Mention Mexico City and almost everyone asks the same question: "Is it safe?" The answer comes easily in chic, tree-lined neighborhoods such as La Condesa, Coyoacán and San Ángel.
MEXICO CITY — Sitting at a sidewalk table, shaded by green awnings at the Café La Selva, I sipped chai tea laced with sweetened condensed milk and thought about the question almost everyone asked when I mentioned I’d be spending a few days in Mexico City.
“Is it safe?”
Travelers’ warnings reinforce images of a city whose reputation as the cultural capital of Latin America has been overshadowed by crowds, pollution, petty street crime and, lately, worries about drug-related violence spreading inland from the border towns:
• Don’t flag down a taxi, especially the green VW Beetles, or risk an “express kidnapping,” when a driver diverts a passenger to an ATM for an emergency cash withdrawal.
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• Don’t carry a credit card.
• Beware of pickpockets on the subway.
• Don’t expect strangers to make eye contact.
Yet, here I was, surrounded by locals chatting with friends or reading newspapers spread out on wooden tables, feeling more like I was on a chic street corner in Madrid than in a hectic metropolis of more than 20 million.
The neighborhood is Colonia Condesa, a fashionable area filled with art-deco houses and tree-lined pedestrian paths along the medians of busy main streets.
In the Parque México a few blocks from the Selva, a group practices morning tai chi next to a duck pond and a statue of a nude woman holding two jugs with water spilling into a fountain.
Metered taxis park next to a French restaurant across the street from the Red Tree House, a boutique B&B where $85 buys a room that opens up into a plant-filled courtyard and comes with home-cooked tamale breakfasts.
“There are some grim truths in Mexico these days,” American artist and writer Jim Johnston wrote in a recent post on his blog, “and surely some people live in fear,” as Mexico’s drug wars have increased and gang violence has spread from border towns into some of the major cities.
Johnston is the author of “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler,” a self-published book filled with off-the-beaten-track tips for discovering the Distrito Federal or DF, as the locals call Mexico City.
After spending a few days in La Condesa where Johnston lives with his partner, food writer Nicholas Gilman, I understood what he meant when he ended his blog post with this thought:
“The violence occurring in some parts of Mexico does not turn Mexico into a violent nation.”
Like most big cities, Mexico City is a collection of neighborhoods. Spend some time in the colonias, as they’re called, and the images of a hectic, smoggy city give way to walkable urban villages where the must-dos are about finding the right taco, discovering a hidden museum or wandering through a local market.
A few miles from the tourist zone of Zona Rosa, known for its discos, bars and high-rise hotels, a group of well-dressed Mexicans sip wine and clap and sing as guitarist serenades at La Bodega, a restaurant and music club in a mansion decorated with stained-glass windows and stools nailed to wooden walls.
Johnston compares the atmosphere to Greenwich Village in the ’60s. It’s a description that could apply to all of La Condesa. Built in the 1920s and fashionable in the 1940s and 1950s as home to Mexican film stars, “it’s always had a bohemian artists community living here,” he says.
Wealthier residents moved on after an earthquake in 1985, leaving Condesa’s art deco-style buildings vacant and its parks and shady squares deserted. Now the neighborhood is hip again, with a mix of expats and locals filling sushi bars and Italian restaurants along Avenida Michoacán and Avenida Amsterdam, an oval-shaped street originally built as a horse-racing track.
Mexico City’s mayor keeps an apartment overlooking Parque México. Wraparound couches and white tables decorate a rooftop bar at Condesa df, a luxe hotel where celebrity sightings include Paris Hilton and Bono.
A few blocks away, the lines form at 11 a.m. at a storefront taco stall called Hola where the specialty is $1.50 servings of stewed vegetables and meats stuffed into corn tortillas.
Neighboring Colonia Roma feels more urban, less gentrified. The major landmark is a reproduction of Michaelangelo’s David in a fountain on the Plaza Rio de Janeiro.
Locals gravitate here for the lively cantinas and edgy art scene, but after a day of running around on the subways, sightseeing, I preferred Condesa for hassle-free evenings with just the right amount of city vibe.
Red Tree House owners Jorge Silva and his partner, Craig Hudson, a theater scenery and lighting designer from Ashland, Ore., gather their guests in the living room each evening to share wine and conversation. Everyone compares sightseeing and restaurant tips, then sets off on foot for a late dinner.
“Part of the fun for us is that the city’s almost always better than most people expect,” says Hudson.
I realized this on a cool fall night while sitting on a high stool at a neighborhood taco chain called El Tizoncito. The specialty is tacos al pastor — tacos “shepherd style,” a Mexican take on the Middle Eastern gyro.
Servers in blue aprons and matching hats rushed around taking orders and serving beers while a grillman used a butcher knife to shave thin slices from a hunk of spit-roasted chicken topped with a chunk of pineapple.
Served on miniature corn tortillas garnished with onions, pineapple, cilantro and lime, the tacos sell for about $1 each. Nobody eats just one.
Six or so miles south of downtown, the colonial neighborhoods of Coyoacán and nearby San Ángel draw crowds on the weekends when tourists and locals hunt for bargains in the craft and antique markets. Stroll though either of these neighborhoods on a weekday, and it’s not hard to imagine them as the countryside villages they were when Mexico’s most well-known contemporary artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived and worked here.
A walk along Coyoacán’s cobbled Avenida Francisco Sosa leads to secret gardens and Spanish haciendas hidden behind the walls of buildings painted pink, blue and ocher.
Stop for a Mexican breakfast at La Pause, a bookstore, art gallery and cafe tucked into a patio courtyard, or wander through the gardens at the elegant Casa de la Cultura Jesus Reyes Heroles decorated with tiled benches and bronze statues of Rivera and Kahlo.
Long before there was Starbucks, there was El Jarocho. Burlap sacks of beans rest next to a red coffee grinder on the sidewalk outside the shop that’s been a Coyoacán fixture since 1953. Sit down on a milk crate and join the locals for a mokachino, a thick brew of coffee and spiced chocolate.
Piñatas wrapped in newspapers hang from the ceilings inside the Coyoacán market down the street. I ducked in from the rain one afternoon to sample a chicken mole tostada at a bright yellow and red “fonda” or lunch counter called Tostadas Coyoacán, where serving bowls overflow with shrimp, sliced cactus, onions and tomatoes.
A short walk away is the Frida Kahlo museum, known as the “Blue House” where the painter was born in 1907. Her wheelchair rests in an upstairs bedroom in front of a half-finished portrait of her husband, the muralist Rivera.
In neighboring San Ángel, a rooftop bridge connects twin houses built for Kahlo and Rivera, now a museum displaying artifacts from Rivera’s studio including life-size papier-mâché skeletons, his cane and a pair of brown leather boots.
San Ángel draws hordes on Saturdays for Bazar Sábado, an indoor arts and crafts market that spills out onto the streets around Plaza de San Jacinto.
Others come to see the mummified bodies in the crypt of a 17th-century convent, now the Museo del Carmen. Above ground and next door, Churrerias del Convento fortifies museum-goers with hot chocolate and churros, deep-fried dough rolled up like a garden hose, dusted with sugar and snipped into bite-sized lengths.
At four for $2.50, including hot chocolate, this is a bargain like almost everything else is in Mexico as the dollar has gained strength against the peso.
Memo to those in need of liquid courage before heading off to view the mummies: Tequila shots are extra.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com