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Mexico should be among your top travel destinations, will remind you of India
Mexico City, August 24, 2017
Mexico is not quite on the radar of most Indian tourists who end up travelling to the more popular destinations in Europe, the United States or the Far East. But I got to travel to Mexico City on a short business trip recently and enjoyed every bit of it.
In many ways, Mexico will remind you of India. It is close to the equator, and at the same time, shows extremes in climates; both our cuisines are spicy and use similar spice blends; both have long coastlines of about 7,000 km; both have ancient civilisations in their history and have rich cultural traditions.
(In fact, the chilli came to India from Mexico. Pop quiz: Do you know which fruit went to Mexico from India? - Answer at the bottom of the article.)
So, when I arrived in Mexico City, barring the jet lag from the 28-hour long journey, I felt almost at home. I reached late at night and after a good night's rest, the first order of business was to order a proper Mexican breakfast.
I stayed at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in the Polanco area, a decent budget business hotel in the heart of the city. The rooms are expectedly average, the service is efficient, and the food, although limited in options, was excellent. A light breakfast, consisting of fruit, toast and coffee, was included with the room - which was not what I was expecting when I was told continental breakfast was included - and anything more had to be ordered over and above.
A major issue that non-Spanish speakers will face in Mexico is that there aren't many people, especially in shops and restaurants, who know English. So, one has to rely on translator apps and dictionaries to communicate or use sign language generously, along with sporadic use of English words and hope the other person understands.
Back at the breafast table, I decided to dive right in and order Chilaquiles from the breakfast menu. I had, of course, no idea what it was - the waiter just said, "tortillas, queso" (tortillas, cheese), and then asked "Con pollo?" (with chicken? I said, okay), "Salsa verde, roja?" (I said, green), after which he took off to get the order.
I was, of course, completely intrigued. Not long after, my order came - and I quickly understood why the waiter had been so sparse in his description. The dish was literally a shallow pool of green salsa, in which tortilla chips and chicken strips were swimming, with a sprinkling of cheese all over, and a blob of refried beans on the corner - and tasted amazing!
I had come to Mexico to speak at a business event. On the way to the event, I was struck by how some neighbourhoods of Mexico would not have been out of place in Delhi, the only difference being that the signs were all in Spanish. Another thing that stood out was that Mexico City has a predilection for the bright pink colour. The logo of Mexico City is in pink, and all the city vehicles (taxis, trucks, buses, vans) are painted pink. Many houses have also painted their outer walls in pink. One would imagine all this pink would look garish, but somehow, it all fits in, and looks natural.
The event was catered by a local Indian restaurant, called Bukhara, run by a genial Sikh gentleman, who had come to Mexico in the early 1990s. The food was traditional Indian catering fare - chicken tikka, seekh kebabs, fish tikka, pulao and dal makhani, rounded off by rasmalai and cardamom chai - and, was surprisingly good. The crowd had almost polished off the entire stock of food available.
That evening, the jet lag finally caught up with me and I crashed early for the night, without having any dinner.
The next day was to be another packed day and, because it had been a good 14 hours after my previous meal, it was no surprise that I was at the restaurant early morning, waiting for it to open up. After I finished my allotted fruit appetizer, I turned my attention to what was going to be the main act that morning. Mexican Scrambled Eggs, it was, with Chorizo. The Mexican bit was the fried beans and a tortilla chip
Wyndham Garden has a restaurant on their top floor, which overlooks the Chapultepec Castle, and the surrounding park - which makes for a wonderful scene, as the sun streams into the restaurant when it rises from behind the palace, and the scrambled eggs were a perfect complement to the view.
Chapultepec Castle, located on top of Chapultepec Hill in the middle of the Chapultepec Park at a height of 2,325 meters above sea level, has served as an Imperial residence, the Presidential home and is now the National Museum of History. The castle was a film location in 1996 for Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
During the day, we grabbed a quick bite at McDonald's - where the local options are lathered in salsa and habanero sauce. The evening was hosted by my colleague and his wife, where they treated me to some great home-cooked Indian food.
After the meetings next day, I had about half a day remaining in Mexico City, and I decided to explore the sights. (Tip: If you are going out in the city for a meeting or sightseeing, keep at least an hour's margin for travel time, as Mexico City's traffic is famously unpredictable, and your schedule can get out of gear quite rapidly, if you are not prepared.)
The Meso-American civilisation that grew near Mexico city established itself in the valley of Teotihuacan, and built their famous flat-topped pyramid temples here. Teotihuacan is about 50 km from the city, and it takes about an hour by taxi to reach here. Mexico City is surrounded by hills, and combined with its latitude, makes the drive out to Teotihuacan a natural scenery treat. I would describe it as very similar to the drive from Mumbai to Lonavala, interspersed with many fields and structures reminiscent of North India.
Once there, I finally understood what the fuss about the pyramids were, and why everyone I had met had recommended that I spend some time to visit them. The Teotihuacan pyramid complex has two large pyramids - the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon and many smaller ones around it in neat lines. I was struck by the near precise angles at which the pyramids are constructed, restricting and framing views at strategic positions. Both pyramids have tall, narrow, steep steps cut into the side, where one can climb all the way to the top, and see the entire valley in one view without any obstacles.
The taller of the two pyramids is the Pyramid of the Sun, and the climb is about as high as about 10-12 storeys, and barring one super-athlete, who ran all the way to the top, and skipped circles around all of us, everyone there found the climb extremely strenuous and scary at times. If you are planning to climb the Pyramids, you must have good walking shoes, and stamina.
These pyramids were discovered, much like the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, many centuries after their original creators and inhabitants had abandoned them. However, unlike the Pyramids of Giza, these were used as temples and residences for the society's elite, and the rest of the society grew around the Pyramids. Similar pyramids and structures exist throughout Mexico, which indicate many such societies had developed in parallel.
The gift shops nearby have many intricate items on offer, especially various articles made of obsidian, which was apparently the preferred traditional material for many objects from Mesoamerican era, and local liquors, including tequila and mezcal.
After making the arduous trek to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, and back down, I ambled across the entire complex, admiring the various buildings and their symmetry. Another remarkable fact: the acoustics in this complex are so perfect, that sounds from one end echoes sharply to the other without losing much coherence.
After spending about an hour at the Pyramids, I then headed back into the city, and went to the next hot spot for tourists - the world famous Museum of Anthropology.
Set up in the 1960s, the Museum attracts many visitors to its extremely well-designed exhibits, covering the history of homo sapiens, starting from Homo australopithecus all the way to the modern-day American. The museum requires at least 3-4 hours to cover it properly, and has some amazing artefacts, including fossils of, possibly, a mammoth, and many, many objects of use from those times. The museum is a veritable archive of Mexican heritage, and it is highly recommended to get a guide (or an audio guide), as most of the exhibits are in Spanish.
While going back to the hotel from the museum, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a fairly large and quiet park commemorating Mahatma Gandhi and his contribution to humanity. The park has a large statue of him, but I, unfortunately, did not have much time to spend there - next time perhaps...
What I was able to see and experience, was a just a tiny portion of what Mexico (or even, Mexico City) has to offer. Just like India, there is much more than what I have written about, and if you have a week to spare, Mexico City should definitely figure among the top of your list of travel destinations.
Although there are no direct flights to Mexico City from India, there are many one-stop flights from India via France, Germany, Netherlands and the US.
There are any number of options for stay in Mexico City. Wyndham Garden Hotel, a budget hotel, is where I stayed and it is a good economic option for tourists and families.
Taxis are quite expensive - Uber is a recommended option, or else, one could also look at buying tickets to the Hop-on Hop-off buses.
(Answer to pop quiz: Mango)