In the Shadow of Cortes


If you like mad chaotic cities then you will love Mexico City. The streets are congested and full of constant traffic, both human and vehicular. There is always something going on and you cannot help but be caught up in the pace of it all. There is so much to see in the city that after three visits I still feel I want to return to see some more.

The Zocalo or central square of Mexico City is the second largest city squares in the world (only Moscow’s Red Square is bigger) and is the best place to start your sightseeing. It is the site of the ancient Aztec city of Tenotchitlan (some ruins can be seen in the Templo Mayor) and you will undoubtedly see some of their descendants playing some music and doing a bit of dance today. It is sad that this is nearly all that remains of their incredible civilization, which was destroyed in two short years by the marauding Cortes and his conquistadors. The Zocalo is flanked on one side by a rather dour looking cathedral (it is usually covered in construction) and another by the Palacio Nacional, which contains the offices of the president. You can wander inside the Palacio Nacional where you can see some really great murals by one of Mexico’s most famous artists Diego Rivera.

Paseo de la Reforma was laid out by the Emperor Maximilian to mirror the great European boulevards. The section from the Zocalo to Chapultepec Park is the most interesting and makes for a pleasant stroll early in the morning. From the city centre the first area it passes through is the Zona Rosa. This is the main hotel area where you are likely to be staying. Filled with internet cafes, bars, clubs and American style pizzerias it is not authentic Mexico, but it is a good base. At the weekend the locals all flock to Chapultepec Park and it fills up with entertainers a myriad of stalls selling all kinds of bric a brac. A visit to the Museum of Anthropology is a great way to escape from the midday heat (on Sundays it is free in) and it is one of the top museums in the world. Treasures from all of the ancient Mexican civilizations are represented with the great Mayan stone calendar being perhaps the most precious object on view.

Mexicans are very Catholic and deeply religious. Guadalupe is a suburb of Mexico City and it is the most important religious site in the country.  Here a local peasant Juan Diego (just recently made a saint by the pope) had a vision of the Virgin Mary as he was taking a stroll over a hill. Her image was left on a cloak when Juan collected some roses in December (out of the rose season) to bring to the local bishop to prove his visions were real. Many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the basilica each year, especially on December 12, which is the anniversary of his second vision of Our Lady, and many of them come the final few feet to the modern basilica on their knees as a show of their faith and devotion.

Getting around Mexico City by taxi is all about Volkswagen beetles. The older and trademark yellow variety, which was a symbol of the city is on the decline and being replaced by the newer green version, which are supposedly more ecofriendly because they use unleaded fuel. But is doubtful they make too much difference to what is one of the most polluted cities on the planet. If you want to get a great view of the city then go up in an elevator to the top of the Latino Tower. On a clear day you can see the twin volcanoes that are about 50 miles away like they were just down the road. Towards the end of the working week with all the traffic you are unlikely to be able to see for a mile or even the elegant Palacio de Belles Artes across the road.

There is a lot to see just outside the centre and you can catch a metro out to the elegant Coyoacan and San Angel suburbs. If you are in the city on Sunday, go to Xochimilco. The locals in their droves hire boat covered in paper flowers that float around the network of canals, and have picnics and there is a carnival atmosphere.

There are plenty of day trip options from Mexico City. The Aztec city of Teotihuacan should be first on the list with its massive pyramids of the sun and the moon. A visit to the ancient stone warriors at Tula (the capital of the Toltec civilization) and the Spanish colonial city of Puebla (with its many churches) are also well within reach in a day.

Mexican food is familiar to most of us, but there are a few dishes that haven’t made it internationally yet. One of those is mole, a Pueblan specialty. It is a spicy chocolate sauce and is most often served with chicken. It is not as sweet as you might expect and definitely worth trying.

Plaza Garibaldi is the best place to end an evening in Mexico City after you have eaten, but leave your valuables at home as this is the most likely place where you will be pickpocketed. Resplendent in the uniform of their troupe the mariachis belt out their own particular favourites and compete with hundreds of other bands that stand only a few feet away in the clustered square. You have to be quick with your pesos to get the best band to play your special request and serenade the one who has stolen your heart, as at any moment they can be whisked away to play at some local wedding or party.

Conor Caffrey 2007

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