Cities stress me out. Especially big ones. The traffic, the crime, the pollution, the congestion, the people — the people! I’m more of a town person. A nature person. However, with that being said, it’s difficult to experience some architectural and cultural attractions outside of major metropolitan areas. And I like to think of myself as quasi-cultured, despite my affinity for meat sticks, t-top Pontiac Trans Ams, and Solo cups. Hence the dilemma with Mexico City. A biggie. One of the top ten largest metropolitan areas in the world.
Multiple folks, including our childrens’ pediatrician, had told us that we’d love — you’ll love! — Mexico City. It’s gorgeous. And it has museums. Mucho mucho museums. We asked about the campground we were staying in near Teotihuacán. The reviews were mixed. Locals seemed to think of it as just a city. Other travelers either hadn’t been, and thus were asking the same questions, or told us we should go. It’s only a cheap, one-hour Uber away (it would’ve been near impossible to drive our van into the city) the enthusiasts would say. But it’s a city, I’d retort (in my head)! And they have amazing food. But it’s a city, I’d retort (in my head). And the museums, don’t get us started…. But it’s a city, I’d retort (in my head)! We went. Stress be darned.
We arrived at noon on a Saturday. We greeted, mas or menos, twenty of the twenty-two million people that lived in the metropolitan area within the first few hours. They were all friendly. Very friendly in fact. You’d have the same impression. But it was hot, and with the masses frenziedly attempting to squeeze through the city’s vessels, the streets, it felt like a stroke or heart attack was imminent. We weren’t prepared. We had to retreat back to the inexpensive yet trendy, art-deco AirBnB we rented. We needed water. And solitude. And spicy karate nuts. Yet we weren’t deterred. We’d seen enough within those hours — gorgeous colonial architecture, churches, and plazas — to know that Mexico City was special. Muy especial. We’d return the next day. Better. Wiser. And hydrated.
The Love Hate of Colonialism
Andrea and I spent a good chunk of that first night discussing colonialism. Spain ravished Mexico (I initially had a much naughtier verb in this sentence). It’s people, it’s resources, it’s civilizations, everything. Now, as United Staters, we shouldn’t toss the first rock. Our intentions in the Mexican-American War were dubious. At best. Just ask Abraham Lincoln. And, of course, we’ve been the conquistadors of the last few decades. Nonetheless, as someone used to getting the finger pointed at them, it was nice to point the finger at someone else for once. Shame on you Spain. Shame. On. You.
However…. Spain did not mess around when it came to rebuilding the cities they destroyed. Mexico City is a testament to that (as are others we’ve visited, like Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende). The baroque architecture, with its symmetrical and classically-inspired lines accented by Moorish-influenced domes and arches, is captivating. And invigorating. You find yourself wanting to walk the next block, turn the next corner, just to see what’s there. You also find yourself questioning what the city, or any colonial city, would’ve looked like had they left the mesoamerican structures in place — Cortes demolished most of the ancient architecture; most of the churches are built with stones from the former pyramids and temples. Regardless, and perhaps it’s just my innate Eurocentrism, but you’d struggle not to appreciate what Spain built in its three century occupation of Mexico.
The most surprising revelation from our first day slugging through Mexico City’s arteries, was that a fair amount of Mexico City is built on a lake. Or a former lake. Lake Taxcoco. The Aztecs built Tenochtitlan — one of the major ruins in the center of the city, which Cortes destroyed to build the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. The Aztecs built upon and demarcated sections of the lake for agriculture. Then the Spanish drained what was left to expand Mexico City. As the barber that chopped my hair said: “The entire city is built on sand; if you spend a few hours digging, you’ll hit it.” There’s probably a parable in there. But seriously, it is one reason Mexico City is at high risk for earthquake damage.
In the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos) — quite possibly the longest name for a church ever — there exists twin organs. Gigantic twin organs. Organs that, if you’re not already inspired by the rest of the beauty in the church, which is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve entered, will instantly convert you to Christendom. I would’ve loved to hear Symphony No. 3 by Camille Saint Saens or something from Phantom of the Opera or “Linus & Lucy” from Charlie Brown on there.
Museo Nacional de Antropología
We woke the second day with the mentality of soldiers preparing for battle. Sunscreen and water: check. Chacos: check. A willingness to extend my elbows beyond necessary to pave a path amongst the masses for my family: check. We caught an Uber to the Bosque de Chapultepec moments after we completed our hundred pushups as a family.
The city was quiet. It was a Sunday morning. Everyone seemed to be at church. Until we pulled into the Bosque. There, tens of thousands of locals were racing (a 20k was in progress), biking, rollerblading, or relaxing. It was nine in the morning. And everything was packed. A line a few blocks long already extended from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, our first stop.
Whoa. What a stop. Whoa, whoa, whoa. So much to see. So huge. Only the Louvre in Paris felt bigger, more extravagant (to me at least). The building itself is a Mexican architectural marvel that rivals anything the Spanish built. The exhibits are fashioned around a fetching courtyard shaded by a ginormous, suspended ceiling that both appears to defy laws of physics and spew water from the heavens (photo courtesy of the museum). The exceptionally nice and organized exhibits themselves feature the greatest collection of mesoamerican artifacts and art in the world. It’s impossible not to be impressed. I was only able to type the stuff above because I visited this museum. You can, and should, spend an entire day here.
Castillo de Chapultepec
After the museum, we marched up a hill to see a castle. The hill was once a sacred place for the Aztecs. The Spanish murdered that too (damn you Spain, I may never eat paella again…until the next time it’s served…). The castle is an extravagant affair with panoramic views of the city. The only sovereigns in North America lived here. Emperor Maximilian the First — which is a real name and not something invented by Disney — and his wife Empress Carlota lived here during the Second Mexican Empire. For only about three years. They were killed by firing squad during the formation of the Mexican Republic. But that’s okay. They weren’t really Mexican. They were Austrian. Nevertheless, the castle is now brimming with royal art and artifacts. It’s worth the hike, if only for the view (this is only about a quarter of the view from the castle).
Secretaría de Educación Pública
We visited the headquarters for this agency on our final dia in Mexico City. For an education of a different sort. Diego Rivera, one of the two most famous artists in Mexico, the other being Frida Kahlo, his once wife, painted murals on nearly all the outer walls facing the courtyard in this building. While I can’t say this for certain, it has to be the largest collection of Rivera art in one location it the world. And it’s just sitting there, relatively unbeknownst to the general public (we only knew about it because our AirBnB host told us), behind a literal and figurative wall of bureaucracy. Andrea, the lovely and masterful road-school maestra, has taught our beautiful, snot-nosed monsters (and me by earshot) a lot about Diego and Frida — the elephant and the dove, as they’re affectionally called — so it was quite the treat to see these murals in person. A must stop in Mexico City. And you’ll nearly miss it. It’s behind a nondescript, baroque facade on a street just around the corner from the major tourist attractions.
Phew. I imagine that’s how you feel if you read this sucker (longest post to date). That’s how my body and brain felt like in route back to Teotihuacán. I’d had my fill of city. For awhile. I needed a break and some fresh air. But I needed to return. I only wrote about a smidgen of what we experienced, and we only experienced a smidgen of what there is to write about.