Story and photos by Betsy Marvin
A short week’s stay in Mexico City proved to be full of activity on a trip last December that preceded a longer stay in Oaxaca. We had never been before but will definitely be back!
The sun shone, but a brownish fug of pollution lay across the vast metropolis as we descended into Mexico City one December day shortly before noon. The cab ride to our quaint hotel in the Cuauhtemoc part of the city, along crowded streets rich with a Latino bustling, peeling paint, street stands for fruit or newspapers, and vehicles everywhere, opened our eyes to a new and exotic experience.
Hotel Maria Cristina, a small inn at 31 Rio Lerma, featured tiled walls, carved woodwork, and other charming reminders that the building’s been around for many decades.
After a hotel lunch we went next door to a historic house, the Museo Casa de Carranza, home of Venustiano Carranza, a major figure in the Mexican Revolution, where we saw old maps and photographs as well as antique furnishings, but halfway up the stairs fatigue hit us. We realized that our four hours of sleep coupled with an astounding altitude of over 7300 feet was going to interfere with our enthusiastic plans for the afternoon. We felt the effect, and limited our sightseeing to a slow stroll in the neighborhood for the day.
On Thursday we had to change hotels, due to a reservation glitch, but first hopped a bus for the huge Chapultepec Park and the noted Anthropology Museum. It’s a sizeable modern building around a broad inner courtyard, arranged geographically, with each state and region exhibited in its own individual vast hall.
We began with the northern states, and soon realized that the wealth of exhibits – wall maps, huge mock-ups of ancient buildings, hundreds of showcases of clay figures, jewelry, tools, etc., and other displays, was going to take us longer than the time we had that day. We stumbled into the back and found the famous Aztec “calendar.” The huge round stone, a Mexican icon, amazes and fascinates.
Without even completing our tour of the building, we agreed it is one of the best museums we’d ever seen. But accommodation issues called, and we walked out to the avenue and quickly boarded a bus back to the hotel.
We dragged our luggage the five blocks to a large, bland Sheraton, and were assigned a comfortable 15th floor room overlooking Paseo La Reforma, the broad boulevard running southwest through the city, punctuated by traffic circles and monuments; we were at the traffic circle around the imposing Monumento a la Independencia.
Fanciful benches, Christmas piñatas and crèches dot the sidewalks, overhung with leafy trees – a wonderful place to walk.On Sunday mornings, motor traffic takes access roads while the avenue opens to cyclists and strollers. Impromptu exercise sessions complete with music pop up at corners, and vendors in booths sell snacks.
We visited the Zona Rosa, an entertainment area across La Reforma, and discovered a marvelous old bookstore, the Cafebrería El Péndulo, with more books and a café on the mezzanine. Here at times trees obscured the sunlight so much the streetlights were on!
The Zócalo, the main square of the city, was our goal Friday, and we found a bus to deliver us there, but jumped off early when we saw the historic buildings of the nearby neighborhood. The broad plaza was filled with a carnival for young people, featuring, of all things (at 75 degrees Fahrenheit), an ice rink in the center! Bright tinselly decorations on the fronts of buildings proclaimed Christmas cheer, but we were more interested in the cathedral and the Palacio Nacional.
Before we could enter the church, though, a giggling gaggle of young adolescents accosted us with a plea for interviews! “Homework!” they said, and we were happy to cooperate. The kids took turns hesitantly reading banal questions, we all laughed a lot and I took their photos, and it was fun for everyone.
The cathedral was lovely inside and out, but a mass was being held, and we didn’t stay long, soon making our way over to the Palace to see the magnificent murals of Diego Rivera. Security was tight; we were asked for IDs, scanned through a machine, had our bags checked and even our temperatures taken through a camera-like instrument. Then each got a squirt of hand sanitizer (something we were to see at several public sites in the country), and we were ready to view the famed graphics.
The paintings surround the broad staircase, and cover walls around half the upper floor. One could easily spend a day there, preferably with a guide, identifying personages and historical events, entertainingly depicted in the huge format. Early indigenous people engaged in daily activities, later meeting the first Spanish arrivals, personages of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries mingled, up through the early 20th.
We wandered through the old quarter, pausing at the Art Museum, whose interior knocked our sandals off in its Latino Art Deco magnificence! The long greenspace Alameda Park, every lane filled with souvenirs and CD and snack vendors, led us across to the Rivera Museum. There a voluble elderly man ‘adopted’ us and spent nearly an hour explaining the big mural there. We sat in lounge sofas, lying back to get a good view of the whole thing. Famous figures group themselves significantly, covering the vast canvas in stories, including the dreams of several. To study Rivera’s murals is to learn the history of Mexico. As for the history of Rivera, his activism, his relationship with Frida Kahlo, his work in the United States, that’s another fascinating story.
Continuing our adventures, we booked a Saturday tour through our hotel, to go out to the fabled pyramids of Teotihuacan, the remains of a pre-Aztecan civilization north of town. Our group numbered twelve, and our guide was an anthropology professor, perhaps retired – jovial, friendly and knowledgeable.
The van trip out took around an hour, and we were slowed by heavy traffic near Our Lady of Guadeloupe Shrine, since it was the saint’s day, and an estimated six million (6,000,000!!) people visited the basilica over the weekend! It’s supposed to be very beautiful, but we will see it another time.
On the way, we stopped at an artisan site, where a guide showed us the multiple uses of the agave plant and served samples of both pulque and tequila to all who wanted to taste. We saw a demonstration of silver jewelry making, and then were left free to wander about the gift shop, where examples of ceramics and textiles were also on sale. I found a lovely pair of earrings made by the technique demonstrated.
This magnificent and enormous archaeological site Teotihuacan encompasses about ten square miles, including high pyramids, a wide avenue, several palaces and a citadel, as well as a museum and gift shop. We visited the citadel, a square of walls and platforms and short pyramids, and our guide told us about the culture, which pre-dated the Aztecs.
The second stop was at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead, a broad boulevard along which walls, elevated platforms and small pyramids lay. At our end the Pyramid of the Moon beckoned, although the upper part was under renovation. Chuck and most of the rest of our party walked up steep steps to the first level, from which they had a fine view down the avenue. We then strolled slowly along this wide thoroughfare, from time to time encountering vendors of jewelry, toys, hats, small sculptures and other souvenirs. Nearly always, their pleading would include the English words, “Almost free!” But we resisted!
About halfway down, the huge Pyramid of the Sun looms, half the height of the tallest Egyptian pyramids. It’s a long way up, and we elected to find a comfortable seat on a stone wall to watch others struggle up. Even the youngest in our group were complaining of sore muscles when we got back to the city! We learned that at one time 125,000 people lived in Teotihuacan, which existed from around 150 BC to about 750 AD, and some 600 pyramids and many palaces were constructed.
We stopped for a 3:00 ‘lunch,’ and were back at the hotel by five, exhausted and quite sunburned, but excited about what we’d seen and learned.
For Sunday, our last full day in Mexico City, we decided to take the bus again out to Chapultepec Park. We wanted to finish touring the marvelous Anthropology Museum, as we had missed some of the most interesting southern regions, and to see the rest of the large public park.
We’re so glad we had a second go at the museum! The left-hand side, where the southern areas are represented, have more outdoor exhibits, and in at least one spot, I felt that our visual experience was something like the first Europeans must have seen, when they stumbled across ruins of ancient civilizations deep in the rain-forest or the mountains. The attention given to appropriate landscaping adds to the sense of being in Yucatan or Chiapas or the Oaxacan region. This is a most impressive museum, one we’d love to visit again and again.
We wandered out to a sort of broad courtyard area in front of the museum, where junior-high-aged kids once again accosted Chuck for interviews, this time in family groups. He affably assented, while I ran off, camera in hand, seduced by drumming and kids in high-feathered Indian headdresses. Soon the dancing began, and I amused myself with photos of indigenous dancers on a background of modern urban architecture.
A long row of vendor booths with fruits, snow cones and other snacks and souvenirs, competed for visitors’ attention. Behind them a ring with a very tall pole and some colorfully dressed young men drew onlookers. We sat on the round rock wall surrounding the ring, and soon, one by one, the guys climbed the pole, each trailing a rope. Once up, they sat on a horizontal wheel, affixed the ropes to the pole, and began pushing themselves around, winding the ropes around the pole. When they finished, a fifth man also ascended, with a wooden flute; he sat in the center and began playing. The other four, whose waists were tied in the ropes, tumbled backwards off the 100-or-so foot pole, quickly twisting a foot in the rope, so that they were spinning outwards, head down, and the flute music was ethereal, the drama intense. They continued to descend, circling almost above our heads, and finally, at around seven feet up, they flipped and landed on their feet. We all breathed a sigh of relief, and were happy to throw some coins into the jar one of them passed.
We strolled on to find a small museum of modern painting, the Rufino Tamayo Museum. While a contemporary of Rivera, Tamayo did not share Rivera’s or many Mexican artists’ political beliefs of the time. For that, his popularity suffered in his early career and he left Mexico for a period and lived in New York. He was himself a painter, but also collected many important works, and we found European and American as well as Latin American pieces.
Heading across the street, we joined thousands of local families in wandering around the park, along the lakeside. Cotton candy of inedible-looking hues, shiny balloons, drinks, hats, sunglasses and crunchy snacks vied for passersby’s pesos. We gazed up at the Castillo, the huge building above the lake, and enjoyed watching ordinary citizens on family outings. A group of costumed recyclers – one dressed as a trash can, another as a plastic bottle, and so on, laughingly posed for a picture with Chuck. It was fun to mingle with the locals!
Our experience in Mexico City was largely touristic; we were there to see the sights. We saved the culinary pursuits for Oaxaca, taking most meals at the inexpensive restaurants along Rio Lerma, near the hotels.
And after long days of walking the streets, meandering the parks, and ambling through museums, our nightlife was almost nil.
As we had walked back along Paseo de La Reforma, we noticed what appeared to be a build-up of uniformed police or military, and we inquired of one what was going on. He said, “Nada!” but we wondered…We retired for a short time to our room, high above the busy street, and when we looked out at the city to watch night fall, we saw hordes of people, especially families, lining the curbs, so we hastened downstairs. We arrived on the street in time to hear the muffled blare of a band over the excited shouts of children, and soon a police escort heralded a Christmas parade. Lighted floats and some musicians were sufficient to delight the crowd, and it was a lovely way to end our stay in the Federal District.
Monday morning we packed and then walked over to the Centro Artesanal, a big market building full of craftspeoples’ booths, and looked over the wares, mostly just to see what was available. Hand-painted ceramics, embroidered cotton clothing and woven shawls vied with leather goods, carved wooden animals, jewelry and other souvenirs for our attention. We were saving our pocketbooks for Oaxaca, and at noon we took off for the airport, to fly to that very place.
If You Go
Hotel Maria Cristina
No. 31 Río Lerma
Col. Cuauhtémoc, México D.F., C.P. 06500
Tel: 5703 1212 and 5566 9688
With 150 rooms and Wi-Fi available throughout most of them, the hotel also offers proximity to museums, restaurants, nightclubs, and the embassies of the United States and Great Britain. If you desire a room with A/C make certain you request one, since not all rooms are equipped with it.
Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel & Towers
325 Paseo de la Reforma
Col. Cuauhtemoc, Mexico City
Federal District 06500
Tel: (52)(55) 5242 5555
This Starwood property offers 755 rooms, tennis courts, fitness center and outdoor heated pool. Conveniently located one mile from the Anthropology Museum and 2 miles from the Palace of Fine Arts, among other attractions and points of interest.
Along the Rio Lerma and the Zona Rosa on the other side of the Paseo de la Reforma, are many restaurants offering cuisine that ranges from contemporary Basque cuisine at Tezka, Korean at U Rae Ok, Italian at Il Postino and of course authentic Mexican at Fonda del Refugio. Great for breakfast or lunch is Cafebrería El Péndulo inside a popular bookstore.
Tuesday – Sunday 10:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Free guided tours are available everyday the museum is open, from noon to 2 p.m. Reservations are required two weeks in advance.
www.munal.com.mx (Spanish only)
Centro Artesanal en Ciudadela
At the corner of Ayuntamiento and Dolores
A large 2 story marketplace with over 300 vendors selling all manner of goods from jewelry to leather. Open Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Located at the end of Paseo de la Reforma, the park consists of 1,800 acres with a castle, a zoo, the Anthropology Museum, lakes and other attractions that ensure its popularity among residents and tourists alike.
Museo Casa de Carranza
Rio Lerma 35, Colonia Cuauhtemoc
http://ow.ly/1cDsA (Spanish only)
Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Sundays 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
National Museum of Anthropology
Paseo de la Reforma at Calle Gandhi
México City, Mxico
Tel: (52) 5553-6381
Tuesday – Sunday 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Located inside Chapultepec Park this museum’s extensive exhibits are a must see for any traveler to México City.
Hours: Monday 10:30 – 5:30
Tuesday – Friday 9 – 5:30
Closed Saturday and Sunday and these holidays:
New Year’s Day (January 1)
Mexican Constitution Day (Día de la Constititución) (February 5)
Mexico – Benito Juárez Birthday (March 21)
Mexico – Battle of Pueblo Day (May 5)
Mexico National Day (September 1)
Mexican Independence Day (September 16)
Mexican Revolution Day (November 20)
Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 12)
Christmas – Christian (December 25)
The enormous Palace runs the entire eastern end of the Zócalo and is home to the office of the President, the Federal Treasury and the National Archives. Diego Rivera’s murals depicting the history of Mexico are here and are a popular attraction.
Diego Rivera Mural Museum
Balderas, Centro, Cuauhtémoc,
Mexico City, DF
Tel: 01 55 5521 5318
Inside the park not far from the Art Museum.
The Pyramids of Teotihuacan
Located about 30 miles outside Mexico City, this archeological site is Mexico’s most famous and most important. The ancient city was built in the first and second century BC. At its height, around 500 AD, the city was believed to be home to more people than Rome during the same period. Most major hotels offer tours and more information and tips for making the most of your visit can be found here.
Rufino Tamayo Museum
Paseo de la Reforma y Gandhi s/n
Bosque de Chapultepec 11580
Tel: (52) 55 5286 6519
Guided tours: (52) 55 5286 6539
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
This collection includes the works of renowned artists like: Fernando Botero, Eduardo Chillida, Günther Gerzso, Mathias Goeritz, Wifredo Lam, Fernand Léger, Marino Marini, Carlos Mérida, Isamu Noguchi, Pierre Soulages, Antoni Tàpies, Francisco Toledo, and Joaquín Torres-García, among others. Guided tours are free of charge on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am-2pm.
The entertainment, nightlife and financial district of Mexico City. Known for its Korean immigrant and gay populations, it is also considered to be the hub of the city’s financial industry. Plenty of info is available on its Wikipedia page.
For everything Mexico City
Mexico City Museums
Top photo: A couple on a bench enjoy a Mexican version of potato chips.