Mexico City (also known as Distrito Federal, or el DF) is one place where I genuinely didn’t know what to expect before I arrived. It has had plenty of bad press in the past but I know people who’ve lived here for some time, and one thing Mexico has taught me so far is to take what you read in the papers with a big pinch of salt! The one thing I was sure about was that it was BIG. On the bus in on a Sunday lunchtime I confidently declared to Rich that we were only a few km out, so would be there in no time. This time his raised eyebrows were correct. The suburbs and stop-start traffic rolled on for miles and miles, but we eventually arrived at the North bus terminal, and got off, where much to my amusement Rich was repeatedly elbowed out the way by several elderly Mexican ladies half his size when trying to retrieve our bags. After the scrum we climbed into a cab and started towards the centre. Being a Sunday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend the streets on the way in were quiet, with lots of shuttered shops; it felt like driving though the suburbs in the early hours. We wondered where everyone was. On arriving at the hostal by the main square in the centre, the Zócalo, we found out.
As usual, if you’d prefer the pictures to the words, click here.
We stepped out into the throng and walked around for a while as Rich’s blood pressure slowly rose. Respite was found at a hole in the wall selling some of the best tacos so far (beef and chorizo in one – why has no-one done this before….) then into the bar next door for an overpriced warm beer. Rich looked ready to declare that Mexico City was rubbish, till we found Al Andar mezcal bar on Av. Regina. 10 minutes later he declared that the city wasn’t half bad and mezcal was his new favourite drink.
Not cheap but lovely and smooth, with orange slices and spicy nuts/beans/roast garlic on the side. A whole night’s accommodation budget later we went back to the hostel for a rather early night!
The next day we were up with the birds (and only a hint of a mezcal headache) and tackling the DF metro system for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to navigate and the price – 3 pesos (about 15p) per journey. Also, all the stations have symbols as well as names which is surprisingly handy! We headed out on the bus (after Rich was frisked 3 times, which he was delighted about) to Teohuaticán, a huge site of pre-Aztec civilization ruins, about 20km north-east of DF. The site is anchored around a 2km wide pathway called the Calzada de los Muertos that runs north-south through the site. Towards the top end on the east side is the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) – one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever seen. The third largest pyramid in the world and you can still climb up the steep and uneven steps to the top and get a fantastic view of the whole site, including the second temple Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) that lies at the top of the pathway.
The view from the top of this second one is just as spectacular, possibly more so as it allows you to grasp the sheer size of its counterpart. The whole thing is even more awe-inspiring when you realize it was built without metal tools, pack animals or even the wheel. The site also contains many other smaller structures, including some remnants of murals of jaguars, pumas and birds (owls and quetzals) in faded colours that must once have been rich reds and bottle greens.
With only a touch of heatstroke and shaky legs from climbing hundreds upon hundreds of steps we caught the bus back into the city, then back into the bowls of the metro to visit the city’s leafier (i.e. richer/whiter) districts – Roma and Condesa. Things were very quiet due to it being a bank holiday Monday, but we found a suitably hippyish café where I could satisfy my craving for salad after weeks of tortillas/meat/cheese/sugary snacks. I must be getting old when I start dreaming of courgettes…
The next day was our big tour of just a few of the city’s historical and cultural highlights. You could spend a couple of weeks in Mexico City and still be lapping up culture, there’s just an incredible amount on offer.
We cherry-picked a few, namely the Cathedral on the Zócalo and the Palacio Nacional, where the President’s office lies, and which houses a huge and wonderful mural on the main staircase by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico – no mean feat. We followed this with the Templo Mayor, the remains of the centre of Tenochtitlan (the great Aztec city and which they believed to be the centre of the Universe). I marveled at not just the technical and engineering prowess of the Aztecs but also at the sheer audacity of the Spanish in casually razing the lot and putting a Cathedral over the top of it.
Before our next meaty chunk of culture we stopped at a bakery for coffee and a sweet treat (in fact Rich’s third cream horn in his time in this country – he’s quite the connoisseur now…)
The place was nothing short of a palace of cake (they’d even iced some of the ceiling tiles) and also picked up some damn fine cheese/ham/jalapeno pasties for lunch.
Next stop was a gawp at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (just the exterior) before heading down to the Bosque de Chapultepec to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología. The place documents all the peoples of what now make up Mexico throughout history. We started with the Maya, and continued on through the people of the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca and the North. The sheer volume and quality of the exhibits is astounding, as is the information (often also in English) that accompanies it. I was particularly struck by the beauty of so many of the objects found and the breadth of variety of cultures that came before the Spanish. It leaves you with a real sense of poignancy that such a rich history was so systematically and seemingly callously destroyed and dismantled in so few years by the Spanish. They don’t come off well.
By that point our brains were at saturation point and the rain had begun to fall so we sought shelter in a pool bar in Condesa called Malafama where I was delighted to find some red wine after weeks of beer and less delighted to be trounced at pool by Rich… We had planned to move on to a few other places in the area but the rain gods had other ideas – a spectacular lightning storm and torrential rain fell for a couple of hours while we watched from a sheltered spot with a drink in hand. Once it finally let up a little we hopped through the puddles to find a mezcal bar called La Clandestina that had been recommended to us. On arrival we found that it was full of English people, including the chaps that had told us about it a couple of nights previously. A couple of rounds later and after some chat with some expats things got a little blurred around the edges and we headed for home.
Mexico City is a shock to the system after beaches and sleepy mountain villages but comes recommended – you’ll blow your budget and you’ll expand your mind as well as destroy a few brain cells (if you take a liking to mezcal, that is…)
So on to Oaxaca, which the glutton in me is very much looking forward to as it’s known for being a real culinary hotspot. Before that, here are a few general things about Mexico that have struck me so far:
- The food – Rich say he doesn’t like to write about food too much, but I do! Mexican food has really exceeded my expectations, and the variety available, particularly between regions, is fantastic. This may warrant a blog post all of its own…!
- Social levels – it’s striking that everyone in advertising and almost everyone on television looks very European. The smart areas of DF reflected that as well. It seems that the mestizo majority, followed by indigenous groups are more invisible in the media and in how the wealth is spread. Many bars/restaurants have signs up stating that they do not discriminate in any way but it seems that perhaps this does occur more generally or subtly.
- And on a lighter note…. VW Beetles! – Apparently Mexico was the last country to continue producing the old-style Beetles, well into the 1990s in fact. As a result, the country is full of them, often in fantastic condition and pimped up. These have been an unexpected but great visual highlight in the streets!