I was thirteen the first time I set foot in Mexico City.
In my memory the city smells like fresh popcorn, tastes like cotton candy and is irrevocably tied to memories of long afternoons spent rowing in the pond in Chapultapec Park and watching the Voladores twist slowly down from the edge of the sky in ancient rituals to ancient gods. Guidebooks might call it dirty, loud, polluted and dangerous, but I call it my favourite city in the world.
If you can peel back the layers of grime on the street and rub the stinging smog from your eyes you’ll discover a vibrant world of art and architecture, history and modern convenience, and a veritable rainbow of flavours, colours and sounds. Give me one day, and let me show you my loves.
Begin on the Zocalo…
The zocalo refers to the city square in any village in Mexico. The one in the capital city is a destination in and of itself. It’s the place where people, young and old, promenade of an evening. Street performers work for small change. Hawkers sell everything from donuts, to children’s toys. Buy a bag of hot, fresh potatoe chips doused with chile and lime and come with me, there are things to see.
The government house on the main square is well worth a visit, and it’s free! You might need to leave your passport or driver’s license as collateral at the door, but then wander up the staircase on the central courtyard and spend a long hour examining the murals that line the walls of the second story. They were painted by Diego Rivera and they depict the epic sweep of Mexican history, from before the conquistadors arrived until after the Mexican Revolution. Look hard, see if you can find my favourite figure: a baby, strapped onto a Mayan mama’s back, with blue, blue eyes. The first of the mestizo.
You’ll need to wear long pants, but head into the big cathedral and sit a while in the smoky darkness. This place, to me, represents the dichotomies of Mexico. Watch carefully and you’ll see tiny women, barefoot and dropping small change into the alter boxes. Such a contrast to the gold gilt room and the grandeur of the European influence, both culturally and religiously speaking. There is still a sharp gap between rich and poor, those with European blood and background over those with primarily indigenous heritage. The cathedral is a place where the histories have been interwoven for centuries, and still are today.
Behind the cathedral you’ll find the partially excavated ruins of the heart of Montezuma’s legendary city that stood when the conquistadors arrived. When I was a little girl they were just beginning the excavations and I remember my Dad standing there with us and telling us the story, as recorded by Bernal Dias, of the inauguration of those temples in the old Aztec city. According to the histories there were ten thousand human sacrifices made, the streets were running with blood and the stench was so bad that the city was closed for a few days while they removed the bodies. Can you imagine? If you’re lucky there will be some modern day “Aztecs” performing rituals in the square in front of the ruins.
Mexico City has a fantastic subway system. It’s surprisingly clean and efficient. Don’t be afraid to use it! You’ll even find ruins that have been excavated and are exposed in the underground station! Especially in the daytime, there’s no worry other than the usual pickpockets you’d find in any American city. Hop on at the station nearest the Zocalo and head out to the station marked with a green grasshopper, that’s Chapultapec Park!
From the Hero’s Monument through the shaded walkways lined with market stalls, to the rowboats for hire on the pond, and the castle on the cliff above, Chapultapec Park is a magical place. I’ve spent hours and days here doing nothing but watching the world go by. It’s a fantastic place to encounter the “real” Mexico City, as you watch families, business people on a long lunch, street performers and musicians make the place come alive. You can walk from the train station through the park to the Anthropology Museum, but don’t rush. Take your time. Have some cotton candy. Listen to the comedy show by the lago and relax.
This is, hands down, the best museum in the entire country. Within it’s halls you’ll wander from pre-historic Mexico, through the heyday of the ancient civilizations, to the fall of the Aztecs, the victory of the conquistadors, the colonial period and the revolutions. The artifacts are fantastic. Everything is nicely labeled in English as well as Spanish and you’ll easily spend an entire day here if you have it. Don’t miss the voladores who perform in front of the museum for donations every hour or so. They’re men who climb a tall pole and then spin down, upside down, on ropes in a reenactment of a ritual to the gods that comes from the region of Mexico around Papantla. They are spectacular to watch.
Markets and more…
Of course there is so much more you could do, the floating flower markets, the upscale shopping in Zona Rosa, the fantastic food to be had in the cosmopolitan corners of the city. The Ballet Folklorico at Palacio Bellas Artes really should not be missed either… but we have only one day.
If I can convince you to stay another day, then I’d love to take you on a bus trip out of the city to:
This place is truly a marvel. It’s laid out as a scale model of the solar system, as far as it was known by the Aztecs at the time. They had the sun at the center and they’d properly placed several of the planets. All this while the Europeans still thought the earth might be flat and at the center of it all. The pyramid of the Sun is the second highest pyramid in the world and the tallest that you can climb. Take your time, and hope for a cool day. You’ll feel the altitude if you haven’t already! Take the time to walk down to the temple of Queztalcoatl. It’s well worth the walk and the paintings are fantastic. Hard to imagine all of the centuries that have passed and still there are voices calling out from history to tell us their stories. This is one of the best ruin sites on the continent, and I’ve been to most of them!
Enjoy the city. Make sure you have churros on the street for me and stop into a bakery and get one of the flaky butterfly shaped cookies in my honor. Have tacos al pastor for lunch and eat them sitting on the sidewalk with the day laborers, just make sure you pick off the lettuce!