, which shows a serpent bearing a blond-bearded white man out of the country. The Aztecs believed that Cortés was the returning Quetzalcoatl, a benevolent god, a mistake that cost them dearly.

Day 2. We spent our morning in Coyoacán, a neighborhood south of the center. As we strolled through a park, an organ-grinder turned out tunes, and, as if on cue, an elderly priest walked by, hands clasped together. Time seemed to have stopped—but we had sights to see. We got down a mouthful of chapulines—grasshoppers fried up with salt, lemon, and hot pepper—served to us at Nuestra Gastronomía, and strolled down Higuera, the main thoroughfare, munching on some peeled tuna (prickly pear) from the mercado. A cup of strong joe at Café El Jarocho (where the coffee is roasted in a giant old apparatus out front) pepped us up for the Museo Frida Kahlo, where the famed artist lived with Rivera. Nearby on Río Churubusco was the less visited but equally interesting Museo Casa de León Trotsky, where the Russian exile spent the last year of his life. He survived a tryst with Kahlo and the assassination attempt that left bullet holes you can still see in the walls, but not, alas, an ice ax attack by a Spanish Stalinist in 1940.

Day 3. The Teotihuacán ruins are a must for any Mexico City visit. You can join a bus tour or splurge for a private driver, who is also a guide, to make the 60-minute journey northeast of the city. The Teotihuacán society flourished between 100 B.C. and A.D. 750, then disappeared, leaving behind a vast city of temples and pyramids. You feel like a conquistador of sorts after ascending the treacherously steep, 216-foot-high Pirámide del Sol, the best spot in Teotihuacán, if only because the myriad souvenir vendors stay on the ground.

On the way back to town, we stopped off at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which houses the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to legend, the image appeared on a cloak that held roses presented to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga by a peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 and hasn’t faded since. Outside the basilica, pilgrims drop to their knees and crawl along the cobblestone entrance in a painful gesture of penance. Inside, you glide past the relic on a conveyor belt.

Day 4. Because it was Saturday, we made our way to Xochimilco, "the Venice of Mexico," for a ride on a trajinera turística, one of the colorful boats that float slowly down the canal, poled by young boatmen who trade friendly insults with each other as they pass by. You negotiate a price for a ride, so celebrate wildly if you don’t get ripped off—we didn’t get what we paid for, but it was wonderful anyway. How many times in your life can you purchase a paleta manzana (candy apple), an ear of roasted corn, and a mariachi ballad all from the deck of a boat?

After 3¼ breathless days, we were ready for a change. We made our way to the Condesa district—considered the SoHo of Mexico City—where we had reserved a guest home called the Red Tree House.

I admit to having had some apprehension about the accommodations. One of the goals of slow travel is to escape the predictability of chain hotels and typical tourist neighborhoods. Predictability, however, is precisely the chains’ raison d’être; when it comes to bathrooms, I’ll take standard-issue over quirky any day.

But as we pulled up to Culiacán 6 Col. Hipódromo and heard a cheery "They’re here!" I said to my wife, "This is going to be OK." It was more than that.

The Red Tree House is a splendid, Spanish-style three-story home complete with a friendly dog (April) who romps around a spacious backyard and will happily lick your face even if no one is taking a photo. My two sons had their own rooms on the second floor with a bathroom nearby. My wife and I had the "penthouse" on the third floor: bedroom, living room, bathroom (not at all quirky), combo kitchen–dining room, and an outdoor patio that included still another enclosed bedroom. (You earn the right to rest in these digs after climbing 15 winding stairs.)

Day 5. The idea of slow travel is to wake up without an agenda, without the pounding in your chest that comes from having to complete a checklist and worry that one botched metro stop will put you hopelessly behind. Temporarily, at least, you are removed from the genus Tourist. We felt the ease immediately, perhaps because the 10-pound guidebook could be left behind, replaced by a thin street map of the Condesa district.

Living in a neighborhood brings unexpected discoveries, some of them arriving early in the morning. On our first morning we were awakened by the cries of what my son Chris said sounded like howler monkeys. It turned out to be the squealing sales pitch of propane vendors out on the street. We could’ve picked up decaf chai mochaccinos at one of several Starbucks in the Condesa, but instead we learned the location (at Amsterdam and Plaza Iztaccíhuatl) of La Selva, which serves muy fuerte organic coffee from Chiapas collectives. And as Jorge, the owner of the Red Tree House, happily pointed out, the farmacia next door to our home base serves up an old-fashioned Mexican breakfast for about $2. Bring your own plate and it will be filled with utterly sublime huevos rancheros and blue corn tortillas.

Day 6. The Condesa can be reasonably strolled in two days—three days if you decide to search for a post office. The locals will promise you there’s one nearby, using a variety of hand signals to point you in the right direction, but evidently post offices are not a major requirement in Mexico City. "I never thought much about it, but, you know, I did kind of forget about the post office when I got down here," said Craig, who is an assistant at the Red Tree House and was born in North Dakota.

Now, even when you’re slow traveling, you are still traveling, of course, looking and learning, prowling and perusing, stopping and shopping. Our tour of the Condesa included an extended stop at El Péndulo, an outstanding bookstore on Nuevo León, and a wait in line at the tortillería on Calle Aguascalientes, which reminded me of the "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld—the only people on the street were queued up at this stand.

We also made sure to set aside an hour or two each day to read books and write in our journals in Parque México, a lush and beautifully maintained public space. There’s an improbable restfulness about the park. Even the young couples who find a way to, well, entwine themselves on a bench are like a still life; they hug but don’t do much else, almost as if they’re complying with an unwritten set of rules. Those rules, by the way, extend to how much skin you show—to blend in with the locals, wear pant legs down to your shoes, because few Mexicans, male or female, wear shorts.

After a day or two in the neighborhood, once the clerk at Superama—which has produce, meat, medicines, and almost anything else you can think of—remembers your face, you start to feel a little less like a tourist, a little more like a local. Sure, when we were at the Four Seasons the concierge gave us a friendly nod, but he does that to everybody.

Day 7. On our final morning in the neighborhood, we paid a visit to Superama to gather provisions for the flight home and had a nibble at Hola, the Condesa’s best taco stand, across the street. (There was a line even at 8 a.m.) We stopped at a flower vendor on another corner to buy a dozen gladiolas for Jorge and Craig.

"Trust me, we didn’t do this when we left the Four Seasons," I told them. "We bought them because this is getting to feel like home."

Photography by Macduff Everton

This article was first published in January 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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