Jan 4, 2020

Up Close and Personal in Mexico City

Global Greeter Oskar Sandoval

MEXICO CITY - Leaving our hotel on a busy Monday holiday, my husband, Tom and I, walk a few blocks to a museum where we look for a statue of a Spanish king on a horse. It's here where we are to meet Oskar Sandoval,  22, a volunteer with Mexico City Greeters.

We spend the next five hours together, walking, chatting about everything from immigration to homelessness, sampling ice cream, and marveling at the art deco architecture in a 19th century neighborhood of Tabacalera, named for a cigarette factory that now houses an art museum. 

Fast-forward to dinner later that evening. An Uber driver drops us off at the home of Roberto Escoto and Cristina Unna. They are members of eatwith.com, a website that follows the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals worldwide - not with a room but with a shared meal in their home.

Gathered for an eatwith dinner with Cristina, Luz and Roberto

We're together for the next three hours as we eat and talk about life in the United States and Mexico. The next morning, we become Facebook friends.

It would be easy to feel lost in a city the size of Mexico City. With more than 20 million people, the metropolitan area vies only with Sao Paulo, Brazil as the most populous in Latin America. You arrive as a stranger, but with a few well-planned local connections, you don't have to feel like one. 

Three suggestions for an up close and personal visit:   

Sign up with a Global Greeter

We found Oskar through the Global Greeters Network, an organization with volunteers in more than 200 destinations worldwide. The greeters aren't tour guides, and don't accept tips. Rather they focus on special places that have a personal meaning to them, often hidden treasures away from the usual tourist sites.

Oskar and I began e-mailing and texting on WhatsApp a week before we left Seattle.
When he mentioned that two of Mexico City's largest newspapers were headquartered in Tabacalera, and that an old-time ice cream shop still made tobacco-flavored ice cream, I was all in.

Oskar studied English in Vancouver, B.C., and earned his degree in history from a public university where tuition is free for those who qualify. In between his volunteer gig with Mexico City Greeters, he does research at a botanical gardens as part the mandatory public service the university requires of graduates.

Revolution monument in Tabacalera

Former cigarette factory, now an art museum

We walked by the newspaper offices, the old tobacco factory, and the Monument to the Revolution, an arched observation tower built around the remains of a palace planned for Porfirio Díaz, Mexico's president for 30 years until he was deposed.  

Oskar and me with tobacco-flavored ice cream

Over a dish of the tobacco-flavored ice cream (surprisingly tasty with maple syrup and strawberries) at La Especial de Paris, in business since 1921, Oskar explained his reason for volunteering his as a greeter.

"When people ask me if Mexico is a dangerous country, I say 'yes it is,' but it's not all of the country. Mexico City is one of the safest places to be. I want people to feel like they can walk around the city without any problems." 

Eat with a local

We've shared dinner and conversation with home cooks in France, Italy and Spain through the meal-sharing website eatwith.com. So I was delighted to come across good reviews for the "Celebrating Mexico" four-course dinner Roberto Escoto and Cristina Unna offer in their home, about a 40-minute Uber ride from the historical center.

With the fee arranged through Eatwith in advance ($48 per person), we felt more like friends invited over for the evening rather than paying guests. 

The couple welcomed us into a cozy living room filled with art, antiques and shelves lined with record albums, CDs and books. 

Roberto, 62, works in recycling and Cristina, 60, runs a cultural center. Both are devoted amateur cooks known to throw Paella dinners for 50, and stage pop-up dinners in Chicago when visiting their daughter.

Robert Escoto

Roberto mixed Margaritas as we chatted with Cristina and their friend Luz, visiting from Cuernavaca. After some get-to-know-you conversation, Cristina and Roberto went to the kitchen, put on aprons and reappeared a few minutes later with platters of quesadillas stuffed with zucchini flowers and mini tortillas filled with refried beans topped with pork and  salsa. 

Cristina Unna serves her tomatillo soup

Dinner began with a soup made from green tomatillos, followed by Chiles en Nogada, CQ a Mexican national dish featuring a Poblano pepper filled with minced pork and a mix of fruit and spices covered with a creamy walnut sauce.

In her spare time, Cristina makes fruitcakes - 100 every year which she sells around the holidays. We toasted our new friendship by sharing the first slices of the season. 
When it came time for us to go, she wrapped up a few pieces us to take home, along with a bag of her homemade granola.  

Sleep mindfully 

Many Americans head to hotels in the Zona Rosa, an area known for its shopping and nightlife. Scruffier but more authentically Mexican is the Centro Historico, a 34-block area, home to some of the city's most elaborate historic monuments, former palaces, traditional restaurants and museums. 

A few years ago, I might not have considered staying in Centro, but things have changed, thanks to young entrepreneurs such as David Marino.  He and his mother, Rosalie, own  Chillout Flats, an urban bed and breakfast in a residential building surrounded by bakeries, cafes and chic restaurants.

David Marino talks with guests at Chillout Flats

Over a breakfast of watermelon juice, fresh fruit and eggs, we met guests from Peru, France and other parts of Mexico. David and Rosalie shared tips for getting around, and pointed out their favorite spots for a meal.

Just around the corner was the 1912 Cafe de Tacuba where mariachis serenade diners enjoying traditional dishes in a dining room decorated with colorful tiles, stained glass and murals.Down the street was Rosalie's favorite, the Cafe La Pagoda where locals line up for bargain breakfasts such as the $3 plates of huevos divorciados -  eggs "separated" by their salsas, one a fiery red, the other a jealous green.  

If you go:


Apart from the metro system, Uber is the best way to get around the city. Fares are inexpensive, but vary with the time of day. Most locals use WhatsApp to communicate via text message. 

Making connections: 

*Book a lunch or dinner through eatwith.com Enter your destination, the dates you are available and the number of people in your party. Select from regularly-scheduled meals, or click on "show experiences available on request." This is how we found our hosts, Cristina and Roberto. Most reservations can be cancelled within 24-48 hours at no charge. Payment is made online through eatwith.com.

*Arrange for a volunteer greeter through the Global Greeter Network or Mexico City Greeters Greeters don't accept tips, but it's nice to offer to pay for coffee, lunch or a drink. The organization accepts donations through its website. 

*Sleep in a bed and breakfast, or an Airbnb, provided it's a room in someone's actual home as opposed to a commercial apartment. The family-run Chillout Flats, is an eight-room bed and breakfast run by David Marino and his mother, Rosalie, on the upper floors of a classic building in the historical center. We paid $65 per night for a large suite, with private bathroom and breakfast.  

*Ask your friends if they know anyone studying or working in Mexico City.  We had dinner our first night with an American friend of a friend who teaches English. He and his Mexican girlfriend met us for dinner, and introduced us to what became our favorite drink - pulque - made from the fermented sap of the Agave plant.

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on January 19, 2020

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