Quaint décor, colourful cuisines and vivid folk art set the Mexican capital apart from the rest. Here are seven must-have experiences
Colours and fiesta - those were the first two words that came to mind as we walked through the streets of Mexico City on a bright sunny morning in December. It was a sensory overload in many ways as our tour guide took us to markets, restaurants, food stalls and museums in the capital. People strumming their guitars and singing and dancing to the tunes of Spanish melodies was a common sight as we embarked on this cultural journey of the southernmost North American country. From quaint decor to colourful cuisine, vibrant attires and vivid folk art, the city was colourful. Tourists throng to enjoy the Mexican spell, and now with Emirates Airline's newly launched daily service to Mexico City, the country is expected to draw many more visitors from the UAE, Middle East and Asia. And while there, don't miss out on these experiences that made our trip delightful and unforgettable.
As the flight touched down in Mexico City, the first thing on my mind was to have my fill of Mexican delicacies; after all, we were in taco land. We set off to explore life and eats on the delicious streets, called antojitos (meaning "little cravings"); my goal was to make every day taco Tuesday. Vendors sold everything from snacks to full platters of food from stalls, small trucks, under umbrellas and makeshift windows by the sides of buildings.
The best street food was found in and around markets, museums and at public transport stops. Adriana Rizo from Mexico City's tourism board introduced us to tamales. "Besides the familiar tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and churros, tamales - a corn dough dumpling with a filling which could be salsa with chicken, tomato and onion - is a popular treat for morning," said Adriana.
"Mexicans don't flinch even when their food is another level of spicy or has a filling of cactus plant or some of the more interesting animals including grasshoppers, ants, worms, escamoles (ant larvae) or octopus," she added.
No trip to Mexico City is complete without a visit to a traditional Mexican market. You would find everything from handicrafts, ceramic pots and colourful clothes to produce meat, fresh flowers, spices and beverages. We went to "Mercado de San Juan" in the historic centre of Mexico City and I was fascinated by the huge variety of fruits and vegetables, many of which were new to me. There were avocados, berries, tomatoes, tomatillos, corn, chayote (or mirliton squash) and, of course, chiles (Mexico's chillies). We also visited a nearby handiwork market called "Mercado de la Ciudadela", showcasing the city's love for art and craft. Jaguar is the largest of all the big cats in the Americas and you would see jaguar handicrafts in every corner. These are hard to be missed as the vendors blow into them making loud jaguar-like sounds to scare you.
Pyramids at Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city, is arguably the most Instagrammable site in the country located about 50km northeast of Mexico City. The key structures here include the Ciudadela (Citadel) and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent), the Pyramid of the Moon, and the largest of all - the Pyramid of the Sun. All of them are connected by the Avenue of the Dead (or Miccaotli in the Aztec language Nahuatl), a 40m wide and 2.4km long road. Teotihuacan was built by hand more than a thousand years before the arrival of the Aztecs in central Mexico, but even to this day, the city's origins remain largely a mystery. It was the Aztec who gave it the name Teotihuacan which means "the place where the gods were created".
Xochimilco boat ride
A visit to Xochimilco is like stumbling across Venice in the middle of Mexico City - full of water, canals and tides. We took a traditional tour aboard a boat called 'trajinera' through one of its canals. On the way, we came across other boats with mariachi performers dressed as cowboys, who brightened up our evening with traditional Mexican music. We also shopped on the move as we were surrounded by vendors selling traditional shawls and ponchos. "The area is home to 'axolotl', also known as the Mexican walking fish, capable of regenerating its limbs if cut. It's an amphibian and unique to the area," said Eduardo Ayala, the 19-year-old helmsman of our boat.
He also informed us that a four-hour long journey by boat could take us to a creepy plot of land called the Island of Dolls. And he went on to narrate the story. "It's believed that a girl drowned near that island nearly 60 years ago. The lone resident of the island at that time, Julian Santana, found the girl's body tightly hugging a doll. He buried the girl's body and hung the doll from a tree. He continued hanging other dolls on the island's trees because he believed that the dolls were protecting him from evil spirits. Santana is not alive anymore, but his brothers still live on that island. We believe the place is haunted as people say they have seen the dolls frequently fall from trees and hang themselves up again on their own."
Frida Kahlo Museum
One cannot truly visit Mexico without exploring the works of Latin America's most celebrated woman artist - Frida Kahlo. Her former residence, called the Blue House, was turned into a museum in 1958, four years after her death. It includes some of her key works, such as Long Live Life, Frida and the Caesarian Operation, and Portrait of My Father Wilhelm Kahlo, among many others. Later, we went to the Dolores Olmedo Museum that houses a large collection of works by Frida Kahlo and her husband and eminent artist Diego Rivera. Surrounded by lush gardens, the museum is inhabited by peacocks and Xoloiztcuintle dogs, a hairless Mexican breed that is believed to be capable of healing people with their warmth.
A walk down the historic centre
Located in the city's main square or Zocalo, Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is the seat of the federal executive in Mexico and the official residence of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. There we had the opportunity to see beautiful murals by artist Diego Rivera. There are several other landmarks within walking distance of the National Palace including the Metropolitan Cathedral and Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). Later, we headed to Castillo de Chapultepec, the castle that stands atop Chapultepec Hill complete with magnificent old furnishings, coloured glass windows and spectacular views of the park and surroundings.
The culinary journey in Mexico starts with its street food, but doesn't end there. One can experience gourmet and exotic dishes at several restaurants that are a cut above the rest. You would think it's hard for vegetarians in Mexico, but at Carmela y Sal we stuffed ourselves with various Mexican delicacies with a modern twist, such as tostadas that tasted like meat but were actually prepared using coconut. The vegan dishes were arguably the best and left us wanting for more. We also dined at Meson Antigua Santa Catarina located in the picturesque city of Coyoacan, where we had chilapitas prepared with cactus, guacamole and mole mousse, followed by tortilla soup with avocado, chile pasilla and sour cream. We also tried soursop fruit water and Jamaica (hibiscus) water - two of the most common drinks served with mid-day meals. Another diner that blew my mind was La Casa de las Sirenas, a house turned into a restaurant, located in the city's historical centre. The rooftop seating area offered incredible views of the Cathedral and Zocalo and made our night truly memorable. The food was exceptional, the building gorgeous and their guacamole was, undoubtedly, the best I have had till date.
Five days were surely not enough to experience all the attractions the city has to offer. As I packed my bags and prepared to return to Dubai, my words were not Adios (goodbye) but, rather, hasta la vego (see you soon).