Each holiday season in Mérida, I look for an escape before the deluge of tourists descend upon our fair city. As an innkeeper, I welcome the visitors with open arms. In fact, we celebrate the season with festive decorations, multi-course meals, and the occasional happy hour with fellow expats and our newfound friends.
This year, more than ever, with the world’s political climate, the warmongering on at least three continents, and the looming plight of global climate change, I wonder when it will all end.
Luckily for residents of Mérida, a diversion is only about an hour and a half away by air if you hit the stratosphere on a good day. Mexico City, the capital of this wonderful and diverse country, is waiting to be absorbed during the holidays. Keep in mind that with an area larger than New York City and a population of nearly 22 million, it may take several holiday seasons to take it all in.
Just the approach into the city by air takes several minutes, and the view from the window is forever changing, as are the flight patterns. With that many residents, the airport can be a snarly mess and overwhelming for a passenger, let alone the poor pilot navigating through the congestion. Deep breaths and a prayer for a successful landing always work for me.
Prayers are a funny thing. They can be useful during times of unrest and then often overlooked when it’s smooth sailing. Mexico City itself is a prayer personified, with the ever-presence of the Catholic Church everywhere. There is not a neighborhood in the city where you cannot find a colonial-era church, and I lost count after 100. With 16 municipalities, one can get lost in the grandeur of the architecture that runs from Baroque to Neoclassical and back to Gothic. There is something for everyone to look at, even the non-believers.
One of these magnificent structures that first caught my eye back in 1984, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is located on a nearby hill on the city’s outskirts and is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Contrary to popular belief, the First Lady of Mexico is not Frida Kahlo but Saint Mary. Upwards of 20 million pilgrims visit the shrine each year, of whom nearly half pay homage around the time she is celebrated on Dec. 12, so what better time to seek a spiritual intervention than during the largest Marian pilgrimage in the world?
I have always been fascinated by the visitation of the Blessed Virgin, from France to Ireland to Portugal. I have been moved by the sheer presence of this social and cultural occurrence, which some might call a miracle.
It all started in the 16th century, over 450 years ago, when a Chichimec peasant named Juan Diego experienced a supernatural phenomenon on four occasions in December 1531. The small pueblo of Tepeyac is on a hill northwest of the capital city. There, Juan Diego witnessed the apparitions of Mary; these encounters would forever change his life and the Catholic faith worldwide.
For centuries, pilgrims have sought spiritual guidance and perhaps their own personal apparition at the basilica. They gaze upon the Aztec Tilma that Diego wore, the main attraction after the sheer impressive size of this holy site. The ancient garment that he wore has defied all odds of decay. That is where the image of the Blessed Virgin was miraculously embedded into it during the sightings. It continues to have a glowing effect and is displayed high above with a moving walkway below, which is, incidentally, under the main altar of the Basilica that can accommodate 10,000 parishioners for a mass.
I asked myself, how can this many people be wrong? There must be something to all this, so I ventured there again to take it all in. The pageantry of this historical event is only outdone by the architecture and art displayed throughout the various chapels, churches, and museums. Sitting quietly, I pondered the hopefulness for my own spiritual escort to come to me and guide me. The pure, calming energy I felt was a welcome respite from the world’s mayhem. Perhaps that was all I needed.
Visiting this mile-high city during the holidays can feed your soul for some spiritual enlightenment and nourish your craving for any type of food you cannot get in Mérida. My first choice is always a churro and a cup of hot cocoa. Nothing says Christmas like a stop at the original El Moro Churreria in the historic center near the Zocalo.
Established in 1935, this is the place for authentic churros. You can smell them a block away and watch the cooks through the window as they fry the sweet dough into rings of golden-brown delights, a spiritual awakening for a sweet tooth you didn’t know existed. Upon entering, the blue and white uniformed servers, who have all no doubt been there for decades, greet and seat you quickly. This operation is a busy one, with lines out the door on a normal day, so I recommend ordering right away.
The type of comfort food that is not easily found in Yucatán is here, on the street. Vendors are everywhere, each offering typical food for the hungry. The legendary pambazo is a local sandwich with bread soaked in a tomato concoction, baked again, filled with chorizo and grilled. Add some salsa and perhaps crema, and it will set you straight for the day.
I prefer the less contrived snack, something from the vegetable family. Corn, in the world of the Maya, is the secret ingredient of life, so it is for the Aztecs as well. Elote or esquites is corn that is boiled or grilled on the street. It can be found throughout the city and is usually topped with a slather of mayonnaise, some crumbly cheese called cotija, and the ever-present chili powder. Eating it on the run is not advisable. Grab a couple of the servilletas and a park bench, and enjoy.
With more museums than Paris and the only Royal Palace in the Western Hemisphere, where do I go next? It’s the holidays, and being an old retailer, I head to the department store. This is not your mother’s Saks Fifth Ave; this is Sanborns, a truly Mexican tradition for shopping, eating, and a rite of passage into the Christmas spirit.
With numerous locations around the city, I recommend the one located in Casa de la Azulejos or The House of Tiles. This 18th-century Baroque palace built by a count is on Madero Street and is covered in blue and white tiles. It is a real stand-out. The building’s interior itself, without all the Christmas decorations, is a site to behold on its own. The Sanborn brothers first installed their soda fountain business in this over-the-top home, and it is now the chain’s flagship for the best-recognized restaurant in Mexico. Sit a spell over some sopa de lima and bask in the glow of the giant Christmas Tree.
The one-and-only El Palacio de Hierro in Centro is the next stop for the serious shopper within me. Think of it as Neiman Marcus’ and Holt Renfrew’s love child. Translated as the Iron Palace, this company operates 570 stores throughout the country with the utmost attention to merchandising and quality, a fabulous combination for any luxury brand.
A stroll through the cosmetic department to the Chanel counter alone is as satisfying as the perfect aged mescal after dinner. Whatever you are looking for, El Palacio will have it. Just be sure your gold card is in hand.
I got lost in the countless Christmas windows, each one more over the top, and at night, there was a sound and light show on the outside of the building. A sense of nostalgia overcame me as I felt I was back on Fifth Avenue, but, alas, I’m in my new New York City right here in Mexico City.
So, head west for a break from the winter heat of the Yucatán. Take a leap, buckle that seat belt, and have a prayer close by and an appetite because the most diverse city awaits a short plane ride away.