Old world meets new era in Mexico City

North America’s largest metropolis is cooler, cheaper, and crazier than ever. Get ready to be amazed

Nino Padova

We’re somewhere on the outer flanks of Mexico City’s busiest market when Arturo Anzaldo asks me the question: “How do you feel about bees?” 

It’s after breakfast and the air is thick and gauzy with the smell of cooked meat. Arturo walks a little ahead of us, trim and alert, a small messenger bag pressed to his waist. Vendors shout out from behind their stalls—“¡Pásele, güero!” (Come here, white person!) “¿Qué te damos, joven?” (What can we give you, young man?) 

Even by Mexico City standards, Mercado de la Merced is bewildering. To enter it, you wander through a chaotic street bazaar that stretches for blocks in every direction. The market itself spans the length of four football fields near the Centro Histórico, and is broken up into mini neighborhoods: the produce neighborhood, the cheese neighborhood, the neighborhood that sells nothing but fake flowers. In its heyday, Merced disgorged hundreds of tons of food daily, and though the Walmarts and Sanborns have since muscled in, it still remains the largest single retail market in Mexico City. Which is another way of saying it’s one of the biggest in the world.

I’d met Arturo just a couple of hours ago, but already I like him. He has that mix of cheer and earnestness that makes you want to follow him. He runs food tours for a company called Eat Mexico, and is the top guide. You’ll need a good guide, people told me, especially in La Merced. But then again people say all kinds of things about Mexico City: Don’t breathe the air. Don’t eat the street food. Don’t trust the cab drivers. Someone warned me not to wear my wedding ring because it would increase my chances of being kidnapped.

No one said anything about bees.

We’re heading through the sweets neighborhood—dried figs, gummies, amaranth bars by the kilo—only it’s hard to focus because I keep closing my eyes on account of all the bees. “Don’t worry,” Arturo says, “they’re harmless.” I’m swatting at the air, potentially making them less so, and before I know it, I’m running full-stride down the aisle—away from the candy, away from Arturo, away from the bees—and the whole time I’m thinking, This is amazing!

It’s the same thought you have flying into Benito Juárez International Airport at night, 21 million faceless souls flickering up at you. Or after your first brush with rush-hour traffic on the Circuito Interior, or your first mouthful of al pastor, or each and every time you set foot on the Zócalo, the great ancient square and thumping heart of the capital, as alive and mad today as it was 500 years ago when Cortés wrested the city from the Aztecs. Amazing. It’s everywhere in Mexico City. 

But for the uninitiated, Mexico City can be an unwieldy beast to negotiate (its nickname, after all, is El Monstruo). First off, it’s enormous, spilling out over 600 square miles and hundreds of different neighborhoods, many of which bear the same name. And it’s all set in an active earthquake zone 7,300 feet above sea level near two simmering volcanoes. It’s not the sort of place you want to run blind. 

Which is why I hired a fixer. A local who knows the scene, has connections, and can shuttle me around D.F. (short for Distrito Federal, as Mexico City’s main tourist quarter is known) for the next few days. His name is Sebastián Mancera, a friend of a friend, and he’s right behind me, running through a cloud of supposedly harmless bees.

"Wow, that was intense!” We’ve exited the market and are standing in a cobblestone plaza of a 17th-century church that looks every bit its age. Sebastián, tall and loose-limbed, claws through the bag of tiny dried fish he picked up from a vendor who specializes in pre-Hispanic snacks. Namely, bugs. I forced down pinches of dried ahuatle (water-fly eggs) and chicatanas (giant winged ants) but cut the tasting short at gusanos de maguey (live worms).

Arturo leads us out into the neighborhood. It happens to be his neighborhood, and near as I can figure a less orderly version of the market we just exited. Vendors swarm the sidewalks. Everyone seems engaged in some form of negotiation. Pesos change hands rapidly.

“This is the soul of the capital,” Arturo tells us, a flicker of pride in his voice. “To understand this city, you need to see how it moves, how it conducts commerce. In the markets and in the streets, that’s where you find Mexico City.” 

Arturo’s favorite subject: the soul of the city. I’ve been hearing some variation of this sentiment all morning. When he learned that I was staying in the upscale Polanco neighborhood, a few miles west of the center, he flared. That’s not Mexico City, his mournful eyes seemed to say. His point is a salient one: It’s possible to spend all your time anchored in D.F.’s cool-kid neighborhoods, sipping craft cocktails and attending gallery openings, and never experience the full wattage of Mexico City. To do that, you have to tough it out for a few frenzied hours in the Centro Histórico. 

We turn down a narrow side street engulfed in people. A continuous parade of shops, clustered by theme: pottery. Kitchenware. Kids’ toys. As we go on, the themes become stranger, more specific: swords. Quinceañera dresses. A store of nothing but baby Jesus nativity clothing. 

“Do you see those buildings?” Arturo points to a row of vacant warehouses across the street. “They belong to Slim. He’s been busy buying up most of the neighborhood, and he’s just waiting to develop it and move all these people out. You watch, this whole area will all look a lot different soon.”

Slim is telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helú, second richest man in the world. Over the past dozen years, he’s invested heavily in the blocks around the Zócalo, reviving crumbling palaces, funding museums, installing streetlamps. What he’s done for the city’s urban core can seem, at least from an outsider’s perch, nothing short of astonishing. But Arturo is no outsider. He says the urban upgrades have come with a small but not insignificant loss. First the squeegee men and street vendors disappear, then, who knows, maybe one day the market itself. 

Sebastián and I return to the Centro the next morning. He’s laid out an attraction-packed itinerary, a compression of 700 years of history in a few dizzying hours: Palacio de Bellas Artes (neoclassical meets art nouveau), the Catedral Metropolitana (one of the oldest churches in Latin America, sinking), the National Palace (sweeping courtyards, sweeping murals, many people actually sweeping). 

By noon, the valley sun is harsh and the plazas are choked with tourists. But it’s cool and quiet in the lobby of the city’s main post-office building, a dazzling edifice of marble staircases and intricate ironwork and so much polished brass that I can’t help but marvel at the locals who wander in off the street, seemingly unimpressed, only to mail a letter, turn around, and leave.   

“This city is built on a lake,” says Sebastián, drawing his hands together into a little tipi. We’re leaning on a short fence above Templo Mayor, the ruins of the ancient city of Tenochtitlán, discovered in the late 1970s when electrical workers were laying cable in the center. The Spanish built directly on top of the Aztec capital, using its canals as the basis for their streets. They eventually drained the lake, and for centuries people scrambled over the crumbled remains of a massive civilization without even knowing it. It’s hard to imagine, if not totally amazing. 

There’s a story Sebastián likes to tell about an older gentleman who, every evening after dinner, puts on his shoes and jacket and takes his pet pig for a stroll through the neighborhood. “You’ll be sitting at a bar having a beer,” he says, “and next thing you know, there goes this man and his pig. That’s Roma.”

We’re huddled at a small table in the upstairs of Licorería Limantour, Roma’s preeminent cocktail bar, nursing a mezcal and waiting for the afternoon thunderstorms to abate. The rain comes in hostile sheets every day at almost exactly the same time, which rather nicely coincides with happy hour. Not that the Mexicans need an excuse for a pre-evening tipple, and certainly not in Roma.

Along with the adjoining Condesa neighborhood, Roma is D.F.’s answer to Brooklyn or L.A.’s Silver Lake: Its citizens are creative, educated, opinionated, stylish; 20- and 30-somethings of certain means and tastes who’ve come here to write, paint, perform, design, photograph, and start-up. “Every other person I meet here is launching something,” says Sebastián with playful exasperation. 

I introduce myself one morning to Jeremy Clouser and his wife, Cecilia Morales, the smiling owners of Chiquitito Café, a tiny, direct-trade coffee shop near Condesa’s leafy Parque México. When they opened in 2012, good coffee was scarce in the neighborhood. “There was basically Starbucks and that’s it,” Jeremy says. In the last few years, the number of legit coffee shops has grown exponentially. “A lot of people who’ve gone away for college or work are coming back to the city. They know what they want.” 

Cecilia is straight-up chilanga, born and raised in Mexico City. “Growing up,” she says, “if someone you knew visited the U.S., you’d ask them to bring you back some token of the culture—a Michael Jackson tape, a Milky Way bar, anything! Now people come here to experience our culture. This is our time.”

That’s never been truer than with Mexico City’s restaurant scene. Last summer, a consortium of food writers and chefs caused a minor stir when they voted three D.F. restaurants to its vaunted list of 50 Best Restaurants in the World, putting Mexico City in the same league with heavyweights like New York and Paris. 

“It’s a long time coming,” says celebrity chef Josefina Santacruz when I sit down with her one morning in the dining room of Sesame, her popular Roma restaurant that specializes in Asian street food. “Not only are we getting attention from the world community, but we’re finally paying attention to ourselves. Used to be if you were a young chef with talent, you went abroad for your inspiration. You learned to cook French and Italian, but today you can make a name for yourself right here, cooking what you want. That’s an important shift.”

You can see it happening a few blocks away in the gleaming new Mercado Roma, a tri-level food hall that opened in 2014, where 60-plus vendors dish out everything from squid tortas to tamarind-flavored truffles. Foodie fashions are at the forefront, from vegetable stands selling heirloom corn to the mood-lit wine bar to the massive living wall in the patio. 

Sebastián and I grab a seat in the rooftop beer garden and play our favorite game: Spot the bodyguard.

Me: “The dude by the plant?”

Sebastián: “No, no. The guy over there, in the vest.” 

The bodyguard/personal driver is ubiquitous in D.F. I’d seen them flag down waiters, escort lap dogs into clothing boutiques, and stop traffic on a dime. They’re a common expression of middle-class comfort in a city where so few enjoy it (nearly half of Mexico City’s 21 million citizens live in poverty). And even though they annoy Sebastián to no end, there’s something about their furtive bravado I find badass. 

I use our afternoon happy hours to probe Sebastián, and learn that his parents are part of a well-connected elite, dad a high-powered public affairs consultant, mom an academic. He attended one of the city’s elite English- language high schools before heading abroad to study architectural design at Stanford. He graduated last spring and was back home, waiting out a visa request so he could set off for New York City and begin a career as a successful architect.

“Why New York?” I ask him. “Why not stay here?”

“Oh, I’ll be back,” he says. “No question I’ll be back.” 

We empty our beers, then walk down Avenida Álvaro Obregón, Roma’s worn but pretty commercial drag. Sebastián unloads a deep history of the neighborhood’s turn-of-the-20th-century architecture—which mansions were French-inspired, which art deco—and I follow along as best I can, but at some point I stop taking notes. At some point I’m looking only for the man and his pet pig. 

Zélika García is running 20 minutes late, which in Mexico City is right on time. The founder of Zsona Maco, Latin America’s biggest art fair has agreed to meet me at Museo Jumex, the newest contemporary art museum in the posh Polanco neighborhood. Over the last decade or so, Polanco has transformed from the snoozy old Jewish quarter to Mexico City’s hot zone for art and culture. 

Directly across the plaza from Jumex, twisting in the air like a giant space-age Slinky, is Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya. The six-story, hourglass-shaped structure opened in 2011 to show off the billionaire’s art collection (which includes everything from Rodin sculptures to a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà). One critic described the spectacle thus: “Going up the steps, I couldn’t help feeling like one of the aliens returning to the spaceship in E.T.

Zélika breezes through the door, all perfume and apologies. Oh, the traffic! She’s younger than I’d imagined, with long red hair, piercing blue eyes, and a raspy Scarlett Johansson voice. When she arrived in D.F. in 2003, the city’s contemporary art scene was in limbo. “We’ve always had a rich museum tradition,” she says. “But now the galleries are really coming along. There are so many new ones opening, so much young talent on display, that it’s almost hard to keep up.”

But she does. Zsona Maco is the most important art event of the year, a gathering each winter of more than 120 galleries and 45,000 attendees—artists, collectors, museum directors—from around the world. Zélika submits that it isn’t only the contemporary art scene that’s coming into its own. “It’s everything: fashion, music, food. It’s as if a country of creative people has awakened all at once to express itself.”

It’s also money. You see it everywhere in Polanco, the preferred address for Mexico City’s celebrities and business elite. The main thoroughfare, Avenida Presidente Masaryk, is an endless procession of luxury retail: Porsche, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton. The neighborhood also commands the lion’s share of the city’s priciest restaurants, including Michelin-worthy splurges like Biko, Quintonil, and Pujol, where, even with the favorable exchange rate, a meal can set you back a pretty peso.

But it’s another green that distinguishes Polanco. Bosque de Chapultepec, the largest urban park in Latin America, cuts 1,700 lush acres through the gut of the neighborhood: There’s a zoo, a boating lake, an amphitheater, an 18th-century castle, and the world-renowned Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology), where I ask Sebastián to snap iPhone photos of me standing before the 500-year-old Sun Stone, the most famous of all Aztec sculptures. 

A few years back, the city closed off Sunday traffic in the park and installed a bike-share program in an effort to promote “sustainable mobility.” The movement took off, turning Chapultepec into a magnet for joggers, skaters, and cyclists. 

Sebastián and I stroll along carless Paseo de la Reforma one Sunday. A sea of relaxed faces floats by: families with small children, giggling young couples, a lone roller skater decked out in full disco gear. Except for the hum of rubber hitting cement, the city is, for the first time during my visit, absolutely quiet.

My last day in Mexico City, Sebastián says there’s something I should see, something special. Twenty minutes later, the two of us are in an elevator shooting eight stories to the top of a glass tower. We emerge onto a rooftop garden, and there, almost close enough to touch, is the park; it seems bigger and wilder from this height, a dense blanket of green folded over a gray city. 

I stand at the roof’s edge soaking up the views. Sebastián joins me. “See that area down there?” he says, pointing to a cluster of blocks just west of the tower. “That’s my dream plot. I want to put up a building there.” He already has the design in his head. Lots of windows, views on all sides. On a good day you’ll be able to see way out to the volcanoes. But the best part, he says, is the neighborhood. “No one knows about it yet, but it has great potential. I think it’s going to be huge.” 

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