The second-largest city in the world by population, Mexico City will take your breath away.
I first noticed something wasn’t right when, halfway up The Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, I collapsed in a breathless heap, just as a huge Latina mama in skin-tight Capri pants, heels and a Spanish galleon’s worth of bling overtook me. Fearing an imminent heart attack, I crawled along the first level of the Pyramid to find some shade and cursed the hundreds of pounds I’d doled out over the years in useless gym membership. The problem was the altitude.
I’d arrived in Mexico City a couple of days before and had felt pleasantly light- headed since . However, now that I was in the middle of some strenuous exercise, my heart was beating completely out of control and it felt as if it would burst out of my chest at any moment in an impromptu human sacrifice. It took a good 20 minutes, lying flat on my back, to recover and I made the rest of the ascent at a more leisurely pace reaching the summit long after I’d passed the Latina mama tottering back down again. The lesson is simple; to enjoy the best of the Mexican Highlands you’ll need to acclimatise slowly to the altitude, plan your days carefully, and take lots of deep breaths.
I was already feeling dizzy when my taxi drew up at the Hotel Habita in Mexico City’s leafy Polanco district. The hotel, a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World group, is a tour de force of architectural minimalism. Six storeys of horizontal frosted glass rise elegantly from the busy street, the plain façade enlivened by vertical rows of spiky aloe vera plants on the balconies. Inside, the crisp angles are softened by recurring wall panels of sinuous Japanese branch motifs. I especially liked the white-tiled rooftop swimming pool, taken straight from a David Hockney painting and a serene oasis among the towering skyscrapers of nearby Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s bustling grand Avenida. A tiny spiral staircase leads up to an alfresco lounge bar where Polanco’s Armani brigade comes for early evening cocktails. In a moment of extreme naffness I couldn’t resist ordering a Tequila Sunrise before heading off to Mexico City’s historic main square, the Zocalo, for some early evening sightseeing.
Passing posters of smiling Mexican footballers tucking into tasty-looking Bimbo Sandwiches, I entered the metro to the unearthly strains of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart echoing down the platforms. The constant stream of ‘80s muzak can grate on the nerves, but the metro is by far the quickest way of negotiating Mexico City’s enormous distances. It’s also the most chivalrous metro in the world, and as I walked instinctively to the end of the platform, I was politely told by a guard that the front carriage was strictly reserved for women and children under 12. Not unwillingly, I joined the masculine hordes in the central carriages and settled back to enjoy the pageant of well-orchestrated Mariachi singers, peddlars and even acrobats who, at each stop, move down a carriage and keep the bored-looking commuters constantly entertained.
There’s always an exciting buzz about arriving in a strange city centre for the first time but few cities can match Mexico City’s magnificent Zocalo in the early evening. Through the smoke and steam rising from rickety sweetcorn and burrito stalls, heathen drumbeats echo across the enormous Square as “warriors” in multi-coloured headdresses and loincloths lead after-work Aztec dance sessions. Anyone can join in and they’re great fun to watch, often degenerating into lots of hilarious out-of-synch leaping about. It’s also a faint but evocative echo of a long-vanished culture, made even more poignant when you cast your eyes over the dusty, skeletal remains of the nearby Templo Mayor, once the mightiest temple in the Aztec Empire and razed to the ground by the Spanish conquistadores.
Built from the rubble of the Templo Mayor, the massive, bulky, domed cathedral dominates the Zocalo, but in an ironic twist of fate it’s rapidly subsiding into the unstable marshy earth. Inside, the cavernous, echoing interior is propped up by scaffolding and a plumbline hangs from the dome at an alarmingly off-centre tilt. The beautifully sung masses, led by the ecclesiastical equivalent of El Divo, seem no match for the recently unearthed giant serpent heads that stare diabolically towards the cathedral from the Templo Mayor. Montezuma’s revenge on Latin America’s largest cathedral is seemingly slow but inexorably venomous.
When the traffic lights turn red, the corners of the Zocalo become clogged with lime-green Volkswagen beetle taxis impatiently revving up and spluttering like fleets of punk-rocking Herbies. In the demonology of modern travel, Mexico City’s taxis have become icons of urban danger and, if you believed half the guide books, it would be safer descending into the crater of Popocatapetl than running the gauntlet of the city’s gun-toting bandito taxi drivers. However, cheap taxi travel is every gay man’s birthright, and throwing caution to the wind I picked one driven by a pleasant-looking silver-haired granddad and we were soon deep in discussion about the respective chances of Mexico and England in the World Cup; “El problemo es la fractura del metatarselo de Wayne Rooney,” I explained. “ Si, sin Rooney es impossible,” he earnestly agreed. Hardly the stuff of nightmares.
He dropped me off in the aptly named Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s gay quarter and the city’s main nightlife and restaurant district. Expecting to find a closeted macho gay underworld lurking in the shadows of Catholic guilt, I was surprised to see hordes of Diesel-clad young lads, many hand-in-hand and kissing as openly in the streets as any of the boys in London’s Soho. I was even more shocked when a friendly gay priest struck up a conversation with me in the popular El Macen gay bar. Without a hint of Catholic irony, he explained that recent anti-discrimination laws had made homophobia an offence – so the city’s gay scene had exploded beyond recognition. Although very much still a weekend city, there was now a wealth of bars, men’s clubs, saunas and discos which were the equal of any city in the US. I rather fancied checking out a men’s club but was crestfallen when he told me you had to be under 26 years old.
The next morning, I got caught in a cat-and-mouse game in Mexico City’s world famous Anthropological Museum. “Hello, how old are you?” a falsetto voice said unkindly as I was admiring a beautiful jade death mask of Pekal the Great. “Hello, what time is it?” another quickly added. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a dozen tiny inscrutable looking schoolchildren staring at me like The Midwich Cuckoos. They’d clearly been instructed to practice their English on lone tourists and soon began popping up everywhere. Beating a hasty retreat, I found sanctuary behind a study group of impeccably dressed middle-aged ladies with dazzling blonde highlights who were elegantly copying out Mayan glyphs in expensive-looking sketchbooks.
If you manage to dodge the schoolchildren, you can enjoy the richest pre-Columbian treasure trove in the world and, for architecture aficionados, the museum itself is a breathtaking example of mid 20th-century modernism. In the central courtyard, a soaring pillar representing the Mayan Tree of Life supports a giant canopy from which sheets of water cascade, making it the coolest relaxation spot in Mexico City. Terrapins splash around in oblong water- lily ponds and the spacious, airy galleries surrounding the courtyard lead out into lush tropical gardens filled with garishly painted temples and demonic statues of blood-thirsty deities.
“Hello, what is your name”? More dreaded schoolchildren had caught up with me on the summit of The Pyramid of the Sun and, realising that there was no escape other than hurling myself off the edge, I settled back for a long interview. The scene around me resembled a New Age Pringles ad. A group of lanky Californian backpackers sat bongoing on one corner while a small meditation group sat on the other. In between, a band of tiny boys were firing fluffy pink Aztec arrows at each other. I was glad of the lively atmosphere. In the museum I’d stared with macabre fascination at sacrificial daggers with maniacal eyes and jagged blades representing the heart-thirsty tongue of the terrifying sun god. Thousands must have been sacrificed with similar knives on this very spot and it was difficult not to brood on such horrors.
Later that day, I made the tortuous ascent up The Pyramid of the Moon. It’s steeper and more exhausting than The Pyramid of the Sun and the steps disappear completely towards the top. Halfway up I spotted a poor gardener who, in possibly the worst job in the world, was clinging precariously to the sides of the Pyramid throwing weeds over his shoulder. Fewer people bother climbing The Pyramid of the Moon, although the view from the top is utterly spectacular. From the Pyramid’s base, the temple-lined Way of the Dead stretches out for over two miles, passing The Pyramid of the Sun before melting into the hazy purple mountains beyond. With only a couple of swallowtails for company and the sound of larks twittering above, I sat back to enjoy this timeless view. Mexico City is one of those cities you either love or loathe, but one thing is for certain; it never fails to take your breath away.
British Airways flies from London, Heathrow to Mexico City four times a week. Tel: 0870 850 9850 or log on to www.britishairways.com for details and reservations.
Hotel Habita: Av, Presidente Masaryk, 201, Polance, Mexico City. Habita’s design ethos is for the absolute minimalist. 32 rooms and four junior suites are fitted in serene Starck-like white and muted earth tones. The on-site spa features tuina massage and a roof-top pool provides for perfect relaxation. Tel: 00 52 55 5282 3100 www.hotelhabita.com.