Been There, Smelled That explores the aromas of places around the world. Travel writer Maggie Downs investigates some of the world’s most potent smells, looks at how odor cultivates a connection to place, and presents how humans engage with smells, from scents that have endured generations to the latest innovations in aroma-making.

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Sometimes I think a good scent is like receiving an invitation to a party—the more enticing the smell, the more flamboyant the promise, and the more excited I am to go wherever that journey will take me. And nowhere was that more true than in Mexico City.

My family and I stayed in a third-floor apartment in Roma Norte, a panadería conveniently located on the ground floor. I never needed to use an alarm clock, because my body stirred each morning with the scents of bread and pastry, wafts of cinnamon and sugar tugging me from one dreamlike state to another.

From there, the city pulled me from one welcome aroma to another. Days were marked by the greasy pull of taco stands and warm tortillas that smelled like a comfortable embrace. I wandered tree-lined streets that exuded the humid, mulchy scent of parks and playgrounds. Nearly every shop breathed a fog of Fabuloso.

I love discovering smellscapes like this—the kind of odors that organically create a layered, sensory experience—because they help calibrate my brain to a location. These are the scents that offer insight into a culture or a community, and I think it’s a more interesting olfactory experience than something more intentional, like perfume, is.

Again, Mexico City had another surprise for me. I’d heard about a boutique perfumery that was a must-see in the city, (“Just trust me,” a friend said), so one afternoon I set out for the Polanco neighborhood. It’s an area often called the Beverly Hills of Mexico, with luxe boutiques and adorable cafés that looked like they were built exclusively for Instagram. This is where you’ll find the flagship store of Xinú, a high-end boutique perfume brand. The name means “nose” in Otomi, an indigenous language that is still spoken in regions of Mexico.

The building was so nondescript that I almost didn’t notice the plain black sign indicating XINÚ. I was the only visitor outside the building, and when I knocked, nothing happened. Finally, I noticed a buzzer, and the door was unlatched.

There was an installation inside the small, sleek foyer. At the time of my visit, the walls were painted black and hung with 244 square frames. Some held watercolor paper stained black with smoke; other frames were filled with leaves. The air was lashed with the aroma of tobacco plants.

I moved through that room into the hallway, where slender console tables held glass vessels and tubes that looked like Victorian-era bongs. At that point, I still hadn’t encountered any other humans, so I continued walking in the only direction possible, up three flights of stairs.

At the top, a concierge ushered me into a spacious and airy perfume showroom, where it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to what I was seeing.

Here the walls were also painted black, as was the wooden floor, but along one side of the room were floor-to-ceiling windows that opened into a lush, tropical garden. The effect was like standing inside a shoebox panorama.

One grand, sprawling table commanded the center of the room, adorned with a chaotic array of treasures. Magnifying glasses and monoculars lay beside torn book pages, embroidered with black threads. Heaps of flower petals were arranged near piles of peppercorns. Glass apothecary jars gleamed next to driftwood and live plants. Nestled among these were Xinú fragrances in minimalist bottles that looked like miniature sculptures. It had the overall effect of a steampunk perfumery.

Meanwhile, the concierge offered sample sprays of each of the five scents and explained how the elements displayed on the table were woven into the fragrances. Though I didn’t entirely understand the intricacies, the place felt steeped in magic, so I was willing to chalk it up to alchemy.

The brand was born from the shared passion of Veronica Peña and Ignacio Cadena, a married couple enchanted by botanicals and scents. They knew fragrance houses worldwide sourced ingredients from Mexico, yet there was no Mexican luxury brand to celebrate the richness and diversity of these natural wonders. Determined to change that, they embarked on their own fragrant journey. Their scents were crafted in collaboration with the renowned Mexican perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux, the creator behind cult fave Clinique Happy.

Each fragrance was meant to illuminate different facets of Mexico, capturing its essence using botanicals that are native to the Americas—think vanilla beans, agave, copal resin, and queen of the night flowers. They came together like a masterclass in harmony, painting vivid, nuanced portraits of the country’s diverse regions. (My personal favorite, Monstera, evoked the juicy, green sensation of walking through a rainforest.)

Another invitation. With each sniff, I was beckoned to places I haven’t yet been.