Destinations Mexico North America

What not to miss in Mexico City

Mexico’s capital city requires mental and physical preparation. You have to be tough on the ground and in spirit to handle the hordes that frequent the streets. Mexico City, more commonly referred to by locals and travellers as DF (distrito federal), is home to some 21.2 million people; that is, nearly the total population of Australia!

Having spent most of my travels in smaller towns with relaxed environments and plenty of open spaces, I was NOT prepared for Mexico City. The first several times I ventured out to explore the smoggy surroundings, the dull volcanic brick facades of austere buildings, I was jostled about by the city’s inhabitants until I cowardly retreated to the hostel and the safety of my bunk bed.

palacio de bellas artes in mexico city

But I did eventually gather my wits about me, changed my mindset and hit the streets.

Mexico City, chaotic as it may be, fascinates if you give it time to impress you. In the historical centre, the area where I was based, there is always a humming vibrancy, a kind of madness that comes, I suppose, with an unnaturally large number of people packed into an comparatively small space.

The Zocalo

The centro historico is centred on the zocalo, or main plaza. Although overwhelming, something is always happening at the zocalo (this name, meaning ‘base’, comes from the planned column for the central plaza; only the base was built, and subsequently destroyed but the name remains).

To one side is the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest in Latin America. As with anywhere in Latin America, the cathedral provides a continuous centre of activity, of comers and goers, of vendors and of street performers outside.

On the weekends, bands of Aztec dancers gather crowds about them as they gyrate to a primitive beat, plumed headdresses swaying, ankle-bells shaking as heels pound the concrete.

Women sit cross-legged on the ground with wooden goblets of burning copal incense releasing fumes into the air; they await for customers on which they can perform Limpieza Azteca, or Aztec cleansing.

Not far from the cathedral and this vibrant dancing and spiritual cleansing are the sorry remains of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, sinking slowly into the ground, yet resurrected thanks to a resurging interest in Mexico’s ancient cultures in the 20th century.

aztec murals near zocalo

Diego Rivera Murals in the Palacio Nacional

Fronting an entire side of the zocalo is the Palacio Nacional, a rather nondescript building belying a dazzling interior. The Palacio Nacional is home to some offices of the Federal Treasury and the National Archives, but what interests the tourists most is the murals of revered Diego Rivera, adorning the principle staircase and walls on the second floor.

The primary mural above the main stairwell is an impressive artwork of the history of Mexico from the time of the Aztecs until what was then present-day for Rivera, 1929.

It depicts the very essence of Mexico splashed out on the wall, brutally honest. The mural depicts the industry of the Aztecs in their ancient city of Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico City after Spanish conquest. The conquest is shown as well, brazen knights in shining armour firing into feather-costumed Aztecs.

After visiting Tenochtitlan and the Palacio Nacional, I was swept up in the energy of a seemingly spontaneous concert crowd, mosh-pit pumping to reggaeton music hammered out from a huge stage almost blocking the cathedral. Banners of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin hang above the crowd, while concert-goers wave flags in support of free press (a very topical issue during my time in Mexico).

Paseo 5 de Mayo

The Paseo 5 de Mayo extends from the zocalo and ends at the majestic Palacio de Bellas Artes, where one can watch Mexican ballet. This pedestrianized strip is teeming with people any day of the week, but is particularly hectic on weekends. As I wondered its length, I was distracted by a snaking line of paper cranes on the ground. Each paper crane carried a message of people’s dreams for their country: “Mexico wants peace; let’s fight for peace”.

Further along, a dance troupe rocked to a Michael Jackson mash-up, people from the crowd sporadically joining the coordinating dancers. And just after them, I came across endless passionate political banners, expected with the upcoming national elections.

Parque de Chapultepec

For a bit of peace and quiet, people go to the Parque de Chapultepec, an enormous park attracting dog-walkers, joggers, and families out for a stroll. Nearby, however, is the impressive Museo de Antropologia (Museum of Anthropology), a wonderful museum displaying and explaining artifacts from ancient and contemporary Mexican cultures. I may have spent three hours there…

Of course, in a city of this size, I could continue for quite some time. It is well worth tripping out to several of Mexico City’s outer barrios, specifically the wonderfully relaxed Coyoacan, but also to the religious complex of the Lady of Guadalupe (picture countless religious buildings spread across an expanse of ground, all devoted to the revered saint of the mesoamerica’s indigenous), or San Angel, or the canals of Xochimilco.

Not even I made it everywhere in Mexico City. Despite its historical drawcard, its vibrancy and its diversity of attractions, at the end of the day I could handle its energy for only so long.

Yes, I will confront this metropolis when I return to Mexico. But for now, I wanted to spend my last days in Mexico the way I wanted to remember the country; for its small-town friendliness, its indigenous diversity, and its natural and architectural beauty. And I figured I could find all this in Puebla.

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