In Mexico City everyone lives on Surreal Street

Tom Vanderbilt falls for the seductive city where the taxi drivers have taken a vow of honesty

"Open your streets this city of Mexico, like the arms of a new lover," begins a work by the Mexican poet Jaime Sabines that currently adorns a number of cars in the city's metro system. Sabines need not worry: as the world's largest city, Mexico makes a fairly promiscuous companion, and the problem is not so much getting the streets to open up as to prevent them from absorbing everything that comes their way. Their fantastic capacity is immediately apparent on a walk from the west end of the Alameda, the city's garden-like downtown park, to the zocolo, the vast central plaza that dwarfs all others save Red Square. The first thing one notices are the ambulantes, the roving street vendors - hawking everything from pistachios to rolls of tape - that blossomed further after the last peso devaluation (and are currently the object of much political handwringing). Then there are the slightly more stationary food vendors, teeming on every corner, whose kerosene-fueled stoves cook tortillas inches from passing pedestrians; the fire-breathing performers wandering precariously on slim traffic islands and the ragged dogs lining the sidewalks; the desperately embraced teenage couples strolling in the park and the shotgun-toting security guards looming outside tiny shops; and, finally, reaching the zocolo, a quasi-permanent shanty town of indigenous peasants seeking rights, and tribal dancers seeking tips from tourists. There seemingly is nothing that can't happen on Mexico City's streets.

As with any new lover, a tinge of suspicion underlies the freshness and adventure. This piqued me immediately on a recent trip, after hailing one of the "official" cabs that lurk in the nether reaches of the airport. When I asked to go to my usual hotel, the Carlton, the driver declared that that would be impossible, given that a "Zapatista demonstration" had made the area unsafe and unnavigable. He politely suggested another - to which I demurred having never heard of the place. After some negotiation I found suitable lodgings in the Zona Rosa. The next day, checking into the Carlton, I learned there had been no such problems; the Alameda, furthermore, plays host virtually every day to a political demonstration of one stripe or another. A recent well-publicised string of robberies in fake taxis had me alerted for drivers lacking licences (which many, even the honest ones, don't have), but I found the only crimes committed in taxis were subtle and relatively inexpensive ones involving creative fare systems. The taxistas, most of whom are very honest, have been so stung by the criticism that a new campaign has them brandishing banners saying, in English and Spanish: "Honesty Is My Flag."

I had in mind to foray into the city's legendary dancehalls and nightclubs, from which pulse the intermingled rhythms of salsa, rumba and danzon, among others. Before I could even get there, though, I was struck by how much music came off the very streets. The most ostentations ambulantes are the tape vendors, who seem convinced, broadcasting samples of their wares, that distortion is manna from Heaven. A current hit by Enrique Iglesias (the son of Julio), "Enamorado por la Primera Vez," a breathy and cloying ballad, was as ubiquitous as state propaganda, while scores of hyperkinetic salsa songs seemed to set time for the "volkschicos" (what Americans called "Bug") that barrel by at impossible speeds. Also striking was how the social interaction, which was at once everywhere, was itself an elaborate, if unplanned, kind of dance. From my window at the Carlton (Ignacio Marsical no 32) looking out into the modest park at the back of the rarely visited Museum of San Carlos, I could watch the life of a neighbourhood unfold, which meant everything from workers from the nearby newspaper plants folding Sunday editions to several local prostitutes slipping off the corner as the policia cruised by to the steam-powered whistle of a five o'clock food vendor. This unsolicited pageantry is the real grace of Mexico City, an impression that burns after the monuments and the strolling mariachi (street musicians) have faded, and one that subdues the toll the city's altitude, air, and pacing can exact. The Cafe La Habana, at the corner of Bucareli and Morelos, is a favourite of journalists and the ideal place to sit over cafe con leche and watch the proceedings; the roof of the Hotel Majestic, meanwhile, provides a grander panorama of the zocolo, where one can sit and listen to protest songs trickle up, try to spot kites (flown from the square) high up in the smog-glazed skies, and watch the crowd recede as the military marches out of the Palacio del Gobierno to lower the flag every day at 6pm. Linger long enough in these settings, and you'll witness truly strange occurrences. "In Mexico," Gabriel Garcia Marquez has observed, "surrealism runs through the streets" (ironically, the Palacio de Bellas Artes was hosting a show about Bunuel and the other surrealists).

It is satisfying, however, to watch all this movement and sound put into something orchestrated, and here Mexico City's scores of salones de baile, salseros, and discos serve as either bastions of tradition or the entry points for the latest import. Some glitter briefly in the eye of the city's nightlife and then perish, others hang on defiantly like lighthouses on a rocky promontory. One could go to three a night for a week and still have only touched the surface, which is another fact of Mexico City: its sheer size. Many of the clubs are in working-class areas blocks beyond the historic centre that are hardly frequented by tourists; yet farther out still are wealthier colonias or the vast shantytowns that ring the exterior and are referred to as "the lost city". These latter areas aren't served readily by public transport, and are invisible to those tourists who arrive by plane (taking one of the rumbling old Pullman train cars out of the city is one way to view this other side of the city; where the corrugated-roofed shacks of shanties stretch right to the rail bed).

The most interesting salon in the city is La Colonia (Manuel Flores 33), about 10 minutes by cab from the Palacio de Bellas Artes in a heavily working-class area (the metro stop is called, in Spanish, "worker"). Opened in 1922, La Colonia's speciality is danzon, a distant derivative of the European contradense that arrived via Cuba (later evolving into the cha- cha-cha). It's the sort of place one imagines to have vanished sometime quite soon after the war years, and in Mexico City, most have. On a Sunday night, the Colonia was filled with elegantly dressed couples, none under 30 and most over 50, who danced on the main floors and even in the narrow balconies to either side. Over one stage is a figure of a grotesquely grinning black man, meant to signify the Afro-Caribbean connection of the music, while over a second stage loomed a giant pink-and-gold conch shell. As soon as one danzon orchestra had finished, another band picked up immediately on the other stage. Like the dancers, who move in the danzon's small, measured steps under tracks of fluorescent lighting, the immense Colonia manages a faded, elegant dignity, its pink walls and gold harp cornices struggling to hold all the fluorescent light. The danzon is deceivingly intricate, and oddly enough the dancers stop during the verses to applaud and fan themselves. It's almost more rewarding to watch, nursing a cuba blanco in a plastic cup from the sidelines and taking in the spectacle. The recently opened Salon Mexico (Pensador Mexicano 11), located behind the Franz Mayer Museum a block north of the Alameda, combines a bit of nostaglia for places like the Colonia and, since it is housed in a former factory, the industrial feel favoured by new dance clubs. It is more upscale than the typical salones, reflected in the higher admission price (about $3.50) and its hordes of waiters, dressed as conductors, who would materialise out of the shadows to light a patron's cigarette.

Another old favourite is the Salon Los Angeles (Lerdo 203), founded in 1937, which also hosts danzon but tends towards more salsa and other musica tropical. It's also a working-class area, somewhat west of the Plaza Garabaldi (home of the mariachi,) and my taxista advised the neighbourhood was itself somewhat of a "lost city". The only trouble I encountered, however, was trying to match my feet to the heavily syncopated beats of La Sonora Dinamita, a popular local outfit with brass, keyboards and percussion including the guari, a gourd that is scraped to provide percussion. The Los Angeles is even more vast than the Colonia (and even cheaper at roughly $1 to enter), with some 800 people dancing on the wooden floors, which would sag slightly as they made their way across them. Seeing that my companion and I were having trouble adapting to the rhythm, a piano teacher named Mario proffered an impromptu salsa lesson, in which he indicated that the secret to the dance was in the hips and shoulders - and these need somehow to move without the rest of the body following it.

The grand old ballrooms are few, but there has been a profusion of dance clubs in the past few years offering the faster beats of cumbia, originated from Colombia, and merengue, from the Dominican Republic (both of which have been given particular inflections in Mexico). Arriving at these clubs, one feels as if one has accidentally stumbled in at a state dinner. Nearly half-a-dozen men in impeccable suits line the doorway, and after some consultation one is let in - only to be met by more small groups of men in suits whose eyes dart around the clubs as if expecting a security infraction. One of the newest and most popular clubs is El Salon Tropicoso (where the streets Niza and Paseo de la Reforma intersect), located in the disco- heavy Zona Rosa. There, I saw a band called La Unica Sonora play popular cumbias such as "Los Caminos de la Vida," punctuated by the usual hearty shouts of "sabroso!" and "rico!". Nearby, on Puebla 190 and 191, sit, cheek by jowl, the disco-like salsa club Mocambo, and 40/40, whose name alludes to the band of Dominican merengue superstar Juan Luis Guerra. Coming out of the former club well after midnight on a Saturday, greeted by the usual rhythm of the streets, I was reminded of another line in the poem by Sabines: "You are here and it is yours. Possess it." That's a quixotic quest in a place like Mexico City, but what lends such a difficult city its enduring appeal is that it is willing to let you try.

FACT FILE

Getting there

Trailfinder's best deal at present is pounds 385 + pounds 25 tax on Lufthansa, valid up to mid-June. In July and August prices will be about pounds 50 higher. Journey Latin America can arrange a one week's package to Mexico City, with flights on British Airways and accommodation in the central three star Regente Hotel, for pounds 800.

Accommodation

A huge range, but some old world highlights include the Gran Hotel (owned by Howard Johnsons) on 16 de Septiembre, no. 82 (Tel 5104040) which has a great art nouveau lobby, and the Majestic on Madero no. 73 (Tel: 5218600), a neo-colonial hotel with a great location on Zcalo.

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