Mexico City

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Mexico City from the air Mexico City is simply referred to as Mexico or Distrito Federal (Federal District) or even D.F. by Mexicans. Not only does it lay claim to being one of the world's most populous cities, it is also one of the highest cities on the planet at 2,250 meters or 7,380 ft.

The infamous fog that is trapped in the valley could be seen from the air. Surrounded by mountains all around the region's air pollutants remain trapped in the valley posing a huge problem for residents and administrators. Much of the valley lay beneath a large lake which was dealt with by the Aztecs using dikes. Only a small portion of the lake remains. But the buildings of the city (notably the San Francisco Mission) show a propensity for sinking. One can see that the Catedral Metropolitana in the heart of the city displays a leaning propensity.

We flew into Mexico City after a brief stopover at Guadalajara

In the map of the historic center above, the points of interest are the Zocalo, the Palacio Nacional,the Catedral Metropolitano, Templo Mayor and Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Mexico City Metro

The city's well planned Metro system (11 lines, 175 stations) was good enough for all our sightseeing. On arriving at the airport, a short walk took us to the Terminal Aerea (Line 5) station and transferring at Pantitlan to Line 1 connected us to Insurgentes. The transfer (Correspondencia) was made easy by the large signs and arrows. The heavily subsidized fare was ridiculously cheap.

Emerging from the Insurgentes station , we had to walk just a couple of blocks to our intended place of stay, Hotel El Castro. They took no reservations despite our attempts to do so from back home. The registration counter was behind bars and we wondered if we had chosen a safe neighbourhood after all the research. A short walk from there took us to a vegetarian haven (with Sanskrit books lying about) with organic food of no particular world region. The triangular area above Insurgentes bounded by the Angel of Independence is the trendy Zona Rosa with its outdoor restaurants and streets named after world cities. The Zona Rosa was well lit at night and offered us some variety in dining. Restaurant Yug was another lucky find after a long walk on the next day all the way from the City Centre.

Mexico City Metro - Linea 1 - Icons
Each Metro station had an icon based on a historical theme (see above for the icons on Line 1) and this made it easy to follow the maps posted inside the trains. Some of the inter-line transfers involved long walks (reminding us of the Matunga-Matunga Road corridor in Bombay) underground.

Mexico City Metro - Line Transfer

A couple of days later, on our way to Teotihuacan, we transferred at very long transfer at La Raza station and emerged armed with the knowledge about the weekly development of a human fetus as well as the position of a few constellations in the night sky. This large display is known as the El Túnel de la Ciencia (The Tunnel of Science). What a great idea! They could easily have been advertising spaces. Kudos to the Mexican university that took the trouble.

Bosque de Chapultapec

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Los Voladores at the Bosque de Chapultepec
Bosque de Chapultapec is Mexico City's largest park covering over 4 sq. kms. It has lakes, a zoo and several excellent museums. Within its boundaries are both the current presidential residence and a former imperial and presidential palace. It is a major recreational attraction for locals and tourists. We were lucky to witness the extraordinary sight of the Voladores as we walked through the park towards the museum.

This ritualistic dance has been performed in Mexico for centuries. The flute and drum are played by the person at the top of the pole, while four others descend to the bottom hanging upside down on ropes. Their partners on the ground wearing similar costume seek monetary contributions for the performance. Therein ends any similarity to street performances around the world. The activity itself is unworldly and seems to happen in a trance. The flute and drum playing has an eerie quality seeming to avoid pandering to any expectations of melody or rhythm.

Museo Nacional de Antropología

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Sun Stone (Aztec Calendar), Sala Mexica
One of the finest museums in the world, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, stands in an extension of Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park). This large world class museum has some fascinating exhibits and offers more than most people can absorb in a single visit. The architecture of the museum itself was inspired by the Mayan ruins at Uxmal - the exhibition halls open onto a large central patio which is shaded by an immense rectangular umbrella-like stone fountain.

The ground floor salas or rooms are dedicated to pre-Hispanic Mexico and the upper floors covers how the modern Mexico's indigenous peoples, the descendants of those pre-Hispanic civilizations, live today. The halls are organized anticlockwise largely according to chronology of the various civilizations, primary among these, the Teotihuacana, the Tolteca, the Mexica (or Aztecs), the Zapotec and Mixtec peoples of Oaxaca, the Olmecs near the Gulf of Mexico and the Maya.

The Sala Teotihuacana displays models and objects from the city of Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, the Americas' first great and powerful state. The exhibit includes a full-size color model of part of the Templo de Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl is the sharp fanged feathered serpent deity.

The marvelous Sala Mexica, dedicated to Aztec art and history, is one of the museum's highlights. Its exhibits include the famous Sun Stone, also known as the Aztec Calendar. The stone bears the face of the sun god Tonatium at the center of a web of symbols representing the five worlds, the four directions, the 20 days and more.

The wonderful sculpture of Coatlicue , is the mother of the Aztec gods. It was found, like the sun stone, beneath the Zocalo in 1790. Other exhibits include a replica of a carved stone tzompantli, an 'aerial view' painting of Tenochtitlan, and other graphic evidence of this awesome culture. Sala Golfo de Mexico spotlights the important ancient civilizations along the Gulf of Mexico including the Olmec, Classic Veracruz, Totonac and Huastec. There are fine stone carvings here, including two magnificent Olmec heads.

The Sala Maya has wonderful exhibits not only from southeast Mexico but from Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. The full-scale model of the tomb of the deified King Pakal, discovered in the depths of Palanque's Templo de las Inscripciones is breathtaking. There is also a reproduction of the famous murals of Bonampak.

Visiting this museum before we set off on our road trip to the south was an excellent idea. It served as a critical introduction to the various regions and cultures and made the rest of the trip more meaningful and enjoyable.

Coatlicue (she of the skirt of snakes), Sala Mexica

Centro Histórico and Reforma

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Mexico city is a vast sprawling megalopolis with over 350 neighborhoods - but the main areas of interest to visitors are situated in a fairly compact area called Centro Historico. Full of notable old buildings and interesting museums, this area roughly corresponds to both the old Aztec capital and the Spanish colonial capital. The Plaze de la Constitución, more commonly called the Zócalo is at its heart and this is where we emerged when we got off the metro from Insurgentes and started our tour of the city.

There is usually a Zócalo in every city in Mexico, very similar to Plaza de Armas in every city in Peru and Chile. The most famous zócalo is that of Mexico City, which is formally known as the Plaza de la Constitución; the government district of Mexico City is known after this. It is surrounded by the presidential palace, the city's cathedral and and the excavated site of the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Aztec Tenochtitlan. It is used for ceremonial purposes, for political protesters to make their points and is often dotted with makeshift camps of strikers or campaigners.

The huge and impressive Catedral Metropolitana, is located on the north side of the Zócalo. In Aztec times, part of the cathedral site was occupied by a large tzompantli (rack of skulls for sacrifice victims) and the Spanish conquistador Cortes reportedly found more than 136,000 skulls here and nearby.

Plaza de la Constitución (Zócalo) with Catedral Metropolitana to the north

Diego Rivera mural inside the Palacio Nacional On the Zócalo's east side, the Palacio Nacional, built on the site of Mocteczuma's palace, is the seat of power in Mexico and home to the offices of the President, the Treasury and the National Archives. There are three portals to this edifice and high above the central door hangs the Campana de Dolores ( Bell of Dolores), rung in the town of Dolores Hidalgo by Padre Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 at the start of the Mexican War of Independence and later moved to this place of honor.

The main attractions for visitors are the murals by Diego Rivera that adorn the main grand staircase and the first floor gallery. Painted between 1929 and 1935, the murals dramatically ilustrate the history of Mexico, from an idealized pre-Hispanic past through the horrors of the Conquest to Independence and the 1910 Revolution, with Karl Marx pointing towards the future. Several presidents, popes and luminaries find a place in the murals including Diego Rivera himself and his famous painter wife Frida Kahlo.

Torre Latinamericana
Once out of the Palacio Nacional, we wandered around the Centro Historica taking in various points of interest on the way. We passed the Teatro Nacional de México which host events that showcase the artistic and musical talents of Mexico.

The Torre Latinamericana was, in 1956, Mexico's first skyscraper. There is an observation deck on the 42nd floor that offers a panoramic view but on this day, there was a more interesting display of monks and nuns at ground level.

Realistic looking Monks and Nuns at the foot of the Torre Latinamericana

The sinking church of San Francisco right next door, was once a Franciscan monastery founded by Cortez himself three years after the conquest in 1524. Most of the structure, including the stone portal and Churrigueresque facade, revealed itself when we stepped in front of the gates and drew us in. The interior was more impressive than the Catedral Metropolitana and the altar was a large gilded piece with intricate decorations.

El Caballito

We walked to Plaza Santo Domingo, a small plaza with shops mostly catering to the printing, paper and typesetting business. Across the street, from Iglesia Santo Domingo, we entered the Secretaria de Education Publica to look at some more Diego Rivera murals. 

We walked leisurely in the warm sun down Calle Argentina, Calle Venuzuela, Calle Columbia, Calle Brazil etc and made our way towards Alameda Central. The section of Calle Tacuba that we traversed was taken over by some protest group. The sidewalk was covered with tents and banners many of which were playing recorded speeches and music and were selling revolutionary books and videos and t-shirts with pictures of Che and Fidel Castro.

The protest spilled over to the 'El Caballito' statue of Charles the Fouth riding the horse. The horse was sporting one of the banners of the protest de jure.

Next stop, the highly ornate Correo Central or the General Post Office We went in to check if we could buy a First Day cover but unfortunately the 'Filateliaca' section was closed.

We then walked to the Palacio de Belles Artes, a massive neoclassical building that is home to Ballet Folklorico, of Mexico City. Our tour continued past Plaza de la Republica, down Ramirez to connect to Paseo de la Reforma passing Monumento a Cristobal Colon, Monumento a Cuauhetmoc and Monumento a La Independencia (La Angel) as we entered Zona Rosa and back to the hotel.

Templo Mayor

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Model of Templo Mayor, the Great Temple
To the northeast of Mexico City's Zócalo, the central square, are the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the main temple of Tenochtitlan.

Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec civilization that comprised of the Mexica [meh-HEE-kah) people. It was founded in 1325 when according to legend, the Aztecs or Mexica and other Nahuatl speakers migrated from Aztlan where they first had their vision of an eagle, perched on a cactus and devouring a serpent. This cosmic symbol - the eagle representing the sky and the sun, the snake symbolizing the earth, and the cactus as sustenance of a wandering desert people - is today the national emblem of Mexico.

Led by their tribal god Huitzilopochtli, they reached the central highlands and on an island in Lake Texcoco, they saw the prophesied eagle and founded what was to be the great city of Tenochtitlan, which means "Place of the Cactus". By 1428 the Aztec state had emerged and Tenochtitlan was the most important city in Mesoamerica. At its height it was one of the largest cities in the world, with over 200,000 inhabitants.

Templo Mayor, was the center of this Aztec universe, the exact spot where the eagle was sighted on the cactus. The Great Temple was the Mexica sacred space par excellence. The most important rituals were enacted here, including those dedicated to their gods, ruler's ceremonies and the funerals of the nobility. The Mexica architects designed the Great Temple as their model of the center of the universe. The horizontal plane was aligned with the four cardinal points. On the vertical plane, there were three celestial levels, the earth and nine levels of the underworld.

The Great Temple was expanded on numerous occasions. According to historical resource it war rebuilt on par with the expansion of the Mexica empire. In addition, the city suffered ongoing floods and earthquakes and the subsoil of the island city was constantly settling. This forced the Mexicas to raise the level of their constructions to prevent their buildings from sinking. A pathway round the site reveals the temple's multiple levels of construction.

Like many other sacred buildings in Tenochtitlan, the temple , first begun in 1375, was enlarged several times. Seven different times the temple was completely filled with construction fill composed of mud and stone and was covered by a larger and better building. On five occasions only the main facade was expanded. During the inauguration of each new building, war captives from kingdoms conquered expressly for the event were sacrificed.

In 1487 these ritual were performed at a frenzied pace to rededicate the temple after one major reconstruction. Based on an account in "The Course of Mexican History" : "In a ceremony lasting four days sacrificial victims taken during campaigns were formed in four columns, each stretching three miles. At least twenty thousand human hearts were torn out to please the gods..."

Among the important artifacts found here was an 8-ton stone disc. The carvings on the disc represent the corpse of Coyolxauhqui, goddess of the moon, who was defeated by her brother Huitzilopochtli. Her death symbolized the sun's daily victory over the night. The great circular stone was found at the foot of the pyramid which was divided into two, with two temples at the top dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, god of war and Tlaloc, god of water.

Stone of Coyolxauhqui, the most important Aztec work of art

The always unnerving Chac-mool statue, present all across Mesoamerica

At the center of the temple is a platform dating from about 1400, on its southern half, a sacrificial stone stands in front of a shrine to Huizilopochtli. On the northern half is a Chac-mool figure before a shrine to the water god Tlaloc. Chac-mool statues are found all over Mexico in temples of Toltec and Maya sites. Chac-mool is always reclining with head turned to one side and with legs folded at the knees and holding a receptacle (presumably containing sacrificial entrails of human body parts) over the stomach. In some cases, the receptacle is simply carved inside the stomach. The famous Chac-mool at Chichen Itza looks over his right shoulder. The one here at Templo Mayor is looking over his left. And importantly, this figure is not to be confused with Chaac, one of the leading deities of Mayan mythology, associated with rain and thunder.

Other features include a 15th century stone replica of a tzompantli, carved with 240 stone skulls, and the mid 15th century Recinto de los Guerreros Aguila (Santuary of the Eagle Warriors who an elite band of Aztec fighters) decorated with colored bas-reliefs of military processions.

It was largely demolished by the Spaniards in the 1520s who used the stones to build their churches and palaces. Some of the remaining ruins were uncovered during the construction of a metro line in 1978. A small portion has been excavated and is now open to visitors.

A beautifully designed museum at the site exhibits artifacts found during the excavation work and gives a good overview of the Aztec civilization. Pride of place is given to the great wheel-like stone of Coyolxauhqui (she of Bells on her Cheek). She is shown decapitated, murdered by her brother Huizilopochtli, who also killed his 400 brothers en route to becoming top god. Other outstanding exhibits include a full-size terra-cotta eagle warrior.

It also contains models of what Tenochtitlan and the great Templo Mayor looked like before the Spanish Conquest.