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3 May 2015

Mexico City: Exploring the Centro Historico — and Coffee

NB: This post is a pretty long one, even for me, but if you're interested in reading about my first experiences in the historic city centre of Mexico City, read on!

After almost missing my connecting flight from JFK to Mexico City (my first flight was late,and I had to run through the airport and sweet talk the guy at the airline desk into letting me check in even though the flight had closed), I made it to my hotel safely on Friday night. I decided to stay in the Roma area of DF (Distrito Federal — AKA Mexico City), partly because it's a lot calmer than the centro historico, and partly because there is an abundance of good coffee shops.


After my run on Saturday morning — over to one of Mexico City's largest green spaces, the Bosque de Chapultepec — I went to a coffee bar called Buna 42 on Orizaba. I will do a round-up of all of the good coffee places I find in DF in due course, but I was impressed with Buna's sleek, modern cafe and the breadth of its coffee menu. I wasn't in the mood for a cold brew, so I ordered a pourover ('infusion' en español), and selected an intense, almondy coffee from Oaxaca. It tasted great and certainly helped to cut through the jet lag.


After a Mexican breakfast at my hotel, it was time for the second stop on my coffee tour of DF: Memorias de un Barista on Frontera. I was a little puzzled to find each table occupied by one person, none of whom was drinking coffee, but at ten o'clock they all got up to take part in one of the training courses the cafe runs. Sadly, my Spanish wasn't good enough to pick up many useful tips while I enjoyed my Aeropress.


The centro historico is only about a 20- to 25-minute walk from Roma, and, following part of a walking route in my Lonely Planet guidebook, I headed in that direction, stopping at a couple of markets. The first was La Ciudadela, a big craft market on Avenida Balderas. My eye was caught by many of the colourful goods and beautiful glassware, but the downside of travelling light is that I have only limited space in my suitcase so I have to choose souvenirs carefully. A few blocks east is the Mercado San Juan, a food market on Ernesto Pugibet where local chefs shop. There are also a few tiny restaurant counters inside. It's a bit like DF's version of Borough Market.




I walked up to a lovely park called Central Alameda, which was blooming with pretty flowers. There are a number of shaded benches next to the many fountains and it was a pleasant place to rest my feet while I planned my next move. A few blocks away is Palacio de Bellas Artes, a big cultural centre, whose building, with its distinctive monarch butterfly-coloured dome, is also very beautiful. I also got a nice aerial view from the Torre Latino, where, for 80 pesos (about £3.50), you can ascend to the 44th floor terrace for as good a view of the huge, sprawling city as the haze and smog will allow. There is also a small museum about the history of the area.



For lunch, I went to Taquería los Cocuyos on Calle Simón Bolivar. It's a hole-in-the-wall taco joint, with only a few seats on the pavement, but for 28 pesos (just over £1), I got two delicious tacos: one beef (suadero), and one beef and sausage (campechano). That's what I call street food! I then happened upon Downtown Mexico, a fancy design hotel on Isabel la Católica that encompasses several chic boutiques and eateries and even a living wall. I had a Mexican hot chocolate (rich and spicy) and bought several beautifully coloured chocolates from Qué Bo!, but managed to resist the gorgeous cookware on sale on the ground floor.





A few blocks further east is the Zócalo — a large public square, flanked by the city cathedral, the Templo Mayor ruins and the Palacio Nacional. Templo Mayor was, as the name suggests, a major Aztec temple in Tenochtitlan, and you can walk around the remains. I was quite taken by the skull decorations, but the contrast between the temple and the neighbouring colonial buildings is quite interesting. NB, you can't take any drinks inside, but there is a store room just next to the entrance.





I also visited the Palacio Nacional, after exchanging my driving licence for a neon pink lanyard. The palacio is a large, lovely building, with numerous leafy courtyards. You can view some of the huge and colourful historical murals painted by Diego Rivera in the first half of the 20th century. There were several cats inside the gardens, but they didn't seem that interested in the history.




Rivera isn't the only Chilango to enjoy the odd bit of painting: I've spotted dozens of colourful pieces of street art. I particularly liked this one, on Regina — a leafy, pedestrianised street with lots of cafes just south of the Zócalo.


I went back to my hotel to rest my aching feet and wait out the heavy downpour. I'm definitely not taco-ed out yet — not by a long shot — but I am keen to try as many different dishes while I'm here as possible and on the list for last night was pozole: a traditional Mexican soup, made from maize and served with meat, chilli and other spices. Some interwebs research pointed me in the direction of La Casa de Toño, a small chain of restaurants.

I went to the Zona Rosa branch on Calle Londres, which is open 24/7. There was a small queue outside but within five minutes, I was slurping through a comforting bowl of pozole con pollo. It came with a bowl of crispy corn tacos for dunking, radish, lettuce, lime and onion, and it set me back 43 pesos (just under £2). When I left, the waiters gave me a doggie bag, which contained a deep fried taco, sealed up like a pasty, with meat and cheese. A nice touch, although I was already way too full. La Casa de Toño is cheap, quick and serves tasty food. Muy bien!



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