Mexico City, the next big thing? Lance Richardson thinks so as he throws himself into a megalopolis that follows its own chaotic beat.
There are dozens of tables, hundreds of patrons rolling tortillas with their fingers. A waitress walks past wearing a cross between a nurse's uniform and technicolour kite. Over the toilet is a painting by Orozco, the famous Mexican muralist. And upstairs, in the grand ballroom, are more tables, more tortillas.
The Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) is a rambling mess and ever since they turned it into a restaurant it is packed nightly with the ravenous crowds of Mexico City. Nobody seems to mind the peculiar tendency of breadsticks to roll off the table and across the floor. That the whole building lurches, creating an uncanny sense of vertigo during the main course, is nothing remarkable. Mexico City was built on a lake, they tell me; structural problems are sins of the fathers.
They also tell me to try the enchiladas.
"These great towns and cues and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision," Bernal Diaz wrote of the Spaniards' first sight of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.
That was 1519; a different world. Reality today is a far cry from Montezuma's capital. Yet the seemingly infinite sprawl of Mexico City conceals more than just infamous urban decay and influenza outbreaks. Reputations are hard to shake but they're rarely the entire picture - or even deserved.
Mexico City is messy and seductive, a place of extremes saddled side by side. For every official piece stamped for export, there's an underbelly, something just outside the frame. In the mornings, I sit on the seventh floor of Sears department store with its cafe terrace overlooking the Bella Artes courtyard. The theatre itself is enormous, housing famous operas under decadent art deco chandeliers on a nightly basis. Yet just across the road - a small turn of the head - unruly markets bulge in a continuous wave that crashes against the perfectly manicured courtyard gardens. DVDs, toffee apples, tacos; photos of Emiliano Zapata, hero of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, hero of the people.
Messy and seductive but also, after swine flu took its considerable toll, the next big thing. Lonely Planet has called Mexico one of the best-value destinations of 2010 because of slashed prices and the strength of the dollar. Tourism is making a big comeback: I struggle across the country against hotels that are increasingly booked out. Mexico City is no different, with travellers attracted by the world-class museums, fusion restaurants, the promise of something a little less mainstream where almost anything can happen. The ordered rules that structure Sydney and New York, London, Paris, reach a limit here and then the lines are blurred.
The most densely populated city in the world, home to high-rises, banks and palaces, also hosts slums and an exchange of goods well outside any formal system of regulation. The result is dangerous, yes - don't go to Tepito Market, day or night. But it's also, on the other hand, profoundly sexy. A sense of life lived to a thousand different songs, in direct defiance of any official anthem that would have every person dance to the same packaged tune on command.
Travellers come for the pyramids and mariachi music. What they find is a people making the most of the little they have, happy to share but also fiercely defensive of who they are and their right to decide that for themselves.
This thought occurs to me in the presidential palace called the Palacio Nacional. I enter from the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square and hub of tourist activity. A flash of the passport, bag check, squirt from a giant bottle of antiseptic gel to kill the H1N1 virus (no swine flu here). Then, once inside, soldiers patrol the colonnades with enormous machine guns cocked and ready. Rivera's famous mural chronicling Mexican history from myth to early-20th century adorns a staircase wall, telling you what to think. A botanical garden - all cactuses - adds to a carefully tended image of "Mexicanness".
Yet, standing in the inner courtyard beneath the massive flag, I watch a stray cat wandering across the scene. Right there, under the nose of El Presidente, the cat doesn't care how many guns the soldiers carry or what the official line is. It just does its own thing and if you don't like it, well …
Once I come to see the city in this light, its impossible traffic jams and exhaust fumes fade into the background. By the third day the chaos takes on a tenor that's liberating, an adventure among people remaking the world in their own image, in spite of the sanitised one of colourful sombreros in all the AeroMexico advertisements.
Later that day I follow an old lady carrying balloons into the city park, the Bosque de Chapultepec, past carnival rides and a procession of formidable museums. The one I'm looking for - Anthropology - is framed by street vendors displaying tacos and sliced papaya covered with chilli powder. Children bathe in fountains or try to sell you gum. I want my fix of culture, that momentary glimpse of the Aztec dream through the eyes of Diaz before the city started sinking under the weight of a thousand competing ideas.
The National Anthropology Museum is one of the best in the world and, truth be told, you haven't seen Mexico until you've walked its galleries looking for the Sunstone, that famous Aztec sculpture often mistaken for a calendar. The museum offers English audio guides and, under their tutelage, history opens up like an elaborate gift. Masks and costumes crowd around imposing statues. Coatlicue, Aztec mother of the gods, stares down from her dais. Her daughter stabbed her, the guide mentions casually, just as she was giving birth to a son who promptly cut his sister into pieces as revenge. The statue looks unamused.
Eventually I retire to the Red Tree House in the heart of Colonia Condesa. More a guest mansion than hotel, the Red Tree House is presided over by Abril, golden retriever and assistant concierge. My room is small but well-appointed, with skylit shower and papier mache mascot cow on the bedside table. Everything is carefully arranged, in stark contrast to the apparently arbitrary arrangement of life outside. It's also staggeringly affordable, yet another example of why tourists are coming to Mexico to get what is elsewhere financially out of reach. The same hotel in Los Angeles would cost four times as much.
Finally descending from siesta, the owner slides a glass of wine into my hand and introduces me to other guests who hold on to the furniture as though they're afraid of being asked to leave. Nobody wants to leave. It's like Hotel California, in Mexico.
But there's another side to the city that demands to be seen. I step into a night of drinking holes and dance clubs, many clumped together in dense strips that spill patrons on to the sidewalk in miniature street-parties. Condesa and neighbouring Roma are home to shops and galleries by day. By night, the focus is bohemian haunts and "mescal" bars, a spirit best taken with sliced orange and a careful count on the number of glasses being emptied.
After a shot at the Mezito Lounge I bypass Living, which, despite the fame and international DJs, is overpriced. A better bet is one of numerous places in Zona Rosa. In La Botica, chic, oh-so-cool decor is perverted by a karaoke couple deliberately satirising the entire catalogue of Grease. I shoot mescal over a glass counter like a jewellery store, except the cases are full of G.I. Joes and Smurfs.
These bars match anything offered in Sydney or Melbourne. The idea of dank, dangerous cantinas full of spittoons and machismo evaporates in an instant, a stereotype as hollow as "shrimp on the barbie". What you get is surprising and cheeky nightlife, cheap drinks and international heads bobbing alongside the Mexicans. The music pumps till the early hours and it's easy to see why the girl from Wisconsin who shouts us all a round has migrated south for the winter. You barely need a jacket at all.
The next day, in recovery, I trek to Xochimilco, 28 kilometres to the south and home to extensive canals predating the arrival of the Spaniards.
My final foray before my flight home is a last ditch effort to see the Aztec past, as romantic and unreal as it may be in the guidebooks. Hundreds of brightly painted long boats called trajineras vie for space as Mexicans laugh aboard in endless fiesta. Collisions are routine; a woman peddling corn from her canoe almost disappears beneath a bow. Dolls hang in the trees along the bank, strung up by witches. Everyone drinks, everyone sings to the strum of the guitar. No, it's not Aztec. But like everything else in Mexico City, it's wild and confronting, often weird, sometimes unnerving. Always original. Always alive.
Flights to Mexico City run routinely from Los Angeles on a number of airlines, including Mexican carriers AeroMexico and Mexicana.
WHERE TO STAY
Recommended neighbourhoods (colonias) are Condesa, Roma, Cuauhtamoc and Coyoacan. The Centro Historico has many hotels but lacks charm in the evenings.
The Red Tree House in Colonia Condesa has rooms starting from $US55 ($60) a night.
Mexico City is well serviced by a fast and cheap Metro system. Taxis are also in abundance, though travellers are encouraged to agree on prices before a journey and ensure the taxi is an authorised carrier.
THINGS TO SEE
The Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) is 4 Calle Madero in the Centro Historico. It serves food from 7am until 1am. The closest Metro station is Bella Artes.
The Palacio de Bella Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is on Avenida Juarez. For a calendar of exhibitions and performances see www.bellasartes.gob.mx.
The Palacio Nacional (National Palace) fills the entire east side of the Zocalo in Centro Historico. It is open daily and passport ID is required for entry (free).
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Anthropology Museum) is on Paseo de la Reforma in the city "forest" (bosque). See mna.inah.gob.mx.
To reach Xochimilco, take the Metro to Tasquena, then continue on the light rail until the last stop. Follow Avenida Morelos to the market.
Most recommended bars and nightclubs are in Condesa, Zona Rosa and Colonia Roma. Mestizo Lounge in Roma is at Chihuahua 121. La Botica is at Alfonso Reyes 120 in Zona Rosa, with other branches in Condesa (Campeche 396) and Roma (Orizaba 161).
For clubbing news, pick up flyers at Condesa's Malafama billiard hall on Avenida Michoacanth 78.