The date was August 24, 2017, and Hurricane Harvey was swiftly churning its way up the coast toward Houston.
“We need to get the hell out of Dodge,” said the mother with typical prescience.
Dutifully, her son jumped on the Internet, finding to his dismay that her prescience had come too late. Nearly every flight out of town—to California, the East Coast, even close-in places like Little Rock—was booked. At last, after hours of searching, he saw something on United with seats cheap enough for the whole family.
“Thank God,” said his mother. “This storm’s gonna be mean, I can feel it. We’re gonna get flooded and trapped and my geraniums…. It’s going to be awful. Where we headed?”
“You know, it may still turn. I say we stay here.”
With the possible exception of Detroit, few places on earth are as reflexively misunderstood as Mexico City. Read State Dept. advisories, and you’d think violent crime is common. Follow certain influencers on Instagram, you’ll hear the city is teeming with pickpockets. Watch the Weather Channel, you’ll see nothing but pollution alerts and near-daily rain. Listen to our president and, well, you know.
“Listen,” said the son forcefully. “The rest of us are going. Do you really want to go through this storm alone?”
What happened next came as a gob-smacking shock to the family. They fell hard for Mexico City’s people, culture, food, and dependably balmy weather, especially the mother, who got to ride out Harvey from an enviable distance, spending her days chugging margaritas and watching Anderson Cooper in a boat. To their everlasting surprise, the Houstonians discovered, like thousands before them, that Mexico City lives to confound expectations. How is it able to do this? By not caring what you think.
The following year, his memories of those happy days still fresh, the son made plans for a family vacation in Mexico City, an elaborate, eight-person odyssey that included four children.
“It says that ‘violent crime is common,’” said his sister, who by this point had found her own way to the latest State Dept. advisory. “It’s at level 2, which means ‘exercise extreme caution.’”
Weary of all the second-guessing, the brother considered informing her that the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Denmark, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and Belize—all countries his sister would visit in a heartbeat—were also at level 2. He settled instead on a pocketbook appeal, luring her with five-star hotels at three-star prices.
“‘Homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery are widespread,’” she continued, still reading. “The Hanoi Hilton was probably a bargain too.”
Yes, several areas of Mexico are unsafe for everyone, “Mexicans included,” he replied, but Mexico City is not one of them. Far from it. In fact, no metropolis on earth fails more spectacularly at living up to its reputation, in this case a dangerous and dirty one. His sister remained skeptical.
“They hate us there.”
“No they don’t. I swear. It’s just two hours by plane—this great, fascinating city—”
—“where they hate us.”
“Why would they hate us?”
“Because they think we hate them.”
The only honest response at that point—they don’t care what you think—risked casting Mexico City in an even harsher light, so the brother shifted gears yet again. “Do you know what the average high this month is?” It was July, when Mexico City’s average high is 75. “But you go ahead and roast your way through Houston’s Hades months.”
A few weeks later, notwithstanding his confidence, the brother found himself nervously pacing the arrivals area at Benito Juárez airport. He and his sister’s families had traveled on separate planes, and hers had yet to land. As he waited at the customs exit behind a giant pair of frosted glass doors, the brother noticed a boy with a homemade sign announcing BIENVENIDOS in large letters, a man carrying a bouquet, several children competing for the honor of seeing Grandma first, and the odd cry of hooray preceding a tearful reunion. And then the frosted doors parted, revealing an exhausted mass of huddled humanity—his sister’s family, disoriented and terrified. They looked like they’d been trapped in a Thai cave.
“Thank God you’re here,” said the sister, rushing to grab her brother amid the crowd. In the tense moments that followed, as the reunited party made its way to a waiting Uber XL (and not the armored vehicle his sister had tentatively scheduled), it emerged that she had endured endless mom-shaming by relatives prior to the flight (“they basically accused me of being a bad mother for bringing my kids here”), and some trauma during it, her 10-year-old having thrown up twice on the plane. (“I expected Montezuma’s Revenge in Mexico, but not on the plane over here.”) She’d be taking no chances on this trip, she publicly vowed, pointing to her purse. Attached to it was not one but two locks.
“They can pull it this way or that way,” she demonstrated, “but they’re not getting this purse off me.”
As the Lincoln Navigator drove into town, the atmosphere was tense, the fear palpable. Just a half-hour later, though—once it became clear that the splashing fountains of Avenida de la Reforma didn’t care in the least what the family thought, and neither did serene and verdant Chapultepec Park—a broad smile appeared on his sister’s face. This will not be the trip where my children get caught up in the crossfire of rival drug lords, her expression seemed to say, as the car pulled up to the Hyatt Regency Polanco and the family entered the hotel’s capacious, breathtaking lobby, where smartly dressed waiters scurried past gorgeous women in skin-tight dresses and mile-high heels. Now his sister’s face said something else. This will be the trip where I wish I’d brought more than jeans.
The next morning, the group thrilled to a lavish breakfast on the Hyatt’s 40th-floor club level, the smorgasbord just as jaw-dropping as the views. The city took no notice of the family’s approval. Chapultepec dissolved into bright, glowing greenness as the sun rose over the Sierra Madres, but Chapultepec would have done that anyway. “I’m ready for anything,” said the sister, mistaking the dawn for an overture.
Not long after, the family found itself on a tour of the city’s historic center led by a woman named Ariane Ruiz of Eat Mexico, a company whose reviews on TripAdvisor the brother had judged to be just a shade under breathless, and therefore legit. “My grandmother used to say that if you can’t find it in Centro, it doesn’t exist,” said Ruiz as she guided them to San Juan Market, past entire streets devoted to electronics, musical instruments, and spare parts for appliances. “Of course, now you have Amazon,” she added dryly.
The brother and sister eyed each other nervously for a moment, neither noticing how loudly Ruiz had laughed at her own joke as she squired them to their first stop, El K-Guamo on Ayuntamiento St., a restaurant that started life as a street stand in 1974 and is now known throughout the city for its tostadas topped with octopus, shrimp, and blue crab, all brightly flavored by lime and hot sauce. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve eaten here so far,” announced the sister, even as her 16-year-old daughter declared it “tied with that fettucine alfredo” she’d had at some point in the recent past. The family waited for a hint of disdain from Ruiz, but the guide only smiled.
Over the next few hours, the group made six more food stops in San Juan and beyond, tasting artisanal Mexican jams and worm salt, coffee-tinged marshmallows and garlic-flavored grasshoppers, the last mangos of the season, which were also the sweetest, and exotic fruits like lima, chico sapote, and mamey, its texture that of avocado meat, but garishly sweet and cherry-red. The family was proud of itself for not flinching at the sight of chiles named for marbles and ladybugs, or stalls hawking wild pig, crocodile, buffalo, or lion meat. But the Houstonians’ exaggerated smiles were lost on both the fishmongers proffering sea bass and the chicken farmers presiding over rows and rows of fluorescent-yellow-skinned poultry, the inevitable result of a diet rich in corn and marigolds.
Something similar happened when the troupe visited one of the neighborhood’s oldest tortillerias. Taking pity on the withered old woman running the shop, the family decided it would do the big-hearted thing and purchase an entire kilo’s worth of tortillas, which cost 13 pesos—or roughly 69 cents. The proprietor rolled her eyes languidly, her expression a comment on both the shop’s tortilla machine—which happened to be on the fritz—and the tourists, who she knew had little use for 40 tortillas.
And so, the family was forced to stuff itself elsewhere, which was easy enough, as they were just steps from the steak flautas of Mercado San Arcos de Belén, and just a few steps more from the corner of López and Delicias, where a woman even older than the one in the tortilleria sat making heavenly blue-corn griddle cakes stuffed with fava beans—tlacoyos—and then frying them in a cast-iron skillet, something she’d apparently done since the days of Cortés.
“I am sorry if I mistake some bad words in English, so I am still developing my skill set,” said Francisco Cabral, smiling at the uncomprehending sister, who smiled back. It was the next day, and the young man, a recent transplant from Puebla, was leading them on a bus excursion to the pyramids and archeological wonders of Teotihuacan, the 120,000-strong Mesoamerican city that had thrived on the shores of Lake Texcoco a thousand years before the arrival of the Aztecs, when “even Rome’s population was only 500,000,” Cabral told them.
As they made their way to the site, one hour north of the city—which took two hours, this being Mexico City—the guide asked what had surprised the family most about the metropolis. For the sister’s 10-year-old, it was that the people were “really nice here,” even as the 16-year-old added that she felt “really safe.” Cabral appeared pleased by the children’s answers. Then he turned to their mother. At first she muttered something under her breath he couldn’t hear. She repeated it, slightly louder.
“I thought y’all would hate us,” she whispered. “With all that’s going on, I mean.”
Cabral seemed genuinely puzzled by the sister’s response. “I think we know that the citizens are not the same as your ruler,” he replied calmly. “I mean, we do need to do some attachments for things to be understood between us, but…”
The sister, who until that moment had truly believed the citizens of Mexico incapable of understanding that rulers and citizens are not the same, nonetheless seemed embarrassed that her opinion had gone public. Still, Cabral regarded her not with disdain but sympathy, perhaps even a little pity. Don’t worry, his face seemed to say. We don’t care.
Meanwhile, the family’s attachment to things like Mexico City only grew during the excursion—as they climbed the pyramids, walked the Avenue of the Dead, and explored the hallways and dwellings of a civilization still an 85 percent mystery, only a small fraction of it having been unearthed so far. After the sister bought a bottle of mezcal at the gift shop (which Cabral counted as a personal victory), it was time to return to the Hyatt, by which time the family had trouble deciding which it admired more, the long gone city of Teotihuacan, the city the Aztecs built after conquering it, the city the Spaniards built after conquering the Aztecs, or the modern metropolis, the one that, should it conquer its cartels and corruptions, might well become the greatest Mexico City yet.
“We are now the sixth-most visited country on earth,” said Cabral. “And if we develop better the security that we offer”—an explicit promise of Mexico’s new populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—“we believe we can be…in fourth place.”
The brother and sister couldn’t help snickering at this, but Cabral was undeterred. “We have problems, like other countries, but people will continue to visit. That is the magic of Mexico.”
A month before their trip, the family had made reservations at Pujol, hoping to spend their last magical night in Mexico City at the 13th-best restaurant in the world, as per a reputable independent body. Having spied elegance and sophisticated sartorial habits on every Polanco street corner (and having, by her own admission, “packed wrong”), the sister found herself terrified by Pujol. The only solution, it seemed, would be to go out and buy something glamorous, plus “hoochie shoes, so I can fit in.” Eventually, the family agreed to accompany her on an expedition to Antara, an uber-chic nearby mall, although only after she went with them to Arena México for some lucha libre wrestling, which turned out to offer all the lunacy of a Polanco mall and even better costumes.
At last suitably attired, the sister towed her seven charges to Pujol in an Uber XL, swanning past the pergola-lined garden and into the restaurant like a telenovela star, admiring the gorgeously decorated dining room—with its comely terrazzo floors and indoor olive tree—while smiling broadly at the patrons of a sunken omakase bar, all of whom ignored her. The dinner, just as spectacular, featured a 1,000-day-old mole, and the experience left the entire family giddy and buzzing, especially the sister. Indeed, the only time the brother saw her face fall was when the bill came and she reached for her credit card.
“Is it a lot?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “I’m just trying to remember the combination for my purse.”
Rooms at the Hyatt Regency Polanco start at $185 (club level is more). Eat Mexico offers a variety of food-based excursions throughout the city, and Camino Vacations (a company based in College Station) specializes in entertaining, full-day, small-group tours of Teotihuacan and more. General tourism information on Mexico City, regularly updated, may be found at visitmexico.com.