Travelogue – Mexico City
Based on our visit last August to Mexico City, an ancient city once the largest in the Western Hemisphere has seen all number of iterations and occupants in its long history.
From the cultural and commercial centre of the Mesoamerica’s around AD 650, to the arrival of the Aztecs from the north in the late 1300’s and the Spanish Conquest in 1521. Mexican Independence came in 1824 but was soon crushed by the American invasion in 1847.
The French had their time in the 1860’s before they were ousted, although not before Emperor Maximilian I created key parts to how the city looks today. The Mexican revolution of 1872 followed which led the country to flourish as the capital grew exponentially.
The revolution ended when Alvaro Obregon took control in 1920 and from then until the turn of the century Mexico rode many economic ups and downs with great wealth disparity, particularly witnessed in the countries capital.
Mexico City is the 3rd largest populated city in the world behind Tokyo and Seoul and although many had warned us against it, I can’t resist exploring a capital city, albeit we only scratched the surface of this 573 sq mile megapolis.
Three days with a four year old didn’t not allow you to go deep into the fabric of this often maligned city. Sadly it was also unfair to burden our daughter with visits to many of the historical sites and museums, but the surface we scratched we loved and etched into our memories was that of a historic and bewitching city.
We stayed in the area of Chapultepec, next to the park of the same name. The Bosque de Chapultepec has always been a special place for Mexican’s ever since the Aztecs, but it was only turned into a public park in the 1930’s and Chapultepec is what Hyde Park is to London and Central Park is to New York.
It is huge, 1,600 acres, and includes the cities zoo, five museums, a boating lake, woodlands, a forest, an amusement park, more monuments than you can shake a stick at and the heavily guarded official residence of the President of Mexico.
We were there on a Sunday, which was by accident as we planned to go on Monday, but for reasons I didn’t find out, it is closed on a Monday.
On the Sunday afternoon thousands of families walked, picnicked and played. There were street vendors, side shows, music events and it was a real experience to be part of so many family outings.
Just north to the park is the neighbourhood of Polanco, a prosperous enclave of large houses, cool restaurants, pleasant cafes and trendy shops. Although, as you do in a faraway city, the place that we would choose to live in was Colonia Condessa, a sophisticated, arty little zone of tree-lined cafe laden streets.
Paseo de la Reforma is the cities main artery and we walked a long chunk of it. Gleaming bronze and marble statues punctuate the many flower laden roundabouts, or glorietas, and on both sides of the wide thoroughfare are shady spacious pavements where city folk stroll with all the time in the world.
36 statues of Mexico’s national heroes are situated along the Paseo de la Reforma. My favorites were Fuente de la Diana Cazadora, a beautiful statue of Diana the Huntress sat atop a vast fountain. The powerful Monumento a Cuauhtemoc, which was built to honour the last Aztec emperor and the bright yellow metallic sculpture called El Caballito (little horse) which shone like a beacon with the skyscraper known as Torre del Caballito stood behind it.
Initially I had decided against doing the open-top bus tour but with our confidence growing we took the plunge, and I am so glad that we did.
The Turibus offered a number of routes but we went for the Circuito Centro and took our seats on top and tuned into the translated guide.
Zona Rosa, once the focal point of the fashion conscious was clearly having a downturn in fortunes and although I would’ve liked to have a closer look our tour book advised against it. The bus did wind itself around a lot of Zona Rosa’s narrow streets though and I spotted more bistros than bandits!
The main feature though was the Centro Historico. As the bus made it’s way down Avenue Hildalgo what came into view was jaw dropping and a reminder of why Mexico City is one of the world’s most vibrant hubs of history, religion and politics.
An organized grid of streets branching out from Zocalo, the city’s political and gathering centre leading to jaw-dropping architecture housing fine churches, incredible palaces and trendy hotels.
Zocalo was one of the city’s main market areas from the days of the Tenochtitlan. Emperor Maximilian I banned merchants and created tree-lined paths and open green spaces. That changed after the Mexican Revolution and now the plaza is both eye catching and a bustle of activity.
The Palacio Nacional extends along the length of Zocalo. It is huge, and underneath the massive Mexican flag that flies above it in the breeze sits the Mexican Government. The tilting Catedral Metropolitana, due to the fact it is sinking, had a rich ornate Spanish Baroque facade and is what appears in most images if you search Mexico City. Close up it didn’t disappoint.
Another stunning building is Palacio de Belles Artes, an art deco theatre and then as if you never thought you were walking around a vast museum anyway, there was the Templo Mayor, a massive archeological find that was only discovered in 1978.
Our time in the city was limited, sadly, and the list of places to see in the city and beyond was indeterminate. What we did choose to do was visit the Xochimilco Floating Gardens.
We hired a driver for the day to take us to Xochimilco, 15 miles to the south-east of the centre. We were there early to beat the locals and other tourists and snagged one of the first trajineras (flat boats) out on the intricate network of canals.
The Floating Garden was designed by the Xochimilcas as a unique method of farming. They built flat rafts with tree branches and reeds and covered them in lake mud and planted fast growing trees. As the trees grew the rafts became anchored to the lake bed and these floating gardens soon thrived with crops and flowers and at one time was the city’s main source of fresh produce.
It’s hard to explain, but what is left is an amazing water maze of flower gardens, shrines, restaurants and vendors selling almost everything on a narrow spaghetti junction of canals that our boatman skillfully navigated our trajinera around, met as we were by floating Mariachis, other musicians, chefs, craftsmen and flower ladies. We loved it, despite it’s obvious trap for tourists.
On the way back our driver was keen to show us other parts of the city. We didn’t have time to go Teotihuacan, one of the largest ancient cities in the world. It was the polar opposite of the city, so we settled for a drive around the southern part of capital which included the vast Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), and home to Pumas de la UNAM, one of the city’s football teams.
The Millwall of Mexico City, I was subsequently told, were at home when we stopped opposite to have a nose at their Estadio Universitario Olimpico and I hadn’t seen this many police at a football game for a very, very long time. All around groups of men prowled, and I resisted the fascination to jump out of the car and go into the ground. The other half and little ‘un in tow being the main reason.
The Pumas were playing Tijuana (the final score was 1-1), and our driver didn’t seem keen to hang around the 60,000 open bowl like stadium. The Estadio Universitario Olimpico was used for the 1968 Olympics and also hosted games at the 1986 World Cup.
UNAM is one of three top flights clubs based in Mexico City. The other two are Club América and Cruz Azul and along with Guadalajara-based Chivas make up Mexico’s ‘big four.’
Mexico City is a dream for lovers of the countries cuisine. The colours, the flavours, the spices, all enticing, although we resisted the oft-wonderful smells from the street vendor carts that littered almost every street corner.
We ate well and as a treat we all went to Dulce Patria, Mexican food icon Martha Ortiz’s restaurant that cleverly interprets classic Mexican dishes into a modern context. We had an early reservation as we took the little ‘un, so the restaurant, which is beautifully decked in a deep red, was quiet, but it we enjoyed ourselves.
Mexico is also famous for its beer of course and can be found in almost every bar in the world. The first night when we had dinner in the hotel restaurant, the waiter put clam juice in my beer, which tasted awful, so I’d be careful of that tendency. My favourite beers on this trip were Tecate and Superior. The wine was noticeably good as well.
Despite some initial hesitancies, we really enjoyed our whistle-stop visit to Mexico’s capital city. You can find danger if you look hard enough in every city, but I thought Mexico City was much maligned and there are certainly no obvious signs of the pollution that many people talk off.
Old, high, populous. It is a city of superlatives and amongst the organised chaos is a storied history that makes Washington DC appear like Milton Keynes.