I must admit that I was a little bit
unsettled when I flew in. It's not that I'm an inexperienced traveller, it's
just that seemingly everyone had a story about Mexico City. Be it a
simple pick pocket in the street, a fatal illness contracted from the smog, a
bag slicing knife incident in the metro, a gunfight in a taxi cab ..... it just
seemed like every single person I asked about Mexico City had had something
like this happen to them or knew someone who had had something like this happen
or knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who had had this happen to
them. Nevertheless, I was never going to let such gossip stop me and booked
myself a ticket for a 5 day journey to the Mexican capital for my spring
Above: A Diego Rivera mural in the
National Palace depicting the early Aztec civilization of
|The terms "vacation" and "Mexico City"
don't usually appear in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence.
Unfortunately, Mexico City is famous for all the wrong reasons. Crowds, crime,
pollution, corruption, smog, etc.... these are the sort of things that come to
mind when one mentions the words "Mexico City".
The truth is though that Mexico City is in fact a beautiful place
and an ideal place for anyone to take a vacation: be it adventure or relaxation
they're after. Mexico City sits on a history that could easily put Athens to
the sword and boasts a plethora of museums that could give Paris a run for its
money . Add to this vibrant streets filled with street markets, dances and
community activities as well as cheap but classy food and accommodation and
you've got yourself a city that could compete with any of the world's most
desirable destinations to visit. Also, thanks to Mexico's superlative bus
system: Mexico City serves as an excellent portal to some alluring side
destinations such as the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan and ex-colonial enclaves such as
Puebla and Taxco.
The Spanish have long since departed but
the colonial legacy can now be seen in the vast wealth of Churrigueresque
architecture sprinkled all over the city. Over the last hundred years, Mexico
City has grown into a gargantuan megalopolis and has joined the likes of Tokyo,
Sao Paulo and New York as one of the most crowded cities in the world with some
20 million inhabitants. Mexico City is now an ecological nightmare and is
considered one of the most polluted cities in the world thanks to its smog.
(Oh yeah, and did I mention that the city is also thought to be sinking back
into the Basin.) Nevertheless, it is a city immersed in history and culture
so there is still plenty to see and do.
lies on land that was once a huge lake called Lake Texcoco, situated in a
valley between two volcanoes. It is believed that in 1370, on an island in Lake
Texcoco, the Aztecs saw a huge eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its
beak and decided that this was to be the place where they were to build their
new kingdom. Under the guidance of Emperor Montezuma, the Aztecs, using
revolutionary techniques in hydraulic engineering - built the pulchritudinous
city of Tenochtitlan in the middle of the lake - linked to the mainland via
bridges, boats and man made canals.
man to have reveled in the beauty of Tenochtitlan was none other than the
infamous Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes who, in a letter to the Spanish
King Charles V, declared, ".... This city is so great and beautiful .... It is
even more beautiful than Grenada." Nevertheless, it was not aesthetics but god,
glory and gold that the conquistadors were after and they duly tore down the
city, slaughtered the inhabitants, drained the lake and built a new capital for
"Nueva Espana" on the sight.
|Above: Street festivities like
these are not uncommon right outside the Zocalo
arrived in Mexico City at 5:30 am on Saturday March 15. I immediately found a
hotel situated in the heart of the Centro Historico and just a few steps away
from the Zocalo, the city center's famous plaza. After dropping off my bags, I
immediately took to the streets for sight-seeing. First I investigated the
exterior of the exotic colonial buildings surrounding the Centro Historico,
before heading up to 41st floor of the Torre Latinoamerica.
After absorbing the panoramic views from
the Torre Latinoamerica, I ventured through the Zona Rosa district on foot and
into the museum saturated park, Bosque de Chapultepec. On the way, I passed by
some glorious monuments in the Alameda Park such as the magnificent neoclassic
white-marbled concert hall, Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Hemiciclo a Juarez
monument - a marble column semicircle dedicated to one of Mexico's most famous
figures, former President Benito Juarez.
Above: The tombs of some of Mexico's most
famous revolutionary heroes are kept under the Monumento a la
|The Torre Latinoamerica is an
excellent place to go to orient yourself in Mexico City as it gives the
perfect, panoramic view of the entire city and the valley it is situated in.
The enormous urban sprawl that makes up Mexico City seemed a little daunting at
first. Ironically though, despite being in the world's third most populated
city, it is quite normal for visitors to Mexico City to keep their visit
confined to a very compact area in the city center; strolling only the
boulevards that connect the Centro Historico, Alameda Central Park, Zona Rosa
and the Bosque de Chapultepec together.
Right: the Paseo de la
Reforma slices straight through the heart of the Zona Rosa district and into
Chapultepec Park. This photo was taken from the Castillo de Chapultepec, on top
of Chapultepec Hill.
the Catedral Metroplania is one of Mexico City's most notable features, located
in the heart of the Zocalo.
One of these museums is the Museo Nacional
de Antropologia (aka MNDA for now). The MNDA is considered the world's finest
anthropology museum, covering exhibits of almost 4,000 years of civilization in
this region. The museum is sort of the equivalent to anthropology as the Louvre
is to art. The bottom floor contains displays of the regions pre-conquest
civilizations such as the Aztecs, the Tula, the Totanecs, the Mayans, the
Olmecs and the Toltecs. Almost every ancient civilization is rewarded with an
awesome micro- model of their corresponding central cities such as
The Monumento a la Revolucion - a
massive four pillared edifice built in the middle of the Plaza de la Republica
was commissioned by President Pofirio Diaz, originally to serve as a
legislative hall before being turned into a mausoleum due to the early 20th
century revolution where four former Mexican Presidents (Calles, Cardenas,
Carranza and Madero) are now buried underneath. Another noteworthy monument I
stumbled upon was the Monument a la Independiencia (aka; El
The Bosque de Chapultepec is sort
of Mexico City's equivalent to Golden Gate Park and it is a great place to go
and wander for both tourists and locals. "Chapultepec" means "grasshopper" in
the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl. Legend has it that this was the place where
one of the latter Toltec kings took refuge while fleeing the Tula before
Chapultepec Hill was turned into an Aztec fortress. Today the bustling park is
full of people, shops, food stalls, a zoo, street entertainment, color and
culture as well as some of the most remarkable museums in the world.
The other museum in the park
I visited was the Museo Nacional de Historia, inside the Chapultepec Castle,
which rests formidably on top of Chapultepec Hill. The castle was the home of
former Emperor Maximilian and his wife Charlotte during the French occupation
of the mid 19th century. It also served as the quarters for several Mexican
Presidents until turning into a museum in 1940. The Mexican president now
resides in the Palcio Nacional, near the Zocalo. Not only is this castle now a
exquisite museum but it also functions as an excellent lookout point where one
can capture views of west Mexico City: including the Zona Rosa, Chapultepec
Park and nearby cathedral domes.
Mexico's revolutionary culture is
exhibited in no better shape or form than in the murals displayed in museums
and public buildings all over Mexico City. This art of incorporating
revolutionary political and public wall painting has been dubbed "Muralismo"
and was perfected by the early 20th century painters David Siqueiros, Jose
Orozco and Diego Rivera. The latter has an epic exhibition on display in the
Palcio Nacional, ehich tells of almost 400 years of Mexican history, from
Cortes's conquest in the early 1500's to the early 20th century revolution. I
needed my passport to get in, as this was the workplace of Mexican President
Vincente Fox, but there was no admisstion charge.
The view of the Zocalo from the Torre Latinoamerica. Notice the
morning smog. Either that or I need a new camera.
|The remaining four days in the Mexican
capital were all spent as "half days" as I took excursions to
Teotihuacan and Puebla. If you've been reading any of my previous
write ups, you're probably aware of my traditional soccer game when going
abroad and there was no way I was going to miss a trip to the famous Aztec
Stadium, where both the 1970 and 1986 world cup finals were played. The game
itself was a bit of a disappointment, a rather placid 1-1 draw between America
and Monterrey (ironically the top two teams in Mexico at the time of writing)
and so was the atmosphere in the sparsely full 110,000 seater stadium but at
least I did get to see a game in this world famous
I also had an interesting run in
with the "Policia" that night when two of my newly made friends from the hotel
I was staying in, the Englishwoman Charlie and "El loco" Gabriel, decided to go
climb the lions on the base of the Monument a la Independiencia at 3 o'clock in
the morning. We got some great photos but the authorities weren't too impressed
and a 50 peso ($5) gratuity was needed to settle matters, plus another 50 pesos
for a ride back to the Zocalo.
As mentioned earlier, the
ancient Aztec kingdom of Tenochtitlan lies beneath the colonial buildings of
Mexico City and some of it is on display in the Templo Mayor. The Templo Mayor
is presumably the exact location where the Aztecs witnessed an eagle with a
snake in its beak perched on a cactus that determined that this was where they
should build their kingdom. This fable still lives deep in the heart of Mexico
today as it is the emblem on the Mexican flag that separates theirs from the
Italians' green, white and red stripes. It is now an impressive museum where
one can stroll through the exterior ruins before entering the main modern
building to see displays of ancient Aztec artifacts.
Right: What is left of Tenochtitlan is on display at the Templo
Above: another Diego Rivera mural on
display at the Palacio National.
|The Templo Mayor was unfortunately the
last thing I had time for in Mexico City as I had a plane to catch that day.
Nevertheless I had thoroughly enjoyed my five days in Mexico. I had seen a lot
of interesting things, including pyramids and museums, had great food and best
of all had met some truly wonderful people. I found the locals to be extremely
friendly and hospitable and there was not even a trace of the dangers and
annoyances that my travel guides and friends had warned me
At the time of writing, I'm not sure
what role the date March 19th, 2003 will have in the scheme of things but I
returned home to find out that the US and it's "allies" had just bombed Iraq. I
find it somewhat ironic that I had just visited a place that had been destroyed
by "Conquistadors" in search of god, glory and gold some 500 years ago. I guess
it just goes to show that some things never change....