I don’t know what I had expected from Mexico City. It was our final stop on our six week tour of Central America, and as such one of the few immovable objects in our plans. Yet I knew precious little about the place. The most populous city in the western hemisphere (depending on what arbitrary basis you choose to divide our world); a city that lives atop one of our planet’s most unstable fault lines; and yes, a place with a reputation for uncompromisingly mean streets. That was about the full extent of my knowledge. And as Lonely Planet decided that Central America does not extend beyond the southernmost Mexican states my guidebook was by now little more than a brick in the bottom of my rucksack.
We arrived in Mexico travel weary and without the inclination to be blown away by yet another new city, a new set of churches and yet more grand relics of colonial or pre-colonial days. Yet Mexico did manage to impress; in fact, more than that it surprised us to such an extent that it was quickly installed as one of the highlights of our trip.
World Class Architecture
The sheer scale of the architecture on display in Mexico is astounding. The Palace of Bellas Artes (across the road from our hotel) made a striking landmark, more so in the late afternoon when the setting sun cast its orange light on the giant onion dome.
The Torre Latinoamericana, Mexico’s original skyscraper, had clearly seen better days yet even now it dwarfs the surrounding buildings and can be seen from most places in the city. And in a city that has a serious sinking problem that is causing most buildings to lean at Pisa-esque angles it’s one of the few buildings in the city that’s still reassuringly straight. A ride to the restaurant and little museum at the top will cost you 60 pesos ($5).
It’s not only the external street views that are impressive. Perhaps our biggest gasp of admiration came when we entered the main central Post Office (Correo Mayor). To see the ornate stairwells and the grand elevator was to see at first hand the ambition, power and confidence that the powers of Mexico displayed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Around every corner is yet another splendid church, a bohemian square or a dilapidated relic of Mexico’s colourful past. And the museums are by all accounts superb. We were keen to visit the highly rated National Museum of Anthropology. Sadly due to some spectacularly bad planning we’d set aside our only full day in the city as a Monday, when pretty much no museum is open; be warned.
As for the city’s dangerous reputation? In daylight the central of the city is filled with working people mixed in with a few quirky characters; much like any other city in fact. Of course at night things change, and while the main pedestrian thoroughfare (Av. Madero) remains busy until its shops and surrounding restaurants shut their doors, in much of the city the pavements do empty and walking is not recommended.
Our Lady of Guadelupe
While Mexico City is full of grand churches and some of the world’s finest museums there are also many reasons to head out of the centre. Fortunately the excellent public transport system makes this very easy and cheap to do. A trip to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a short metro ride north of the centre. This is considered by many to be the holiest religious site in the Americas and it was here that a lowly farmer saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the 16th century.
There are now several churches and chapels at the site, as well as the original picture to which pilgrims come to pray. You’ll also find a giant bronze statue of Pope John Paul 2 alongside his popemobile. Souvenir shops are everywhere.
Teotihuacan is a hugely impressive Aztec site around 50km north of Mexico. Famed for its two giant pyramids, the 3km walk along the Avenue of the Dead that runs through the site is best done away from the midday heat. Be prepared for the persistent attentions of the hawkers as you make your way through the complex of ancient temples and dwellings.
Even after visiting half a dozen Mayan sites before reaching Mexico, Teotihuacan still made a strong impression and is highly recommended. It is a one hour bus ride from the northern bus station.
On our final day we took the subway south to the leafy suburb of Coyoacan. Its wide open plaza and laid back vibe was reminiscent of a small French provincial town. The houses in the nearby streets were clearly inhabited by the well heeled end of Mexico’s population, with nannies and dog walkers appearing and disappearing from houses while the joggers out in the park rushed past us with the latest i-gadgets, blocking out the sounds of their small green dot in the otherwise endless urban sprawl.
Along with many other tourists we’d come to Coyoacan on the trail of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Having seen the movie Frida just before we left home (if you’re going to Mexico City, the only piece of advice I’d give is to watch it before you go; seriously) we had already visited the museum housing one of Diego Rivera’s murals the day before. We now came to see Frida’s famous Blue House where she’d spent much of her childhood and where she passed away.
The house is now an excellent museum telling the story of Frida’s life and showing much of her work, and the audio guide on offer is unusually good. It leaves you in no doubt that Ms Kahlo led one of the most troubled lives that you could imagine anyone having the misfortune to experience.