Thrift is not without its hazards. If it had been up to me, I'd have settled for the second or third least expensive hotel in Mexico City when I first visited it in 1973, but I was traveling with three other yanquis, and two of them, young women from the Pacific Northwest on the most stringent of budgets, held out for the cheapest accommodations possible.
I was steering a big green International Harvester Travelall four-wheel-drive station wagon through the city, and although it was ideal for trekking to the most off-beat and isolated places in Mexico, it proved to have one unanticipated quirk. New Travelalls were hard for Mexicans to acquire, but for some reason they were the country's favored hearse, and in several Mexican cities I was approached by funeral directors interested in buying the thing. Now, in the city with perhaps the world's worst traffic, and on a major fiesta day to boot, I was trying to maneuver this land yacht from tiny hotel to tiny hotel as we inquired about the rates, huddled and then voted to search some more.
At last we found the cheapest hotel in Mexico City, a very reasonable place indeed, so we secured a room big enough for all four of us. It was early afternoon; I'd done a few hundred miles of very challenging Mexican driving that day (where trucks speeding at you on twisting mountain roads bear the legend: "Only Jesus knows my fate"), so while my three companions went out to investigate the neighborhood, I collapsed in bed to sleep off a massive headache.
It's fortunate for all involved that the two women, dedicated and doctrinaire feminists, were out when I discovered the secret of our hotel's bargain-basement rates. There came a loud knocking at the door, and when I asked who it was, a man's voice inquired if I wished some rented female companionship.
Flubbing the chance to reply, "Not tonight, I have a headache," I called out "Gracias, no." I resolved to try to keep the nature of our pensione my little secret; otherwise the very incorrect politics of the place would have thrust us out on the street looking for new accommodations. In the days that followed, I was the only one of our group to understand why our hotel seemed to be hosting a nonstop coeducational party on the stairs and in the halls.
That night my friends had no trouble sleeping, but my nap had left me wide awake. Then, about 2 a.m., a mariachi band, of all things, chose to locate itself beneath our second-floor window to practice. The night and the room were hot, so I wandered downstairs.
The band had finished honing its licks and was wandering off when I got outside, so, with no particular direction better than any other, I followed them. In a block or two, I began hearing other music, from two, three, perhaps five bands at once, all getting louder. I followed the band across a wide avenue and into a massive open-air structure that occupied an entire block. Lights blared inside, and hundreds of people swarmed around scores of tiny eating stalls, each specializing in a particular dish of meat, poultry, vegetables or fish.
The band had lured me to the Oz of tongue and stomach, the most fabulous eatery on earth: the Plaza Garibaldi. That night, and in the days that followed (the joint closed down for a few hours each dawn), I ate my way through that palace with a vengeance. At one stall, no sooner would I mumble "cuarto pollo" than the chef would smash a cleaver twice through a chicken, slap a fourth of it onto a sizzling griddle and hand the barbecued and marvelous results to me.
The overwhelming accent was on cheap, rural peasant Indian cuisine. Bean dishes bubbled in dozens of huge pottery cauldrons, and fresh tortilla machines, with corn flour still dusting the surface of the piping hot cakes, clanged away. And the dueling mariachi bands never stopped. If they give me a choice about the afterlife, I'm heading right there.
Our expedition was headed south, so after four days we packed up and trudged to the lobby of the cheapest hotel in town to pay the bill.
I used all the Spanish at my command to explain to the desk clerk that we'd been there four nights. But it didn't work. No one, apparently, had ever stayed at his hotel for more than one night; either the concept was just unacceptable or he had no way of calculating a multi-day rate. We paid what he demanded -- one night's rental -- and headed for Oaxaca.
In September 1985, the terrible Mexico City earthquake took a savage kick at the ancient structure of the Plaza Garibaldi, and my heart sank. But you can't keep a rockin' shrine like that down. New buildings now house the vast eating circus at its traditional site along the Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas, and it's definitely the place to grab a bite.
And if you're interested in some very reasonable and friendly accommodations nearby ...
Robert Merkin, a D.C. native, is a novelist who lives in Northampton, Mass. His second novel, "Zombie Jamboree," was published in October