Despite headlines about drug-related violence along its northern border, Mexico’s capital is quietly evolving into a modern, cosmopolitan and convenient city that will surprise visitors who arrive with pre-conceived notions.
For business travellers with adventurous palates, Mexico City’s vibrant dining scene recently had the Wall Street Journal wondering if it could be “the world’s greatest food city”. Its dynamic and diverse stock of hotels also provides something for every business travel budget, from sparkling five-star skyscrapers to minimalist or historical luxury boutiques. Due to its geographically convenient north-meets-south location, Mexico City now ranks as one of the top 10 destinations in the world for large international congresses and conventions.
Over the last two decades, Mexico City (known locally as “the DF”, short for Distrito Federal) has instituted tough controls on both industrial and automobile pollution. It built one of the largest, most frequently used (and least expensive) Metro systems in the world. There is even a popular bicycle-sharing program in the city centre. As a result, pollution has been cut in half since the early 1990s, and on most days you can once again see the volcanic peaks that ring the city, situated in a valley about 2,200m above sea level. At that altitude, summer temperatures rarely exceed a temperate 27C, and winters are cold but not freezing.
Aeromexico dominates the scene at Benito Juarez International Airport’s bright and modern Terminal 2, which handles all international flights. The national carrier now offers nonstop flights to cities as distant as Shanghai or Paris, and teams up well with SkyTeam partner Delta Air Lines for service to or from the US. Aeromexico also offers business class passengers an airy airport lounge with a spa, free wi-fi and a generous selection of tequilas from across the country. Rumours continue to swirl that Mexicana, the country’s former second major airline, could soon return from bankruptcy, but for now, they remain just rumours.
The classiest (and cosiest) address for business travellers in the DF is currently Las Alcobas, a small seven-storey, 35-room hotel nestled among the chic boutiques and leafy European-style outdoor cafes along Avenida Masaryk in the upscale colonia (neighbourhood) of Polanco. In a nice touch, Las Alcobas also offers complimentary wi-fi and minibars.
In Mexico City, it is common practice for business travellers to meet with clients and colleagues at the city’s big hotels instead of their offices, and that is exactly what you will find at the Four Seasons on the Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s most famous boulevard. This long-time business traveller favourite is known for its peaceful Spanish-colonial style courtyard, where executives dine among fountains, palms and bougainvillea as the district bustles outside. Nearby, the brand new 189-room St Regis hotel has a modern and commanding presence in a new 31-storey glass and steel tower.
The imposing 42-storey Presidente InterContinental Mexico City (named Mexico’s leading hotel in 2010 and 2011 by the World Travel Awards) offers some of the biggest rooms with the best views in the city. Its massive, buzzy, recently renovated lobby is frequently packed with a mix of business travellers and locals that are there to see and be seen.
The trendy 25-storey W hotel in Polanco dominates the edgier side of the DF hotel scene. Although it opened almost 10 years ago (with cherry red and white rooms with floor-to-ceiling bathroom windows), the hip lobby bar and restaurant still packs ‘em in with DJ-hosted parties and sponsored events.
Mexico City’s other edgy hotels are much smaller by comparison. The minimalist-chic Hotel Habita is housed in a six-storey, mid-century building that is “wrapped” in frosted glass and topped with a bright pool and bar area on the roof. Its newer sister hotel, the Condesa DF, in the newly cool colonia of the same name, is 2012’s “trendiest hotel” according to travel review site TripAdvisor. The hip Hotel Brick is housed in a carefully restored, English country-style manor house with modern touches like Kiehl’s bath lotions, flat screen TVs and a French brasserie in the lobby. Blending a raw industrial edge (and a rooftop pool) with the grandeur of the city’s centro historico (historic centre), the brand new Downtown Mexico hotel celebrates minimalism among architecture from the 17th Century.
An increasingly likely stop on most business travel itineraries is the colonia of Santa Fe, located on the western edge of the city centre. This modern urban zone is comprised of glass and steel skyscrapers, a giant shopping mall, convention centre and office parks that house Fortune 500 corporate offices and global hotel chains. In May, the city’s newest luxury hotel, the Presidente InterContinental Santa Fe opened on a hillside there with 111 rooms offering commanding views of the city, and similar to its in-town sister property, a giant lobby buzzing with six bars and restaurants.
The district’s burgeoning local food scene is centred in upscale Polanco, where Chef Marta Ortiz turns out what many consider to be the finest Mexican food in the country at Dulce Patria, a re-envisioned cantina located next to Las Alcobas. Nearby, the much-celebrated Biko offers a whimsical interpretation of Spanish cuisine — such as foie gras topped with a tuft of cotton candy. Mexican nouvelle cuisine, , such as skewers of baby corn served from a hollowed out pumpkin full of smouldering husks, is the highlight at the small but extremely popular Pujol, recently named one the 50 best restaurants in the world. Business travellers and local execs frequently celebrate deals in the quietly classy, Mediterranean-inspired Reforma 500, or sip fine tequilas in the colonial atmosphere at El Bar, tucked among the archways of the courtyard at the Four Seasons. Locals and visitors alike still flock to Astrid & Gaston, an upscale Peruvian restaurant with outposts across Latin America.
Off the clock
Take a walk! Over the last decade (with the help from foundations created by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim), the city’s government has cleaned up, modernised and protected the area along the central spine of its most majestic boulevard, the Paseo de la Reforma. On the western end of the Paseo is the wealthy enclave of Polanco and the forested Chapultepec Park, the district’s popular green lung, which is home to a zoo, plus several museums and historical sites. The Paseo’s tree-lined mid-section is lined with many of the city’s tallest buildings, and historic monuments and fountains pepper its central median. To the south are the increasingly popular colonias of Condesa, Roma and San Angel, which have superseded the once-popular Zona Rosa as the centre of Mexico City’s bohemian nightlife scene. (A word of caution: as in most major cities, take your walks during daylight hours and use authorised taxicabs at night.)
The business travel “scene” in Mexico, as in many other Latin American countries, is very social. Your Mexican counterparts (residents refer to themselves as chilangos) will want to get to know you on a social level before they do business with you. As a result, visitors should expect invitations for lunch, dinner or cocteles (drinks) in the district’s many outdoor cafes when the weather is pleasant (so bring your sunglasses). When the weather turns bad, the action moves to the city’s expansive hotel lobbies, especially those located in “the four giants” on the southern edge of Polanco: the JW Marriott, Presidente, Hyatt Regency (formerly the Hotel Nikko) and the W hotel.
Do not let the fear of crime keep you away from Mexico City’s historic and touristic centre. A heavy police presence combined with the recent installation of 13,000 security cameras on the streets and in the subways has helped to greatly reduce petty street crime. Lonely Planet recently pointed out that Mexico City’s crime rate is about one third of Washington, DC’s, for example.