Mexico City-Ciudad de Méjico
At Mexico City International Airport otherwise known as Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, Catalina, the Mexican representative of our Australian travel agent, Eclipse Travel, greeted us warmly.
“Bienvenidos –Welcome to Mexico City. Is this your first trip to Mexico?” We replied no, but we were nevertheless really excited to be back and explore places we haven’t visited. Catalina was delighted; a tour guide for decades, she is proud of Mexico City and loves her country passionately. In her perfect English she bombarded us with information the moment we got settled in her car, casually pointing to the few security cameras looming on street lamps as she drove towards our hotel. “Mexico City is misunderstood”, she said. “It’s no different from big cities and is as safe as can be. In fact there are approximately 127,000 security cameras all over Mexico City and there is a very strong police presence everywhere.” She sighed almost with resignation and said we mustn’t believe the negative publicity about the ‘dangers’ in Mexico City.
Mexico has been getting a lot of attention of late but for the wrong reasons. At the time we were there, Donald Trump was just inaugurated 45th president of the United States of America. Despite being maligned by Donald Trump, Mexico is still considered by many as an extension of North America, specifically Texas and California. Thank goodness though, that it retains its distinct character and heritage. Good food, tequilas, its unique Aztec and Mayan culture as well as influences from the colonial days of Spain, France and America, are the heady mix that make Mexico an exciting destination. Unfortunately Mexico has also become synonymous with drug lords, “bad hombres” and danger. Regardless, based on our short sojourn there, nothing could be further from the truth. For us, Mexico City is an awesome travel destination. A few years ago, I spent a few days in this interesting and vibrant city on business and marvelled then at the city’s beauty. This time around, as a tourist, I still felt the pulsating energy that was so much part of the fabric of Mexico City.
Our hotel situated right at the heart of the historic centre (Centro Histórico) facing the square, the Zócalo, or the Plaza de la Constitucion, was a delightful surprise. The Gran Hotel Ciudad de México, an elegant 5 star hotel reminiscent of the Art Nouveau period was originally built in the late 1800’s as an exclusive department store called El Centro Mercantil. In those days it was the grandest and most luxurious department store in all of Latin America. When the department closed in 1959, the preserved building was converted to its current use. Styled in the Art Nouveau, its pièce de résistance was the stained glass ceiling made of a mix of glass and cast iron. Jacques Gruber, a student of the Nancy School Tiffany in France, created this elegant piece of work, which was very much in keeping with the ‘Tiffany look’.
If in Mexico City, this hotel is worth exploring with its many art nouveau features, including an old lift and gilded birdcage.
Our first obvious stop at the hotel was the terrace bar with a view of the Zócalo. To celebrate our first night in the city we enjoyed several glasses of the ubiquitous classic Margarita cocktail with our guacamole and Cochinita Pibil Tacos (a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Península served on soft tortillas). Auspiciously that evening, we were treated to a spectacle at the square, which was the lowering of the flag, executed with much pomp and ceremony.
The next morning Catalina met us promptly for our first guided city tour of Mexico City that included a visit to the Museum of Anthropology, a drive along the Paseo de la Reforma, the Zona Rosa, the trendy neighbourhoods of Condesa, Roma, and Polanco and then back to the Zócalo to visit the Catedral Metropolitana (The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven), the pre- Hispanic ruins at Templo Mayor of the Aztecs and the Palacio Nacional. These sights were all within walking distance from our hotel.
We certainly noted the police presence that Catalina was talking about…Policemen and policewomen were in every street corner ready to help wandering tourists and more importantly, that particularly day, to ensure that the demonstrating farmers who descended on the ciudad ( the city) didn’t cause any disruption to the daily rhythm of life and the adventurous tourists’ sightseeing.
The next day was our free day and we decided to see more of Mexico City. For this foray, we took the Turibus (Mexico City’s hop on –hop off double decker bus that makes a circuit from the historical centre, down to the Paseo de la Reforma to Chapultepec Park and other stops for only Mexican pesos140). It was truly a great way to explore the city. Along *Paseo de la Reforma the main avenue that runs diagonally along the city, there were several stops but we chose to hop off at the Monument to Independence to make our way to the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), a vast 1700 acre park where the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle) sits majestically on a hill. The Mexican Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Charlotte used this castle as their residence during the Second Mexican Empire (the short French intervention period of 1861 to 1867 while Napoleon III reigned in France).
Getting back on the bus, we later hopped off at 5 de Mayo Street to stroll down to the 18th century palace built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba family, the Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles-located at Callejón de la Condesa, between 5 de Mayo Street and Madero Street). What was appealing about this building was its façade made of blue and white tiles from the Puebla state.
Note to visitors: The house itself is now a very busy restaurant. Even if one is not interested to have a meal there, a look around the interior is highly recommended.
* Paseo de la Reforma is reminiscent of the great avenues in Europe such as the Champs-Élysées in Paris; the Emperor Maximilian I in the 1860’s commissioned this avenue.
La Ciudadela was our last ‘must see’ for the day. Recommended by our guide, we found our way to this artisans’ market and were charmed by the colourful handcrafted wares. We purchased a few gorgeous Mexican handmade products, as they were really pretty and inexpensive. We always like to explore markets in cities we visit and La Ciudadela is one that we would also recommend. We were however intrigued that there were no piñatas with Donald Trump’s head. We were told by American friends to look for this trendy item.
The stroll made us hungry and for our merienda ( snack) we tried a bowl of pozole ( stew made from Hominy – a form of dried maize or corn in either pork or chicken broth, served with condiments of chopped onions, coriander, shredded lettuce, chicharones or crunchy pork skin, lime and chili, avocado and many more). This dish reminded me of the Philippine arroz caldo – a Filipino style congee made of rice soup, chicken broth, spiced with ginger and spring onions.
Mexicans eat a lot of maize or corn. As we were reminded over and over again during this trip, the corn has a spiritual and ritualistic significance for them since the Aztecs and Mayans believed the corn to be a sacred plant. Legend has it that gods created men from cornmeal dough also known as masa. Pozole then was meant to be consumed during special occasions but in modern times; one can spot little food stalls and restaurants specializing in this dish.
La Ciudadela , Address: Av Balderas s/n, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06040 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
We highly anticipated our last day in Mexico City as Catalina was going to take us to the Guadalupe shrine, approximately 50 Km northeast of Mexico City, followed by the Teotihuacán archaeological ruins, a UNESCO World heritage site.
Our visit to these two places of interest didn’t disappoint. The Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, the most visited site in the Catholic pilgrimage was for me a wish come true. I suppose, I can now cross this off my ‘bucket list’. Catalina who was somewhat intuitive to my moods gave me a few extra moments to light my candles after viewing the Virgin’s image in the new Cathedral. (The old one is slowly sinking).
Another fortuitous thing that day was La Candelaria, which we witnessed at the Basilica. The annual celebration of the Feast of Candelaria, celebrates the official presentation of baby Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem 40 days after his birth. This is a ritual that follows the Jewish practice according to the Old Testament’s law. Among Catholics in Mexico, the person who is privileged to look after the doll dressed up as baby Jesus has to take it to mass (the event we just witnessed) and is then allowed to keep the figurine in a niche in his house or a chapel, all year round. This custom is juxtaposed with a pre- Hispanic practice of villagers bringing their corn to church in order to get their crops blessed after planting their seeds for the new agricultural cycle. This was on February 2, the eleventh day of the first month on the Aztec calendar.
From Catholicism we were transported to the vast archaeological complex that was a city in pre-Colombian times and a homage to Mesoamerican religion.
Built between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D. the enormous monuments of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent) and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon were indeed impressive.
On our return to the hotel, we saw from the balcony that the Zócalo still had remnants of the La Candelaria ceremony with stalls being dismantled. Decorated with maize leaves vendors were selling various delicacies and tamales. Apparently tamales were being handed out to the crowd. We just missed the tamales , much to our disappointment.
Departing early to catch our flight to Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco, where we would start our exploration of the Mayan ruins, we promised Catalina we would shout our positive experience to the world.
Mexico, according to her, needs as many goodwill ambassadors. Her parting words were: “Did you know Mexico means navel of the moon? It comes from the Nahuatl words for “moon” (mētztli) and navel (xīctli).”
So there you have it, we can now say we have just had a wonderful time at the Place of the Centre of the Moon.