Monday, 8 September 2014

Days 512 to 517: Mexico City

Mexico City is sinking. When the Spanish came in 1519 and dethroned the Aztecs, they settled on taking over the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, dismantling it and building Mexico City in a style more to their suiting. In this manner, the small colonial capital grew. But there was a problem. Cathedrals and palaces and other such large stone buildings are heavy, and Tenochtitlan was situated in a swamp. The modern day consequences of this are very visible in even just a casual wander around the city.


We arrived in Mexico City in the early hours of the morning, flying in from Las Vegas. It might not surprise you to hear that the two are very different. Vegas is flashy, modern, expensive, and hot; Mexico City is none of these. September is rainy season, and being at 2200 metres altitude, the climate for our stay was very... Scottish. It rained every day for the six days we were there (which included an overnight trip to the ruins of Teotihuacan). To be honest, after the 40-degree temperatures of Vegas, having the cool 19 degree dampness of Mexico City was a relief, although the rain sometimes became so torrential that venturing outside wasn't such a wise idea. Fortunately, our hostel, very near the historic city centre, had a (covered) rooftop bar, and we could watch the storm unfold over the city skyline with a beer in hand.

That tall tower is the Torre Latinoamericana (or more mundanely in English, the Latin-American Tower), once the tallest building in all of Latin America. It's no beauty, to understate it a little. The historic centre of Mexico City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with grand and charming, if crumbling and sinking, chunks of colonial architecture. What inspires city planners to build a tatty glass tower in the middle of it? It was finished in 1956 and so I'm sure seemed way ahead of the curve at the time, but in the manner of most structures from that era, just looked faded and dated now. Unfortunately, it seems able to cope with multiple lightning strikes, and doesn't appear to be sinking.

Mexico City is a proper, busy, living city, not particularly inclined for mass tourism (Mexico has plenty of beach resorts for that) and so in terms of sights to see and things to do, this is not Paris, London, or Rome. Some nations' capital cites are like giant magnets, of such outstanding interest that they draw in most of the tourists, occasionally spitting out a few for the rest of the country. But others, like Lima in Peru or Manila in the Philippines, are hectic inconveniences for the tourist, necessary only for passing through to the country's better attractions. Mexico City is a lot better than Lima, but it's not a star attraction. At first, Danielle and I weren't too impressed. Although the historic centre has attractive buildings, they aren't in good shape. Aside from simply sinking, they are black with dirt, in obvious need of repairs, and frequently are overrun with weeds.

Can't they employ a guy to pull the weeds out? Or is all the city's money being spent on the police force? There are a lot of police in Mexico City. I'm not exaggerating when I say that every street had a policeman, usually armed, and usually several of them, hanging around looking bored. I understand a balance needs to be struck between the security of a city and the maintenance of historic buildings, but couldn't just one cop be given weeding duties?

One of the city's big attractions is the National Museum of Anthropology. The prospect of an anthropology museum may not fill some with thrills, but Mexico City's is a very good one. It helps that Mexico itself has an astonishing history of civilisations before the Spanish came in and spoiled the party. Aztecs, Maya, Olmec, Mixtec, Totonac, Toltec, Teotihuacan,, Zapotec, Huastec: these might look like funny words, but each were thriving civilisations that left behind impressive legacies and collections of ruins. The museum keeps everything clear and interesting over a series of interconnected rooms gathered round a courtyard, packed with artefacts and reconstrutions, and a single visit isn't enough to take it all in. I wasn't particularly wanting to take it all in, and was happy to concentrate on my Wonder-related civilisations, Teotihuacan and the Maya.

That's a reconstruction of part of Teotihuacan's Temple of Quetzalcoatl, with the skeletons being - I really hope - replicas of the real human sacrifices found in recent years. Meanwhile, in the Maya section, there is a neat replica of the tomb found inside one of Palenque's temples, with the remains of their greatest king.

I hope he wasn't as crossed-eyed in real life.

In the Aztec room was a large map of Tenochtitlan, before it was wiped out and turned into Mexico City. In front of it was a model of their main ceremonial area. What happened to it? The Spanish tore it all down to build their new city. My hostel was situated somewhere right in the middle of all this.

As it happens, some of it still remains, in very ruined form. It's called the Templo Mayor and was only properly discovered in 1978, by electrical workers. You can visit it today, it's just off Mexico City's central square. At first, you have to use your imagination a little, but soon it becomes clear. The main temple would have been 30 metres high, with the top platform around 80 by 100 metres - it would have been pretty damn impressive. The Aztecs liked to regularly build over their temples, creating even larger ones in the process, meaning that cross-sections of its construction and history can be seen. In a perverse sense, the Spanish continued this tradition, building their places of worship over the Aztec temple. The Metropolitan Cathedral today looms over the remnants of the Templo Mayor.

We warmed to the Mexico City was the week wore on. After a few days, we went on an overnight trip to the real reason we were here, the spectacular and mysterious ruins of Teotihuacan, review tol follow. We returned on a Saturday to find the city heaving. Every Mexican ever made appeared to be on the streets, and the centre had a very lively atmosphere. Danielle and I took a wander, eating a delicious taco dinner from a woman who appeared to be operating out of her doorway. We went round a few different bars, all lively, all fun, all friendly. Mexico City was showing its colours - it needs to be experienced rather than just seen. The following night we returned to one of our favourite bars, and took what we called the Pulque Challenge. Pulque is thick, milky alcoholic drink derived from the agave plant - a spiky cactus-type thing - and this bar did them in seven different flavours, such as Passion Fruit, and something called Power.

And they were all very nice, but if I can give one small piece of advise: don't try all seven in one sitting. If the above photo looks like seven little pots of paint, well, it was like drinking seven little pots of paint. Our entire bodies felt clogged.

It brought to an end our Mexico City experience. Not through death, but because the following morning we departed southwards, to the colonial cities of Puebla and Oaxaca.


  1. Is there any explanation as to why the Templo Mayor wasn't subject to sinking before the Spanish arrived? By the way Tenochtitlan looks amazing, like a pre-Columbian Venice. Sadly I remember watching a documentary about paper documentation that the Spanish found (full of pictograms) when they conquered Mexico, and they burnt it all considering it to be heretic nonsense. In the 19th century a German archaeologist managed to decrypt some documents that had not been destroyed, which enables us now to piece together some of the history of Mexico before the Spanish arrived. At the same time it makes us realise that there is stuff that we never will know now, because of the wanton destruction of the rest.

  2. You absolutely missed the true Wonder, as you focused on a lot of the very commercial ones- I greatly believe you should do some research on Kalakmul- it puts all these other mayan sites to absolute shame


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