Mexico City – An Acquired Taste
by Lisa Coleman
The thought of 22 million people in any one place is staggering. Consequently, for most people, understanding the heart and soul of Mexico City can be an equally overwhelming proposition. This city is not for the tourist who craves margaritas and Americanized holidays; Mexico City is for the sophisticated traveler in search of knowledge who wants to discover the mysterious beauty of ancient cultures and who welcomes the magnificence of history. I will openly admit that Mexico City is indeed an acquired taste, but once you understand it and know its dynamics, you’ll fall in love with what it has to offer.
To help gain some perspective let me tell you a couple of things about one of the largest cities the planet has ever known. First, Mexico City is a federal district (Distrito Federal), much like our own Washington, D.C. It is almost 700 years old and is the highest city on the North American continent at 7,349 feet. It has been a flourishing cosmopolitan center for nine centuries since its founding as the ancient capital of the Aztec Empire. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere and is over 700 square miles in area. Today it is a vibrant cultural and business center well immersed in the high-tech 21st century, yet still retains its brilliant historic and architectural heritage. Mexico City has 10 archeological sites and more museums than any other city in the world, and, after New York, London and Toronto, Mexico City boasts the fourth largest number of theaters.
The geographical points of interests can be found in three main areas, the Historic Center, the Paseo de La Reforma/Chapultepec Park and Southern Mexico City. The Historic Center is made up of a 30-block area housing the Zocalo (the second largest Town Square in the world behind Red Square in Moscow), several fine museums and important historic sites. The influence of the Aztecs and the Spanish can be felt and seen amongst the buildings and their architecture. The center’s Metropolitan Cathedral, started in 1572 and not completed for another 250 years, is the largest church in Latin America.
The Zocalo was once the location of the astonishing Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and the ruins of the incredible Templo Mayor (Great Temple) still remain preserved here. The site captures the genesis of this ancient Aztec masterpiece and allows visitors to walk the remains of the main ceremonial pyramid. The historic grandeur of the archeology can be found in the fantastic Templo Mayor Museum where life-size warriors, dramatically displayed artifacts and large-scale city models bring the culture to life. The entire area is worth a whole day just to walk the streets, see the architecture and absorb the pace of the city.
The Paseo de La Reforma/Chapultepec Park spans over several miles along the city’s grand east-west, French inspired avenue of the same name. The Reforma District has the look and feel of a European city. The Austrian Archduke Maxmillian, who was emperor of Mexico from 1864 to 1867, modeled the tree-lined Paseo de La Reforma Avenue after the famous Champs Elysees in Paris. And, like its European predecessor, this avenue is also home to incredible shopping and some of the finest hotels in the world. Chapultepec Park (which dwarfs New York’s Central Park) is also a vast cultural and recreational attraction. Once a hunting ground for the Aztecs, Chapultepec Park has been in existence for more than 500 years. Located in the middle of the city, its 2,100 green, wooded acres are filled with marble statues, playgrounds, manmade lakes, jogging paths, botanical gardens, an amusement park, a zoo and the grand Chapultepec Castle. Mexico was briefly a monarchy and the castle, 200 feet above the park on a hill, was the former home of Emperor Maximillian who converted it into his palace. It now houses the National Museum of History and visitors can take in the spectacular city views, tour the luxurious salons with their extravagant furnishings, and view vibrant murals by famed Mexican painters O’Gorman, Orozco and Siquieros.
The southern part of the city is filled with colonial suburbs and brilliantly maintained classic architecture. The enchanting boroughs of San Angel and Coyoacan are the most outstanding. The quaint houses, cobblestone streets, opulent mansions and vivid gardens of San Angel give an impression of being back in time. This area is a long time favored choice of residence for local prominent artists and writers. This town’s Saturday Bazaar is a great place to spend the day shopping for one-of-a-kind local arts and crafts. Equally as captivating, the district Coyoacan clings to it Pre-Columbian roots. A handsomely renovated town plaza is full of shops, street entertainers and restaurants. Nearby are several important museums including the house of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, the house of artist Frida Kahlo.
Mexico City is a real treasure. If you approach a trip here as you would a trip to any other big city, you will be pleasantly surprised and indeed captivated by its attributes.