Literary City Guide | MEXICO CITY, MEXICO


I can’t stand a city more surrealistic than one of my paintings.
— Salvador Dali

Tour Guide: LYDIA CAREY

Lydia is a freelance writer and translator madly in love with her adoptive hometown, Mexico City. She is the author of the upcoming living guide to her neighborhood, Mexico City Streets: La Roma. Her pastimes include dog walking, taco eating, wine drinking, and growing lettuce on the roof. Visit her online at Mexico City Streets.

Q&A

Relationship to Mexico City: I moved to Mexico City three years ago and suddenly believed in destiny. I have spent every day since scouring the city for its interesting bits and pieces and eating one corn-meat-cheese combination after another. I wonder at the beautiful ugliness of this city's painted cement buildings, the easy hospitality of its people, and the dark and powerful undercurrent of its history. 

Writer you’d like to invite to dinner: Ray Bradbury. I imagine us sitting down to a candlelit rooftop dinner on a hot summer night, talking about the poetry of childhood and the possibility of life on other planets.

Chef you’d like to prepare the meal: Julia Child. We have the same three favorite ingredients: wine, butter, and cream. 

Writing soundtrack: Distant cumbia that floats up through the air shaft of my apartment building.

Pen or Pencil: Pen, a nice sturdy bic.

Coffee or Tea? Coffee most mornings, tea when I am missing my mother. 

Paperback or Hardback? Paperback, they take more abuse and I am not easy on my books.  A well-worn book is a well-loved book I always say.


Good Reads


BOOKSTORES

Fondo de Cultura Económica. Part of the Spanish-speaking world's largest publisher, this massive bookstore is located in the former Lido theater, built in 1942 by Charles Lee – an American know for his beautiful movie theaters. The selection here is almost entirely in Spanish (there is a tiny English section) and there are lots of reading nooks and a small cafe. They host cultural and literary events year-round. 

Under the Volcano. One of the city's widest and most diverse selection of English-language used books, Under the Volcano is quietly tucked into the aging American Legion building on Celaya street in the art-deco clad Condesa neighborhood.  

Wiser Books and Coffee. This is a great place to find independent Spanish-language publishers along with a fair amount of art and textbooks and a handful of English classics and a variety of beat writers. There's a small crepe and coffee menu, served on tiny outdoor tables that face the street. 

El Péndulo. With locations all over the city, my favorite El Péndulos are the three-story Roma location with a bar and improv theater at the top and the Condesa neighborhood location with a cozy corner upstairs for perusing art books. You can take a virtual tour of each location online. 

Donceles Street. In the heart of the historic center of downtown Mexico City, Donceles street is lined with one ancient used book store after another. An afternoon will fly by as you drift from shop to shop just breathing in the dusty shelves and crinkling pages.  

Torre de Papel. It's not a sit down and linger over a good book kind of place, but it’s special because you can buy newspapers and magazines from around the world. They also have a decent selection of traditional paper maps. You can buy the New York Times for about 5 dollars during the week but Sunday's edition has to be ordered in advance (About 12 bucks- ouch!)

LIBRARIES

Biblioteca Vasconcelos. The Vasconcelos library's immediate draw is its dramatic and futuristic architecture. The books are suspended in metal shelving units and gangplanks above you and the aisles are littered with studying students. The library is named for José Vasconcelos, an educator, philosopher, and former Secretary of Education who created various cultural institutions during his time as a public servant. There is no English-language selection and even the Spanish selection lacks in variety, but it's worth a visit just to see the space. 

Casa del Poeta. In a section of Mexican poet Ramón López Velarde's former home, now a museum, this library is a collection of the books owned by Mexican writers Salvador Novo and Efraín Huerta. A few steps from its bookshelves is López Velarde's tiny apartment just as he left it, where one of the museum's docents will give you a guided tour. 

La Ciudadela. Besides housing the Biblioteca de México, the city's main public library, the Ciudadela building is also home to five other individual libraries, each the collection of a Mexican literary giant: Jose Luis Martínez, Antonio Castro Leal, Jaime García Terrés, Alí Chumacero, and Carlos Monsiváis. These libraries were designed and built to reflect the personality of each author and are some of my favorite libraries in the city.

READINGS & CONFERENCES

Almost all of the bookstores and libraries I previously mentioned offer programs, courses and events to aspiring writers and readers. In addition, the Casa Refugio Citlaltépetl is a non-profit organization that houses authors from around the world that have been threatened or persecuted in their country of origin. The same house where these literary refuges take shelter is host to weekly poetry readings, writing workshops, book fairs and other literary events. The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is the country's massive higher education system. They have satellite campuses all over the city as well as their main campus (“University City”) in Coyoacán that was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007. UNAM has events happening every day of the week all over the city – included on the list are writing courses, roundtables on literary topics, and author homages. 

OTHER FINDS

Mexico city's indescribability begs writers to try to put pen to paper and capture it. It's ancient yet emerging, provincial yet metropolitan, as worn down as a street dog and as glimmering as a new pair of cowboy boots. The exact spot where inspiration hits in this city varies from writer to writer: smoky back-alley bars, rooftops that look out over a hodge podge of crumbling architecture, cathedral courtyards, or stumbled-upon leafy oasis' – literary magic pervades the city's every chaotic inch. 

Ex-Convento San Jerónimo. A statuesque convent in the center of the city whose construction began in 1585 and continued throughout its lifetime, the convent was the home of the poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz until her death in 1669. A writer, intellectual, philosopher, and literary legend, Sor Juana was a verdant supporter of female education and the right to intellectual pursuits.

William S. Burroughs House. For some literary inspiration, or some somber reflection, walk past William S. Burroughs house at Orizaba 210 in La Roma or the Bounty Bar at Monterrey 122 where he accidentally shot his wife, Joan Vollmer in 1951. The house on Orizaba is where Jack Kerouac supposedly wrote his famous Mexico City Blues during a handful of visits to see William and Joan. 

Café de Nadie. This cafe no longer exists but you can through the Pasaje Parián where it once was and soak up the history. It was a hangout for artists and writers of the stridentist movement in Mexico, an avant-garde artist and literary movement of the 1920s.

Casa de Alvarado. Currently the Fonoteca National de México (Mexico's fascinating sound history museum), this house was where Octavio Paz lived out his last years. The Mexican government loaned him the house to live in when a short circuit caught his downtown apartment on fire in 1996, burning a part of his personal library. 

Plaza de Santo Domingo. For decades now, this broad plaza in the middle of one of the oldest parts of the city is where letter writers with ancient typewriters concocted love letters and created documents for their illiterate neighbors. You won't find too many typewriters around anymore, but there are dozens of print shops, card stores, and invitation services that circle the plaza. 

Good Eats


COFFEE SHOPS

Cardinal Casa de Café. The freelancers daytime hangout, this coffeeshop is always filled with groups of 2 and 3 concocting the next big thing. All the coffee comes from the Mexican state of Guerrero and they have various fancy brewing methods to try, as well as tea, sandwiches, and lucha libre cookies.

Café La Habana. A time-honored Mexico City hangout, this cafe is said to have been the setting for Fidel and Che's planning of the Cuban Revolution. There are some incredible old photos on the walls and the never-ending espresso machine is mesmerizing.

Café Bagdad. One of the city's very first coffee shops, this tiny place roasts its own beans and exudes a nostalgic air in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, la Merced. Most afternoons you can find a handful of tobacco-soaked men, sipping espresso and playing cards in the back room.

Casa Tassel. A tiny tea shop where you'll find grandmothers helping their grandkids with homework, girlfriends gossiping over a china cup, or a solitary waif reading intellectually heavy novels in the corner. Its name is in homage to the Hotel Tassel in Brussels, generally regarded to be the first Art Nouveau building in history. 

El Conde de Medellín México Speciality Coffees. Saunter up to this coffee bar and ask for one of their many unusual brewing methods: Chemex, siphon, drip... It's a place of unusual sophistication and solemnity in the middle of the Mercado Medellín's hustle and bustle.   

Panadería Rosetta. This bakery/cafe is packed with young professionals jostling for a spot at the minuscule bar. Their backroom bakery hums to sound of milk steaming and racks of sweet pastries pulled out of the oven hour after hour.

Marabunta. Combination cafe and bookstore, Marabunta sits off of busy Miguel Angel Quevedo Avenida in Coyoacán/ Complete with resistance posters, indie music, free trade coffee, and a packed schedule of poetry readings, workshops, and roundtable discussions, you can find everything from a history of the feminist movement to slim, hand-typed volumes of poetry.

A PROPER MEAL

Mexico City is a foodie's paradise. We have millions of street food stands selling delectable morsels from dawn till dusk, markets that overflow with local eccentricities, and up-and-coming chefs making the city's collective mouth water with their creations. I can't encourage visitors enough to look for a sizzling outdoor grill, plop themselves down, and order something unfamiliar – it's almost never a bad idea. While street eating is my passion there are lots of other places you won't want to miss. To be honest there are so many good choices that it's completely impossible to create a short list... however, I have my favorites. 

Azul Histórico. Ricardo Muñoz's restaurant isn't just a phenomenal place to experience some of the city's best traditional Mexican recipes, but it is also delightfully located in the patio of the Downtown Hotel under a canopy of leafy ficus trees. A tortilla maker stands ready to pat you out some fresh blue-corn tortillas and their occasional special menus offer a window into the various regional cuisines of Mexico. 

El Hidalguense. When I first arrived in Mexico, I had no idea how vital barbacoa would become to my life. It starts with goat or lamb spiced and wrapped in agave cactus leaves and slow-roasted overnight in an underground pit (there's always a secret recipe). It comes out so soft you can spread it on bread like butter. El Hidalguense gets my pick because it is some of the city's best and only a short walk from my apartment, important for Sunday morning emergency meals. They also serve flavored curados, a type of fermented agave juice with just enough alcohol to give you that hair-of-the-dog effect.

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No name carnitas stand. Carnitas are deep-fried bits of pork, served in a warm double tortilla with fresh cilantro and onion and the salsa of your choice. I have never had them better than at this no name stand across from the Pemex on Jalapa street in Mexico City's La Roma neighborhood.

Medellín Market. Mentioned above in my coffee recommendations, this market is simply one of the most outstanding places in my neighborhood. You can get a heaping plate of Cuban rice and beans or one of the hearty main plates at local comida corrida restaurants on the Campeche street side of the market. After lunch wander the aisles of Colombian coffee, Argentine Yerba mate, Cuban beer, and Peruvian soda as well as stands bursting with delicious produce, chiles, and spices, both local and imported.

Astrid y Gastón. Folks say that this incarnation of Gaston Acurio and Astrid Gutsche's Peruvian menu is even better than their restaurant in Lima. All I know is that it has the best ceviche and aguachile I have ever had and some of the most delectable seafood preparations in the city. Come prepared for the elaborate table service and to eat through your entire vacation budget. 

Los danzantes. Heavenly Oaxacan specialities make this place a must on the dinner list. Huitlacoche (Mexican corn smut) filled raviolis, hoja santa wrapped around a blend of goat cheese and quesillo, and green mole risotto are just few of the amazing dishes on the menu. This place is perfect at dusk, sitting at an outdoor table on Coyoacán's main plaza, listening to romantic trios drift by.

TREATS

Anyone who lives in my neighborhood (La Roma) in Mexico City and appreciates good food knows about Helados Palmeiro and their fabulous Cuban ice cream stand in the Mercado Medellín. What makes it Cuban you ask? I have no idea, and a Cuban friend told us there is no such thing as “Cuban” style ice cream. All I know is that owner Eugenio insists he got the recipes from his grandmother and it is the creamiest, most transporting helado in the city. 

Mexicans love pastries but I find the traditional Mexican sweetbreads a little dry and lacking in punch. I opt instead for one of the delectable French bakeries in the Roma, La Bohême or Fournier Rousseau (“the red-headed baker”) both with delicate croissants and warm, crusty baguettes. My temple of pastries is the Panadería Lvsitana, a Portuguese bakery with insanely good egg tarts and cream-filled puffed dough that will make you loss your head. 

Other treats that you aren't allowed to miss if you come to Mexico City, are Mexican traditional candies. The most popular are coconut filled limes husks, candied chunks of pineapple, orange or citron rind and sugary balls of tamarindo. You should also try honey-sweetened amaranth bars, melt-in-your-mouth marzipan, and the spicy-sweet Miguelito lollipops. Most of the traditional sweets I just mentioned can be found at one of the two locations of the Dulcería Celaya or even better in my opinion, among the stands in local markets.


Visually, Mexico City is, above all else, an excessive amount of people. You can try to ignore it, watch or photograph deserted sunrises, enjoy the powerful aesthetic of murals and plazas, rediscover the perfection of isolation. But the Federal District’s permanent obsession (and unavoidable topic) is the multitude that encompasses the multitude, the way in which each person, even if they don’t realize or admit it, digs themselves in and defends the tiny space that the city provides them.
— Carlos Monsiváis

Mexico City library

Suggested Reads

Los Paseos de la Ciudad de México – by Salvador Novo

Las Batallas en el Desierto – by José Emilio Pacheco

El Circuito Interior – by Francisco Goldman

Tristessa  – by Jack Kerouac

First Stop in the New World – by David Lida

The Savage Detectives – by Roberto Bolaño

Los Rituales del Caos – by Carlos Monsiváis

Tacopedia- by Deborah Holtz, Juan Carlos Mena 

Mexico City Street: La Roma (soon to be published!) - by Lydia Carey

LYDIA's 5 Favorites


1. Favorite view: Mexico City has a bad reputation as a city clogged with traffic and people 24 hours a day. While that's mostly true, there is something so blindingly beautiful about all that chaos that you have to look beyond the noise to see. One of my favorite views of the city is watching the streams of traffic at dusk from the Chapultepec bridge on Reforma avenue and wondering where all those 20 million people are off to. 

2. Favorite place to write: I write mostly at home but I have been known to scribble poems on the metro or type them into my phone when it's so crowded there's no room for sitting. They're mostly love poems ... for me the metro has an odd aphrodisiac quality that I can't explain. 

3. Favorite museum: I definitely have a particular take on museums in the city, but there are a few that stand out for me. The Museo del objeto del objeto, is my neighborhood museum and it's a collection of objects from Mexico and around the world. They have revolving installations like The History of Rock in Mexico and the Museum of Broken Relationships that are always well curated and fascinating. I love the Museo de Arte Moderno for its photography and abstract art exhibits, it doesn't hurt that it has the largest collection of Remedios Varo paintings in Mexico – one of my favorite surrealists. It's located inside Mexico City's central park – Chapultepec – and makes for a perfect afternoon of art gazing and wandering through the trees. The Museo del Juguete Antiguo México is tucked away in a rough and tumble blue-collar neighborhood and is the lifetime collection of architect Roberto Shimizu, whose parents where Japanese immigrants to the city over 70 years ago. It's jammed packed with every toy from United States and Mexico in the last fifty or so years. I find it overwhelming and delightful. You'll want to play with everything you see.

4. Favorite coffee shop: Cardinal Casa de Café. It has some of the neighborhood's best coffee and friendly staff. I feel productive just watching all the folks busily tapping away at their computers. 

5. Favorite thing about Mexico City: Its unpredictability. Protests that pop up on Reforma avenue, marimba bands that appear alongside your restaurant table, spontaneous neighborhood parties outside the minimart post-soccer game. This city is never the same from one day to the next and there is always something more to explore, to taste, to see, to love.