Mexico City, the largest city on earth with 20 million bustling inhabitants shines in my eyes. Looking for an inland travel adventure, I visited a new friend in Mexico City for a whirlwind tour. Believing in the sanctity and freedom of traveling with a positive attitude, I largely ignored the many warnings that Mexico City was unsafe and rife with serious crime. Some might say I’m afflicted with a sense of “ignorant bliss” but, I believe you find what you seek. I was looking to explore a city with an amazing history and friendly people. What I found far exceeded my expectations.
The trip began with a 10PM bus departure from Puerto Vallarta and an overnight 13 hour bus ride over winding and bumpy roads to the city situated at 7000+ feet. Awakening with the sun rise I enjoyed the last hours of the ride watching the transformation of uninhabited mountainous terrain morph into the dense bustle of mega city. Stepping of the bus into the Norte Mexico bus terminal I was amazed with the sheer size of the installation. Easily larger and significantly more crowded than SeaTac international airport on a holiday weekend. Not really having an idea of where I was in the city my first stop was a small shop specializing in maps. It took the proprietor and his wife three or four minutes of intense study just to find our location within this immense city. Map in hand and looking far too much like a wayward naïve traveler I headed for the nearest “metro” or subway. I joined the flow of bodies heading underground and it was here that I had my first encounter with the welcoming and friendly people of Mexico City. A bit overwhelmed with the sheer size and initial complexity of the metro system I paused to study my metro map to ensure I was heading in the correct direction when a friendly citizen offered assistance and then another on their heels. I was keen to find a hotel and ditch my back pack as to better assimilate with the masses. It didn’t take long to get headed in the right direction and once quickly oriented with the system the two additional train transfers went flawlessly. The crush of metro riders reminded me of a trip to Japan in high school melding into the sweaty mass of a lunch hour rush.
Planning to meet my friend Flor later in the afternoon I began my exploration in Centro Historico where, it all began. The city now inhabits what was previously a huge lake (Lago de Texcoco) which began shrinking revealing an island at it’s center. Around 1325BC the Aztecs, according to legend witnessed an eagle a top a cactus eating a snake on this island. They interpreted as a sign to build a city on this uninhabited island. The eagle depicted on the Mexican flag is a reference to this event. The new city called Tenochtitlan by the 16th century was the center of a sophisticated empire spanning nearly all of present day Mexico. When the Spanish arrived in 1519 the population of the valley was estimated to be 1.5 million and already one of the world’s largest and densest cities.
The history of the city could fill volumes and I find it intensely interesting but, I will suffice to merely move forward with details of my brief tour. I spent the first few hours in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of fine arts), an immense white marble structure housing immense murals and many eye catching exhibitions. Meeting up with Flor for a dash down to the Catedral Metropolitana which is a most beautiful Cathedral having taken two and a half centuries to complete. It sits a top Aztec ruins and it’s sheer size and beauty one might infer played a significant role in the proliferation of Catholicism which is still the dominant religion with 89% of the population. Next, we toured the Palacio Nacional which houses the offices of the President of Mexico and beautifully decorated with Diego Rivera murals around it’s internal courtyard. Turning our attention to the archaeological Templo Mayor which was believed by the Aztecs to be the center of the Universe took us back in time. This amazing structure was rebuilt seven times due to it’s immense weight causing it to perpetually sink into the former lake bed. Captured rival warriors were used for the reconstruction and it is said during one four day bloody rededication ceremony 20,000 warriors hearts were removed as sacrifice. Little remains today after the ravages of the Spanish conquistadors deconstruction and use of the temples stones to pave the adjacent Zocalo. The Zocalo is one of the biggest central squares in the world. A presidential race is currently underway in Mexico and I was delighted to attend a campaign rally at the Zocalo with over 100,000 enthused supporters in attendance. The city is still slowly setting into the lake bed and nearly every historical structure is now significantly below current street level some as much as 8 feet. To wrap up the first day we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of traditional Mexican fare. Despite sacrificing a Saturday night of sampling the cities night clubs I was off to bed early exhausted after 36 hours with out much good sleep given the long and bumpy bus ride to the city.
Meeting Flor the next day at the Museo Nacional de la Revolucion we strolled through Mexico’s last 80 years of political unrest. Having the luxury of a car we drove down Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main boulevard with broad pedestrian medians which link a monumental glorietas (traffic circles) each housing elaborate towering monuments. The city has an overwhelming number of monuments commemorating seemingly everyone from La Diana Cazadora an Amazonian archer who is a tribute to the strength of Mexican women to Aztec emperors and revolutionaries. As one would expect traffic is intense and the drivers aggressive making for an exciting drive to Bosque de Chapultepec the cities biggest park housing a vast array of Monuments, Museums and a Zoo. Walking through the park to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia amongst many thousands of pedestrians and thousands of vendors was an experience in of it self. The museum is immense and the remainder of the day yielded only two of the twelve exhibition halls. We drove to the southern part of the city to Flor’s family home for a glimpse into the convergence of traditional Mexican family values and the modern city dweller. Exploring one of the many neighborhoods within this immense city we strolled through a multi block square filled with vendors selling everything from TV antennas to lingerie. At least five full bands were playing different genres not to mention the numerous soloist acts, various performers and a mini carnival. Amazingly, this just a normal weekend set up! We enjoyed a diner overlooking the festivities as I practiced my basic Spanish.
Monday was spent with no particular agenda and just walked the streets taking in the sights. I was fascinated with the sheer number and diversity of available goods. Seemingly, if you desire a specific type of item you go to a particular block of the city and there you will find 25 to 300 specialized stores for those types of items. For example, I stumbled into the computer zone and I estimate one building alone housed many hundreds of small vendors selling every conceivable computer related item. One could only want for a sufficient description the overwhelming energy and bustle of this city. Browsing through a single market building the size of Costco revealed many hundreds of options of where to buy your fruit and vegetables and this is just one of many such specialized markets offering produce. Monday night I hung out with some of Flor’s friends for dinner and drinks. Pepe as his friends call him is a city rancher who raises sheep and goats for meat and breading stock. The melding of a traditional family business with a modern international businessman.
Needless to say this city presents a mind boggling array of historical sites from the Aztecs, Colonial and pre-Revolutionary eras. I strove to obtain a basic understanding of this history by a visiting; museums, monuments, monasteries, plazas, colonial buildings, and archaeological finds. What I found was an encyclopedia of a city that one could spend months exploring and friendly generous people. Ultimately, I hope to return to the amazing city for a more through exploration.
Much thanks to Flor for her warmth and generosity in sharing her language, culture and beautiful city!