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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Mexico City Madness

MEXICO | Thursday, 31 December 2009 | Views [2078]

A blood red sunset over the heart of the city - probably enhanced by all that smog

A blood red sunset over the heart of the city - probably enhanced by all that smog

Our journey to Mexico City took us up through scrub woodland and then through endless miles more of upland cactus scrub, grey, white and brown, interspersed by the odd river surrounded by a narrow belt of green.  It once more brought home how alien this landscape was to us northern Europeans – towering spiny columns, small thorn-strewn bushes and what looked like giant dragon-trees, with twisted, gnarled branches.  Goodness knows what the first explorers made of this strange, desolate country.

A desert tree on our way...

Further into our journey we travelled across a wide valley (although there was no river I could see), nearly entirely claimed by agriculture.  Saying that, there didn’t seem to be any crops, and the wind seemed to be doing a good job of blowing the topsoil away – it rose in wicked dust-devils all across the valley floor.  Up in the hills, poor subsistence farmers grazed sheep and goats on the nearly inedible vegetation – you could see where it had been totally cleared by the animals, the rudimentary soil destroyed, and the area quickly becoming desertified.

Skirting the big, dusty city of Puebla, we gained height again, now driving through pine woodland until the two great volcanoes, Ixtaccihuatl and Popacatepetal rose to our left, capped by snow and ice.  Then it was the final stretch down into a vast valley which cradles Cuidad Mexico – it took us less time than I thought to get to the main bus station near the centre – it’s a big city, but not that big (I was expecting another Los Angeles megalopolis) – its just jam-cram full of people – 21 million of them at the last count.  After a short taxi-ride we arrived at our apartment – run by a very nice ex-air steward and his wife in a 1940’s block just off the Zocalo.

The great Popocatepetl - try saying that quickly after a few beers..

The next day we explored the city centre.  The Zocalo is huge, with probably the biggest flag I’ve ever seen flying in the centre – the Mexicans are big on big flags.  The main cathedral is an over-domineering pile of drab, chunky granite, made to withstand the numerous earthquakes that have hit the city – various arches inside are at interesting angles as a result.  I found the whole ‘earthquake baroque’ edifice really quite nasty, however, in surprising contrast to the beautiful cathedral in Merida.  Obviously earthquake architecture in stone does not a beautiful building make.

The Zocalo and surrounding streets are littered with various men and women with hand-wound organs, of seemingly moderate antiquity.  You can tell this because the noises they emit generally appear to be random tinkles and hoots, as opposed to anything resembling a tune.  They wear brown uniforms, making me think they were collecting for a veterans association or some-such.  No however, - apparently they’re just ‘traditional’ buskers – and you need a hotly sought-after licence to go out and grind away miscellaneous notes to the masses.

Rivera's gorgeous friezes of Mexican history

The national palace is a far more beautiful building than the cathedral, with courtyards filled with bubbling fountains and a quiet botanical garden with families of cats curled up beneath the agaves.  Diego Rivera’s murals of the history of Mexico are fantastic – especially the friezes upstairs of Aztec life in rich, deep colours.  We had fun getting in though – we politely refused the offer of an official guide, only to be told by the security guard on the gate that he needed to see 10 forms of identification to show that we weren’t anarchists set on bringing down the state (ok, maybe I exaggerate).  However, once he saw that we weren’t relenting on the guide front, (or proffering any ‘tip’) he merely waved us through.

The Templo Major – the remains of the great temple of Tenochtitlan is also rather impressive.  There’s not much left – it was comprehensively levelled by the Conquistadors, but what’s there is huge, and the friezes and carvings left in the remains hint at what a rich and ornate building it once was.  The only reason it was found and excavated by the way, is that the area above it belonged to some Spanish lords who were executed for treason, their palace torn down, and the land salted (in true Spanish understatement) – so it was empty for years.  On reflection, I rather think I’d prefer to see an extant Templo Major, rather than the fugly cathedral the Spanish put in its place.  Eh well, that’s progress.

Fountain in the National Palace

Around the remains of the temple, young people dressed in elaborate costumes and headresses bounced around, chanting and burning aromatic leaves.  Apparently, this is part of a re-emergence of nahuatl identity – and religion.  It great that people are exploring their cultural roots after so much repression over the years.  However, it did strike me that so much of the original culture had been burned by the Spanish, that this new religion probably has about as much to do with the Aztecs as modern paganism does with the Roman-era Druids in Britain.

The centre of the Mexico city seems like something out of a 1930’s American film – there’s loads of nice early 20thc architecture still standing (despite various said earthquakes), blackened by the massive air pollution from the huge amount of traffic.  Its very easy to imagine the streets being filled with trams and carriages and people in Trilbys.  As you go out and explore other neighbourhoods, there are really rather exclusive areas where we felt a bit oikish in our travel clothes.  There are lots of nice parks too.  One fun thing are the innumerable green and white VW Beetle taxis zooming around.  We got one back from a restaurant one evening – only two doors and three seats, so Lucy sat on the floor in the front!  Our friendly driver put the world to rights as he weaved in and out of the traffic at alarming speed, complaining about his useless government and corrupt politicians, and how he hoped the visit from President Obama was going to lead to something better.

Oh no! Its a barge-jam on the Xochimilco

In the following days we explored more of the suburbs.  We visited the Xochimilco – a small area of surviving floating gardens and canals that used to surround Tenochtitlan and provide the old city with food.  Although it was fun to be poled-around for half an hour, it was rather a disappointment – the floating islands now mostly had people’s houses on – no floating veggie-patches to be seen, and the canal was chocker with barges – some with floating Mariachi bands on them, waiting for a commission, others lashed together with big parties of Mexican families having a great picnic on the water.  Fun if you haven’t been anywhere else with canals, but not really worth the horrendously expensive amount the now-fully-regulated barges charge the gringo visitors.

We made up for it though by visiting the lovely Dolores Almeda museum – housed in said deceased Dolores’ expansive gifted mansion, which contains a big collection of native cultural artefacts and paintings by Rivera and Frida Karlo.  It also included a collection of rather alarming-looking bald Aztec dogs, which Frida Karlo bred.

Fantastic sawdust mural at the Dolores Almeda museum

We also took the metro and bus out to Teotihuacan – the great ruined city of the granddaddies of Meso-American culture.  Yep, those Aztecs and Mayans were mere Johnny-come-latelys compared to these dudes.  However, before I describe the wonderfulness of the ancients, its worth saying that we got the wrong bus from the metro.  Not that it didn’t go to Teotihuacan, just that it took two hours of donkey-like speeds through housing estates, and far too many speed bumps with dodgy-suspension to get there.

Anyway, once we arrived our aches and pains were suitably numbed by the sheer scale and number of pyramids, temples and grand ceremonial roads.  Oh yes, those Teotihuacanians knew how to build.  Even if they weren’t quite as crazy as the Zapotecs.  Both the Aztecs and Mayans copied them shamelessly, what with the pyramids, snakes, eagles and jaguars n’all (oh, and probably the bloodlust thang too).

The Teotihuacanians didn't need to keep up with the neighbours

The temple of Sun is simply massive, and it does bring up the question of how the hell they managed to build it.  Over a large amount of time, with a large number of people, I think is the answer.  Further up the ceremonial avenue there are uncovered friezes of brightly-painted jaguars, eagles and geometric patterns.  Other than this and the artefacts they’ve dug up though, no one really knows who the Teotihuacanians were, where they came from or where they went.

Of course, besides being over-awed by the scale of the city, we were also worn down by the constant attention of knick-knack sellers.  I tell you, if I hear another jaguar-roar whistle, I’m going to flip.  If someone else tries to sell me another pseudo-jade death mask, I may well use it as an offensive weapon.  Rachel got round the crowd of them at the base of the Temple of the Sun, by running through them at top speed shouting ‘NO GRACIAS’.  Maybe she did flip.

Dan just can't take the jaguar growls any more and decides to end it all in true Teotihuacanian fashion

Of course, Jon and I being planning-minded people, we couldn’t leave Mexico City without going up the ‘Latin America tower’ – the tallest building in Mexico, built in the 70’s and providing a rather impressive view (lessened by the smog) of the centre.  We watched an incredible red sunset (heightened by the smog!) over the volcanoes, whilst lines of innumerable car lights slowly oozed down highways in every direction.  We capped the evening by having dinner at the tile-clad Café Tacuba, with a brilliant band, playing Mexican folk songs at full tilt.

On our last day, we visited the massive Chapultec Park – with its pea-green lake and winding paths before going to the really great National Anthropological Museum.  However, our exploration of the wonders of Mexico’s civilisations was hampered a bit by a misunderstanding about where we were going to meet each other when we first arrived –  leading to Lucy and I waiting around for an hour inside, with Jon and Rachel waiting outside…doh!

The great Aztec calendar wheel, National Anthropological Museum

After waving off Jon and Lucy at the airport, Rachel and I took a day off, before girding our loins (and our backpacks) once more and starting a bus-odyssey up through the centre of Mexico.

To see more photos of Mexico city and surrounds, click here.

Tags: chapultepec, dolores almeda, mexico city, templo major, teotihuacan, xochimilco


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