Journey to the source: Get a flavour of Mexico City

The capital's bars and cafés pack a fiery punch, says Darren Loucaides

Most of the 300,000 Brits who visit Mexico each year stay within the orbit of Cancún, the Yucatá* resort that handles the vast majority of flights from the UK and does a good impression of a low-rent Vegas by the sea. But ignore the sombreros, forget the mariachi band: Mexico City is the nation's thumping heart, the second-largest conurbation in Latin America (after Sao Paulo in Brazil). And the taste of Mexico it delivers is unique, fiery and intoxicating.

Presumably Benito Juárez International Airport was once on the edge of the capital. Now, it is right in the middle. From there, I jump straight into a taxi. It's night, yet there are hordes of people thronging the streets, careless of the traffic. Fleeing the impoverishment and pollution of this eastern part of the city – which gives you a less than flattering first impression of Distrito Federal (DF), as the city is officially known – I arrive in the Condesa area, which is calmer.

Behind the tall trees lining the wide boulevards of this fashionable district, Modernist buildings are juxtaposed with townhouses, many of which have been turned into galleries, restaurants and boutiques. There's a buzzy atmosphere; this is a place for artists and creative types to sip coffee outside cafés.

On my first evening (and indeed, many subsequent evenings) I visit the Condesa DF hotel for drinks. A converted Parisian-style house built in the 1920s, this striking wedge of a building was renovated by designer India Mahdavi, who has skilfully managed to preserve some of the old character while introducing a curious neo-Seventies vibe. Acrylic furniture and clusters of fibreglass lights punctuate the airy, light-filled interior, much of which is stark and white, though also dashed with caramels and sea greens, as well as the dark tones of walnut panels.

My favourite spot is on the triangular roof terrace looking out over the enchanting Parque España. It feels godly, sprawling on the sumptuous half-moon sofas among the treetops and imbibing the scent of the ripe purple jacaranda in full bloom all around. The outdoor heaters – a rare treat in Mexico City, where it can be quite nippy at night – encourage you to linger, giving in to the proposition of "one more drink".

The food at Condesa DF is very good – sushi is a favourite. But after drinks on the rooftop, or in the basement where parties are soundtracked by the hotel's own DJs, I can find nothing better to take the edge off than a trip to Faraó* for late-night fodder. Taquerías (tacos restaurants) like this are the Mexican equivalent of kebab houses, but don't let that put you off.

You order half-a-dozen taquitos per person with a selection of pork, steak, or chicken cooked on a spit, each one brought out to you within moments, loaded on to a warm corn tortilla. It's glorious, trouncing any late-night British kebab I've ever tasted. And Faraó* delivers into the early hours of the morning.

Mexico City also has a plentiful range of Italian, Argentinian and Japanese restaurants – some of exceptional standard. However, what will become my most memorable experience is a more traditional one at San Angel Inn towards the south of the city. Set in a 17th-century hacienda with beautiful gardens and many themed dining rooms, this former Carmelite monastery blends classic Mexican cooking with high-end nouvelle cuisine. Here, I have spicy chicken covered in a dark, rich mole negro sauce, with Mexican rice – a distinctive dish full of the fragrance and flavour of cumin, cloves and tomatoes.

One novelty is the man with a canary in a small cage; he opens the little gate, at which signal the bird dips its beak into one of several pots, retrieves a folded note and, with a peck, places it in my hand. This is the ritual of Mexican fortune-telling, often seen on Sundays in traditional restaurants.

Another traditional facet of Mexico City is Xochimilco on the DF's southernmost fringe. This network of canals is one of the last vestiges of the great lake that originally bore the island city. It's a glimpse of what could have been – a Venice or Amsterdam for the Americas. The Spanish destroyed most of it, and since the 17th century nearly all of the water has been drained and the lake built over.

I'm not expecting the picture that leaps before me when I arrive: a long row of boats (trajineras) lining the dock as though rescued from a distant past. I climb aboard one (trips cost from 200 pesos/£10) and spend several hours slowly meandering the waterways, canopied by lush vegetation, the sun beating down on me and gleaming off the water as I eat and drink.

For the first time during my stay I try tequila. Only tequila that says "100 per cent agave" – purely culled from the agave plant – on the bottle will satisfy the Mexican palate. You don't drink it with that salt-licking, "down-it" ritual, either: you take a half piece of lime – the local version is very small, about apricot-sized – cover generously in salt, squeeze into your mouth, and have a sip from your tumbler. It's sharp, but very good.

For a few pesos more you can even ask one of the boats full of traditionally dressed mariachis – they suddenly make sense in this setting – to stop alongside yours and serenade you.

Travel essentials: Mexico City

Getting there

* Mexico City is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow.

Staying there

* Condesa DF, Avenida Veracruz 102 (00 52 55 5282 2199; condesadf.com). Doubles from US$180 (£120), room only.

Eating there

* Restaurant El Faraó* Taquería, Oaxaca 93 (00 52 55 142 214).

* San Angel Inn, Diego Rivera 50 y Altavista (00 52 55 5616 1402; sanangelinn.com).

More information

* Mexican Tourism Board (020-7488 9392; visitmexico.com).

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