With 24 million inhabitants and a history that stretches from the Mesoamerican to this minute, Mexico City is the new urban playground of models and moguls. As yet another Frida Kahlo revival looms on the horizon, Guy Trebay makes—then ditches—the scene to dig deep beneath the city's cool new façade
There are some things that you will not be reading in this story: that Mexico City is a lively place with a quaint and colorful history, that it has a tumultuous political past and an unstable present, that nearly 90 percent of tourists who come to Mexico are from the United States, and that, as far as can be determined, the majority of them end up getting ripped off over tequila shots in Tijuana or drifting south to Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi, the notoriously touristy square where dueling mariachi bands have lately taken to punching out rivals over tips—times are that hard.
I dislike mariachi music. I dislike, in fact, all music I haven't specifically requested, particularly in the form of serenades. I love Mexico City, unabashedly, despite the smog, the crime, the corruption, the always-mentioned mile-high altitude, which gives me a headache of exactly 36 hours, no more, no less. Carlos Fuentes called the place Make Sicko City. The painter Jess Chucho Reyes called it "an adventure in disorder." One could go on making citations, because it is a city whose enormities have always provoked commentary, aphorism, passion, hatred, but never indifference.
In Mexico City, one-fourth of the country's population, perhaps 24 million people, live crammed between volcanoes on an ancient lake bed that was the Aztecs' "city on a hill." It is not only the nexus of the country's immense wealth (the fourth-highest concentration of millionaires in the world), but of its stupendously varied cultures. The plural is intentional.
Mexico City can pride itself on the greatest assemblage of pre-colonial buildings in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as an unmatched array of International Style and Brutalist structures, any number of anomalously embedded fragments of the Belle Époque and Art Deco, and virtually the entire mature oeuvre of Mexico's single identified architectural genius, Luis Barragán. Of structures by anonymous practitioners of the extravagantly ornamental indigenous Baroque, there is a seemingly limitless supply.
Until recently, antiquity was Mexico City's most reliable calling card: travelers stopped in the capital mainly en route to the Pirámides del Sol y de la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon) at Teotihuacán. Lately, however, alerted to the existence of current culture by, among other things, the international success of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated film Amores Perros and the inauguration of a museum of contemporary art owned by a young heir to a fruit-juice fortune, people have begun touting Mexico City as a hip destination, a metropolis of groovy boîtes and latte bars and dance clubs playing both house music and traditional danzón. These places, it was noted in one breathless article in an American magazine, are crammed with "models and moguls." As Dorothy Parker remarked in another context, include me out.
Certainly, by now it is established that hipness is a slippery concept at the best of times. In light of current events, however, the notion of traveling abroad in order to bribe one's way past velvet ropes seems more than silly. It's risible. Even in cities where scene-making is a civic compulsion, those sorts of antics suddenly feel, as filmmaker John Waters has said, "so September tenth." I do not mean to suggest a lack of sympathy for the efforts of Mexico City's new hoteliers to introduce something stylistically evolved beyond the capital's hospitality clichés: the ubiquitous Moorish courtyards, the marble-generic lobbies centered on urns of tropical flowers in ghastly eruption, the inevitable tinkling fountains of blue-and-white tile.
The new Habita Hotel is the city's signature "hip" hostelry; it's a shimmering box on an otherwise dreary stretch of Avenida Presidente Masaryk in upscale Polanco. This frosted-glass jewel contains 36 rooms, a lilliputian rooftop pool, a lobby restaurant, a VIP bar called Area, and, on any given evening, a concentration of the young Mexican rich, whose bodyguards huddle in front of their patrons' armored SUV's.
Designed by TEN Arquitectos, Habita does offer a degree of visual refreshment from Polanco's otherwise oppressively stuffy chic and from the sensation of being in a fortified luxury ghetto. This creepy feeling derives mostly from the presence of soldiers patrolling the sidewalks outside Hermès and Versace, and from the fact that a visit to society silversmith Tane requires one to pass through a security booth right out of the TV show Oz. Habita is currently the fixed point on a flexible see-and-be-seen circuit of clubs and bars, a number of them downtown near the famous Zócalo or else in the once-suburban Colonia Condesa. I tend to think that a quick drink at Area should satisfy anyone's scene-making aspirations. It certainly does mine. In Mexico City I prefer to chart other courses. Meandering, alas, is no longer advisable in a place where State Department warnings about street and taxi crime finally inspired even the Mexican department of tourism to deploy a specialized new force of 250 tourist cops.
My habit on each of the half dozen trips I have made to the capital over the past decade is to invent itineraries that I hope will take me deeper into Mexican culture. If this sentiment sounds as though composed by a copywriter for Elderhostel, may I add that my point of embarkation on any visit to Mexico City is invariably the lobby bar of the Camino Real.
About the Camino Real it is easy to wax hyperbolic. It is a Modernist wonder built amid the exuberant nationalism that accompanied the 1968 Summer Olympics. It occupies an amazing eight-acre parcel near Chapultepec Park. It was designed by the AIA Gold Medal—winning architect Ricardo Legoretta in an early, and baldly Barragán-inspired, phase of his career. It has thick exterior walls, vast corridors, calm inner courtyards, and is painted in saturated, trippy colors: chrome yellow, Schiaparelli pink, Amazon-parrot red. Things are outsized at the Camino Real—the huge Calder sculpture in the foyer, the Rufino Tamayo lobby mural of what appears to be a beckoning extraterrestrial. The forecourt fountain is a big marble basin that spouts a timed succession of convulsive waves. The best rooms are large and set behind balconies strung with vines.
For years it was the one hotel in the world to which I literally dreamed of returning. But I don't stay there anymore. Far from recognizing the mine of retro cool it was sitting on, hotel management has spent the past few years on costly remodelaciones. Gone are the ornamental mirrored balls in guest rooms, the grandiose public emptinesses across which important Mexicans conducted themselves as if on stage, the autographed photos of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía near the phone banks, and the meticulously uniformed waiters serving lunch by the garden pool. Instead one finds any number of the generic "business" features that increasingly conspire to make every hotel in the world the same place: fax/phone/Internet port/thousand-channel-television-in-boring-armoire. The lobby has been partitioned to add a fussy espresso and pastry lounge. Except in the Palma wing, the sarcophagus-sized marble tubs have been replaced with stall showers. Lunch service is provided by anomalous pool boys in shorts. The bar remains. And so, while I now choose to stay at the nearby Four Seasons, it is to this skylit, cocooning, and luminous space—where the renovations added a glass-floored pavilion suspended above a reflecting pool painted Yves Klein blue—that my friend Terence Eagleton and I come to map out a plan of attack.
Over micheladas—crushed ice, Corona, and lime, in a salt-rimmed glass—we decide that we'll make the customary first stop at the Plaza de la Constitución, commonly known as the Zócalo. We'll have lunch at La Terraza on the roof of the Majestic Hotel, not for the pedestrian food but for the view over this colossal square, which was once a park and before that a market and before that the place where the Aztecs displayed the skulls of their sacrificial victims after they had torn out and eaten the hearts.
On every visit to the city, I go to the Catedral Metropolitana to light a candle, and to gawp at the ornamental vehemence of its façade, and to orient myself in the Zócalo, a square that, few tour guides ever fail to mention, is the third-largest in the world (the larger squares are Red and Tiananmen). This curious piece of also-ran data seems linked, somehow, to the not disagreeable feeling one often gets in Mexico City of grasping at substance and encountering voids. A degree of mystification is probably inevitable here, by which I mean not the inevitable ignorance that so often accompanies being away from home, but a perception that local realities are too densely layered for neat comprehension. Among the most acute travelers' accounts of Mexico City is Sybille Bedford's 1953 Visit to Don Otavio, a book that evokes the more fugitive aspects of a country composed of inseparable yet warring cultures, embedded racial animosities, and the official histories that mask them. But Bedford lived in Mexico for a year researching her book, which took a decade to write.
The commodity at Victor's is not so much information as knowledge. The finest collection in the country of Mexican arts and crafts, this shop has often struck me as the embodiment of an exceptionally detailed dream. Displayed in two rooms on the second floor of an anonymous building near the city center, one finds densely embroidered huipils (tunics) from Chiapas; wood demon masks from Guerrero; pierced tinware from San Miguel de Allende; horn combs and plaster skeleton dioramas from Puebla; salt-glazed bowls from Oaxaca; tiny baskets woven from pine needles by Tarahumara Indians in the Sierra Madre; and scabbed, ancient santos from shrines and churches and private collections throughout Mexico. This is just a sampling of the inventory looked after by a woman whose innate modesty only adds to the incongruity of finding her presiding over a fantastical empire of toys.
Founded half a century ago by Victor Fosado, the business is now run by his daughter, Pilar, and her partner, Irene Ortega. No single visit to Victor's is adequate to take in the full extent of a stock that, in an increasingly globalized country, seems rarer and more precious by the year. Yet even a brief time spent there is enough to get a glimpse into the layered national psyche, a sphere where myth and symbol have lost none of their potency, where death is a familiar to be treated with humor, where the humblest human production is unselfconsciously invested with the profound.
"Who knows how long I will continue," Pilar says, shrugging. She has few relatives interested in taking on an enterprise whose peculiar stock is replenished on regular buying trips covering thousands of miles. She says the same thing each time I visit. Because I cannot imagine Mexico City without Victor's, which is to say a city where the vestiges of folk and indigenous cultures are rendered exclusively as kitsch, I always pretend not to hear.
From Victor's we return to the Four Seasons, where, a waiter informs us, Salma Hayek is staying while filming the Frida Kahlo biography. We make dinner reservations at the San çngel Inn, a former Carmelite monastery built in 1692 and for most of this century a famous restaurant. Any hipster worth his salt would doubtless scorn the San çngel Inn as tired and fusty. It is the sort of place that concierges justifiably promote and guidebooks often list, one that prides itself on a celebrity clientele that has, as a handout makes clear, included such eminences as "Prince Philip of England, Queen Beatrice of Holland (on her honeymoon), Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Rock Hudson, Brigitte Bardot, Neil Armstrong (first astronaut on the moon), Henry Kissinger, James Carter, Octavio Paz, and now you."
It happens that fusty is a term of approval in my book. I admire the San çngel Inn in the same way that other people admire such culinary fossils as Musso & Frank in Hollywood. It is a lovely place, built around an arcaded courtyard. And, if the word can be used without seeming pejorative, it is also romantic. The San çngel Inn preserves intact the manners, and the menu, of an era when jackets for gentlemen were obligatory, even if ties were not. Much of the food on the menu also comes well-clothed. Escoffier sauces or lake fish en papillote are, if you'll pardon the Gomez Addams—ism, still de rigueur. At the San çngel Inn, I am never certain whether the women tucking into crépes of huitlacoche are mistresses or wives. Terence claims to have the distinction nailed. Chanel equals wife, he says; Versace, mistress. Or is it a matter of cultured pearls (wife) and faceted gemstones (other woman)?A Mexican friend says to keep an eye on the strolling musicians. After decades of working these same rooms, they know very well when to play and to whom.
On my last several trips to Mexico City, I began systematically ticking off buildings on my Luis Barragán pilgrimage. This time I revisit his celebrated residence, located in a working-class neighborhood not far from Chapultepec Park and opened to the public only seven years ago. Terence and I will also try to drop in at the infrequently visited Capuchin chapel in Tlalpan, whose tongue-twisting official name is the Convento de las Capuchinas Sacramentárias del Pursimo Corazón de María en Tlalpan.
Barragán's house has been photographed and described so often that one hesitates to add to the glut; perhaps it's enough to remark that—with its astonishing colors, cloistral spaces, and intricate plan—the house allays the fears its owner once expressed about the future of architecture. "I find it alarming," Barragán wrote, "that architectural publications have deleted from their pages words like Beauty, Inspiration, Magic, or Bewitchment, as well as concepts like Serenity, Silence, Amazement, and Intimacy. All of these are nestled in my soul and though I am fully aware that I have not done them complete justice in my work, they have never ceased to be my guiding lights." The structure possesses all those qualities, and a few that are less high-flown. Down to the library, which was removed after his death in 1988 and has recently been restored, the Barragán house is as he left it, and is maintained by the family of his former housekeeper, who lives in a private wing.
Although there are numerous Barragán monographs, no biography has yet been written; accounts of him are mostly limited to fragments in other people's memoirs. Students of the life, however, can scour his residence for keys to the existence of an apparently confirmed bachelor (with all the implications, one senses, of that term) who was an avid Francophile and horseman; a devotee of fashion models (particularly Iman, who became a good friend); a highly cultivated antiquarian; and a music fanatic with a special fondness for novelty records that featured jungle drums. To read the guest register of Barragán's house is to peer into the dream roster of an architectural autograph hound: Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Tod Williams, Jacques Herzog—famous practitioners outnumbering civilians.
Fewer visitors find their way to the convent of the Capuchin sisters in suburban Tlalpan, a pity since there are those who consider this structure to be Barragán's finest work. It wasn't an easy project. "The muses are not generous with him," Barragán's associate Ral Ferrera once observed. "They don't offer him anything gratuitously." In truth, the 1952 chapel, which began with some proposed renovations to an existing structure, was plagued by money problems and was finally realized only with assistance from Jess Chucho Reyes, whose contributions as Barragán's muse went largely uncredited—provoking a bitter late-life rift between the men.
The chapel is hidden behind a typically blank Mexican wall on a cobbled street some distance from the city center. A knock on its weathered door is answered by the clack of a wooden peephole and the appearance of a lone dark eye. A small woman in a black wool habit, Sor Mercedes, the mother superior, smells faintly of paraffin as she opens the door, beckons her visitors into the courtyard, and asks them, in formal Spanish, to wait. The garden space is square and serene, with a fountain overflowing the rim of a deep stone basin. Gardenias float on the water's surface. A frowsy magenta bougainvillea spills over an acid-yellow lattice wall. Projecting from a plain stucco wall is a spare 10-foot crucifix.
Barragán once said he believed in "the occurrence of mystery," and it was only after three visits to the chapel that I could begin to understand the structure's complexities, and to detect the subtle means used to evoke the greater mysteries. Partly this was a matter of architectural sorcery, of angled, rough-textured walls painted blood orange; of soaring stained-glass windows through which slabs of yellow light pour onto Mathias Goeritz's gold-leaf triptych; of low-ceilinged vestment chambers, jalousied screen walls, and cloisters that render nuns detectable only as dark, ghostly shapes.
But partly it owed to the nuns' canniness. Each time at Tlalpan, I have been asked to wait in the courtyard; each time I have been conducted ceremoniously into the chapel only after a suitable period has elapsed. And each time I have been struck by the coincidence of finding a solitary sister kneeling at prayer, cloaked in the symmetrical volumes of a long woolen veil and a beam of heavenly light.
With little in the way of revenue, the Capuchins rely on contributions from architectural pilgrims. Wallets must fly open after a glimpse of this pictorial wonder; mine always does. In a lifetime of prying into shuttered churches and holy sites, I have never encountered anything quite like the coup de théâtre routinely staged by an 80-year-old nun and her comrades. I don't think it's overstating the case to suggest there is something intrinsically Mexican in this gesture, which exploits a theater of miracles to solve such mundane problems as paying the bills.
"Robert Wilson couldn't have done it better," I said to Terence that evening, over a perfect roast chicken at Rincón Argentina, a fake pampas steak house that is easily the finest restaurant in Polanco. "And Robert Wilson," Terence said, swirling the ice in his michelada, "has much better access to grants."
Camino Real 700 Avda. Mariano Escobedo; 800/722-6466 or 52-5/263-8888, fax 52-5/263-8889; doubles from $199. With its Tamayos, two pools, and Legoretta architecture, it is among the finer hotels in the world. Wherever you stay, stop in for drinks at the lobby bar.
Four Seasons 500 Paseo de la Reforma, Colonia Juárez; 800/332-3442 or 52-5/230-1818, fax 52-5/230-1808; doubles from $280. Although a bit inconvenient and slightly generic, the Four Seasons is the best-run of the city's luxury properties, not least because of its concierges.
Hotel Habita 201 Avda. Presidente Masaryk, Polanco; 800/337-4685 or 52-5/283-3100, fax 52-5/282-3101; doubles from $225. A frosted-glass box, with monastic rooms in the boutique hotel mold, a lobby restaurant (Aura), and a hipster rooftop bar (Area).
San Ángel Inn 50 Calle Diego Rivera, San Angelín; 52-5/616-1543; dinner for two $86. Leave time for drinks in the interior courtyard, a visit to the private chapel, and a long evening of traditional Mexican dishes.
La Tecla 56 Calle Molière, Polanco; 52-5/282-0010; dinner for two $43. The Mexican-fusion cooking is what's hyped, but the traditional dishes (sopa de tortilla among them) are the real draw.
Rincón Argentina 177 Avda. Presidente Masaryk, Polanco; 52-5/254-8775; dinner for two $60. Of the numerous pricey steak houses in town, this one, in a re-created Argentinean ranch house, is choice.
La Valentina 393 Avda. Presidente Masaryk, Polanco; 52-5/282-2297; dinner for two $80. Nouvelle Mexican in a lively upstairs space. Once the favored watering hole for frescas, as the capital's yuppies are called.
ART AND CULTURE
Casa Luis Barragán 12—14 Calle Francisco Ramírez, Tacubaya; 52-5/272-4945. Private tours by appointment; book a week in advance.
Chapel of the Capuchin Convent at Tlalpan 43 Calle Hidalgo, Tlalpan; 52-5/573-2395. Book ahead.
Victor Artes Populares Mexicanos 10 Avda. Madero, Suite 305; 52-5/512-1263. A matchless collection of regional handicrafts—at prices that are startlingly reasonable.
La Colección Jumex Km. 19.5, Antigua Carretera México-Pachuca, Santa Mara Tulpetlac, Ecatepec; 52-5/699-1961. All the art that's fit to show in New York and Los Angeles.
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo 2 Calle Diego Rivera, San Angelín; 52-5/550-1518. Next to the San Ãngel Inn, this Functionalist pad was designed by the seminal Juan O'Gorman two years after Barragán built his first house.
The daunting crime rate in Mexico City has declined in recent years. The city now has its own tourist police, who patrol the historic center. With some precautions, you can make your stay a secure one. First, leave the Rolex at home. Store valuables in the hotel safe. Be aware of your surroundings, even in affluent areas such as the newly hip Polanco or the Zona Rosa shopping district near the U.S. Embassy. Withdraw money from ATM's at large, well-trafficked facilities and during daylight hours. Enticing as the VW cabs are, they can be dangerous. Use a licensed yellow cab at the airport, and then take only radio taxis (known as sitios) that you or your hotel have called. (For updated information on security in Mexico City, go to http://travel.state.gov/mexico.html.) —Hillary Geronemus