2009 – Mexico – Part II


Around the Historical Center
El Zócalo
Historical Zocalo Square
Historical Zocalo Square

El Zócalo is a large public plaza (the third largest one in the World, after Red Square in Moscow and Tiananmen Square in Beijing). This open place exists since the time of the Aztecs, but it was widened by the Spaniards, who build the Viceroy Palace (now the National Palace) on what had been the Palace of Moctezuma, at the east end of the plaza, while in the north side they erected the Metropolitan Cathedral. Today, (and throughout it’s history) the Zócalo is a rallying point in which the people of Mexico come together for popular celebrations and cultural events, participate in manifestations and to protest against the government or other institutions. (We witnessed two of these protests).

Catedral Metropolitana
Metropolitan Cathedral
Metropolitan Cathedral

The Metropolitan Cathedral is the largest Cathedral in Latin America and its construction started in 1524 by Hernán Cortes, who placed the first stone, on top of what had been part of the Templo Mayor of the Great City of Tenochtitlán (the capital of the Aztec Empire). It was build across three centuries, uniting Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical elements, which come together harmoniously to create a building of great cultural spatial richness.

Templo Mayor
Tenochitlan's Great Temple
Tenochitlan’s Great Temple

In 1978, workmen digging on the east side of the Metropolitan Cathedral, next to the Palacio Nacional, unearthed an exquisite Aztec stone of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. Major excavations by Mexican archaeologists followed, and they uncovered interior remains of the Pyramid of Huitzilopochtli, also called the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) — the most important religious structure in the Aztec capital. What one can see now are the remains of pyramids that were covered by the great pyramid the Spaniards saw upon their arrival in the 16th century.

Strolling along the walkways build over the site and looking at the ruins one is awed by the powerful forces that must have been behind the construction of such a site. A visit to the Museo del Templo Mayor (Museum of the Great Temple) and its exhibits further opens your mind to what must have been the great civilization that flourished in American soil, before it was conquered by the Spaniards.

Prominent about the displays is a model of Tenochtitlán that gives a good idea of the scale of the vast city of the Aztecs. Also, outstanding is the huge stone wheel of the moon goddess Coyalxauhqui (“she with bells painted upon her face”) displayed on the second floor. The Aztec believed that the goddess ruled the night, but died at the dawning of day, slain and dismembered by her brother, Huitzilopchtli, the sun god.

Palacio Nacional
National Palace's Courtyard
National Palace’s Courtyard

This complex of countless rooms, wide stone stairways, and numerous courtyards adorned with carved brass balconies was once where the president of Mexico worked, and it remains an important site for presidential meetings and events. Begun in 1692 on the site where Moctezuma II’s had earlier build his “new” palace. After the Spanish conquest ended this building became the site of Hernán Cortez’s home and later on, the residence of colonial viceroys. It has changed much in 300 years, taking on its present form in the late 1920s when the top floor was added.

The second-floor walls surrounding an open veranda hold fabulous Diego Rivera murals depicting the history of Mexico and were painted over a 25-year period. Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s legendary muralists, left an indelible stamp on Mexico City, his painted political themes affecting the way millions view Mexican history. His death in 1957, left is work at the Palacio Nacional unfinished, as several blank panes there testify.

Palacio de Bellas Artes
Fine Arts Palace
Fine Arts Palace

Maximum forum of art and culture in Mexico, the Palace of Fine Arts surprises Mexicans and foreigners alike with its ostentatious architecture, in which two styles come together in a harmonious and elegant fashion: the Art Nouveau of its exterior with the Art Deco of its interior.

The construction of the Palace of Fine Arts began in 1904 with a proposal by the Italian architect Adamo Boari to create a new national theatre that would take part in the celebrations of the 100th Anniversary of Mexico’s Independence. However, the project was postponed by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, leaving behind an eclectic dream built in Carrara marble and the magnificent crystal curtain designed by the prestigious firm Tiffany’s, which serves as a background for the presentations of diverse national and international orchestras who visit the palace.

Construction was virtually stopped until 1932, when works were resumed under the direction of the Mexican architect Federico Mariscal and completion took place in 1934. The interior walls were decorated with works by the most outstanding Mexican muralists of the time like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Juan O’Gorman and Rufino Tamayo, among others.

The plaza located outside the main entrance deserves a special mention; in it, the famous ‘Pegaso’ sculptures can be appreciated contrasting with the modern beauty of the neighboring Latin-American Tower.

Alameda Central
Juarez Hemicycle at the Alameda
Juarez Hemicycle at the Alameda

The Alameda Central (Central Promenade) is the oldest public park in Mexico City and one of the favorite places of relaxation for the inhabitants of the city. It was created in the 16th Century by the Viceroy Luis de Velasco, who ordered “a walk to make the city more beautiful and at the same time a place of recreation for its inhabitants” be created. It was so and a great number of Alamos (poplar trees) were planted in the eastern limit of the then young vice-royal city, to the south of the Temple of Santa Veracruz and limited by what are now Hidalgo and Juárez Avenues. When it was noticed that the Alamo trees weren’t growing fast enough they decided to exchange them for ash and willow trees, which have a faster development. Nevertheless, the name of Alameda has remained until our time.

Throughout the centuries viceroys, such as Carlos Francisco de la Cruz, the empress Carlota Amalia from Belgium, wife of the emperor of Mexico, Maximiliano of Hapsburg, and presidents such as Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz added to and embellished the park with fountains, gardens and monuments. The most prominent monument being the Hemicycle to Juarez in the south side of the park.

Today the park shows a patina of decadence with many of its fountains out of order, graffiti painted over a lot of its monuments and scores of vendors lining the walks of the Alameda.

Other attractions
Paseo de la Reforma

This wide avenue runs in a straight line, cutting diagonally across the city for about 12 kms. It was built on the orders of Emperor Maximilian I in the 1860s and was originally called “The Empress’s Avenue”, in honor of his consort Empress Carlota of Mexico. Modeled after the great boulevards of Europe, such as Vienna’s Ringstrasse or the Champs-Élysées in Paris, it was designed to directly link Chapultepec Castle (the Emperor residence) with the National Palace in the city center.

Angel of the Independence Monument
Angel of the Independence Monument

Many monuments to people and events in Mexico’s history and the history of the Americas are situated on and along Reforma. One of the most famous monuments of the Paseo is El Ángel de la Independencia – a tall column with a gilded statue of a Winged Victory (that bears resemblance with an angel, therefore its common name) on its top and many marble statues on its base depicting the heroes of the Mexican War of Independence, built to commemorate the centennial of Mexico’s independence in 1910. The base contains the tombs of several key figures in Mexico’s war of independence.

Today, Reforma is filled with tourist attractions, luxurious restaurants and hotels, office buildings, public art exhibitions, and new construction. Reforma has become a traditional place for the Mexicans to celebrate or protest. Most protest rallies commonly go along Reforma from El Ángel to the Zócalo or from the Zócalo to Los Pinos. Many parades also make their way through Reforma. El Ángel roundabout is a traditional place for the celebration of the victories of the national football team.

Bosque de Chapultepec

Chapultepec Park, located in Colonia San Miguel Chapultepec, covers 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) of land, centuries old forests and landscaped areas. This is one of the city’s most important natural reserves and a recreational area where families can do various activities in the park’s three sections. Here people enjoy a picnic, take a walk, go on a bicycle ride or take out a row boat on a manmade lake.

Chapultepc Park is also home to the official residence of the President of Mexico, Los Pinos; a Zoo; the National Auditorium; an amusement park as well as several museums: the National History Museum (at Chapultepec Castle), the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum Rufino Tamayo, the Papelote Children’s Museum and the extraordinary National Museum of Antropology and History.

National Museum of Antropology and History
National Museum of Anthropology and History
National Museum of Anthropology and History

This was the only museum that we visit while we were in Mexico City and we are glad that we did. The National Anthropology and History Museum of Mexico City, possesses the largest collection of pre-Columbian art in the planet, which distributed amongst its 24 rooms, constitutes the biggest museum in Latin America.

Each of its rooms is dedicated to one of the cultures that flourished in Mexican territory since 3000 thousand years ago; we can find the Olmec Room, the Teotihuacan Room, the Mayan Room and the Mexica Room, among others of equal importance.

This building offers a different vision from what usually one can see in other museums. Apart from showing unique pieces of prehispanic art, it has reproductions of some of the most outstanding buildings in Mesoamerica, which submerge us into their culture and way of life. On the other hand, the architecture of the place is beautiful in itself, as it has a great dome from which water falls in homage to Tláloc, God of the Rain of the ancient Aztec civilization, as well as other elements, which together with its important collection, have placed this Museum among the most outstanding in the world. Well worth the visit!

Ballet Folklórico de México
Folkloric Ballet of Mexico
Folkloric Ballet of Mexico

We wisited the Antropological Museum a second time for a performance, in its large theater, of the Ballet Folklórico de México (Folkloric Ballet of Mexico). It was one of the highlights in our visit Mexico. The program included Aztec ritual dances, dances from several regions of Mexico, such as Veracruz and Jalisco, and dances celebrating Mexico’s rich history, all linked with mariachis, marimba players, singers and an enthusiastic and professional “corps de ballet”. When you visit Mexico City, make sure that you catch one of Ballet Folklórico’s performances, either at the Museum or at the Palacio of Bellas Artes.

San Angel

Eight kilometers (5 miles) south of the city center, San Angel was once a weekend retreat for Spanish nobles, but has long since been absorbed by the city. It’s a stunningly beautiful neighborhood of cobblestone streets and colonial-era homes. This is where the renowned Bazar del Sábado (Saturday Market) is held at Plaza San Jacinto. It’s full of artistic and antique treasures and surrounded by excellent restaurants and cantinas — a wonderful place to spend a day. We did so, and enjoyed it a lot.

Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo's House-Studio
Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo’s House-Studio

While in San Angel we visited the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo House-Studio, which is an important cultural landmark in Mexico City, not only because the artists who lived there, but also because the construction of the building (designed by the architect Juan O’Gorman), in 1931, began the modern architectural movement in the American continent.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo where two of the most significant plastic artists of the 20th century, not olny in Mexico, but worldwide. There are no works of them displayed in this building, but we found many examples of Diego Rivera’s murals in our trip.

Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacán

Our visit to the Museum of Antropology prepared us (somehow) to our visit of Teotihaucán. (There is a room dedicated to the site, as well as a model of the city.) However, we were struck by the awesome sights of this, the largest and most complex metropolis in prehispanic Mexico, located about one hour’s drive north of Mexico City.

Its main structures include the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, as well as an on-site museum. The culture that produced this magnificent city originated in the first century A.D., reaching its peak between the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., and subsequently declining until it was eventually abandoned around A.D. 700.

Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan

The ruins of Teotihuacán are among the most remarkable in Mexico — indeed, they are among the most important ruins in the world. Mystery envelops this former city of 200,000; although it was the epicenter of culture and commerce for ancient Mesoamerica, its inhabitants vanished without a trace. Teotihuacán means “place where gods were born,” reflecting the Aztec belief that the gods created the universe here.

The most striking site of Teotihuacan is the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the third largest pyramid in the World. (The first and second are the Great Pyramid of Cholula, near Puebla, Mexico and the Pyramid of Cheops on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt.) Its base is 220 m (722 ft) per side and its 65 m (213 ft) high. I tried to climb the steps to the top, but only made it to the first platform (about 15 m high). Age and my heart condition curbed my enthusiasm.


If you read a travel guide to Mexico City, you will probably find a description that goes like this: “Located in the southern area of Mexico City, the Colonia of Xochimilco is famous for its intricate network of canals and floating plots of land whose origins date back to prehispanic times. Meaning ‘Land of Flowers,’ it is a landscape of 176 kilometers of ancient canals called chinampas, built for irrigation and transportation by the Aztecs. Artificial islets were created by layering logs, earth, mud and roots tied with vine, and planting ahuejote, a native plant whose tough roots bind the walls of the chinampas. The tourism-oriented area in the Historic Center of town, where colorful boats called trajineras take loads of tourists through a portion of the canals, which are lined with vendors selling their wares, food and drinks, and groups of mariachi or marimba serenading them (for a price) from wooden boats.”

Although picturesque, we found the place overrated and the boat trip pricey. For us, the visit to Xochimilco did not measure to the travel guides descriptions and our own expectations.