I had dreamed, plotted and mapped out the perfect Mexico City vacation for spring. The weather would be glorious, the food sublime and the city enchanting. And now…?
I know, of course, that sheltering-in-place during a raging, tragic pandemic is an essential thing. But — we’re friends, right? I can confess something? I’m a little bummed out that instead of visiting incredible museums, taking cooking classes, drinking margaritas and eating seafood at Gabriela Camara’s Contramar, I will be spending my vacation week in a state of sameness on the couch, like “Groundhog Day” come to life. Or rather, a “Groundhog Day” in which Bill Murray is obsessed with TP.
In these days of virtual happy hours and Zoom everything, perhaps a quasi-vacation is not such a far-fetched idea. Museums have virtual tours. The margaritas will be real. It’s a free faux-cation and you can come, too. Viva, virtual Mexico City!
Saturday morning arrival
There’s a lot to be said for waking up in one’s own bed. It’s not as glamorous as a boutique hotel in the trendy Roma or La Condesa neighborhoods of this bustling metropolis, but it’s comfy — and jet lag is no problem. So coffee in hand — but minus the Panaderia Rosetta‘s guava pastries we’d hoped for — we head for www.youvisit.com/tour/mexicocity/80648 to get the lay of the land.
The site offers a scrolling tour of Mexico City’s landmarks, from the 360-degree marble grandeur of La Catedral Metropolitana to the ruins of Templo Mayor, the 15th-century Aztec temple that once crowned Tenochtitlán, where Mexico City began. In 1978, utility workers chanced upon an 8-ton stone carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui on the site, and excavations continue to this day.
We can get a better look at the ruins, though, by jumping over to Google maps, dialing in Templo Mayor and street view, and then dropping the little yellow guy among the ruins to look around. In fact, we can do an entire “walking” tour of the city like this, hopping from the Zocalo, the enormous plaza in the heart of the city’s historic center, to the 1,600-acre Bosque de Chapultepec.
Twice as large as New York’s Central Park, Chapultepec and its forests are home to a zoo, a botanical garden, a lake and nine of the city’s 150+ museums — more museums than any city in the world — and a castle. It’s a real one, too. It was the home of a Hapsburg emperor, Maximilian I, and his wife from 1864 to 1867.
Today, the Castillo de Chapultepec houses the Museo Nacional de Historia — and there’s a virtual tour that takes you through 360-degree views of the grounds, salons and exhibits. It’s cool online. It’s even better with Cardboard, an inexpensive virtual reality headset ($9 and up) made out of, well, cardboard. Load the YouVisit app on your smartphone, stick the phone inside the box, then look through the box’s lenses — and suddenly you’re there on the castle grounds and in a succession of exhibit halls. Look up at the fluttering flag atop the tower. Look down and you’ll see the stone terrace. Turn around and take in the gardens.
Dazzled and faintly dizzy, we take a taco break. A real one. Followed by a siesta. Also real.
And then, a little Netflix streaming — season one, episode two of James Beard award-winning chef David Chang’s foodie-travel series, “Ugly Delicious.” Chang and his friends hit Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Tulum and Mexico City on a quest for the perfect taco. (Warning: The show is wonderful, but the language is PG-13.)
It’s best watched with a margarita and, of course, more tacos or perhaps a shrimp tostada or two.
Olmecs, Aztecs and Frida
Back in the virtual Bosque the next day, we head for the enormous Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Founded in 1825, the museum boasts 23 exhibit halls and a collection of 600,000 objects from the Olmec, Aztec and Hispanic periods. Among the showstoppers: the Aztec Sun Stone and a spectacular replica of Moctezuma’s feathered cape. The anthropology museum’s virtual tour lets you “walk” through the galleries and take a closer look. We spend the rest of the afternoon browsing the museum’s website for details on what we saw and all the history we apparently never learned.
And we spend the rest of the week virtually touring every museum we can find. There’s a virtual tour of Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s vivid blue house, on the Google Arts & Culture website, which offers content from 2,000 museums and cultural organizations around the world. Many hours later, we emerge from the site in a daze, having gotten distracted by an entire planet’s worth of wonders — and eager for more.
A virtual tour, perhaps, of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, the stunning arts hall, which presents concerts, opera and performances by, among others, the Ballet Folklórico de México.
Some more foodie TV, perhaps. Season one, episode six of Netflix’s “Somebody Feed Phil” sends wide-eyed Phil Rosenthal to Mexico to sample mezcal and make tortillas. And season two, episode three of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” takes us to Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, the award-winning Mexico City restaurant that ranks among the top restaurants in the world.
Olvera, who elevates Mexican street food — including tacos — into works of art, is actually featured in all three shows we’ve watched, including “Ugly Delicious.” Clearly it’s a sign.
A sign that we need more tacos — made with handmade tortillas. If Phil can do it, we can do it. We grab Camara’s cookbook, “My Mexico City Kitchen,” and head for the kitchen. For real.
Castillo de Chapultepec: Take a virtual reality tour of Mexico City’s castle at https://bayareane.ws/Castle. Learn more at https://mnh.inah.gob.mx/
Museo Nacional de Antropologia: Take a virtual tour of this major anthropology museum via Goggle’s Arts & Culture site at https://bayareane.ws/Anthropology. Learn more at www.mna.inah.gob.mx.
Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul: Take a virtual tour and learn about Kahlo’s life via Google’s Arts & Culture site; https://bayareane.ws/Frida. Visit the museum website at www.museofridakahlo.org.mx/en.
Palacio de Bellas Artes: Take a virtual tour at https://bayareane.ws/Palacio. Learn more at https://palacio.inba.gob.mx.
Virtual vacation, real money
A real vacation helps the restaurants, hotels and museums of the city you’re visiting. A virtual vacation is a free one. So why not take some of that budgeted, but unspent cash and donate it to a worthy cause here or abroad? Here are two possibilities:
Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, which provides fresh meals to communities after natural disasters, is now delivering nearly 200,000 meals a day to U.S. families and seniors affected by the pandemic. Now, its #ChefsForAmerica program is bringing restaurants on board to help their communities and keep restaurant workers employed.
And Pujol chef Enrique Olvera and journalist Leon Krauze launched a Campaign to Support Mexican Migrants in the U.S., to help support Mexican migrant workers here with financial and health issues due to the outbreak.
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