Hi, folks. I hope you don’t mind if I leave Hobart, Tasmania, Australia for a moment and head to a place that has literally one hundred times the population: Mexico City!
This is going back a bit: we went on this side trip during our extended stay in the USA, in December 2014. (In fact, we went here directly after visiting New York.) So this update is well overdue. But this city was so incredible and overwhelming that it was difficult to know where to begin!
We stayed in Reforma, one of the affluent neighbourhoods (colonias) in the center of the city and easily accessible on the Metro. I’d recommend brushing up on your Spanish before going to Mexico. Maybe 10% of people we encountered spoke English, and we were doing affluent-tourist things. Jamie used an app called Cat Spanish to learn a few basic terms (everything is better with cute cats) but I managed fine with Spanish that was intermediate at best.
Four years of high school and college Spanish, and I’d still silently rehearse every word I’d need for ordering at a cafe. (And I still managed to mix up medio and mediano, ugh.) There were a couple of times when someone would respond to my laboured sentences in English, which made me feel somewhat embarrassed at the time, but it wasn’t anything to stress over. Once our Tattslotto tickets come through and work/time are no object, I’d love to do an intensive Spanish-language course abroad and absorb loads of art and architecture while gaining fluency. Why didn’t I do study abroad?! (Oh, yeah. Reasons.)
One thing we did notice in the central city were the cops on every corner. Everybody going about their business and a couple of federales in bulletproof vests and rifles in each alleyway, no big. Saturday was the night of the national soccer league championship, so the streets were filled with fans — hollering out their car windows, honking, waving flags. And just beyond the fans, flanking the main parade, were scores of riot cops waiting for hell to break loose. It didn’t.
Jamie and I went on two day tours: one through the markets, and one to Teotihuacan, the site of pre-Aztec pyramids. Day tours might sound like the cheesy tourist option, but the Urban Adventures guides are meant to be fairly casual, and our guide, Luis, did not disappoint. He took Jamie and I around some of the largest markets, taking in the dazzling array of goods on offer — chilies, limes, pinatas, bucketloads of fresh flowers, santeria icons, homemade moles — and stopping for tasty treats along the way. He pointed out his favourites and got us to help him find ingredients for Christmas gifts. It was just him and the two of us that day, and it did feel like having a local friend show us around.
These socialist-realism murals were all over the place. Public marketplaces have existed in Mexico since forever, but the market halls are state-owned structures, mainly located in middle to lower-class neighbourhoods. They only charge a nominal stallholder fee if any, and some have childcare facilities onsite. And these market halls currently all exist in various states of disrepair, which is a major reason why supermarkets are gaining traction in Mexico. Many government entities are still dirt cheap and accessible to everyone, like national museums and the Metro.
Tacos al pastor, salsa and horchata
DUDE, THE FOOD. Tamales. Huaraches. Lamb barbacoa. Tacos al pastor. Aguas frescas. Chilaquiles. Tlacoyos. Elote. When I’m cruising along on my immersive-language course I’m also gonna work on that PhD in Mexican street food, because the food is outstanding. Australian interpretations of Mexican cuisine feel even more grim in comparison.
We stayed around the corner from Cielito, a bougie coffee shop that we hit up several times. I liked trying out the Mexican flavours on offer, like cajeta (similar to dulce de leche) and rompope, a Mexican eggnog. So nice.
Jamie and I spent an afternoon wandering through the Centro Histórico. The city’s central plaza – El Zócalo – is the second largest in the world after Red Square, and lined with Spanish Colonial government buildings and palaces. The Zócalo was undergoing preparations for a winter festival, so there was an utter crush of people throughout the area. We knew about the 43 disappeared students and the associated protests, but on that day in mid-December we only saw a small, tight-knit group of protesters camped out by the Monument of the Revolution.
Speaking of the Monumento a la Revolución: That was a cool landmark to visit. Obviously it’s a monument of historical and architectural significance, but there’s also an observation deck at the top. We rode up there and saw the spread of the city in all directions.
Museums: Museo Nacional de Antropología
If you’re into museums, Mexico City has got you covered: there’s a hundred and fifty of ’em. We visited a handful of the most famous ones, as well as a couple smaller ones like the Museo del Diseño. We regrettably didn’t make it to Casa Azul, the home of Frida Kahlo, due to local public holidays, but we did spend time at the Museo Nacional de Antropología and Museo Rufino Tamayo.
It was really cool to see all these artifacts at the Museo Nacional de Antropología while learning more about all of the peoples of Mesoamerica, including the rise and fall of the Aztecs/Mexica. Several exhibits led to outdoor gardens with replicas of ancient tombs, and the museum itself is also a stunning example of mid-century architecture. It’s an impressive sight all around.
Museums: Museo Rufino Tamayo
The largest exhibition on display at this contemporary art museum was Pablo Vargas Lugo, Micromegas, which toyed with human symbols and representations and was conceptually fascinating. But this outdoor installation, designed by Alejandro Castro for Design Week 2014, immediately drew me in.
From the statement: “The objective is for spectators to reflect on architecture as a phenomenon that modifies environments and enables new ways of seeing them.” Individuals or small groups can walk into this recessed cocoon, lined in endemic Mexican plants, and look out the windows that are level with the surrounding grass. It’s an installation that creates an experience. I liked it.
Pyramids of Teotihuacan
We also went outside Mexico City for a day and visited Teotihuacan, the ruined site of an ancient, powerful city. It’s unknown which indigenous groups built it or lived there, but at its peak in the first millennium AD, it was the largest city in Mesoamerica. We climbed the larger of the two pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun; at 65m high, it wasn’t a massive climb, but the steps were rather steep. Luis told us stories of what he knew about the history of the site and facts about its construction. (All that exposed stone was once covered in paint and plaster.) Researchers know about specific activities that went on within the city — commerce, agriculture, even human sacrifice — but they only have theories about why these two pyramids were built.
From the top of the pyramid, we had a good look at the layout of the city: its central corridor, The Avenue of the Dead; the smaller Pyramid of the Moon; and the many residential compounds arranged on a careful grid. The trees planted as borders and windbreaks lay in perfectly straight lines.
After climbing the pyramid, we went to the nearby village of San Martín de las Pirámides for a home-cooked dinner. (That’s Luis above; again, an all-around cool dude.) We got to try out some liqueurs made from local cactus fruits, and that taquito platter was the perfect end to the day.
We only experienced a tiny slice of Mexico City, much less Mexico as a whole, but all the art, architecture, food and culture we got to experience were top-notch. I’m lucky and grateful that we were able to check it out. Now I REALLY want to keep traveling, speak some more second-grader Spanish, see some other cities I haven’t seen. ❤