By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Nov 17, 2009 at 3:03 PM
MEXICO CITY -- Getting invited to a destination wedding is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the plus side, you're forced to take a vacation, potentially to somewhere you've never been. However, these trips are usually expensive -- and you might not pick that spot if you were planning your own vacation.

Almost two years ago, I attended a destination wedding in Jackson, Miss., and I had a great time. This month, I traveled to Mexico City for the wedding of a college friend. While I never expected to take a vacation there -- and I have no short-term plans to return -- I'm so glad I went. In terms of destination weddings, I'm batting two for two.

Over the years, I've lost track of how many trips I've made to Mexico, but it's surely approaching the double digits. Always, however, some beach time is factored in, whether it's a trip to the Riviera Maya or Puerto Penasco. I've never traveled this far into central Mexico, and obviously, never been to a Mexican city of this size. The closest I've come was a few days in Merida, in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula, in 2002. And in almost every way, none of these other trips can compare in any way to Mexico City.

With somewhere around 19 million people living in and around Mexico City, the country's capital is arguably the largest city in the world. It felt that way, too. Landing at Benito Juárez International Airport was overwhelming, in fact, as our plane descended through the visible smog, and the recessed bowl that is "Ciudad de México" came into view.

Volcanoes and mountains in the distance, we really noticed the densely packed houses and buildings sprawling for miles and miles, climbing up steep hillsides and into any space they could be wedged.

I found the entry into the country to be significantly less chaotic than what I've experienced in my other trips to Latin America, and indeed, the parts of downtown we visited felt less like the Mexico I had experienced previously, and more like a slightly dingy version of Madrid.

A City Atop a City

We stayed just off the Zocalo, the main square and home to the Cathedral, the National Palace and the Federal District buildings. Like the entire city, the Zocalo was literally built upon the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. While historians have been aware of this, amazingly, they discovered intact ruins of the Templo Mayor while doing electrical work in the Zocalo in 1978.

The square itself is immense and among the largest in Latin America. Our Holiday Inn Zocalo was just two blocks away, clean and reasonably priced, and a perfect jumping off spot for exploration.

The bride and the groom live in Chicago, but their jobs brought them down to Mexico City for a few years. Fortunately, they served as excellent guides to the group of about 60. So, on our first day in the D.F. (Districto Federal), we followed them to La Opera Bar for drinks and then to the Cantina Salon Corona for dinner.

Downtown Mexico City bustles with energy, loud noises and that odor I've come to expect on every visit to the country. But unlike rural or coastal Mexico, its streets are clean and devoid of stray dogs. Beautiful old buildings, 7-Elevens, Italian suit and shoe stores seem to line every corner, and if it wasn't for the omnipresent street food vendors, you could easily forget you were in a Third World country.

In fact, La Opera Bar was first-world elegant. Frommer's accurately describes it as the city's most opulent cantina, covered in dark woods and gilded baroque ceilings. Like everywhere else, very few people seemed to speak much English -- and really, we saw very few Americans during our stay -- but the bartender could communicate well enough to bring the group lots of high-end tequila for sipping, not shooting (with tomato juice chasers, for some reason).

We had our dinner of tacos, of course, at Salon Corona. Cheap and delicious, these cantinas are also loud and brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs. But they're also meeting and melding places, at this one the patrons cheered loudly for a local soccer team, while others watched "The Simpsons" dubbed into Spanish.

Friday morning, my wife and I began our day with breakfast at one of the city's most classic restaurants, Café de Tacuba, a former convent that started serving food in 1912. Waitresses are dressed like nuns or perhaps nurses (but not in a silly way), and I ate chicken tacos from the breakfast menu. Seriously, tacos are everywhere, and people eat them all the time. Even for breakfast.

Next, we took some time to explore, walking west to the stunning art deco Palacio de Bellas Artes, the theater and museum that's home to several massive Diego Rivera murals. We strolled across the street to the city's version of Central Park,  Alameda Central, navigating our way through vendors selling soda, DVDs and belt buckles.

Sprawl and Sounds of the Biggest of Cities

Next, we took the elevator to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, Mexico City's first major skyscraper, completed in 1956. As tall buildings go, it's a little run down, but from the observation deck on the 44th floor, the city's size and density truly comes into focus. It's jaw-dropping how sprawling Mexico City is, with its long, wide boulevards stretching as far as the eye can see. And -- even towering above the city -- we could still hear the omnipresent noises: honking cars, blaring music and more.

In fact, the noise pollution really got to me after a few days. Organ grinders, clad in official-looking tan uniforms, crank their out-of-tune melodies all day, everywhere, waving their caps in the direction of passers-by, looking for tips. Every car is honking, all the time, and at night, cars alarms sound incessantly. After a few days, I really needed some peace and quiet.

Fortunately, we found relative quiet at lunch, across the street from the skycraper, at Sanborns, a department store chain with a location in yet another classic, beautiful building. Eating there reminded me of the old Gimbels Tasty Town -- but in this restaurant, all of the kitchen workers and bussers wore surgical masks; the city remains gripped with H1N1 fear.

And here was where I placed my order for the meal that nearly did me in. Even though I didn't drink a drip of tap water or eat a single ice cube on our trip, I did eat a tasty Caesar salad (invented in Mexico!) at this clean and classy cafeteria. It was a big mistake, one that nearly destroyed my trip 48 hours afterwards. But more on my food poisoning later ...

After lunch, our group boarded a bus for the long, slow, 17-mile trip to Xochimilco that took almost two hours to complete. There, we boarded trajineras, wooden gondolas that traverse the canals of the ancient Lake Xochimilco. For about three hours, our two boats, tied together, took us up and down the canals, while souvenir vendors and mariachi bands, alike, rowed up alongside to hawk their wares and entertain us with music. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Not surprisingly, the night ended with more tacos from Aguas Fresca -- a 24-hour joint that became a staple for the entire group.

Saturday morning, the party again took a bus 25 miles northeast to Teotihuacan, a group of mysterious pyramids that predate the Aztecs. Even as the third largest pyramid in the world, I still found Teotihuacan to be a bit less interesting than my trips to Chichen Itza and Tulum -- but significantly steeper. Climbing (and descending) the 233-foot tall Pyramid of the Sun was no small feat, especially in the thin and heavily polluted air.

It's true, the air quality issue in and around Mexico City is a real problem. Being 7,300 feet above sea level would be significant with or without pollution, but I felt my eyes stinging with allergy-like symptoms the entire trip. Plus, I always felt thirsty, a sensation shared among several other members of the group.

American Band, Mexican Fans

Saturday night marked one of the most interesting parts of the trip. On our first night in town, some friends told us The Killers were playing two sold-out shows in town. Even though I'm not a huge fan, and have actually seen them in Milwaukee, my wife loves the band, so I boastfully suggested (maybe it was the cerveza talking) that I could try to get reviewer tickets from their record label.

Fortunately, my iPhone worked perfectly in Mexico City -- much better than it does in Milwaukee, so I called OnMilwaukee.com Managing Editor Bobby Tanzilo Friday morning to see if he could arrange the hook-up. Just a few hours later, the band's publicist kindly obliged.

Getting to the Palacio de los Deportes was an adventure of its own on Saturday. Everyone knows about the danger of taking taxis and risking a hijacking in Mexico City, but we could safely call a cab from the hotel to get to The Killers show. The way back, however, would be a challenge. Hailing a taxi from the arena was too risky, and using the generally safe subway system could be tricky with 25,000 other people heading home.

Instead, we opted to use the groom's personal driver from his time working Mexico, though it's not nearly as snooty as it sounds. Rafael, a great guy who spoke a little English, picked us up at the hotel, dropped us off at the show, then hung out until midnight, when he scooped us up in his Nissan Sentra and drove us back. All for 600 pesos, or $46, for a group of four. "Don Raf" skillfully avoided traffic shenanigans, impromptu police roadblocks and more harrowing driving situations than I could imagine -- calmly, safely and deftly.

Now that the bride and groom no longer live in Mexico City, this professional driver is really hurting for work, and we were happy to meet him and throw him a little business -- and hang out with him at the reception Sunday night.

The Killers show was a fascinating experience. Like in so many parts of the world, Mexico City has its own informal caste system. The lighter-skinned, more Spanish looking Mexicans tend to have more money than the darker-skinned, more indigenous looking Mexicans. The show wasn't cheap, either, so naturally the stadium was filled with more well-to-do hipsters, dressed -- and looking, for the most part -- just like those you'd see at an American rock show.

But everyone was speaking Spanish, of course, though they knew all the words to all the songs and sang them with Spanish accents. The concert felt like any other show, really, except for the food vendors selling doughnuts and popsicles along with beer (and wearing swine flu masks). If anything, the crowd felt more enthusiastic than your typical American show, and the band played off the energy.

Thousands of cell phones recorded the show, and the crowd chanted "Ole, Ole, Ole" when it came time for the encore. As just a tepid fan, I spent more time soaking in the sights and sounds of this incredible cultural experience.

We began Sunday morning with some pastries, then set out to run some errands and visit a few more landmarks before the afternoon wedding. As usual, I under packed; and this time, ran out of underwear. Some locals told us our best bet was Sears, across from the Palacio de Bellas Artes. But Mexico City's Sears isn't like Milwaukee's Sears. It was more like Nordstrom's, a multi-story department store with prices significantly higher than what I'm used to at home.

Montezuma Plots His Revenge

My stomach began rumbling as we headed back to the Zocalo to breeze through the opulent Cathedral and ruins of the Templo Mayor. I started feeling even stranger as we changed into our wedding clothes and caught a cab to the Coyoacán district, a tranquil and artsy borough on the outskirts of town.

I wish I could've enjoyed this mellow spot a little more, but by 2 p.m., my rumbling stomach ache had devolved into painful cramps. I knew I had food poisoning, but I couldn't trace it back to the salad quite yet. I stopped at another Sanborns and grabbed some Pepto. Even after a handful of tablets, the pain kept getting worse.

Nonetheless, we walked to the elegant, 16th century home where the wedding would take place. Its courtyard was simply beautiful, verdant and colonial. Meanwhile, I was clammy, shivering and having a hard time standing upright.

I quietly suffered through the thankfully short ceremony, but I was now quite literally in the worst pain of my life. I knew that I couldn't make it through the rest of the evening, and I sadly pondered returning to the hotel. At that moment, the groom's father, a retired gastroenterologist, spotted me swooning in the corner.

He called over a wedding assistant and sent him into town to buy some industrial strength loperamide, known in the states as Immodium. Interestingly, Mexican pharmacies don't require prescriptions -- you can actually buy morphine or Prozac over the counter. I have no idea if the good doctor ordered me a dosage that would typically require a script, and I didn't care. I took two pills with a bottle of Coke, and within 20 minutes, I was healed.

Literally. From death's door to laughing and eating and dancing in 20 minutes. Immodium salvaged the night, and even though I felt a little weird for days, I suffered no more ill effects.

Bustling With Potential, Bursting at the Seams

Monday morning, taking no chances, I ate breakfast at Starbucks. No more tacos, no more salads. We did a bit of souvenir shopping, hopped a plan to O'Hare (via Charlotte) and arrived home by about 11 p.m. My own quiet bedroom and soft bed never felt so good.

As fascinating as our trip was, I acknowledge that it wasn't a particularly gritty way to experience Mexico City. I usually immerse myself into a city's culture a little more than I did for this destination wedding, but due to some very real safety concerns, this was one trip in which we decided to follow the agenda and stay focused on the main attractions.

I doubt I'll return to Mexico City any time soon -- or ever, probably -- but the trip, from beginning to end, was enlightening. I caught a glimpse of a version of Mexico I'd never seen before. One bustling with potential while bursting at the seams.

Mexico City is the kind of place where the police are everywhere, frequently with machine guns drawn, and traffic cops direct cars even though stop lights are working, too (drivers just ignore them).

It's a city with very few Americans, though I counted five Packers jackets and one Brewers jersey. The water is definitely unsafe to drink (and wash salad with, apparently), while tequilas and beers that are largely unknown in the U.S., like Don Ramon and Victoria, are unique and delicious.

And everywhere we went, people were friendly and tolerant of our sub-par Spanish, though it's clear they are becoming a little distant as swine flu keeps spreading.

Loud and polluted but beautiful and vibrant, Mexico City is a metropolis that almost has to be seen to be believed.

Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.