Thursday, January 25, 2018

A 'Layover Tour' of Mexico City

We landed at Mexico City just in time to catch one of the last free trains before the 11:00 pm closing over to Terminal 2 and checked in at the Hilton, a somewhat dumpy property where we nonetheless slept reasonably well.

The next morning after breakfast we check out and meet Andrés Acosta of Mexico a Pie Tours. He drives us right into the central part of Mexico City, parks in a massive underground garage, and then escorts us on a fascinating walking tour of the old and very historical center.

Andrés points out a 1992 stylized sculpture, El Caballito, as we drive by. Later we'll see another Caballito sculpture.

Once parked in an underground garage, we start (and end) our tour at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. We learn throughout the tour that the seven-term president of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, spent a lot of public money to erect buildings designed by European architects to make Mexico City the equal of other world cities. He certainly succeeded, but he remains a controversial figure and was the impetus for the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.

We look st the Casa de Azulejos, "House of Tiles." It's tiled over three surfaces, probably because the family wanted to show off how wealthy they were.

Andrés later shows us another wealthy house owned by a jealous husband. He forbade his wife from leaving the house when he was away on business, but built a second-floor balcony that stretched around the entire building, so that she could enjoy a walk in the fresh air while remaining inaccessible to his imagined rivals.

We learn that Mexico City was built over a large lake, Lake Texcoco, now a largely drained basin, and many buildings have sunk significantly over the decades, leading to, for example, tilting facades and sloping interior floors. The church below was originally on the same level as the sidewalk we're standing on. Between the lake and the earthquakes, the city's buildings and its inhabitants continue to face many challenges.

We stroll along a lengthy pedestrian mall and then stop by Zócalo, one of the very largest city squares in the world. Its formal name is Plaza de la Constitución.

According to Andrés, only China's Tiananmen Square and Moscow's Red Square are larger.

Our next stop is the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the Americas, where we first admire a statue by Francisco Martinez of the revered Pope John Paul II, who made numerous visits to Mexico. The statue is made entirely of donated keys, symbolizing that Mexicans had given him the keys to their hearts.

Inside we find magnificence, grandeur, and also a sloping floor.

A pendulum hangs from the tip of the dome to measure the changing slope of the floor.

It's an impressive structure, inside and outside.

Our next stop is the Templo Mayor, one of the "Main Temples" of the Aztecs, where archaeologists have been excavating history. Andrés explains some of the highlights to us.

Now it's time for lunch and Andrés escorts us to El Huequito, the "Little Hole," for delicious tacos al pastor (spit-grilled pork tacos), so good that we order a second round.

We opt for refreshing juice drinks with chia seeds, one of the latest "miracle foods."

Earlier, as we'd passed by other street taco joints, Andrés pointed out that they had adopted the gyros rotating-meat-on-a-spit concept from Lebanese immigrants. Being derived from shawarma, it is also similar to the Turkish döner kebab and the Greek gyros. If and when we return to Mexico City, we'd want to explore further the many varieties of Mexican street food.

After lunch, we walked by El Caballito, an 1802 bronze statue of Charles IV, the last Spanish ruler of "New Spain."

Our final building interior is, of all things, a post office.

It's just not any post office, but Palacio de Correos de Mexico, inaugurated by President Porfirio Diaz in 1902. It was designed by an Italian architect, with a new style of foundation mostly built in New York City and shipped to Mexico City.

Diaz spent a lot of money on buildings, and the results were impressive. Of course, he was eventually overturned by the Mexican Revolution, so there's that to consider as well.

On the way back to the car, Andrés points out the effects of the most recent earthquake on two modern buildings across from the Palace of Fine Arts.

Look more closely. It's quite a crack, with temporary repairs ongoing.

Andrés has revealed to us a Mexico City with an amazing central core of buildings and sites that we would argue are almost unequaled in North America, aside possibly from New York City.  We are truly impressed and very happy we took this tour.

It's time to say Gracias and Adios, and then it's airport security and an Aeromexico lounge visit before flying home.

Wrapping Up Lima

Lima is a great place for a visit, especially if you like to dine well. We would happily return.

We split our stay between two Hilton properties, the Miraflores Hilton and El Pardo Doubletree. There is no question that the Hilton is the better of the two properties. There were one or two aspects of the Doubletree that were downright quirky, but we would certainly stay there again if the rate was significantly cheaper than the Hilton's.

Our one weak dining experience did occur at the Doubletree our final night, after returning late (for us) from those magic fountains. Other than the food and the service, it all went well. We've enjoyed some good meals in hotel restaurants, despite generally trying to avoid them. This wasn't one of those times. 

The Doubletree contains two full-service restaurants. They are described on the website as "The Lobby restaurant offering comfort food for lunch and dinner, and cafeteria La Terraza with an open terrace ready for the summer." We preferred the Terraza (and it's not a cafeteria) but the Lobby was the only place open Sunday night and we decided to eat in when we returned around 8:30.

The waiter was nice but essentially clueless. He sat us down, handed us menus, and returned in about a minute to take our orders. We told him we'd like to enjoy our complimentary Pisco Sours first before ordering and he retreated to get those.

We must have scared him because it was subsequently hard to attract his attention. We decided to share an appetizer and a main, but he warned us that it wouldn't be enough so we reluctantly ordered a second main course.

We tried to order a half-bottle of wine (an Argentine Malbec) that was listed as such on their wine list, but the waiter told us they didn't usually sell wines in half-bottles. We then ordered a glass of wine. When it arrived, there was barely enough left in the bottle for two glasses, and a taste let us know it hadn't stored that well overnight (or maybe several nights?).

We then showed him the half-bottle on the menu and he immediately said that was a great idea and brought us one. We asked at one point how long he'd been working in the restaurant and it wasn't too long, so he probably just didn't know the menu.

The second main we ordered was a Thai chicken dish. We told him we would like it spicy, but when it arrived it was completely without spice.

Despite all this, we grimly decided to order the free dessert that had also been included in our welcome package.

We waited a long time for that, and there wasn't much to it when it arrived. The young waiter had gone off shift, and the other waiter delivered it to us grimly, as if somebody had told him we were tough customers.

All in all, a forgettable two and a half hour (!) - or an evening we'd like to forget.

Still, we need an experience like that every so often, just to make us better appreciate all the good experiences. 

Lima's 'Magic Fountains' Park

Impressive displays and a family atmosphere at El Circuito Mágico del Agua del Parque de la Reserva on our final night in Lima...

The park was started by the local municipality and is now considered one of the top attractions in Lima.

There are three 15-minute shows every evening at roughly one-hour intervals, featuring music and laser lights. We watched the 7:15 pm show, but actually preferred just watching the changing fountain patterns and the lights as the skies darkened.

The only tricky part for us was finding a spot a couple of blocks away to get our Uber pickup. That took upwards of 30 minutes but we were in no particular hurry, and visiting the park (senior citizens get in free!) made for a pleasant final night in Lima.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Dining at One of Lima's Finest Restaurants: Panchita

It's a scant two-block walk from the Doubletree, albeit with two Lima streets to cross.

They only take reservations up to three days in advance, but our willingness to dine early (around 6:00 pm) was rewarded with a nice table.

The first wine we ordered (Terazzas Riserva Malbec) was out of stock, but a suggested alternative was satisfactory and actually cheaper.

A young employee came over to assist the shy waiter with English translation, and she and Kathy came up with a great menu.

The only letdown came right at the beginning. We had read of their famous bread plate, so we ordered one to share. The butter and sauce were tasty, but the bread itself was soft, squishy, and white.

We soon recovered, however, when the Rocoto Relleno arrived. That is a "Peruvian recote pepper filled with minced beef [actually a braised beef] and cheese and served over a potato pie."


Our second shared dish was a Panceta de Lechon Croquante, a soft pork belly with crispy skin, served with potatoes and corn (hominy).


This added up to a memorable evening, for which our total bill was US $61.32 plus a generous tip.

No room for dessert!