Inexplicably, I had not been back to Mexico City in over a year despite its abundant attractions just 90 minutes from my home in Cuernavaca. Finally longing for some urban novelty, I decided on a two-day sojourn in the capital. Those who have been to Mexico City many times and visited the major museums can return often to favorite haunts and enjoy the many temporary exhibits. But travelers should not miss the spectacular new venues that keep Mexico City’s culture in the top tier of world capitals.
I had seen Carlos Slim’s stunning Soumaya Museum soon after it opened in 2011, but I had never visited the Museo Jumex, a museum of contemporary art, inaugurated in 2013. Both museums are adjacent to each other in Carlos Slim’s stunning cultural and commercial Plaza Carso in Nuevo Polanco. High-end apartment towers surround the plaza that includes a mall of upscale boutiques dominated by Saks Fifth Avenue. Nearby is an aquarium operated by Slim’s investment firm, Banco Inbursa, with less-swanky venues nearby like Costco and Sears.
Carlos Slim Helú is a Mexican telecom entrepreneur (TelMex and TelCel) and owner of over 200 businesses including ventures in real estate, construction, mining, and retail. In addition to Sanborn’s stores, Slim is a majority share-holder in Saks Fifth Avenue. Once the richest man in the world, his holdings declined against competitors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, mostly due to the substantial slump of the Mexican peso against the dollar. He is a generous philanthropist through his flush Fundación Carlos Slim. Plaza Carso manifests both his entrepreneurial and philanthropic attributes.
The downside of Plaza Carso is the atrocious traffic one must endure to get there from any of the traditional tourist quarters of the city. Depending on the time of day, one must estimate half an hour to 45 minutes by cab from Zona Rosa, much longer during rush hour.
I usually stay in Colonia Cuauhtémoc, behind the U.S. Embassy on Paseo de la Reforma, at the Hotel Bristol (Plaza Necaxa, Rio Sena & Rio Panuco), a few blocks from the Pink Zone. I had taken nearly 50 Road Scholar (Elderhostel) groups there for their first and last nights of a two-week Spanish language and Mexican culture program in Cuernavaca, so I enjoy a preferential rate and other amenities. The rack rate at the four-star hotel hovers around $50 U.S. depending on the exchange rate. It’s one of the great hotel values in the capital (www.hotelbristol.com.mx).
The Bristol has secure drivers waiting outside, though one pays a premium over the rates charged by roaming taxis or Uber drivers. Public transportation in the city is a huge bargain compared to most capitals. I paid less than ten dollars to the hotel driver for the half-hour ride to Plaza Carso. The Plaza was resplendent in the morning with brilliant sunshine illuminating the glistening buildings and the violet jacaranda trees. The Soumaya museum glittered like a magnificent jewel. It’s neighbor the Jumex building disappointed since I had expected an architectural marvel to house the affluent collection.
The Museo Jumex opened in Plaza Carso in November 2013, having moved from the Jumex juice plant in Ecatepec, State of Mexico. The collection of contemporary art was begun by Eugenio Alonso of the juice family. The foundation is dedicated to the collection, promotion, education, and research on contemporary art. Among its permanent works are pieces by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damen Hirst. It is open daily except Tuesday from 11 am to 8 pm, the entrance fee varying with the temporary exhibits, free to seniors with Mexican credentials (www.foundacionjumex.org).
The 11 am opening makes for a late start to a day’s activities, but early-birds can begin at one of the other attractions in the plaza. I was advised to take the elevator to the third floor and work my way down. That floor housed a special exhibit of works by John Baldessari, sadly not to my taste, although the exhibit space with its soaring ceilings is quite impressive.
Sadly, the second floor was closed for mounting of a new exhibit with no notice of what is forthcoming. I never found the stars of the collection, probably on that floor. The first floor had a special exhibit of photographs and news articles covering the 1980s dictatorial oppression and revolutions in Central America. Having spent at least three weeks on that tumultuous time in my course on U.S.-Latin American Relations at the College at Brockport, I did not find the morbid images shocking, but this was not really the high culture I had been looking for. Disappointed that I had picked a bad day, I gave the Jumex short shrift and returned to the stunning collection at the neighboring Soumaya. Before going one should check the Jumex website on special exhibits and hours.
Carlos Slim named his museum after his late wife Soumaya Domit, also of Lebanese extraction. The 170-thousand square-foot building was inaugurated in February 2011. Its hours are 10:30 am to 6:30 pm, closed Tuesday. Admission is free to the public (www.soumaya.com.mx).
The collection, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is displayed on six floors. One should start on the sixth floor then descend to the other exhibits. The sixth floor showcases the spectacular sculpture holdings, including the largest private collection of works by Auguste Rodin outside of France. Below are some of the highlights.
The fifth-floor showcases the European masters like Dalí, Picasso, Renoir, and Monet, to mention only a few. Prominent Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo are also represented. Alas, this floor was closed to the public with no signage, probably to mount new works or a new exhibit.
Frankly I am not thrilled by the displays on the lower floors, like the coin collection, so I decided to exit early and see more of Plaza Carso. The commercial retail center is architecturally appealing and I ventured into the flag-ship store, one of Slim’s several Mexican branches of Sax Fifth Avenue. There were few shoppers in the spacious store that morning, the vacuity perhaps due to the hour, but more likely to the prices that seem aimed for politicians or drug lords, if there’s a difference. I admired and fondled a silk bathrobe thinking to replace my twenty-year-old rag, but 18 thousand pesos is almost a thousand dollars! Lots of ways to spend that better. None of the high-end neighboring boutiques seduced though the window shopping is pleasant. On the second floor scores of uniformed school children were lining up to enter the multi-screen cinema.
I left the plaza empty-handed and checked out the nearby aquarium. The reported long lines were not evident on this weekday, and I could have enjoyed a discounted senior entrance fee of 175 pesos (about 9.50 US) compared to the 195-peso adult price. The aquarium is open from 10 am to 6 pm daily (www.acuarioinbursa.com.mx). There are usually long lines on some weekends and holidays. By paying a surcharge at Ticketmaster (there is an office in the mall) you can skip the lines. I have seen so many aquariums in my travels, and this one is reportedly not up to those in Boston, Monterey, San Diego,and other U.S. cities. Lacking a lot of time to kill, I decided to skip it and move on. But there are enough attractions in the plaza to occupy one for a full day, and food venues abound.
I knew that the formerly fashionable Pink Zone had lost its buzz to Polanco, Santa Fe, and other districts, and I wanted to see more of Polanco. I took a taxi to nearby Avenida Masaryk (Mas-a-réek), not as broad or as splendid as Paris’ Champs Élysées, but teeming with upscale shops and restaurants, banks, and salons. The avenue is named after the first president of Czechoslovakia whose statue was donated to the capital by the city of Prague. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avenida_Presidente_Masaryk).
I walked for some time looking in store windows, despite having no intention of buying at Gucci, Armani, and the like. I was impressed by the displays in High Life, a more Mexican-oriented shop where I admired a stunning sport coat for five thousand pesos ($275 US). But in casual Cuernavaca I seldom find an occasion to wear any of the dressy items already in my wardrobe. Nor would a showy jacket go over well on my trips to the States where male fashion dictates one look as frumpy as possible, including even Taliban-style beards. So, I disappointed the solicitous salesman and walked out empty handed.
By now I was ready for lunch and there are abundant choices on Masaryk, from casual to fine dining. Because of its inviting side-walk tables, I chose Klein’s (Masaryk 360) whose menu includes Mexican choices like enchiladas and tacos and American options like burgers and onion rings. I was able to rest up from all the walking, enjoy the balmy weather, and gawk at the parade of local residents walking their prissy poodles while texting on their cell phones. The mug of ice-cold lager made me sleepy and I was soon ready to confront the bumper-to-bumper traffic for a hotel siesta and e-mail check before my dinner date.
While urging all visitors not to miss Soumaya, I am ambivalent about recommending this bustling, high-rent district of Polanco, and I would not choose to lodge there. Neighborhoods like the Pink Zone, Chapultepec, and the Centro Histórico are far more accessible to the sites most visitors enjoy, and Polanco traffic is interminable until late at night. Don’t even attempt visiting the area during rush hour when cars creep sluggishly through multiple changes of the stoplights. I can’t even imagine enjoying the open-air, two-storied touribus which spends most of its time stuck in traffic. But I’m glad I explored Polanco and no longer feel uninformed. I still prefer the Centro Histórico where numerous pedestrian streets make for easy walking to numerous world-class museums and fine restaurants. Mexico City is surely one of the world’s great capitals and its many treasures invite frequent visits.