Into the Relative Unknown
I have to admit that I was nervous about this trip on many levels — and the day prior didn’t help in the slightest.
We were up at 02:00 and in a car towards the airport at 03:00 after a fraught, sleepless night. I was tossing and turning, imagining the worst possible scenarios (beyond having to be at an airport at 04:00). We hadn’t been able to check in or confirm our seats for our first leg at 06:20 the next morning. We had booked nearly the entire trip via Chase Ultimate Rewards — thank you, Sapphire Reserve Card — but we’d found that the entire process was somewhat of a nightmare. We’d set all of the flights / hotels up, clicked ‘Book’ and waited. And waited, and waited. Our itinerary showed in United’s system with a giant, glaring warning: THIS ITINERARY HAS NOT BEEN CONFIRMED OR TICKETED. ITINERARY WILL ONLY BE HELD FOR 24 HOURS. A few frantic calls to Chase remedied that issue, but every few weeks, we’d get a cryptic phone call. “There has been a schedule change on your United itinerary. Reference number XXXXXXXX….” The X’s went on for minutes — maybe even hours, but I’d never stuck around for the end of the call. We’d call United, they’d confirm that a flight time had shifted five minutes and we’d be all good.
That wasn’t necessarily true, though. It turns out that those calls were from Chase, not United — and as the “travel agency,” they were the ones “in charge” of the itinerary. Our calls to United and their subsequent meddling had shifted our entire itinerary into a no-mans land — out of Chase’s hands but not really into anyone else’s. Chase didn’t want to deal with it, nor did United. The night before our departure was spent on the phone, for hours. “It’s just a document check — since Chase didn’t input your passport information,” United would say. “Well, I can confirm the itinerary right now — but not all of your flights are showing up,” Chase would reply. I was imagining a dramatic show-down at the United check-in desk at 04:00 — no flights, no tickets, no trip, with a side of tears on my part.
We got to DEN as the airport was opening, and stood in line waiting for the United kiosks to boot up. As suspected, our kiosk spat out a little slip of paper in lieu of boarding passes: “Please take this to a check-in desk attendant.” After waiting for a bit, we wandered up and presented the slip, and the whole story fell out of our mouths.
“…and that’s why we got this slip of paper, we think.”
“You booked this through Chase?”
However, in five minutes flat, Ryan had saved the day. We had boarding passes, a fully confirmed itinerary and an upgrade to Economy Plus on our IAH-MEX leg that we discovered whilst going through security. As we settled into our seats at the gate, trying desperately to keep our eyes open, I sighed. “One down… a few to go.”
This trip was planned as a reset button, an adventure unlike one we’d seen before. 225 miles across Mexico, via plane, bus, car — places we’d never been, and almost couldn’t imagine. Complicated logistical transfers, lots of unknowns, and a bit of a language barrier — all against a blood-spattered, cartel-controlled backdrop painstakingly painted by the American media and hyperbolic TripAdvisor reviews. “You’ll get robbed blind,” they all said, “if you don’t get killed first.” When we would mention our trip, people would half-smile and pause, then murmur, “…it’s safe to go there, right?” Even the most woke people shifted in their seats, unwilling to verbalize their first impulse to worry, to panic.
I had been quelling those demons successfully before the flight drama happened. “It’s uninformed racism, pure and simple.” “It’s sensationalized, obviously.” “We’re going to the safest parts of Mexico — why is everyone panicking?” True to form, I had researched everything I could possibly research — bus station maps, Google Street Views of highways, Spanish-language forums about taxi prices. I knew as much as I possibly could — but the unknown aspects loomed in the dark behind me, and I let the racist nonsense have a little more of my brain space. I was constantly comparing and contrasting this new information to my past experiences in Mexico — warm, fuzzy-edged memories versus these sharp, bloody fantasies. “You’ll be 100% fine,” Ivan said. “Honestly, you can get murdered anywhere.” Ever the voice of reason, he settled it.
After a sixty-minute layover in Houston, we got in line to board our flight to Mexico City. I love airports and air travel for the moments of surrealism — the middle-aged woman in front of us was painstakingly videotaping the snack kiosk next to the gate with her iPhone, walking in slow circles around it. Then she’d watch the footage for a few moments and go back to it. The woman who sat in front of us on the flight was texting and I caught a glimpse of the contact’s name: BABY DADDY AND HUSBAND X. I sipped my green tea and giggled with delirium.
The flight was uneventful until we started our descent into the city. It is absolutely gigantic — and nothing prepares you for that fact. It’s one of the largest cities in the world, and it looks the part. The city sprawls across green hills and valleys with multiple clusters of skyscrapers laid out across the carpet of buildings, volcanos looming in the background. It’s entrancing, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it.
After landing, we found our bags and wandered out to our Uber — and then we were engulfed by the city as we traveled into Centro towards our hotel. We stayed at Downtown México, a boutique hotel inside of the UNESCO Heritage-listed Palacio de los Condes de Miravalle — opened and operated by Grupo Habita. As we walked inside of the gigantic front doors, I felt instantly relaxed. We wandered past a quartet of giant shade trees and the courtyard restaurant towards the reception desk, where a bellhop met us and handled our bags.
“Is this your first time in Mexico City?”
“You’re going to love it, I promise.”
After getting our key, the bellhop took our bags upstairs — up a chic terra-cotta tiled elevator and across the mezzanine. Cozy red double-sided sofas flanked with lava stone tables overlooked the impossibly green canopy of the trees below, trimmed to perfection. We followed him down a skinny walkway — above the courtyard of the other house restaurant, Puntarena, and across from a massive two-story green wall. He stopped at #11, and opened the matte black double doors to our room. He pointed out all of the necessities — and as soon as he left, we flopped down onto the giant bed. “We picked the right place,” Mark said.
Our room was cool and dim — lit by the massive custom bed and cleverly-concealed ambient strips. Everything was terra-cotta to match the coved ceiling tiles — including a beautiful clay brick lattice wall that separated the bathroom from the rest of the room. Behind the bricks was a one-way mirror — allowing one to look out into the room while in the shower, but obscuring it from view at the same time. A giant mirror door slid across the opening for privacy. Every detail was thought of, every junction resolved — even the bath amenities were beautiful. It was unabashedly Mexican and incredibly modern at the same time. It was a perfect refuge.
After cleaning up, we wandered back down to the main courtyard for lunch at Azul Histórico. As we sat down at our table underneath the trees, the waiter brought us two shots of the house mezcal. “Very smooth,” he said with a smirk. The alcohol went instantly to my head and I ordered with reckless abandon.
Guacamole with roasted grasshoppers / enchiladas de mole / horchata / double espresso.
We watched the people around us — families, business partners, friends. Americans, Mexicans, French. Laughing, smiling, eating. It was intoxicating — but perhaps it was in part due to the mezcal?
After gorging, we decided to walk around and get our bearings — and maybe check some sights off the list during our short stay. We walked through Centro to Alameda Central, past the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was packed — high school kids practicing skateboard tricks, Red Cross volunteers collecting change for earthquake relief, retirees reading the paper on park benches. It was lush and verdant — it even smelled green. We walked through the park past a giant fountain, la Fuente de la Virgen. A tiny toddler giggled in the spray while her parents watched. A group of old men laughed and laughed, slapping their knees over the din of the water.
We crossed the street at the western edge of the park through a group of police cars, wandering into Barrio Alameda — an old office building turned incubator space. We wandered the corridors, peeking into the spaces. On the upper floor, a young man silently painted a room by himself — “COMIC BOOKS COMING SOON” said the sign on the door. We loved the preserved Art Deco lighting, the terrazzo and marble floors, the lush plantings. We ducked out and decided to head to another market-slash-incubator, Milan 44 in Reforma — about a fifteen-minute walk. As we crossed the street, we noticed we were next to a giant Scientology building. “Even here?!”
As we wandered down Calle Balderas, the sidewalks gave way to street markets — tiny tents and trailers, with impromptu tarp roofs creating a ceiling over the tiny walkways. Tacos al pastor, quesadillas, tlacoyos, cemitas poblanas, and tortas alongside magazines, sunglasses, shoeshines, bottled water… The variety was seemingly endless. The market ebbed for a bit next to the metro station — a magnificent orange and grey 70s prefab building, with a matching partner across the street.
We meandered further into the neighborhood, and turned a corner — and found ourselves in the middle of a massive encampment. Tents and sleeping bags had reclaimed the streets, and people sat around eating or chatting. Impromptu markets had sprung up on the corners, selling hygiene goods. Toothpaste, deodorant and daily newspapers were laid just-so on bedsheets on the street corners, all prices marked. We had no idea what was going on, but as we zig-zagged street by street to get out of it, it only got more crowded. People were no longer seated — they were massed in the streets, led by others will bullhorns. Giant signs identified their state of origin, and they started to move slowly. Police in riot gear massed around the corner — and we walked a little faster.
We made it to Milan 44, and headed up to Cru Cru on the roof for a beer and a sit. After a few sips and a bit of Googling, we figured out that we had wandered through a campesino protest. Workers from across Mexico were gathering to protest NAFTA and its bias towards the US and Canada — and by shutting down streets and blocking traffic, they had gotten a lot of attention both from the common citizens and the politicians. As we looked out across the trees, faint echoes of the bullhorns echoed down the avenues.
We started to falter, having been awake since 02:00, and decided to catch a car back to the hotel. Our driver picked us up on the corner, and we stopped-and-started block after block. He hummed along to “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, and when Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” started, I joined in quietly. We passed shopfronts and garages, corner markets and laundromats — lunch by inch, foot by foot back into the center of the city.
We took a nap and relaxed for a bit, then wandered back out into Centro. We stopped by Zara and Pull & Bear for sweatshirts — it was much colder than expected in Mexico City. Then a few blocks to the Zócalo, where a giant Mexican flag fluttered in the wind against the blue-lit government buildings. Then a few more blocks to El Moro — the famous churrería. The condensation dripped down the windows, and the heavy scent of cinnamon billowed out of the door. It was totally packed, so we headed back to Downtown México. We got into our pajamas and ordered room service.
Sopes de la casa / tacos de arrachera / quesadillas de huitlacoche.
We ate in bed and watched “Los Simpson” — we laughed at the different voices, at the narration of all on-screen English. We swigged Topo Chico and read magazines. I smiled and closed my eyes. “This is going to be the trip of a lifetime,” I thought to myself. At that moment, it all became clear. Day one was done — and the adventure was just beginning. We dimmed the lights, and fell asleep to the hum of the air conditioning. Even after being awake for nearly 20 hours, it was still hard for me to drift asleep — the anxiety I’d felt the night before had been replaced with excitement, and tomorrow couldn’t come quickly enough.