Welcome to Mexico City, aka DF, aka your nightmare…
The moment you leave Mexico City International Airport, a man with a greasy moustache grabs and bundles you into the trunk of a taxi. He drives you screaming through the city, then pulls up at a seedy night/strip club where his friends beat you senseless, max out your credit cards, remove a few of your organs to sell, and then you keep you in chains as their personal sex slave until your family pays the ransom for your release.
Most people know of DF’s reputation. A seething megalopolis home to some 21 million people (most of them murderers, rapists or taxi drivers), the city is better known for its smog than for its monuments or culture. And yet for all this, a surprising number of visitors (maybe even most visitors) leave the airport every day without being killed. Some of them even have a good time.
The city’s reputation was not always so bad. 500 years ago the city was going by the name of Tenochtitlan, and was the centre of the Aztec empire. The city was built over a shallow lake; causeways connected it to the surrounding land, and a lattice of canals allowed canoes to navigate the city. Aqueducts fed fresh spring water to the city. In the Templo Mayor people were still having their organs removed from their bodies, but by and large this was a civilised, sophisticated place. Kind of like Venice but with human sacrifice.
When the Spanish conquistadores first set eyes on Tenochtitlan, they thought they were dreaming; the city was unlike anything most of the illiterate mercenaries had ever seen. So they killed everyone and burned it down.
DF has been infamous ever since. The city built by the Spanish was pretty much doomed from its inception. The lake was drained, and over the recovered marshlands sombre Catholic sanctuaries were built. While Tenochtitlan had graced the waters around it, DF subsided into the mud under the weight of its own Baroque extravagances.
Throughout DF’s history, the autocrats have been most successful at quelling the chaos and bringing order to the streets. Emperor Maximilian revamped Chapultepec Castle and its surrounding forest, which had been an imperial residence in Aztec times. He also carved the Paseo de Reforma through the city, modelled on elegant European boulevards. The dictator Porfirio Diaz brought further European flair, developing La Condesa neighbourhood and starting work on the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
While all this fancy Europeanness helped to (briefly) rehabilitate DF’s reputation, it also created desperate, revolutionary discontent. The Revolution cemented Mexico’s reputation for lawless violence. Attempts to overcome this usually made things worse. In 1968, just before the Olympics started in Mexico City, student protestors at the Plaza de las Culturas were surrounded and massacred by police and soldiers. Almost 500 years and human sacrifice was still going on.
The giddy Tenochtitlan days will probably never come back – buildings continue to subside into the sludge, and DF faces chronic water shortage – but the days of human sacrifice finally seem to be over. As other parts of Mexico sink into violence, DF is slowly regaining its reputation as a city of dreams.
A big part of this is that DF has stopped pretending to be something it isn’t. The European pretentions are giving way, and in their place, DF is getting in touch with its ancient soul. There was a time when tequila was what the Indians drank; nowadays not just tequila but its cousins pulque and mescal are hot shit. Visit a neighbourhood drinking hole and you’ll see clusters of hipsters clinging to their iPads while they devour blue corn and chapulin (grasshopper) quesadillas and slam fruit pulque. Eating like Aztec royalty in a dive bar.
This is DF at its best. Ancient but contemporary, traditional but cosmopolitan: DF is finally embracing its contradictions rather than suppressing them. In La Condesa all that dictator-inspired architecture is filling with gentrification-mad yuppies and expats (Yes! DF is now safe for expats!). Traditional food stalls and markets back on to designer boutiques and international restaurants. It can be very pretentious, but the area is also home to some truly innovative approaches to traditional Mexican food and culture.
Along La Reforma century-old Art Nouveau facades share blocks with embassies and corporate HQs. Every Sunday bicycles, street vendors and free fitness classes take over the elegant old strip and turn it into a playground. Just south of here the Zona Rosa is crammed with gay clubs, Korean restaurants, hostels and handicraft markets.
The Centro Historico, once the place to go for beheadings, disembowelling and other wholesome Aztec rituals, is slowly coming back to life. The central Zócalo is almost always occupied by a protest, festival, or pseudo-Aztec New Age ceremony. Every Christmas it becomes a giant ice skating rink (given the shortage of water, this might not be a wise move). The surrounding urban decay is slowly being taken over by independent art galleries and speakeasies.
DF will probably never be an easy city. It is too big, too dense, too overwhelming, too labyrinthine. These days, however, it is more likely to steal your heart than to tear it out. No longer a city of nightmares, it is reasserting its legacy as a city of dreams, a city that lures people in and never lets them go.