Yet, it was my favourite city of a recent Latin American odyssey. “El DF” (as the locals call it – short for Distrito Federal) is a lefty-arty nirvana, choc with fascinating street-life and dramatic ruins in easy reach – some right in the city centre. Not forgetting the sight of lycra-clad men (and women) rolling around on top of each other, at the Lucha Libre. After eight days there, I wanted more time.

OK, the pollution is undeniable, but not notably worse than other Latin American cities. My guidebook suggested the VW Beetle taxis may be unsafe, but the Metro system is excellent. True, I couldn’t find a good restaurant near the Zócalo (the central plaza), yet street stalls are ubiquitous and excellent. And, of course, the usual big city safety rules apply (don’t invite people with guns round for tea, etc) here as much as anywhere else.

My day in lefty-arty wonderland began at Leon Trotsky’s atmospherically-preserved little house. There are bullet holes in the wall from a failed assassination attempt (he was eventually bumped off with an ice pick), a small museum dedicated to the Bolshevik mastermind and a large gravestone erected triumphantly in the garden.

Just down the road is the equally well-preserved and enchantingly colourful, Blue House, the former home of famous feminist/communist artists and lovers Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Elsewhere there are engaging galleries and some of Rivera’s astonishing murals are easily accessible. Several of his best works are on display in the National Palace, on the Zócalo.

One evening I joined a hostel-organised trip and another 8000 Mexicans young and old to watch the Lucha Libre (literal translation: free fighting). The WWF-style wrestling is second only in popularity to football and some mask-clad stars have crossed over into politics, without even removing their disguises.

Sadly the eight-a-side female wrestling wasn’t nearly as FHM as promised (in my mind, at least), as they yo-yoed across the ring like human elastic bands. As in the Jack Black film Nacho Libre, it was all incredibly silly, but essential, fall-out-of-your-seat hilarious, viewing.

My favourite place was the amazing Zócalo. The municipal square is the world’s second largest, after Moscow’s Red Square and a cultural melting pot. Here I saw dancers; some feathered-up outrageously in indigenous costumes and others with bells round their ankles, flailing rhythmically long into the night to the beat of a lone drum.

There was rife political activism (often galvanising support for the put-upon people of Oaxaca and Chiapas, in the south), little boys kicking footballs about, little girls flying kites and crisps the size of frisbees for sale. There was a contagious sense of togetherness that I’m not sure I’ve felt elsewhere.

Perhaps oddest of all is the twice-daily ritual of raising and taking down an enormous national flag. With the help of a military band, hundreds of soldiers conduct an amusingly serious ceremony around the giant pole in the square’s centre.

What surprised me most about Mexico City, however, was its people. Often, when my muddled head was lost in a map, I would be approached and asked where I was trying to get to, sometimes in English. After months of paranoid chain-your-bag-to-your-leg travel, my instincts kicked in, and I would grasp my belongings fiercely to my body, eye them coldly and give unfriendly one-word answers. But they were just kindly folk, merely wanting to practice their English and innocently help a hapless tourist. That, I guess, is unfair preconceptions for you.

The Yucatán Peninsula
If you have only two weeks in Mexico, you would be well advised to split your time between the capital and the Yucatán Peninsula. The peninsula separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea and includes the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. Put simply, the collection of dream-like Caribbean beaches and spectacular Mayan ruins, including a newly-crowned Wonder of the World (albeit unofficial), takes a lot of beating.

The recently-acclaimed Chichén Itzá is indeed well worth a visit, though there are other, less-crowded, sites equal, if not superior, in their appeal. Nearby Uxmal, for example, has less grandeur, but is superior in its enthrallingly intricate stone carvings (and the unnervingly large lizards watching you from the shade). Palenque, too, has a wonderful setting, surrounded by jungle.

Tikal, the most spectacular of all Mayan ruins as it stretches high out of the dense rainforest, may be over the border in Guatemala, but is also accessible on a day trip. Tulum, on the east coast, has some relatively modest ruins, but it is more famous for its icing sugar beaches and the see-through sea of the Caribbean. You can rent a beach hut within yards of the gently lapping water and it’s a much better option than the more famous resort of Cancun, a few hours north, which is both overly built-up and busy.

Merida shouldn’t be missed either, if only to relax in the welcoming plaza for a few hours. The peninsula is also famed for its Cenotes; limestone sinkholes linked to vast cave systems and filled with remarkably transparent freshwater.

Skeletons out of the closet
It can be alarming at first seeing so many skulls and skeletons – often grinning disturbingly – on sale in shops, almost as commonplace as bread and milk. But you soon get used to it.

The Day of the Dead may be celebrated in much of Latin America (and a national holiday in the Philippines), but it originated, and is still biggest and best, in Mexico where it is celebrated with much fervour on November 1 (and usually right through to the next day).

Heading to a cemetery exposes you to the best of it. Here it can feel momentarily like you’ve stepped into a gothic horror movie, with the papier-mâché statues of dressed-up skeletons all around. Offerings are made to ancestors’ souls, frequently with picnics and all-night vigils at their graves.

Nowhere are the festivities as ardent as on Lago de Pátzcuaro, when locals converge on the island of Janitzio in their canoes, a single candle alight in each one.

It can seem morbid to Europeans, but the Mexicans see the national holiday as a joyous celebration of death – a way of honouring the deceased – as well as life. The celebration can be traced back to the Aztecs and Mesoamerican cultures.

Mexico City – Don’t leave without:
• Punting, on a vessel coloured bright yellow and red, down a network of canals.
• Getting happily attacked by the famous mariachi bands, who play classic Mexican ditties for a bit of loose change, at the Plaza Garibaldi.
• Marvelling at the collection of pre-colonial artefacts in the extraordinary Museo Nacional de Antropología.
• Having beer brought to you in your seat as you watch football in the 114,000-capacity Azteca Stadium, uniquely, a venue of two World Cup finals.
• Losing yourself willingly among the giant crisps and rainbows of sticky sweets in the wondrous labyrinthine alleys of La Merced (the market)
• Taking a day trip out to the magnificent pre-Aztec pyramid (the world’s third largest, so they claim) site of Teotihuacán.
• Seeing more ruins and an explanatory museum in the heart of Mexico City (free entrance on Sundays).
• Checking out the Easter Island-esque statues at nearby Tula.