Like most of my readers I imagine, the idea of taking a Club Med or Carnival Cruise vacation is the last thing that would occur to me. So when my wife proposed that we spend 5 days in Mexico City en route to her conference in Costa Rica, I said sure, why not.
But after buying a tour book for Mexico City, trepidations set in. It warned that you’d better not go out after dark and that if you needed a cab, you’d better have the hotel call one for you. It seems that from time to time some thug hijacks a cab and then picks up an unsuspecting fare that is driven to an ATM machine in some remote location and forced at gunpoint to withdraw oodles of cash. But even if you have the hotel call a cab for you, how are you supposed to get back? All in all, it sounded like that Denzil Washington movie “Man on Fire” that pitted our plucky hero against an army of narcotraficante kidnappers in Mexico City. Every street in that movie seemed to harbor a bunch of bad guys with hand grenades in each pocket and a willingness to use them against 3 year olds. Since Malcolm X’s grandson had been killed in Mexico City shortly after we booked our reservations, my anxiety deepened.
Of course anybody who has lived in New York City in the worst of times, as I did in the 60s and 70s, would realize how stupid my fears were. Not only was Mexico City much safer than Avenue C after dark; it was one of my most rewarding experiences as a traveler ever. Since my interest in touring is much more about picturesque architecture than scuba diving, this city was made to order. Unlike Istanbul, another mega-city that has grown like Topsy from the inpouring of impoverished rural folk, Mexico City is utterly dedicated to the preservation of the city’s indigenous and colonial past—even as they were mortal enemies. Spread throughout the city is 500-year-old churches and Aztec ruins that take your breath away. I suppose if the AKP were in charge of Mexico City, the Aztec ruins would be carted away to make room for a shopping mall.
Furthermore, you really don’t need a cab to get around. Mexico City has a subway system that is second to none (even if the cars are not air-conditioned.) It costs 3 pesos to get on a train. Since the exchange rate is just under 13 pesos per dollar, the fare amounts to 23 cents!
We ended up staying at the Sheraton Maria Isabela Hotel on Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s major thoroughfares and along a stretch of blocks that amounted to Embassy Row. This is basically a four-star hotel that cost us about $150 per night. The hotel was located near Zona Rosa, the city’s burgeoning gay and bohemian neighborhood. We were located a block from the famous “El Angel” monument and pleased to see male couples making out on its steps. As you may know, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009, something that befits the city’s progressive traditions.
For decades now, there has been a leftist Mayor in power. This gives the city a great vibe as you can see evidence of its effects everywhere, from free bikes (as opposed to Bloomberg’s that cost $95) to low-cost subways. The city also pays for yearly check-ups for its citizens.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere you look there are signs of the city’s radical and indigenous roots. Streets are named after Aztec rulers or objects, or after well-known figures of its own revolutionary past or that of Latin America as a whole. Even longer than Paseo de la Reforma is Avenida de las Insurgentes, the second longest street in Latin America (the first is in Buenos Aires.) The “Insurgentes” is a reference to the insurgent army that fought for Mexican independence from 1810 to 1821.
Besides the metro (cabs are also cheap), restaurants are bargains as well. On our first night an old friend from my Trotskyist youth accompanied us to a Uruguayan steakhouse that he heard good things about. I had a skirt steak for $10 that was far better than the $35 steak I ate at Ben and Jack’s a year or so ago. All in all, your money goes a long way in Mexico City.
If you are looking for an inexpensive but vastly rewarding place to take a vacation this year or next, I can’t recommend Mexico City highly enough.
I have a couple of more posts on my visit pending. The first will deal with the organized left in Mexico City and the country as a whole based on my discussions with my old friend and comrade Peter Gellert mentioned above. After that I will post about the Aztecs, getting into the thorny question of human sacrifice. And finally there will be a review of Adolfo Gilly’s history of the Mexican revolution. Gilly and Peter belonged to the PRT, the Mexican section of the Fourth International, which at its height had 3000 members, many of whom were peasants. If the USA had a group comparable in size, that would amount to 9000 members. Back in 1975 we in the SWP thought we were hot shit because we had 2000 member. What self-important idiots we were. I have to mention, however, that the PRT no longer exists so there’s something that needs to be taken into account about its particular problems as well. More anon.