Biking in Mexico City: On Any Sunday
By Max Hartshorne GoNOMAD Editor
Flying over metropolitan Mexico City is a daunting sight. The city sprawls for miles and miles, and there is nothing but city as far as the eye can see. Yet when I visited the capital of Mexico in September, at ground level it turned out to be a city of neighborhoods, or colonias, each with their own unique identity and charm–and yes the traffic was pretty bad.
But I learned that it’s getting better and there is always Sunday: The day when the cars and traffic give way to the tranquility of families riding bicycles, pushing strollers, and rollerblading down the biggest boulevards that are closed to traffic from 7 am til 2 pm.
It’s hard to overstate what a change the humble bicycle has made in this go-go city, where everyone seems to be moving. The city’s mayor has devoted himself to promoting bicycling, by implementing these road closings and by installing a network of short-term rental bikes called Eco-bici, modeled after many other cities that have found when you place bicycles in convenient locations, and make it easy to use them, well, people do, and they love it.
Mexico City’s nascent effort is still only in a few neighborhoods, but during our visit we saw workers installing another rack of Eco-bici in the Historic district, and so far more than 38,000 Chilangos (Mexico City residents) have bought the $30 cards allowing them bikes to use for short term hops around the city. to grab
During the Sunday traffic break, I found people riding bikes, pulling dogs their bikes, and others enjoying a spirited aerobics class and practicing yoga on the sidewalk.
Oh, and one couple found time to dance the tango in front of a monument on the busy Reforma, that day, though, empy of cars.
At this time, the eco-bici program is not available to tourists, though I was lucky to be able to borrow a card from a tourism official to give it a go.
Plans call for the expansion of the program to other neighborhoods, allowing visitors to buy cards, and most important, for the creation of a network of bicycle trails and carving out space in the busy thoroughfares to give bikes room too.
A Legacy of Troubles
At a dinner one night we met the director of tourism for the city, an animated fellow named Carlos MacKinley who shared a long story complete with illustrations about how the city has evolved. MacKinley also provided some facts about the city’s master plan to promote tourism to many segments–those seeking inexpensive medical care, cultural tourism, the LBGT community and to convention visitors.
It’s a sad history that the city has faced—earthquakes in the 1980s, terrible unemployment, the fall of several governments, and all the while, a terrible legacy of pollution.
The publicity fallout from Mexico’s ongoing battle with drug cartels hasn’t made things any easier. Carlos explained that it just got to the breaking point and as the new century dawned everyone agreed things had to radically change. They did.
Today the garbagemen who arrive before dawn spend a lot of their time separating cardboard, recylable aluminum and metals, and everywhere there are containers so that people can recycle on their own. Besides the closing of major boulevards on Sundays from 7-2, cars are restricted from entering the city on varying days, depending on their license plate numbers.
To save water, most hotels and restaurants have waterless urinals in the men’s rooms.There are 13,000 police survelliance cameras and a central control center that effectively monitors criminal activity and has reduced it significantly. There is a concerted effort in every aspect of government to be green, think long term, and to promote a new spirit of eco cognizance. The alternatives were all pretty grim, MacKinlay explained.
12.5 Million Yearly Visitors
In 2011, Mexico City’s tourism numbers were impressive–more than 12.5 million visitors generating nearly 7% of the city’s GNP. The city’s mayor has decreed that city workers must use alternative transportation to get to work at least once a month, and even talked the talk by riding a bike to work himself. As a regular smoker, this is quite admirable.
The city certainly has a lot to offer tourists, who flock here almost twice as much as Cancun. Mexico city boasts four UNESCO World Heritage sites, 1400 colonial buildings, three major ancient pre-hispanic sites, 150 museums, 300 art galleries!
There are dozens of distinct neighborhoods of Mexico City, and we began our visit in one of the more charmless–Santa Fe. This is more like Silicon Valley than the other neighborhoods, it’s full of high end chain hotels with many more being built. A confluence of high tech companies including Dell, IBM and Microsoft bring many business visitors who attend conferences here.
Monica Patino Cooks in the Roma Neighborhood
We headed for Roma, which has fewer huge buildings and more of a New York City feel. There we met a chef who is famous throughout the Latin world, Monica Patina, who welcomed us graciously into her sprawling three story apartment home, where a splendid assortment of hors d’oeuvres awaited.
Monica spoke of how much she loved living here in Roma, where her apartment was remodeled to accommodate a chef-worthy kitchen and a study that is lined with what appears to be every cookbook ever written! Now she lives here with her daughter after her mother inticed her to move to the neighborhood.
We began our culinary education the minute she began serving us what she called “19th January Drinks,” which were mezcal, cucumber, epazote leaf and toasted salt. Delicous!
Monica said that she gets her Mezcal, a cousin of tequila, from a small production distiller who only makes 200 litres a year. They use very old agave plants that take up to ten years to mature. With the drinks came botanos, Mexican tapas of shredded beef with peppers, and the requisite home-made guacamole, chunky and super fresh.
Monica buzzes between her three Mexico City restaurants, Naos, Delirio, and La Taberna Del Leon, supervising her chefs and planning menus. She also has had two cooking programs on Spanish language television, and just taped a new series of a show produced in Argentina. She’s a busy lady, but was gracious and warm to her gringo visitors.
The Colonia Roma is her chosen neighborhood in the city, and it’s replete with art galleries, fashionable shops and a bohemian flavor. It’s described by some as a place for artists, writers and urban hipsters with many converted mansions and leafy tree-lined streets.
There are many small parks called plazas here that add to the ambience for pedestrians. In the nearby colonia of Condesa, sidewalk cafes proliferate, in Roma, not so much.
Roma has none of the pretentions of the more upscale Polanco, which is home to the big brands of the rich and full of high end designer shops.
This is a city full of museums, and the one with the most dramatic exterior is the Soumaya Museum, housed in a futuristic steel cloud shape, swooping up with dramatic rectangles all over its surface. The museum was named after the late wife of Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim and houses his massive coin collection as well as many Rodin sculptures and paintings by many of the best known artists from the 15th to the 20th centuries.
It opened in 2011, and admission is free thanks to its benefactor, the world’s richest man. Frank Gehry helped design the museum, which includes a winding staircase that takes you to the various exhibits.
Another highlight at Soumaya was something I’ve never seen in another museum–many of the paintings were displayed away from the wall, so you could see the backs of the frames. Seeing the notes and scrawl marks made hundreds of years ago as the paintings were displayed in different galleries was a unique glimpse into their history.
Dining in Mexico City
During our stay we were consistently impressed with the food. While the cuisine was universally all Mexican, there were subtle touches that made for wonderful dining experiences. One was on a patio high above the Soumaya at Restaurant Carolo, and consisted of little plates of familiar Mexican dishes with unusual ingredients–think duck and rib eye tacos, shrimps with tree chile sauce and ‘three milks cake for dessert.
We met a local television host, the stunning Yazmin Jalil, who like so many of the people we met in the city was cosmopolitain and impeccably dressed. My experiences in more rural Mexico locations hadn’t prepared me for the city’s wealth and class. It was like being in New York with better dressers!
Mercado San Angel
Another pretty colonia of the city is San Angel, where the San Jacinto church is located. The church, built in 1528, was once at the crossroads of the ancient Aztec city, which back then was surrounded by water. The neighborhood features dozens of art vendors set up on the sidewalks, and a wonderful Saturday bazaar called Bazar del Sabado.
Inside a winding rectangular building, a series of narrow shops, one after the other, offer all manner of handicrafts, jewelry and on a main floor, a bustling restaurant with women cooking tortillas and men playing mariachi. It’s crowded and festive and a great place to find unique souvenirs.
In the market here, we met Margarito Angeles Ramirez, who for decades has dispensed medicinal herbs from a humble stall. He said they are grown for him and that they can cure whatever ails you. He also creates special talismen made of stones, seeds and beads that are said to bring good luck.
On our final day in the city, we decided to do something that took us back to the city’s ancient Indian roots. For this we headed to Palanco, the swanky neighborhood with trees lining the center of the main boulevard. At the W Hotel, after passing through the very hip and dark interior, we took the elevator to the spa where a very unusual attraction stood waiting.
It was a temazcal, which means ‘house of heat’ in the ancient Nahuati language. We had to prepare to enter this white cement dome and to do that we donned our bathing suits and joined a specialist called a Temazcalera. Ours was Norma Policarpio, who began an elaborate ceremony in Spanish to prepare us for the heat to come. It was as if we were re-entering our mother’s wombs, so we needed a great deal of ceremony in order to prepare.
Once inside the hot chamber, we began to try and rid ourselves of our troubles, yelling out what they were to try and exorcise them in the great heat and be re-born without them. It was surprisingly cathartic, even when one of us had to leave before it was over since a piece of gold jewelry was heating up uncomfortably.
Upon my return from the trip, when I told people I had been biking in Mexico’s largest city they looked at me quizzically. Yes, I said, it’s a great place to bike and it’s making great strides in all ways environmental. To many Americans, this comes as a shock. But the truth is that more visitors come to this vast city than the tourism havens of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta combined. It’s definitely on the up swing, just like all of Mexico, and that’s why so many big American hotel chains are busy building new hotels in resurgent, invigorating Mexico City.
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