MEXICO CITY — I adjust my seat post and swing my leg over my cruiser bicycle on a side street in the Centro district, looking nervously at the cars and taxis clogging the lane to my left.
"I know it might seem a little scary riding a bicycle in downtown Mexico City," says Michael Parker-Stainback, a U.S.-born journalist and translator, as he pushes off from the curb. "But don't worry, there's so much traffic, no one can go fast enough to hurt you."
He's right. As we gain speed and ride past quinceañera shops and shoeshine stands, we begin zipping past rows of stopped cars and around pedestrians.
Some 3 million international visitors come to Mexico City each year (12 million total, including visitors from other parts of Mexico), most of them for business or transit. But I'm here for the city itself, to try to learn as much as I can about this place in only a few days.
It's a daunting task. As the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere — a high-altitude capital with 170 museums, four UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one of the most famous open-market and street-food scenes in the world — Mexico City has the potential for chaos, pollution, and unruly mobs. Before I traveled, misguided friends brought up safety issues and bulletproof vests. I'd heard about the famously frequent marches and demonstrations in the Zocalo, and thought my attempts to get around the city would be shut down and stained with tear gas.
None of these turned out to be true. The air was clear, the people I met were welcoming, and though I did run into some traffic and a few protests, a relaxed mood prevailed, and I got around just fine.
I decided to focus on a small area experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately — downtown Distrito Federal (Federal District), or D.F., including the Centro, Roma, and Condesa districts.
I stayed at a new design hotel called Downtown Mexico in Centro district, inside the renovated mansion of La Condesa de Mirabelle, a well-to-do 17th-century countess.
"It took four years to remodel, to bring it back to its original splendor," said Rafael Micha, managing partner of Grupo Habita, a property group with 13 hotels worldwide and four in Mexico City, which opened Downtown Mexico in 2012. Stripping away 400 years' worth of walls, he said, revealed the original red-and-black volcanic stone in places, plus a grand staircase, a 19th-century lift and a massive mural from the 1940s painter Manuel Rodriguez Lozano.
The mere presence of such a trendy hotel in D.F.'s once-seedy Centro neighborhood is an important sign of change. So is the recently constructed Francisco I. Madero pedestrian mall leading to the Zocalo main plaza, the Ecobici bike-share program, and the increased security and police patrols in the area.
Cycling the city
The air is cool at nearly 8,000 feet high, and the riding is more pleasant than I'd expected. The bike lanes are well marked, respected by cars, wide enough to pass, and have their own little traffic lights. We turn onto the Paseo de la Reforma, a wide, classic avenue that runs through the Zona Rosa, with its restaurants, nightclubs, and construction projects.
These bike lanes are relatively new to the city, as are the 4,000 red bicycles available for short-term rental. They are part of the newly expanded Ecobici bike share, a program gaining traction as it becomes more popular and less unwieldy for tourists.
"When I first started riding here," says Parker-Stainback, "everyone said 'You're crazy.' But people are finally catching on. (Bicycling) is just more pleasant and gets you there faster."
La Reforma leads us into Chapultepec Park, where we dismount to walk our bikes through a throng of blue-helmeted construction workers on lunch break from erecting another skyscraper. The history of the Chapultepec woods and park goes back to pre-Hispanic times, when the Aztecs used them for their hunting grounds. Today, there are museums, a zoo and a few hundred everyday defeños, as denizens of D.F. like to call themselves, out for a stroll.
After Chapultepec, Parker-Stainback and I roll into the bohemian Colonia Roma. We sit on a balcony at Romita Comedor and each order a beer, tequila, and sangrita, then discuss D.F.'s prospects over a lunch of tortas, panuchos (stuffed, refried tortillas) and creamy avocado soup.
"I feel this city is at an amazing point in its history," says Parker-Stainback, who also writes the "Mexico City Stylemap" and "TimeOut Mexico City" guides.
It is "young, full of energy, and the food is fresh," he adds. "It's also a little formal. There is a lot of 'good morning,' 'good afternoon' and 'si, señor.' It's a very friendly, creative place."
He is not alone in his optimism for the D.F.'s future, I find. Last night, chef Arianne Araiz told me there is a "boom of chefs coming together to promote our country," chefs who "respect Mexican ingredients."
Araiz will get the chance to celebrate her fellow chefs in January, when she begins work as host and producer of "Top Chef Mexico." When I told Araiz, who has hosted several Travel Channel segments on D.F.'s street food scene, about the late-night tacos and mezcal tour I had signed up for, she warned, "Be careful with the mezcal, it's not tequila!"
My guide on that tour, Paco, short for Francisco de Santiago, 46, told me the same thing when we bellied up to our first mezcalería of the night. Paco is a full-time tour guide and also a former child chess champion and bullfighter ("That was many kilos ago," he confessed). He then ordered a flight of artisanal mezcal samples and instructed me on the proper way to taste the purest of agave drinks.
"You spread the mezcal on top of your hand, like this, then wait for the alcohol to evaporate, then smell it for citric, floral or smoky tones," Paco said. After smelling, a sip, then another for good measure, and then you take a bite of orange slice dipped in crushed maguey worms and sea salt.
"My father was a university professor, and my mother was a flamenco dancer," Paco had told me at our first food stand. Before diving into the tacos, we began our night with two cups of esquite — boiled corn kernels mixed with lime, chile pepper and mayonnaise, which we bought from a father-son team who have been working the same street corner for 22 years.
Jimm Budd, an American journalist who has been living in D.F. for half a century, wrote to me, "Mexico City is a bastion of liberalism, allowing gay marriages, abortions and more (activities) that are prohibited elsewhere." (City officials were pondering marijuana decriminalization recently.)
The popular, populist government of Mexico City, and D.F., is enormously supportive of protests and demonstrations, Budd explained, adding sometimes annoyingly so.
"Almost any group that wants can stage a march and block traffic. This is hellish if you are trying to get some place, but the alternative would be repression," he wrote.
Sure enough, after lunch, Parker-Stainback and I swing back toward Centro and run smack into blocked-off roads and two lines of anti-riot police standing on either side of banner-waving Communist Party members. They are marching toward the Zocalo, chanting slogans with raised fists.
I fully expect Parker-Stainback to stop and steer clear of the commotion, but instead, he heads straight for them, and I follow, weaving in and out of the police's riot shields like a slalom course. The cops part to let us through like it's no big deal, and the protesters never stop shouting, "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!"
The people united will never be defeated.
Mexico City Insider's Guide
Get there: Direct flights from Denver to Mexico City International Airport (MEX) are few and far between (you usually have to change planes in Houston or Phoenix), but both Volaris and AeroMexico offer seasonal direct-flight options (Dec. 15-April 27).
Get around: Car traffic is difficult around Mexico City, so walk, take the subway or bike whenever possible. Tourists can rent a bike by the day or week by purchasing an Ecobici card (you need a credit card for the deposit, $7 a day, $14 for three days, ecobici.df.gob.mx), then swiping to rent out a bike at one of 260 stations.
Stay: Hotel Downtown Mexico ( downtownmexico.com, $195-395) has 17 stylish rooms in a stunning restored colonial mansion; they also have a youth hostel in the old servant quarters with beds for $18 a night and access to a stunning rooftop pool and bar (which has to be one of the best deals in town).
Dine: For a solid, delicious street- food primer course, sign up for a four-hour late-night tacos and mezcal tour with Eat Mexico Culinary Tours ( eatmexico.com, $95 per person).
For a hearty lunch or dinner, Azul Historico (entrees $8-18, 5510-1316, azulrestaurantes.com) offers a unique dining setting, with tables in an open-air, tree-filled patio in the same converted residence as the Downtown Mexico hotel.
Rosetta Restaurant in Colonia Roma (Colima 166, 5533-7804, email@example.com) puts an Italian spin on fresh Mexican ingredients, like Baja scallops in a celery- and saffron-infused sauce, and fresh, creamy burrata cheese.
Do: Book a unique tour with Francisco de Santiago from Every Angle Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org, 55-2086-0851, $85-$145 per person, depending on tour, includes food, beverage, transport, guide); all kinds of specialty culinary tours, plus an all-day Frida Kahlo tour of the city. You can also download this Mexico City Icons walking tour app ( mollejuo.com/?portfolios=mexico-city).
Visit the Museum of Tequila and Mescal ( mutemgaribaldi.mx, open 1 p.m.-midnight, Plaza Garibaldi, 5529-1238, @mutemgaribaldi) in Plaza Garibaldi, also ground zero for the city's mariachi scene. The museum has plenty of agave-descended beverages to sample and a rooftop restaurant.
Mexico City insider's guide