Down Mexico way

Ignore all those preconceptions – Mexico is a stunning, hospitable country with a dynamic, vibrant capital


If you’re flying to Mexico city, leave your preconceptions on the plane. “Don’t ask me. I hate the place”, said a banker acquaintance, when we asked for a hotel recommendation. “Stay near the airport to save hassle”, said a friend of a friend. “Don’t wear any jewellery”, counselled a third.

We arrived in Mexico city on Día de Reyes – Kings’ Day – a Halloween-meets-Christmas type festival, when children receive presents from the Three Wise Men. Instead of leaving a carrot for Rudolf, Mexican kids leave hay, stuffed in their shoes, as a treat for the Kings’ animals. And everybody eats Rosca de Reyes, Kings’ Ring, a pastry loaf, oval-shaped, decorated with candied figs, quinces and cherries, and hiding within it a charm in the shape of a figure of the Christ child.

At our beautiful B&B, Condesa Haus, the ladies in the kitchen had kindly baked us a loaf of Rosca de Reyes to share for breakfast. According to tradition, whoever gets the charm – in our case it was our daughter, Connie – is called on to throw a party and provide tamales for her guests, sometime during the following February.

We saw the pastry rings again later, as we passed through a smart city shopping centre. This time the cakes were being laid out on a huge quadrant of tables arranged around the shopping mall, to be given away free to shoppers. By the time we had done a bit of shopping – buying swimwear at the eye-wiping prices charged for US imported goods – the queue for the Rosca de Reyes was out the door.

At the appointed time, 3pm, the cakes were given away, individually, slice by slice. While they waited in line, the Mexican shoppers displayed a patient courteousness, and not a cake was touched or grabbed. We couldn’t help wondering: would people be so patient and restrained in this part of the world?

But hold on a minute. This is Mexico city. Isn’t this a lawless, hostile and dangerous society, the land of unspeakable violence, drug barons, cartels, corrupt police? Should we not have expected a city of smog, pollution and kidnappings ?

Mexico comes loaded with preconception but it is, i n fact, a stunning, hospitable country with a dynamic, vibrant capital. We’d go back tomorrow.

The truth is that no longer is Mexico a country that can be defined by dodgy Westerns and drug-related horror stories. Mexico has in recent years signed 44 free trade agreements, more than any other country in the world, including China and Brazil. Mexico exports more manufactured products than the rest of Latin America put together.

This is a country where 50 per cent of the population is under 29, a country of hi-tech start-ups and a highly-skilled work force that is attracting global investment for its auto and aerospace industries, as well as for white goods. Tijuana has become a hotspot for electronics assembly, and Mexico is now being described as “the new China”.

Our experience of the capital and the country was as a fascinating centre for arts and food, a place that is both spectacularly modern and is blessed with an extraordinary heritage.

This is, after all, the land of the Mayan calendar and ancient pyramids. Mexico city stands on ground that was once the heart of the Aztec empire. This is a place known for great scholars, astronomers, artists, as well as aquarium-like seas, heart-stopping scenery and fabulous food. Mexico city today is a pulsing, soaring metropolis, and a place we found to be full of kindly tourism operators and polite fellow citizens.

Of course there are also terrible problems in Mexico, and no tourist would venture there without having a consciousness of personal security, especially when travelling with children. There are rules to follow – chiefly, it seems safer to take the underground than to hail a taxi . The underground is possibly the cleanest railway system in the world and it works safely, efficiently, logically and cheaply. We mastered it in no time.

We used the underground to travel to the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It’s known as the Blue House, for its arresting cobalt-blue painted walls. All the artefacts of Frida’s iconic life are displayed where she would have used them, including her paints, her jewellery, her clothes and all the pots and utensils in their wonderful kitchen. “If we are not our colours, aromas, our people, what are we? Nothing” is the quote, ascribed to Frida, as you enter this atmospheric space.

Mexican food is powerfully spicy and it just suits the climate and circumstances in which it’s served. It’s food you can enjoy from street vendors. But it’s also food that suits finesse. One of the hottest chefs in New York at the moment is Alex Stupak, whose interpretation of Mexican food at his Empellón restaurants is winning plaudits.

Cocktails and drinks are a great part of the Mexican ritual as well, whether it be generous servings of fresh fruit juice, the weird mixture of beer and tomato juice, or any of the cocktails that use tequila – Piña Colada, Tequila Sunrise, or the various types of Margarita.

Divesting myself of all jewellery, including my wedding ring (as advised), wearing nothing that would mark us out in any way, and carrying everything in a rucksack that seemed to fit like a shell, was a liberating feeling. Mexico city is one of the great capitals to visit, particularly as a family, and the colours and aromas that Frida Kahlo embodied were powerful and beautiful to experience.

The thing you will probably eat most of in Mexico is the taco, namely a flour or maize tortilla with toppings. A restaurant that serves tacos is known as a taquería . El Tizoncito was one we especially enjoyed in the Condesa area which specialises in the Taco al Pastor, which is topped with pork cooked slowly over a rotisserie.

We stayed in a gorgeous, friendly, B&B called Condesa Haus, in the trendy district of Condesa. We also got many recommendations for The Red Tree House Downtown Beds is a hostel owned by upmarket hotel group Hotel Americano.

Mexican folk art means that no visitor leaves without souvenirs. Beyond the famous sombrero, there are woven bags and rugs, embroidered blouses, Day of the Dead papier-mâché masks, pots and ceramics and gorgeous jewellery. Most interesting are the artesanías pendants made from the alloy, alpaca.

777 is the place to go in Dublin if you want to taste cocktails made with tequila, My Mexican Shop is a Dublin-based online store that imports essentials that make real Mexican food, from Frijoles Bayos to real Chipotles,

We went to Mexico with Atlantic Sea Kayaking which has been arranging tours for Irish visitors to Mexico for over 12 years.