Mexico City: the Metropolis of Fire, Stone and Water
November 17, 2016
An Introduction to Mexico City
I lack the words to describe Mexico; despite the extensiveness of the English language I know not the words to describe the emotions, the images and the joy that engulfs me when I hear it named. As I was finishing high school I struggled to convince my father to allow me to study abroad and I think his biggest fear was that I wouldn’t come home, or rather that Mexico would no longer be home for me. During the three years I studied abroad I travelled widely, on my own and with friends, visiting roughly twenty different countries in that time, yet my certainty of where home was never wavered. Mexico will always be my home.
If you ever fly over Mexico City at night, look out the window and I promise the sight will leave you in awe. When you look down upon Mexico City it is like looking upon a pirate’s long forgotten treasure; millions of golden lights wink at you as they trace the voluptuous curves of the hills that surround the valley of wonders beneath you. Despite being one of the biggest metropoleis in the world, Mexico City doesn’t blind you with the intensity of its lights, instead it chooses to warmly embrace you and invite you to explore the many mysteries buried among its eclectic combination of buildings, parks and allies.
Since its birth, nearly 700 hundred years ago, Mexico City has served as a centre of power and culture which that has been critical to the development of the country. As the relentless river of time flows it has eroded Mexico City into many different shapes expanding it a little more each time, ultimately joining the rankings among the biggest and most beautiful cities of the world, so that the traveller must carefully pick and choose where to visit.
Exploring Mexico’s Centro Historico
One cannot come to Mexico City and not explore the so-called Centro Historico, for this is the heart of the city, which has been tirelessly pumping since pre-Hispanic times. Mexico City is unique in many ways, for instance it is one of the few big cities that is not intersected by a river, for Huitzilopochtli chose instead a lake for his people to establish themselves. Today said lake has succumbed to the darkness, hiding under vibrant city that emerged from its depths, yet it constantly reminds us of its presence by playfully tilting the buildings on the surface. A clear example of the lake’s mischievous nature can be seen as one comes out of Bellas Artes and looks up towards the SEARS buildings across the road: the two seem to have gotten into quite a dispute and have therefore slowly leaned away from each other over the years.
The tilting of the buildings can often be missed for the sight of Bellas Artes is far more alluring to the eye, particularly if it’s your first time in the city. Bellas Artes is one of the best known buildings in Mexico City, for its sunset-tainted dome stands out against the sky as it crowns the magnificent marble structure that has served as home of the arts since 1934. Similarly to the Vienna Opera House, Bellas Artes stands out for its intriguing combination of styles as it boasts a classical design on the outside which is then contrasted by an Art Deco interior. If you’re up for a challenge you can attempt to find Aida, the architect’s dog, on the façade. Once inside the visitor can indulge not only in the architectural richness of the edifice but also on striking samples of the Mexican muralist movement that decorate its walls. In addition to the murals, a ceaseless stream of culture traverses the Palace’s threshold to reside for a few months in temporary exhibitions of top quality. On the very top one can also find the National Architecture Museum, which displays the richness of Mexican architecture, for it is not all pyramids and churches, as many tend to believe. However, if you are not much of a museum person Bellas Artes also welcomes you to relax as you enjoy one of the numerous performances it has to offer during the evenings.
Across the road we find another of Boari’s masterpieces, although not nearly as famous as Bellas Artes, the Postal Palace has elegantly served this city for over a century. At first glance it might not stand out amongst the other buildings, however if one ventures inside its grandeur soon becomes apparent. One can walk along its vast marble corridors as the eye admires the magnificent décor that earned it its title as a palace. Once there, one may choose to wonder into the modest postal museum it hosts in one of its wings, find your way up the main staircase and try to name all the flags that are depicted on the columns surrounding it or, as it was originally intended, one may approach one of the golden desks to send a postcard home.
As you exit on Tacuba Street you will find that across the road King Charles IV of Spain placidly extending his hand towards you, ready to share the many stories he has collected during his travels around the city. If time is a luxury you have, you will find Mexico’s National Art Gallery, MUNAL, behind the Spanish monarch. As soon as one enters a majestic staircase takes you back in time and invites you to start exploring. Inside the walls are crowded with the snapshots of times gone by, which the strokes of a brush have captured and now patiently await to be brought back to life through your imagination.
Further down the road there is another very interesting museum. Dwarfed in side by its neighbour, the Interactive Museum of Economy, which my mother would rather have you visit, you will find the Museum of Torture. This museum confiscates no more than thirty minutes of your time, yet it is enough to take you back to the Middle Ages and make you appreciate how lucky you are to be alive in the XXI century.
Following the fright the numerous torture instruments might have inflicted upon one’s imagination it is time to relax for a while and Café Tacuba further down the street is the perfect place to do so. For over a hundred years this establishment has striven to uphold the tradition of Mexican cuisine, welcoming foreigners and locals alike.
However, if time is not on your side, you might choose instead to head to a small ally behind the Postal Palace instead, where a keen reader finds a gem, for this ally is crowded with stalls selling books of all kinds at very tempting prices. I have seen many people, myself included, who turn a two-minute walk into an hour’s journey as they browse through titles with twinkling eyes. When one finally emerges on the other side the sight is yet another striking building known as La Casa de los Azulejos, rather than a house it is a work of art; a carefully assembled Talavera puzzle demanding to be admired. Today it houses one of Mexico’s biggest chain stores, Sanborns, and its restaurant, which offers traditional Mexican food.
Exiting on the other side of the building you find yourself face-to-face with the Torre Latino. Built in 1956 it has long since lost its ranking among the tallest skyscrapers in the world, however it remains the tallest building in Mexico’s Centro Historico and can therefore still lay claim to one of the best views available. The view can either be appreciated from the viewpoint at the top or while enjoying dinner at the Miralto restaurant. While the view during the day allows you to distinguish the many buildings that will later be visited, the night view is something out of a fairytale, specially when contemplating Bellas Artes and the Alameda next to it, for the glow of marble at night is simply breathtaking. If you’re on a budget I’d certainly recommend the viewpoint for the entrance allows multiple visits and it entitles you to visit a small museum detailing the history of the site, the angel of independence, the statue of Charles IV and the earthquake that shook Mexico to its foundations in 1985.
After appreciating the extensiveness of the city from above it is time to fully plunge in and experience the buzz of life it hosts. Walk along the pedestrian avenue Francisco I. Madero and let yourself be surprised at every turn: here Forever21 has become the happy neighbour of the Casa de Cultura Banamex, where one never fails to find fascinating exhibitions; not far from there we find eager sellers offering tattoos and cheap piercings, competing with the displays of the numerous jewellery shops lining the street; a few steps away the bustle of Starbucks is quickly subdued by the Temple of St Philip next-door; in the opposite corner we find the Estanquillo Museum which likes to make itself evident by hosting spontaneous concerts in its balcony and, if you happen to stumble into Peppa Pig, Batman or Emiliano Zapata offering to take a picture with you, don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal.
Eventually, you will come to the end of the street and find yourself in the Zócalo, Mexico’s main square and home to many of the cities biggest events. In its centre the Mexican flag greets you as it sways in a never-ending dance with the wind, allowing the eagle it bears a taste of what flying is like. As you contemplate this scene you might get offered a tlayuda, please don’t hesitate to accept for there is not better snack to compliment the experience. Behind the waving flag, on the Zócalo’s east-side stands the National Palace, a building as important as its design suggests for it is the heart of the country’s political life, the place where the future of this country is written on a daily basis and where once a year, on September 16th, every Mexican is reminded of the men and women that fought create this nation so that today we can all scream in unison ¡Viva Mexico!
On the north side of the plaza stands the Cathedral, the largest in the Americas and an example of the beauty that can emerge from recycling, for the Spanish built it from the rubble left behind upon the destruction of the temple to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Once inside make sure to explore to the very depths of its halls and, in front of the main alter, you will find that in addition to the religious paraphernalia one would expect to see, there is a pendulum that has recorded the sinking of the city for many years. After marvelling at the interiors of this sacred place you can then go closer to the heavens for half an hour by taking the rooftop tour of the cathedral to learn more about this fascinating place as you take in a breathtaking view of the city while surrounded by a choir of angels camouflaged as bells.
So far in this journey the pre-Hispanic Mexico that first stood on this ground has been but a lingering whisper of ancient times, a rumour which we can bring to life if we wonder behind the Cathedral to find ourselves at the Templo Mayor. This unique museum allows the visitor to walk among the ruins of the pyramids that once presided over this valley as well as sharing with you an impressive collection of more than seven thousand objects that helped write the initial chapters of this city’s story, back when it was a baby in a cradle of water and fire.
Finally, as the shadows of the night start to bring the myths and legends of this city alive, it is time to retrace one’s steps back to the Zócalo and head down 16 de Septiembre. The more energetic tourist might choose to take a small detour to visit the hotel Ciudad de Mexico, a beautiful building located on the right-hand side as one turns into the street, even if occupying one of its rooms must remain fantasy. Soon after passing the renown Pasteleria Ideal we find ourselves in the Eje Central, despite the moans of tired feet take a left and after a couple of blocks you will find El Moro, your reward for a day well spent. Time to find a table and enjoy some hot chocolate and churros!