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Mexico City

Marvelous and Misunderstood

Travelers often view Mexico City as a launching pad from which to take off on their way to other parts of the country. But the city is more than just a hub for reaching Gaudalajara, Acapulco and Merida. It is also a hub for Mexico's arts, finance, history and politics. Why not stay a few days in the 386-square-mile capital that is always spring-like and in bloom. You might spend one day each in the Chapultepec Park area, the Historic Center and the southern section.

Garden at Chapultepec Castle credit: Paul Noble

A cross between Central Park and the Bois de Boulogne, 1600-acre Chapultepec Park contains five museums, two lakes and a zoo. One of those museums, the National Museum of Anthropology, has three miles of exhibits on two floors. It boasts an overwhelming Mayan temple reconstructed in its entirety, other ruins and 26 displays of extraordinary ancient artifacts.

Another must-see situated on the same acreage is the National Museum of History at Chapultepec Castle, a spectacular and beautifully preserved memorial commemorating 200 years of history. The building formerly housed several Mexican leaders, including the controversial Maxmillian during his brief reign. Highlights include beautiful murals, a gold leaf carriage, stained-glass windows, antiques and a garden designed with a perfect sense of symmetry. Even the tearoom and the restrooms are unusual.

Scattered throughout the city are 1,500 historic buildings, many of which were turned into museums. You will find a number of unique ones appealing to special interests. The Diego Rivera Mural Museum was built to showcase his famous "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," which was rescued from a hotel demolished in an earthquake.

Some of the interesting attractions are located in outlying areas. Thirty-one miles away in a northeasterly direction is the famous site of Teotihaucan, once a sprawling ancient city with a 215-foot high pyramid. Thirty-eight miles to the southeast is Xochimilco, the celebrated "floating gardens," filled with colorful trajineras (Mexican-style gondolas) which take tourists through the canals as they are entertained by mariachi and marimba bands.

Shopping is excellent ranging from mercados offering Mexican artifacts to American-style malls. In the Polonco neighborhood, a modern area of upscale shops, you can find such brands Armani, Versace, Hermes, Gucci, Tiffany and so forth.

It is effortless to get around. Private cabs cost about $15 an hour and will wait for you while you sightsee. However, you should ask your hotel to call for a taxi, which brings to mind a misconception that the city is extremely dangerous. Not so, unless you are going to walk the streets alone at night wearing a Rolex. If you are cautious, you will find that it is no less safe than in any other metropolis.

Two final notes: It is easy to reach Mexico City on Aeromexico, the country's premier carrier. A friend who travels there frequently reminded me to pack extra padding for my shoes especially for the back of the feet. That advice made a big difference and I'd be a heel not to share it with you.


Temple of the Sun at the Pyramids of Teotihaucan credit: Paul Noble

Located in the heart of town, near the Chapultepec region, Camino Real is a resort-style hotel and the flagship of the popular Mexican chain. It has four restaurants, four bars and 717 rooms including some that are designated Camino Real Club with concierge-style amenities. There are 35 suites, including the presidential suite with bulletproof windows where over 150 heads of state have stayed. Luxurious bathrooms have marble and crystal. Half of the guestrooms face the courtyard pool, the rest the gardens. Located on the premises are also a state-of-the-art business center with 29 meeting rooms, a full fitness center, 3 swimming pools and 4 rooftop tennis courts. The look is modern with the bold architecture, striking colors and authentic decor. The hotel is so posh that Le Cirque chose it as the site to open its third restaurant in November 2001.

“Our clients always feel as if they are staying in Mexico," said Adrian Schjetnan, vice-president, marketing & development for Camino Real Hotels. You will feel almost as important as the most prominent guests as you walk around this spacious spot admiring 400 pieces of original art worth $15 million.

Camino Real, Mariano Escobedo, 700, 11590. Tel (800) 7- CAMINO. Rates begin at $250. www.caminoreal.com


Some of the places to dine are also the places to see. La Hacienda de los Morales has been around for 400 years, although it's only been a restaurant for the last 30, during which time it has become an institution. This 17th-century hacienda with dramatic welcoming torches outside contains several dining and banquet rooms along with a tequila bar. Walnut soup and squash flower crepes are the signature dishes. Coats and ties are required.

La Hacienda de los Morales, Vazquez de Mella 525. Tel. 5096.3054 al 56. Expensive. www.haciendadelosmorales.com

If you are going to the Pyramids of Teotihaucan, don't miss Restaurant La Gruta. Housed inside a large cave, which was discovered in 1906, the restaurant is almost as unforgettable as the pyramids. Not only will you savor the food, but you will enjoy the cool natural temperature after walking around in the heat to view the Pyramid of the Sun.

Restaurant La Gruta, Zona Arqueologica Teotihuacan, Edo. Tel. (015-95) 60104, 60127. Moderate.

Centro Castellano looks like an attractive Spanish home. The curved ceiling was built with red bricks brought from Catalonia. Delicious lamb and mutton are cooked a brick oven. If you prefer seafood, try the shrimp ajillo or paella in a clay dish. The wine list is impressive and extensive.

Centro Castellano, Camino Real Hotel, Mariano Escobedo, 700, 11590 Tel. 5/203-2121. Moderate.

Paulette Cooper

Spring 2001