Archive for March 20th, 2010


Fifteen years ago, I traveled to Mexico City as a jumping off point for my first genuine “on location” television commercial shoot.  I vividly recall our night-time flight into Mexico City:  it is  one of the most populous cities in the world, and  it seemed to go on forever, hills undulating with sparkling lights,  like an endless golden lame gown,.  We only stayed long enough to get the crew together, so I did not see anything more than the inside of a hotel room. (A business travel tale that many of you will recognize). 

Over the years, there never seemed to be reason enough to go back, and reports of random violence, swathes of slums and seriously poor air quality did not entice. But since I was on my way to the very pretty colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, it seemed  a good opportunity to spend a few days exploring the capital of Mexico.  

I was there for four days in February, and am  here today on my way back to Toronto. I can say in all sincerity, that it has been a delightful experience. Even if my expectations were much higher, I would still be pleased. No trace of the dreaded smog:  the skies are uniformly blue, the temperature a comfortable 20 during the day. The traffic is very heavy, but the cars respect pedestrians and as long as you observe the same care that you would in any major city, say New York or Paris, you are very secure. 

In fact you may even be safer than in other major cities:   there appears to be 5 or 6 armed private security guards on every block, and police and private security cars dominate the streets. Outside every fine restaurant, serious men in dark suits congregate, waiting for their patrons to exit.  It actually becomes a little difficult to navigate the sidewalks, with all the bulky SUV’s with black out glass parked close by. Private drivers and body guards abound, and I think it is a bit of a status symbol (not unlike in LA) to have a security entourage. 

The city began to charm me when I watched a lovely young women carefully make my café con leche and present it with a delicate flower stenciled on the cream.  Mexico City is not as elegant or as self-conscious as Barcelona, another outstanding Latin city.  But it does have that wonderful mix of ancient, old and modern that appeals to the urban explorer. 

The architecture is an eclectic mixture of nineteenth century interpretations of Spanish colonial, mid-century modern and truly outstanding leading edge design. It feels warm, edgy, exciting and familiar all at the same time. The city is constantly rebuilding itself, and in the process, it continues to discover major pieces of Aztec construction, razed by the conquistadors’ centuries ago. The atmosphere is vibrant, energetic, positive and modern.

For my first stop in February, I was situated in Polanco,  the equivalent of Fifth Avenue, or Rodeo Drive;  lots of Gucci and Armani to be found. Many beautiful women wander around, expensively dressed. Or is that expensive women ,  beautifully dressed? I guess it depends on who is paying the black American Express Card bill. American Express is well accepted here;  another sign that this is not your stereotypical cheap Mexican holiday destination. 

The city is really all about business, with a Latin accent. Every coffee shop is filled with groups of earnest men and women, congregating around lap tops, reviewing plans and negotiating deals. Business lunches are long drawn out affairs, usually ending way past four pm. Given that dinner is rarely before 9, this makes perfect sense.   Mexican business people  here seem to be less addicted to their cell phones and blackberries. They appear to prefer to talk to each other in person, over coffee, wine or just walking down the street. 

My one regret is that I have had mostly mediocre meals here, which is a shame in a city so food obsessed. Unfortunately, when you are eating alone, you don’t want a formal experience every day, nor are you willing to risk   your health at a roadside stand.  So I seek casual resto-bars which serve small tapas style portions,  allowing me to sample a broader variety of food.   Sadly many of the restaurants nearby my trendy hotel are really just up market bars, frequented by chain-smoking, elegantly thin women (a coincidence, I think not) So the food is not the main event.

 However, I did have one outstanding lunch at a local hangout. One of the city’s favourite dishes is “pastor”;  slightly spicy marinated pork that is slowly grilled much like a gyro, and served with small maize tortillas and five different and delicious salsas. The flavours were clear, bright and sharp.  If I could, I would leave all of my clothes and stuff the suitcases with jars of these incredible salsas and moles!  

Since few gringos tourists actually do come to Mexico City,  I am afraid that the infrastructure is not as well-developed as in most Western or even Eastern cities. There is one tour bus, that gives you a three-hour orientation to the city, but that’s about it.  I could not find a walking tour, or a cooking class, or casual Spanish lessons. The hotels can arrange tours of course, but I found most of them wanted to get you out of the city, not deeper into it.   

But since this is the capital of the country, there are many wonderful museums and galleries to explore. The Museum of Anthropology is truly one of the best in the world, offering an exhaustive history of early man, and of course,  of the diverse, rich civilizations that contribute to current Mexican culture. You could easily spend 3 hours there. Afterwards, you can continue your immersion in Mexico culture at the Museum of Contemporary Art which is just down the paseo.   

As I sit in my lovely hotel room (The Four Seasons proudly hangs a huge Canadian flag outside its grand entrance:  how can you not love that?), I am contemplating the stunning Jacaranda trees in full bloom. Washington DC in spring is famous for the glorious pink cherry blossoms that ring the Jefferson Memorial.  Mexico City in spring is awash in purple flowers on a canopy of huge trees that bloom up and down the major avenues and then carpet the city in mauve petals.  It is a lovely memory to keep of a city that has been so much more than I expected, and definitely not at all what I may have thought.

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In my first post, I tried to articulate what I felt made San Miguel de Allende so compelling to visitors.  There are many stories of people who planned on only staying for a week or two, and end up buying a home on impulse within a few days.  New friends from Connecticut did that in my last week there:  we celebrated their purchase of a “tear down” with drinks on a roof top terrace, toasting their new venture and the stunning San Miguel sunset. 

 As I said earlier, there is something for everyone in San Miguel. You can explore your latent creative ability with fine art lessons, seek spiritual enlightenment at an Empowerment Centre, watch fabulous, sexy flamenco at the local theatre, or expand your mind with lectures on Dante’s Inferno.  The option of spending your days recovering from the night before is a popular choice too! Actually, there are so many restaurants and bars with live music, filled with folks eagerly practicing their dance steps, you would have to be pretty much a curmudgeon not to enjoy yourself. (And if that is the case, don’t come! Please.) 

Or, you can join a number of strong, independent women in San Miguel, and open your own business. I spent my month in SMA at Casa Linda, a boutique hotel done in an extravagant colonial style, owned and operated by a Texan, Linda McLaughlin.  There are a lot of Texans here, and they bring their warm, big-hearted attitude to the place. (I like the contrast with the more earth mother bohemian women of a certain age that choose to retire here) There are over 100 hotels and B&B’s here, so I could have been more nomadic, which is what I normally do to “try out” a new city. (For example, in Bangkok, I moved between three boutique hotels in 5 days, just to see the difference in value for dollar. For future reference, the winner was the magnificent Sukhothai.) 

But here, I was upgraded to a suite, and frankly, I welcomed the chance to practice Spanish with the staff, and spend my morning coffee with Linda when she was available. I even got the point where I would just go to the kitchen door to order breakfast. As the manager said, I became family. 

Linda came to SMA 16 years ago, by way of small town, working class Texas, a high school marriage, which led  to Dallas, New York, Philadelphia and L.A. (I may have omitted a few spots, but you get the sense of a  busy life, filled with her children, a demanding career of her own and an ex husband with a big job in the oil industry) Her first stay here was for 6 months, in honor of her deceased brother, who had loved Mexico. She had no aspirations to be an inn keeper, and in fact her first venture was a jazz bar, restaurant, art gallery mélange. Doing business here can be challenging because the working culture is so different from our own. The tax structure is pretty straightforward and there are no mortgages, so cash talks. As a foreigner, you cannot work here if it means taking jobs from Mexican citizens, but you can certainly invest. 

So she did, jumping right into the deep end of the pool, by renovating a 400 year old meson into a modern boutique hotel with 8 unique decorated rooms & suites, a pool, Jacuzzi, gym, restaurant and an extremely popular roof top bar, aptly named, The Sunset Bar. In fact, I met almost all the people I now enjoy as friends sitting on that terrace, watching the lights come up on the churches and in the hills beyond.   

Linda credits her eight successful years here to her wish to make people comfortable, to make them happy with their stay in SMA and at her hotel. Anyone who has ever touched the service business knows that sounds a lot easier than it does. She has been described as the perfect hostess, a slim blonde with a dazzling, welcoming smile, who works the room to make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves, as much as she obviously is. I think that she also has a generous heart:  one of my first events in SMA was a chili tasting contest which was also a  fundraiser,  spearheaded by Linda and two friends, for a local school for kids in need. When I saw her a few mornings after the event, she was going off to see the accountant to see “how much money they had raised for the kids”.  

Her ”Next Big Thing” is to help others face  the challenges of getting old and still have  a wonderful life. She is looking at a venture which will be retirement residence that has a huge fun factor built-in:  could this be the Club Med for Seniors that I referenced earlier? She sees it as a natural extension of being an innkeeper, but it also an expression of her genuine caring for others.

I wanted to profile more of these strong successful women in San Miguel, but I ran out of time. Or perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to go back?

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