The smell of freshly cooked corn tortillas mingled with traffic fumes, the sounds of organ grinders and street criers, and the myriad sights out our window, from indigenous women in bold-striped skirts selling handmade dolls to limbless beggars in tattered clothes looking for handouts…
These were the reasons we used to stay at a hotel a block from the Zocalo, the main square of Mexico City, the first few times we visited many years ago. Popular with backpackers and Mexican tourists, the budget place was in an old colonial building on Cinco de Mayo. Rooms were Spartan and mattresses lumpy, but, aside from the $11 a night rate, what we really cared about was the location. Slap bang in the centre of the old city, at the heart of the action, we could swing open the balcony doors and Mexico would assault our senses.
This time we’ve moved up in the world, literally and metaphorically. Our ‘home away from home’ in Mexico City is an elegant penthouse apartment on the sixth floor of one of the most architecturally important buildings in the historic centre or El Centro. We can no longer smell the corn tortillas or traffic fumes – indeed pavement sellers have since been banned from the city centre and the air quality is significantly better than it was back then – but we can still see, hear and breathe the buzzy city down below.
A plant-filled terrace wraps around our living room, lush with lime trees, cacti and palms, and frequently visited by chirping birds, while beyond are stunning views over the city rooftops to the illuminated domes of the white-marble Palacio Bellas Artes and striking Torre Latinoamericana (Latin American Tower). On a clear day we can see the green hills that surround the city.
Even with our heads in the clouds (well, almost), we can still hear honking car horns, DJs spinning records at ritzy rooftop parties, and chants from the demonstrations that march daily along Calle Tacuba and Cinco de Mayo. (Yes, we’re just a couple of blocks from our old pad!) On Sundays, when they close the city streets to traffic, we can see bicycle riders and rollerbladers whizzing by on Tacuba.
We walk out the door and we’re right in the thick of things, in the middle of the downtown shopping area with its endless choices for eating and drinking. We’re a few blocks from the Zocalo and colossal cathedral in one direction, and two blocks from Palacio Bellas Artes and lively Alameda park in the other. A ten-minute stroll north takes us to Plaza Garibaldi and its mariachis and Lagunilla markets with its superb micheladas. Fifteen minutes and we’re on Paseo de Reforma, Mexico City’s main boulevard.
While it may be a penthouse, the place is far from ostentatious. Instead, it has a lovely, laidback elegance about it. Its luxury lies in its ample space – in the big country-style kitchen, the three spacious bedrooms, three bathrooms, and the large open-plan living and dining area, so big that even with a six seat dining setting (chrome and glass and very stylish) and two huge sofas, you could still hold a salsa class on the polished wooden parquet floors.
The apartment is wonderfully and bright. There are white walls, cream sofas, and the four bedrooms are bathed in light. Each room is brought to life with handsome wooden furniture – a couple of rustic chairs here, a wooden desk there – and splashes of colour, such as vibrant striped ponchos framed and hung on the wall like works of art. And of course there is Mexican folk art too, fantastic carved wooden animals, hand-painted candelabra, bold-coloured textiles, and beautiful pottery and ceramics (some of it actually for sale if you become smitten with it by the end of your stay).
The kitchen is a highlight and will be appreciated by foodies, with plenty of pots and pans, loads of big dinner plates, and an array of different kinds of glasses, making the place perfect for entertaining. There are clay pots full of spoons and spatulas, a good set of knives, cupboards crammed with appliances, and several different kinds of coffeemakers.
Petra, the owner, and Ceci, the housekeeper, also offer a variety of cooking classes, from learning a few simple dishes to a class that begins with a market tour and teaches you a whole menu that can then be served up as a dinner party. Petra can even organize a waiter!
A convenience for those who don’t like to cook is a mini-bar of sorts that occupies much of the fridge and bench space with plenty of beer, wine, spirits, soft drinks, snacks, and even cigarettes. We tend to fill the fridges in our holiday rentals with local produce we’ve bought at the markets, so it got a bit cramped for our liking but we pulled things out and moved the baskets of goodies out of the way so Terence had lots of bench space for food prep.
Thoughtful touches include a welcome bowl of fruit, breakfast to get you started, including homemade jam which Petra and Ceci make, butter, yoghurt, fresh bread, croissants, and juices, and fresh flowers.
Petra herself is a long-term expat, a television producer and researcher, and has contributed to travel guidebooks, so she is a font of knowledge, something you’ll especially appreciate if it’s your first visit. She has compiled binders of information, crammed the bookshelves with guidebooks, and can happily organize a driver, day trips, and tours.
There is a weekly cleaning service though Ceci appears every now and again to empty the garbage, replenish the mini bar, and water the plants on the balcony. Her surprise appearances might not suit everyone, honeymooners for instance, so if you value your privacy, it’s best to let Petra know and arrange for her to come at specific times. Petra is just across the balcony, in the opposite apartment, if you need her – and of course you should pay her a visit to see her own beautiful home.
While the location may be one of the best things about the place for us, Mexico City can be overwhelming. So when you want to hide away and relax, there are shelves full of novels and coffee table books, a basket brimming with magazines, a television in each bedroom with satellite movie channels, a stereo you can plug your iPod into, fast free Internet access, and in case you didn’t bring your own, a computer. Rested and rejuvenated, you can then leap back into the chaos of this crazy, magical city.