by V Kunapuli
History, art, architecture, culture, cuisine… Mexico City offers a variety of delightful experiences and is only a short flight away from the United States.
My trip to Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) as it is known, started as a semi-impromptu decision on finding a great airfare deal. It helped that I had several local friends in CDMX whom I met through an international social organization, who provided guidance and company throughout my stay.
(Fig 1: Zocalo, the third largest public square in the world… with the Cathedral and the National Palace pictured)
A trip to Teotihuacan took up the major part of the day. It is about an hour’s drive away from Mexico City. I opted for an Uber because of greater flexibility, although there are plenty of buses and guided tours available.
(Fig 2: View of Teotihuacan)
Following an early lunch at the site that included a taste of “pulque”, a drink made from the agave plant, came the actual visit. The pyramids themselves are breathtaking, and the Pyramid of the Sun (Piramide del Sol) is among the largest in the world. The climb to the top was slightly challenging as the steps are uneven and fairly narrow in places. The altitude sickness didn’t help, either. Once on top, however, the view was breathtaking.
(Fig 3: Piramide del Sol)
The view from atop the smaller Pyramid of the Moon (Piramide de la Luna) is even more striking, with the Avenue of the Dead stretched out in front and the Piramide del Sol in the distance. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl which is a little ways away, is smaller but more embellished than the larger two pyramids.
(Fig 4: The Avenue of the Dead as seen from the Piramide de la Luna, with the larger Piramide del Sol in the distance)
There is also a museum on site to get a better idea of the history. It is believed that it was one of the busiest trade centers in the area, and that the majority of the ruins are yet to be excavated. It is believed that the Teotihuacanos, about whom very little is known, founded the place; and the Aztecs settled there subsequently. This place has enormous historic and cultural significance to the Mexicans, and many believe that this is where their (pre-Hispanic) culture originated.
All in all, it was a breathtaking experience and a major bucket list item checked off. Tip: carry plenty of water, comfortable shoes, and a hat and sunglasses. Considering it is Central Mexico, the temperatures are moderate, so a light jacket might not be a bad idea. On the way back, I paid a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a major catholic pilgrimage site.
(Fig 5: Guadalupe)
The day was spent mainly exploring sites around the Zocalo. The cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks are the square. Adjacent to it are the ruins of Templo Mayor, which are below ground level. Mexico City is located on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan, an ancient city built on a lake bed and interlaced with canals, of which Templo Mayor is believed to have been a major sacred site. The city is slowly sinking because of its location on top of the lake bed, and it is quite evident in the way even some of the modern buildings are tilted.
The nearby National Palace has a wonderful collection of murals and frescoes by famous Mexican artists including Diego Rivera, which describe pre-Hispanic Mexican culture in great depth. I was fortunate enough to have two of my local friends describe each work of art to me, otherwise their significance would have been lost on me.
Francisco I. Madero street just off the square is great for strolling and has some good restaurants. The nearby Torre Latinoamericana offers a wonderful view from the top. A little further ahead, the Palacio de Bellas Artes building is a work of art in itself, and hosts world class cultural events. My favorite structure, however, was the Casa de Los Azulejos, a beautiful building covered in blue tiles on the outside, and with lovely frescoes on the inside. (The restaurant inside is mediocre and totally skippable).
The day included a trip to the upscale neighborhood of Coyoacan, where Casa Azul- Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home (now a museum) is located. I’ve admittedly never been a fan of her works, but no visit to CDMX is considered complete without a trip to the Frida Kahlo museum, so there I was. Tip: buy tickets online and well in advance, because the line to pick up the tickets itself was an entire block long.
The afternoon included exploring Coyoacan and then a trip to the Dolores Olmedo Museum (recommended highly by a local friend), which houses more of Kahlo and Rivera’s works. The artwork is not exactly among their most famous, however, the grounds are incredibly lovely, with dozens of peacocks and other animals strolling around, and also Xoloitzcuintli… the black hairless dogs native to Mexico which had cultural significance for the ancient Mexicans.
The day started off with the best breakfast I had in years at Cafebreria El Pendulo… chilaquiles with mole, and toast with their in-house marmalade. Then came the much-awaited visit to Mexico’s most famous museum, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.
Artifacts are very well-organized in sections based on geographic regions in Mexico where they were discovered. Some of the highlights include the giant Aztec Sun Stone, and the headdress made of quetzal feathers. My favorites, however, were the giant Olmec heads from Veracruz. 🙂
Chapultepec, the area where the museum is located, also has a castle and a zoo, which we did not have time to visit. Streets are lined with the ubiquitous jacaranda trees.
The afternoon and evening were spent in Xochimilco, where remnants of ancient Aztec canals still exist. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but enjoyable nonetheless. We rented a boat all to ourselves for an hour and a half, for the equivalent of something like USD 20.
Tip: Cuemanco is not too far from Xochimilco, and less touristy… so it might be a better option, although we did not go there. Also, Dolores Olmedo museum is quite close to Xochimilco so it might be worth combining both these into one trip.
Where To Stay
Accommodation in CDMX is reasonably priced, with a good selection of mid-range hotels available for $60-80 a night. I recommend staying close to the Zocalo, both for safety and ease of transportation. Hotel Catedral and Hotel Rioja are two that come to mind. And there’s Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico right on the square, if budget is not a constraint. 🙂
What To Eat
CDMX has a plethora of choices when it comes to food… “real Mexican food”, as my friends put it. Being vegetarian, I was not terribly adventurous with food, but I had my share of delicious pozole, tlacoyos, sopés, gorditas, chilaquiles, and quesadillas. (Mexico City is probably the only place where quesadillas are available “con queso” or “sin queso”… yes, one has to specify).
Churreria El Moro is somewhat of an institution in CDMX, is open 24/7, and has the best churros I’ve ever eaten in my life… with dips that include cajeta and condensed milk. They also have spicy Mexican hot chocolate and super thick Spanish hot chocolate, to go with the churros.
The cuisine includes things like flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) and huitlacoche (corn smut), and of course several different varieties of corn. More adventurous items include escamoles (ant larvae) and fried grasshoppers.
How To Get Around
The metro system is well-organized and inexpensive, however, it might be a little challenging for someone who does not speak the language. Turibus has hop-on, hop-off tours. Uber has great service and is very inexpensive.
A Few Tips
-Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, heavily populated, and quite spread out. It is best to map out areas of interest and plan sightseeing accordingly. Traffic can also get quite congested.
-It is also one of the highest capital cities in the world, and altitude sickness can be a problem.
-It is not the safest city either, and it is best to stick to well-populated areas. Areas around the Zocalo and upscale neighborhoods like Condesa are generally considered safe, but again it is good to display general prudence.
-People are extremely friendly and hospitable, a significant proportion of people who do not speak English. It is best to familiarize oneself with basic Spanish.
-CDMX is well-connected to the USA by air, and is a short drive away from beautiful colonial cities in central Mexico… Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Puebla, Morelia… to name a few. It might be worth planning a side trip to a few of these places.
-Be open to a little spontaneity… be it the fashion parade that you run into at the Angel d’ Independencia, the aerial dance of Los Voladores de Papantla, or the free Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in town. 🙂
All in all, an incredible experience. Hope the article was helpful. 🙂