I arrived late after a white-knuckle taxi ride in a battered white taxi. A hotel receptionist regarded me without interest, handed me a set of keys and gestured to a staircase in the corner of the entrance hall. Music drifted in from the bar next door where the tequila was flowing and two men in woollen ponchos stood serenading the clientele with strained voices and battered old guitars.
Dumping my bags, I went in search of food and stumbled upon a packed taco stand in an otherwise deserted street, a hole in the wall with a narrow wooden counter and red plastic stools set out on the pavement. In all my time in Mexico I never once saw the hard-shelled cases that pass for tacos back home, these are the soft variety; warm, supple, maize tortillas filled with flash-fried steak or salty, paprika spiked sausage, sprinkled with coriander, sharpened with lime juice and topped with fresh salsas. Breathtakingly delicious. The perfect welcome.
Street food is something of a religion in Mexico City, vying with Catholicism for a place in mens’ hearts. In homage to these twin faiths I spent the next few days nosing around colonial churches and eating at street stalls, wondering in equal measure at the great vaulted ceiling of the Metropolitan Cathedral with its ebony skinned christ and at crisp enchiladas with salsa verde or tortas thick with sliced avocado, washed down with a glass of hibiscus tea.
There are vast markets too, as fascinating and frenetic as the city itself. At the end of a road snarling with traffic and lined with preening prostitutes lies La Merced, the largest market in the city, crammed with colourful stalls heaving with fruit and vegetables, sacks brimming with brittle dried chillies, bowls thick with unctuous spice pastes, and baskets of cactus paddles scraped of their spines to reveal the emerald flesh beneath. In places, the floor is a carpet of papery corn husks and torn banana leaves.
North of the Cathedral is the so-called thieves market, a warren of tents rife with pickpockets and stall holders frantically competing for your attention. The air is thick with hoarse voiced sales pitches. I ate tacos with cactus and a scorching hot salsa and wandered past stalls selling car parts, cds, clothing and miscellaneous tat. A child dragged his mother towards a cage full of mewling blonde puppies, their eyes barely open. In the meat section, a man trimmed chickens feet with a pair of pinking-shears and nearby, a pair of abuelitas (little grandmothers) sat knitting in a stall abundantly stocked with graphic pornography.
On my last day in the city I escaped the bustling centre and spent an afternoon drifting along the canals of Xochimilco. We slid past a wedding party and a boat full of mariachis in sombreros and black suits with sequined trousers, past summer houses and women in dugout canoes selling sweetcorn with chilli and lime. The suburb is a relic of the Aztec world, of Tenochtitlan, the city on the lake, sacked by the Spanish and buried beneath modern Mexico City, a past that is commemorated by Rivera’s vibrant murals in the Palacio Nacional and by countless exhibits in the fascinating Museum of Anthropology.
Mexico City is a place of contrasts and contradictions, of ancient canals, of ruins, of faded colonial architecture and hawkers with old family recipes, of high-rise buildings and congested streets where the scent of herbal remedies and smouldering incense mingles with the acrid smell of exhaust fumes and the cheap perfume of working girls.
I miss it, and I still dream about the food.
– Thomas Rees