Tuesday, November 6, 2007


First published in Atención San Miguel June 29, 2007

The earthquake that struck Mexico City at 12:42 A.M. on Friday, April 13 reached 6.3 on the Richter Scale, the strongest I had felt so far. Nick and I stood under a doorway, watching the ceiling light in the living room sway back and forth, listening to the Venetian blinds rattle, and realizing, in silent awe, that our entire four-story apartment building was undulating. The quake’s center was hundreds of miles away, near the beach at Acapulco, eighteen miles below the earth’s surface. No one was hurt and there was little property damage reported, but a piece of the planet had moved, and the physical sensation etched itself into my body’s memory. “Don’t forget to put on a bathrobe in case we have to run out into the street or if we’re found under the rubble,” Nick thoughtfully reminded me.The next morning, after a few “Did you feel that?” conversations with friends, life went back to normal.

Maintaining a sense of equanimity in Mexico City is a tough job. Living with 20 million neighbors in a place that shakes on occasion requires constant attention, so I’m always on the lookout for spots that provide an oasis of calm in the urban storm--the best places to visit after an earthquake.

The busy area behind the Cathedral in the Centro Histórico recalls an older Mexico City. Bustling Plaza Santo Domingo, where type-setters work under a sagging arcade as they have for centuries, is the most intact Colonial space in the city. Superb murals of Diego Rivera are found at the nearby Secretaria de Educación Pública, and, just around the corner is the San Ildefonso museum, one of the city’s best, located in a former Jesuit college. The area is full of street vendors, hawkers, noise, traffic, life, sometimes reaching an exhausting level. A visit to the church known as La Piedad (Calle Doncelles near Argentina) provides a haven of tranquility amidst the commercial hubbub. Its proximity to the Templo Mayor, where Aztecs offered human sacrifices to their gods Huitzilopotzli and Tlaloc, adds to its aura of sanctity. The baroque interior, a celestial fantasy of carved wood and gilded plaster, inspires awe and the desire to worship a deity.

The Museo Franz Mayer, facing the green park known as the Alameda in the Centro Histórico, is one of the city’s gems of colonial architecture. In its peaceful garden patio you can sip a cappuccino, listen to birds sing, and be transported, in a flash, to another, more innocent Mexico City. A beautifully tiled central fountain is surrounded by beds of small shrubs and flowers; a well-proportioned arcade envelops the patio, providing a shady place to sit and observe. The heaviness of this building, the sense that each of its stones was lifted into place by hand, provides a grounding comfort, somewhat humbling, that feels just right after an exhausting bout in the big city.

Not far from the Zócalo is the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico (Pino Suarez #30, near República del Salvador) which has changing exhibits (of variable quality) and a permanent exhibition about the city’s history. The most interesting thing here, however, is the studio of Joaquin Clausell, located on the second floor (mention it when you buy your ticket as it is sometimes locked.) Clausell (1866-1935) was a Mexican painter who studied impressionism in Paris. His wealthy in-laws owned the building and gave him a studio to work in. For years he painted, doodled and sketched directly on the four walls of his atelier, creating a fascinating mural of the artist’s working process. The room is dark, cool, and quiet, and furnished with some very comfortable upholstered chairs, making it perhaps the most peaceful public space in the Centro.

Mexico’s famous architect, Luis Barragán (1902-1988), is known for the simple, at times austere, lines of his buildings, for the use of earthy, indigenous building materials, and the introduction of bold colors. A visit to his home and studio is a lesson in the difference between “architecture” and “construction”. His spaces, with their dramatic changes of light and scale, are at once warm and cozy, cool and abstract. The famous ‘floating staircase’ displays his propensity for poise and delicate balance. You feel removed from the city in his garden, an urban jungle of tumbling vines and tropical plants; the tall, richly colored walls of the rooftop terrace block out everything but the blue sky above; the hum of traffic seems to be coming from another world. Barragán was a religious man, a fact instilled into his architecture. His home/studio was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. The Casa/Museo Luis Barragán is located at General Ramirez 114 in Colonia Tacubaya, (close to Metro Constituyentes). Call to reserve in advance at 5515-4908 (English spoken).

If you’re seeking more oxygen, head to Parque Mexico in Colonia Condesa, a small but luxuriant park built in the 1920’s in a neighborhood filled with art-deco buildings, restaurants, cafés and bookstores. Pathways meander among towering palms, graceful jacarandas, and huge banana trees surrounding a duck pond and an artificial geyser. There are benches, like small rustic cottages, where you can sit and read.

The Museo del Carmen, a former 17th century convent in San Angel, in the south of the city, is a cloistered enclave with a hushed, expectant mood. You can see a fine collection of religious art from the Spanish colonial period, as well as a cellar filled with mummified nuns, but simply sitting and enjoying the feeling of weight and security--of survival--in the stones here is what makes this spot so soothing.

Finding a peaceful and quiet hotel room in Mexico City can be a challenge. Ask about noise (and ventilation), especially in older hotels, as rooms vary greatly.

Two hotels in quieter parts of the city are the Hotel Maria Cristina (Rio Lerma 31, Colonia Juarez, tel. 5703-1787, www.hotelmariacristina.com.mx) and La Casona (Durango 280, Colonia Roma, tel. 5286-3001,


I’ve never heard anyone say they are coming for a relaxing weekend in Mexico City, but the experience of peace and quiet, once you find it, takes on a delicious depth in this city. The flamboyant urban hysteria of the city quickly blurs any thoughts of natural disaster with its resounding call to life, but, just in case, I’m going to renew my earthquake insurance…next week.

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