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Our Huge Mexico City Adventure: Part I

Our Huge Mexico City Adventure:  Part I
In Which We Arrive in the City, Search for a Hotel, and Wallow in Pastries

Mexico City is incredible.  We went with friends for several days, and hit just about everywhere.   At 365Mexico we don’t just tell you about our adventures–we show you where we went!  We saw and did so much, this post will be divided into several parts.  If you would like us to show you around town, just write Dan and Omar at e365mexico@yahoo.com.  We know all the best places.  You’ll love it!

Omar and I at the Angel de la Independencia, symbol of Mexico.  We look photoshoped in.  Truth is, we came out too dark, but I like the picture, so I lightened us up.  We are so Jetsons at 365Mexico.

Omar and I at the Angel de la Independencia, symbol of Mexico. We look photoshoped in. Truth is, we came out too dark, but I like the picture, so I lightened us up. We are so Jetsons at 365Mexico.

April 24, 2008

We LOVE Mexico City.  Adore it.  It is the capitol, the center for art and culture and history for all Mexico.  Television and movies come from there.  The antiquing is great.  The food is amazing.  There are ruins in the subway stations.  Did I mention we love it?

And to think that when I first came to Mexico, I was terrified of Mexico City.  I don’t mean nervous.  I don’t mean apprehensive.  TERROR-FIED.

It was those damn travel guides.  Frommer’s, Fieldings, and Foddors.  In those pre-Internet days—the early 1990’s—that’s where your travel information came from.  And while chapters on war-torn El Salvador were subtitled “Land of Flowers and Smiles,” the Mexico City section was peppered with dire warnings about robberies, kidnappings, and earthquakes.

“Ignore the people who smear mustard on your sleeve” (I’m paraphrasing, but the stories are real).  “They will then offer to help clean you up, and will steal your wallet in the process.”  “Always have your hotel phone for a cab.  All too often cabs on the street assault tourists and dump them on the outskirts of town, sans baggage.”  “Don’t rent a car.  Driving is insane in Mexico City traffic, and when you stop at a light men have been known to throw hungry rats into the vehicle.  When they bite your legs and you boil out of the car, the thief jumps in and takes off.”  “If you do drive, wear our watch on the right arm so it is harder to steal through the window.  Still, people have been known to jab your left arm with a pin, so when you reach over with your right arm, then they can steal your watch.”

Oh my goodness.

Yes, I imagine all of these things have happened in Mexico City at some time or another.  There are what—23 million people who live there?  Stuff is bound to happen.  But it is the same as swimming in the ocean.  You don’t chum shark-infested water and then flail around in your seal suit, do you?   Not 365Mexico readers, anyway, who are a bright and enlightened bunch and use precautions.  So you stay aware of your surroundings, don’t wave money in public, look like you know where you are going—the same behavior you would use in Des Moines.

New York used to have the same bad rap.  I grew up in Central New York, which is rural, and was 18 before I went to the big city, with Nancy Hayes and her mother.  My family is afraid to go into Utica (population like 50,000), so this was a big deal.  Mrs. Hayes set me down like Gomer Pyle from Mayberry and I listened wide-eyed as she warned me to wear my wallet in front, don’t look people in the eyes, talk to no one, etc.  OK—caution is a great thing.  But I ended up snarling at everyone who came within three feet of me, I was so scared.

Same thing in Mexico.  I passed through town several times in the early years, stopping only long enough to buy a ticket for the next leg of my journey.  My earliest recollection of Mexico City is of an indigenous woman sitting under a huge mural in the train station, nursing her baby.  I climbed erupting volcanoes, I swam with sharks, but I would not set foot in Mexico City.  Too many suckling babies, evidently

When I finally did stay for a few days, I was amazed.  It is a wonderful place.  Easy to get around, and full of things to see and do.  I have since taken my parents there, and Omar, and friends.  Our best buddy Bill has met me there, and loves it—and he’s been everywhere.  I once even took 50 junior high students from Guadalajara (with three other teachers, of course) and had an incredible if hectic time.

I’m telling you all this because a) sooner or later you and I talk about everything anyway and b) if you are avoiding going to Mexico City because it is the biggest city in the world and the pollution is terrible and kittens carry switchblades in the more dangerous areas, well, get over it.  You’ll be glad you did.

I’ve probably been to Mexico City at least 30 times.  I sell movie memorabilia at www.mexicanmemorabilia.com, and I find a lot of it there.  We have great friends in town, and I always like to go to the Villa and give thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe.  So when Omar asked if we could go to el DF (the Distrito Federal) with teacher friends just a couple of days after I came back from New York, of course I said yes.

The truth is, I know Mexico City better than most Mexicans, and they wanted me to show them around.

We decided to take the Omnibus de Mexico bus from Guadalajara.  I used to take ETN all the time and I love them—so comfortable and spacious!—but they have gone up to about $120 round trip, while Omnibus is at $85.  They don’t give you a snack, the seats are a bit smaller, and there are no headphones for the movie—you hear it whether you want to or not.  But to save $35 round trip, hey, Omnibus is great.

Oddly, there are many more night bus runs in Mexico than day trips.  We bought tickets for five minutes to midnight.   It is seven hours to Mexico City from Guadalajara, so we would arrive at 7am.  Perfect.  There are earlier buses, but they get into the city at 4 or 5 in the morning, which of course is hardly ideal.  Night travel is fine—you save on a hotel room, you can get some sleep, and truth to tell, there isn’t much to see on the GDL-MEX highway anyway, so you aren’t missing much.

We would be traveling with three teacher friends, sisters from Ciudad Guzman—Nena, Reina, and Karen—and with our great favorite, Tochimani, off to visit her family in Iztapalapa, in the southeast part of the city.

Despite the excitement, we were tired when we finally boarded the bus, and I was soon asleep.  I awoke a few times during the night but must have slept well, because soon I could see the steep-sided hills to the north of Mexico City and knew we were arriving.

The Central Norte bus station is always busy—one of those places where time doesn’t exist other than for the arrival and departure of galumphing buses.  It could be three in the morning or three in the afternoon and unless you looked outside, you could hardly tell.

We stopped at the glassed-in statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the middle of the station, to give thanks for our safe trip and to look for Tochi’s folks, who promised to meet us there.  Alicia and Pedro are wonderful friends.

We met up to hugs and kisses and general greetings.  Tochi’s parents moved to Mexico a couple of years before, and we hadn’t seen them since.

Mexico City!  Don Pedro, Omar, Nena, Karen, Reina, Alicia, and Tochi, just off the bus and ready to look for a hotel.  After traveling alone for so many years, it is wonderful to do it with friends.

Mexico City! Don Pedro, Omar, Nena, Karen, Reina, Alicia, and Tochi, just off the bus and ready to look for a hotel. After traveling alone for so many years, it is wonderful to do it with friends.

Mexico City!  Don Pedro, Omar, Nena, Karen, Reina, Alicia, and Tochi, just off the bus and ready to look for a hotel.  After traveling alone for so many years, it is wonderful to do it with friends.

To get into town from the bus station you can either take the metro (subway) or the trolleybus, so named because it is electric.  I usually take the bus because it goes straight to Bellas Artes (the center of everything).  The subway involves a couple of line changes, including one, at La Raza, where you have to walk a half-mile or so—no exaggeration.  Fine when you are seeing the town empty handed, but tough if you have luggage.   Both bus and subway are 2 pesos—about 18 cents.  Public transportation is subsidized in el DF—we pay 50 cents now in Guadalajara.

A half hour later we were on the street in front of Bellas Artes, the beautiful theater/museum which anchors the east end of the Alemeda park and near the center of the historic district.

La Casa de Azulejos, an ancient, tiled building now housing Sanborn's.  It is a popular stop for it's restaurant and clean bathrooms.  Bellas Artes is just out of sight at the rear of this image.

La Casa de Azulejos, an ancient, tiled building now housing Sanborn's. It is a popular stop for it's restaurant and clean bathrooms. Bellas Artes is just out of sight at the rear of this image.

La Casa de Azulejos, an ancient, tiled building now housing Sanborn’s.  It is a popular stop for it’s restaurant and clean bathrooms.  Bellas Artes is just out of sight at the rear of this image.

I’m never content until I have my hotel for the night.  And of course we had luggage and had slept in our clothes, so the first thing was to get our rooms.  We headed, all eight of us, up deserted morning streets almost to the Zocolo, to Hotel Washington.

“No.  A room for two, maybe—after 2pm.  But a room for three, no.  There are demonstrations planned for today, and the Museo Nomada is in the Zocolo…”

No problem.  I like the Washington, but there are plenty of other hotels nearby.  The Lafayette—“No.”  The Principal—“No.”   The Buenos Aires—“Maybe later, but I doubt it.”  The San Antonio—“Next week.”  Hotel Juarez—“You aren’t going to find anything for this week, Bato.”  Not good.  For once I wished we had called ahead.

Problem 1—It was the week before Easter, a big travel period.  But doesn’t everyone go to the beach?  Apparently not everyone.

Problem 2—As always, a tight budget.  In Mexico there are $20 hotels and there are $60 hotels, and there are $200 hotels.  If cash is tight and the $20 places are filled up, there is no $30 or $35 place—you end up blowing the budget on one night.

Problem 3—A couple of my fallback hotels on the Eje Central had been condemned by the government—Clausurado.  I remember the first time I took Omar to Mexico, and we stayed at a cute little place on El Salvador, on the forth floor.  And every time we came in or out, we met and greeted a pleasant plump lady and her husband going into their room on the first floor.  Funny thing is, her husband changed frequently, sometimes by the hour.  She never failed to smile at us, though, as she lead her Juan to their room.

Problem 4.  After ten or twelve hotels, we sent the Tochimanis home to Iztapalapa.  We could stay with them, but we felt five guests for several days would be an awful imposition.  The trouble was with the teachers.  Life is slow moving in Guzman, and early in the morning after a night on the bus, they shuffled along like five-toed sloths.  They were starting to make sounds about breakfast, and were wearing down fast under their luggage.  With the hotels full, things would not be getting better later in the day.  I had to pull Nena aside and ask her to get her sisters on the move-on.  They did fine.

With the early morning streets deserted, it's hard to believe all the hotel rooms were full.  By 10am this scene is wall-to-wall people.

With the early morning streets deserted, it's hard to believe all the hotel rooms were full. By 10am this scene is wall-to-wall people.

Asking around, we finally lucked onto the Hotel Toledo, two blocks from Bellas Artes near Chinatown.  Clean, bright, and $9 a person, we felt like we hit the jackpot.  From our forth floor room we could see mountains in three directions—a rarity considering Mexico City’s often smoky air.

The view looking west from our room in the Hotel Toledo.  The weather was just gorgeous.

The view looking west from our room in the Hotel Toledo. The weather was just gorgeous.

Mexico City is just full of street vendors of every description.  In front of our hotel an indigenous lady sold handmade shirts from southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Mexico City is just full of street vendors of every description. In front of our hotel an indigenous lady sold handmade shirts from southern Mexico and Guatemala.

After a shower and a change of clothes we were ready for breakfast.  Right around the corner is a taco place called Tlaquepaque, which is funny because the real Tlaquepaque borders on our town back home, Tlajomulco.  I had eaten at Tlaquepaque several times before—I heartily recommend their alambres, which are like chicken fajitas, with lots of grilled peppers and onions—and was happy to be back.  Everyone asked for tacos, prepared fresh by the guy in the window.  I ordered quesadillas to be sociable, but all I really wanted was their wonderful fruit drinks.  I had a mamey licuado (milk and mamey, an incredible fruit that tastes like melon and banana, only better) and an agua de alfalfa, with alfalfa and pineapple juice.  Heaven.

Karen in Tlaquepaque, famous for tacos and fruit drinks.

Karen in Tlaquepaque, famous for tacos and fruit drinks.

Reina is a traditionalist, and orders orange juice.

Reina is a traditionalist, and orders orange juice.

I had the orange juice, too--along with alfalfa/pineapple and a milky licuado de mamey, all to wash down my quesadillas, here before adding a liter of salsa

I had the orange juice, too--along with alfalfa/pineapple and a milky licuado de mamey, all to wash down my quesadillas, here before adding a liter of salsa

We kept the staff busy with our taco order.

We kept the staff busy with our taco order.

Omar embellishes his tacos with tasty add-ons...

Omar embellishes his tacos with tasty add-ons...

And demonstrates the proper technique.  He's had lots of practice.

And demonstrates the proper technique. He's had lots of practice.

Stuffed and content, you’d think we’d forget about food for a couple of hours.  But 365 readers know us better.   Especially when pastry heaven is a few blocks away.

Globo is a bakery that is all over.  It is classy and tasty and rather expensive, and we go every once in a while.  But right next to Globo in Mexico City is the shrine to butter, sugar, and chocolate, Ideal.  A couple of acres of pastries on two floors, in an ancient building with beautiful stone walls, filled with people flicking pastries onto trays with pinchers like crabs in a relay race.  In this land of plenty, everyone runs like the person before them is going to land the juiciest Garibaldi or the plumpest fig gelatin.  We adore the place.

The faithful approaching his Shrine of Fine Pastries, Ideal Bakery, Centro Historico, Mexico City.

The faithful approaching his Shrine of Fine Pastries, Ideal Bakery, Centro Historico, Mexico City.

The cakes may be in bad taste (frosting stalagtites are VERY big here) but they sure taste good.  Yes, that is cascading soap water--someone was washing an upper floor and the suds came pouring out the window onto unsuspecting pastry cravers below.  Have I mentioned Mexico City is surreal?

The cakes may be in bad taste (frosting stalagtites are VERY big here) but they sure taste good. Yes, that is cascading soap water--someone was washing an upper floor and the suds came pouring out the window onto unsuspecting pastry cravers below. Have I mentioned Mexico City is surreal?

We take a deep breath, and enter, not in that order.  This case is full of gelatinas.  For folks like me raised on red Jell-O, these desserts are a revalation.  Light, fresh, delicious, natural, and loaded with fresh fruits.  They are also extremely beautiful to look at.

We take a deep breath, and enter, not in that order. This case is full of gelatinas. For folks like me raised on red Jell-O, these desserts are a revalation. Light, fresh, delicious, natural, and loaded with fresh fruits. They are also extremely beautiful to look at.

The opaque parts of the gelatine contains condensed milk.

The opaque parts of the gelatine contains condensed milk.

Peaches, strawberries, cherries, guavas, all flawlessly arranged.  The peach gelatine is 90 pesos--a little less than 9 dollars.

Peaches, strawberries, cherries, guavas, all flawlessly arranged. The peach gelatine is 90 pesos--a little less than 9 dollars.

Mexico City often reminds me of the 1950's--packages tied with string and delicias like these molded gelatine bunnies.

Mexico City often reminds me of the 1950's--packages tied with string and delicias like these molded gelatin bunnies.

Gelatin teddy bears and cups of cubed gelatin in sweetened condensed milk gel--like jewels in matrix, only tastier.

Gelatin teddy bears and cups of cubed gelatin in sweetened condensed milk gel--like jewels in matrix, only tastier.

Ideal is beautiful, but first and formost it is a busy, working bakery.  Bakers rush with racks of cakes, and you'd better be ready to jump out of their way.  Turnover is so fast here, everything is fresh and good.

Ideal is beautiful, but first and formost it is a busy, working bakery. Bakers rush with racks of cakes, and you'd better be ready to jump out of their way. Turnover is so fast here, everything is fresh and good.

Cakes often make use of fresh fruit as well.

Cakes often make use of fresh fruit as well.

It is amazing to see such a large variety of cakes and pastries made with care and presented so beautifully.

It is amazing to see such a large variety of cakes and pastries made with care and presented so beautifully.

A very appreciative client.  We have run a small bakery in Guadalajara and know our pastries, so when Omar is impressed, its saying a lot.

A very appreciative client. We have run a small bakery in Guadalajara and know our pastries, so when Omar is impressed, its saying a lot.

Ideal is huge.  This is about a quarter of the sales area, behind the gelatine cases.  And that is just the first floor...

Ideal is huge. This is about a quarter of the sales area, behind the gelatine cases. And that is just the first floor...

The variety is amazing.  There is always something new coming down in the glass elevator from the bakery above.

The variety is amazing. There is always something new coming down in the glass elevator from the bakery above.

There is a sunken area where bread and rolls are sold, often in bulk.

There is a sunken area where bread and rolls are sold, often in bulk.

On the left is the glass elevator--not for riders, but to transport pastries from above.  They may come all the way down from heaven, as far as we are concerned.  The racks full of pastries gives some idea of the amount of business done here.

On the left is the glass elevator--not for riders, but to transport pastries from above. They may come all the way down from heaven, as far as we are concerned. The racks full of pastries gives some idea of the amount of business done here.

One happy guy.  Ideal is in a hugely old colonial building, with beautiful stone walls.

One happy guy. Ideal is in a hugely old colonial building, with beautiful stone walls.

Note the brickwork in the ceiling of the room in the back.

Note the brickwork in the ceiling of the room in the back.

Upstairs we came upon this wonderland in cake--life size examples of what Ideal can do for your next party.

Upstairs we came upon this wonderland in cake--life size examples of what Ideal can do for your next party.

You pay by the kilo.  This extravagant number weighs 26 kilos (57 pounds).

You pay by the kilo. This extravagant number weighs 26 kilos (57 pounds).

BIG party--no problem.  The cake dwarfs Omar.

BIG party--no problem. The cake dwarfs Omar.

But this one takes the cake.  "I'd like a piece from the top, please."

But this one takes the cake. "I'd like a piece from the top, please."

Enough sugar to level a nation of diabetics.  Cute, though.

Enough sugar to level a nation of diabetics. Cute, though.

Back downstairs, things are heating up.  Lots of people, all in a hurry to get their pastries.

Back downstairs, things are heating up. Lots of people, all in a hurry to get their pastries.

You take your tray to this young man, who wraps your pastries in paper and string.  He then gives you a receipt, and you go to the cash registers and pay, come back, and pick up your packages.  It is awkward, but the person handling the cash is not then touching your food, which is nice.

You take your tray to this young man, who wraps your pastries in paper and string. He then gives you a receipt, and you go to the cash registers and pay, come back, and pick up your packages. It is awkward, but the person handling the cash is not then touching your food, which is nice.

Of course things back up a bit and get crazy, but just think of the sweets you are getting.  This poor guy is wrapping as fast as he can.

Of course things back up a bit and get crazy, but just think of the sweets you are getting. This poor guy is wrapping as fast as he can.

Garibaldis, filled with cajeta (dulce de leche--carmelized goat's milk).  These are my favorites.

Garibaldis, filled with cajeta (dulce de leche--carmelized goat's milk). These are my favorites.

Chocolate and cream--can't beat it.

Chocolate and cream--can't beat it.

Our pastries, wrapped up and ready to go.

Our pastries, wrapped up and ready to go.

In our next posting, we will continue with our adventures in Mexico City!  (They don't all involve food).  (Just most of them).

In our next post, we will continue with our adventures in Mexico City! (They don't all involve food). (Just most of them).

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1 comment to Our Huge Mexico City Adventure: Part I

  • Lisa

    I LOVE your site! I am dying to try a Garibaldi. I lived in Mazatlan for 2 years from 94-96 and traveled a couple times to my friends house in DF. I absolutely loved the culture, people, food, history and art. Thanks for posting this. :) Good luck in your travels.

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