Maybe it is sunset. Or maybe not. It could be noon. But once I am inside my hotel — the Camino Real Polanco, a universe of neon orange and eerie futuristic blues — my day feels near its end.
Still, since this is Mexico City, immediate sleep is not an acceptable option. No, I decide, there are hours left to explore. A clerk at the desk reminds me that my evening-colored hotel was built for the 1968 Olympics by Ricardo Legorreta, an architect who is famous in Mexico.
“You may have a room here,” explains the concierge, “but you are inside a museum.”
Some of the spaces I see evoke architect Eero Saarinen: he of the curvy, concrete TWA Terminal, which opened at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in 1962 and was recently rehabbed into a hotel. And some — like the Camino’s Blue Lounge, with its transparent floor and rocky pool below — are straight out of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Spraying water around the hotel’s entrance is the “Eternal Movement” fountain by Isamu Noguchi, which boils impatiently like a pan on a stove. The vaulted lobby draws in shafts of light leading me to an elongated painting at the top of some stairs, a work of textured gold by Mathias Goeritz titled “Exterior Space Tunnel .”
Out of all of these, there is one piece in particular that makes me stop and stare. It is an astronaut-age mural by Rufino Tamayo that feels more like a skylight than a stretch of canvas — filling up an entire cafe wall at the far end of the Camino Real’s ground floor.
Tamayo’s human figure staring out at shooting stars and shadowed planets: That is me.
Mexico City’s Polanco is a neighborhood that stays alive at night, with restaurants clustering near Chapultepec Park . Imagining tortillas or tacos, I strike off for a walk.
The streets are almost silent, except for echoes of footsteps, like mine, and the route I take, just on the edge of the park, reassures. Doorways are art deco. Windows wrap the corners of buildings and are open to the fast-cooling air.
When I decide to dine, I discover that I was wrong about the tacos. This is not the Mexico of mariachi or of guacamole or of refried beans. It is a Mexico more like Barcelona or Buenos Aires.
My restaurant serves interesting fish, and nothing comes with a shell or sour cream. Instead of tequila or beer, I order wine.
Waiters sense that I am new here, American or Canadian, but they are not bored by this or angry. Just a hint, I can detect, of sadness.
The busboy has an uncle in my state, and I can understand some words of his Spanish. Normally, I wouldn’t have coffee this late but I say yes here to a doble.
I drink it all.
The next day, leaving the hotel for the afternoon, I have an idea. Instead of more traditional sights, I will see what other modern landmarks Mexico City might have in store.
First on my list is a skyscraper next to a downtown park known as the Alameda Central, which because it was carved out in 1592 happens to be the oldest public garden in the Americas.
My building isn’t hard to find. It towers above the trees of the park and the nearby Palacio de Bellas Artes. Even its shadow is unusual, with an Empire State-style narrowing and needle at the top.
Finished in 1956, the 45-story Torre Latinoamericana is more Chicago in silhouette than Central Mexico, though a national history museum (the “Bicentenario”) takes up the 36th floor . The tower has swayed and groaned through several major earthquakes, including the devastating 8.1 magnitude shake of 1985 .
Up at the observation deck beneath the TV tower, a space recently redesigned by Danish architect Palle Seiersen Frost, I have an eerie sense of movement. Looking out at the city, and at the park, I feel that I am lifting off for hills that rise out of haze, and toward a distant rain.
North of the city, a storm is just beginning to organize. I could watch it from here, but I have read about a church and shrine called the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe that should be somewhere in that direction.
It is a sign, I think. I will visit it in an Uber, and see the storm up close.
Winds are swirling when I arrive at the shrine at Villa de Guadalupe. Across a plaza from the grand old basilica, completed in 1709, is its enormous and round contemporary companion, finished in the 1970s to house a cloak believed to contain an image of the Virgin Mary. According to my printout, now wet with raindrops, millions come here every year.
Am I a pilgrim of a sort, I wonder. I am not worthy of the term. Though it takes only seconds for me to become entranced by the new basilica’s tapered dome, its sculptural, jewel-bright prisms of stained glass, and its circular, almost pavilion-like, design.
Like a visitor at a World’s Fair I do not fully understand, I feel a lightening of spirit, even in the push and crush of the crowd.
Back in the city center, every cloud has evaporated, and the sun is in charge as I walk toward the National Lottery Building on Paseo de la Reforma, a boulevard that allows me to remain in shade along its parklike promenades.
Traffic circles here are called glorietas. I do not know the root of this word, but I can guess. Statues at the center of each honor national achievements — aiming wreaths, spears and arrows at the sky.
Heading past the figure of Diana the Huntress, which until 1967 was covered up with a metal bra and miniskirt because it was thought to offend public decency, I reach the “Angel of Independence,” which blesses the country’s break from colonial rule from its pedestal atop a heroic column.
In minutes I am winding my way around Monumento a Cuauhtémoc (in honor of Mexico’s last Aztec emperor) with the Art Deco Lotería Nacional just a few blocks ahead.
If buildings had voices, this 1946 skyscraper by Manuel Ortiz Monasterio would resonate like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, heard through a wartime radio. The stone and glass exterior is as forceful as Rockefeller Center, and though the Lottery has only 29 floors, it’s similarly stepped in the style of the day.
Many in Mexico City call the building El Moro, picking up on Moorish elements in its design. But to me, walking closer and staring up and across the sun-bleached square, it’s all about a sort of static power.
A mid-century, New World strength that’s at its best right here, anchoring a boulevard of statues, glorietas and trees.
I remember a mural of meteors and shadowed planets. I think of my hotel, and of a painting of gold.
Something in the Torre, in El Moro, urges me forward.
Forward into the heart of the town.
Mandel is a writer based in Providence, R.I. His website is petermandel.net.
More from Travel:
Camino Real Polanco
Mariano Escobedo 700, Anzures
A modernist must-see for architects — and tourists — who happen to be fans of late-1960s design. Rooms are spacious and sleek, and the buildings include almost 600 works of Mexican art, including several stunning contemporary murals and sculptures. Doubles start at about $125 per night.
Río Amazonas 73, Col. Renacimiento, Cuauhtémoc,
Another, much smaller hotel with a modernist vibe and shared spaces that show off clean, cool lines and an artistic use of steel and concrete. The lively Roma neighborhood is a short walk away. Doubles start about $107 per night.
Fernando Montes de Oca 52, Colonia Condesa
This charming small bistro and wine bar in the walkable Condesa neighborhood feels like it belongs in Paris. Dishes are interesting and light, and there are plenty of small plates. Best of all, waiters bring out wines for you to have a look at before deciding, instead of just telling you about the selection. Entrees start about $16.
Ojo De Agua
Avenida Horacio 522, Col. Polanco,
A small chain with several locations and an emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruits. It’s the sort of place that draws you back day after day with its enormous selection of very affordable salads, grilled sandwiches, veggie bowls and juices. Entrees start about $7.50.
Francisco I. Madero Avenue 1, Cuauhtémoc, Colonia Centro
Observation Deck and Museums: 011-52-55-5518-7423
As one of the world’s first skyscrapers designed for an earthquake-prone location, it survived Mexico City’s 8.1 magnitude tremor of 1985 without damage. After opening in 1956, it was the city’s tallest building for almost three decades. Open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Observation deck tickets run about $13.50, or go up to the bar on the 41st floor to see the view free.
National Lottery Building / Edificio El Moro
Avenida Paseo de la Reforma No. 1, Col. Tabacalera,
Completed in 1945, the building affectionately called El Moro was one of Mexico City’s earliest skyscrapers, and is still one of its finest examples of art deco design. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Free.
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Plaza de las Américas 1, Villa de Guadalupe, Villa Gustavo A. Madero,
What is said to be one of the world’s two or three most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites incorporates several buildings, including the striking contemporary basilica completed in 1974. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Free.