In a shallow mountain bowl over 2400m above sea level, and crammed with over twenty million people, Mexico City is one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas. It’s also one of the most vibrant and colourful. Spreading out beyond the federal district (Distrito Federal) which is supposed to contain it, the city has a vibe which is at once both edgy and yet laidback at the same time. Despite its high crime rate and terrible pollution, the capital is a fun place to be, and nowhere near as intimidating as you might expect. It’s also very easy to find your way round, with an efficient metro system, and generally easy-to-navigate grid of streets.
On arrival you may brace yourself for the city’s hard edge, but be prepared to be lulled by it. Mexico’s capital may initially seem to lack the colour and charm of some of the country’s smaller towns, but it can be pretty too, and there’s certainly no denying its dynamism. The city centre still retains its colonial feel, its streets bustling with the comings and goings of daily commerce. The fact that different products are sold in specific areas – stationery here, electrical fittings there – sometimes make it seem like a giant market. To the west, steel and glass take over from brick and stone as tradition gives way to modernity, but in the suburbs, in barrios like San Ángel and Coyoacán, there’s as much charm as any small Mexican town, and a surprising number of little squares overlooked by old churches amid leafy residential back streets. For many Mexicans, in fact, the city’s most important site is the Basilica de Guadalupe, sited in the suburbs to the north of town. To the southwest, meanwhile, is Chapultepec Park and some of the biggest attractions you’ll want to see, notably the outstanding Museo Nacional de Antropología. Even in the centre, around the garden known as the Alameda in particular, there’s music, art (Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as their contemporaries) and colour enough to seduce you, and the hustle and bustle only seem to amplify it. While the outer edges of the city are largely shantytowns, built piecemeal by migrants from elsewhere in the country, hidden among them are a number of gems, such as the pyramids of Tenayuca, Santa Cecilia Acatitlán and Cuicuilco, and the canals of Xochimilco.
The Aztecs (or, to use their own name, the Mexica) founded their capital of Tenochtitlán in 1325 on an island in the middle of a lake, at a spot foretold by their god Huitzilopochtli, and it was from here that their empire grew to cover the whole of central Mexico. This empire was already firmly established when Hernán Cortés and his troops arrived in November 1519. The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II (Montezuma), a broodingly religious man, apparently believed Cortés to be a reincarnation of the pale-skinned, bearded god Quetzalcoatl. Accordingly he admitted him to the city – fearfully, but with a show of ceremonious welcome. The Spanish repaid this hospitality by taking Moctezuma prisoner. They then attacked the great Aztec temples, killing priests and placing Christian chapels alongside their altars.
Growing unrest in the city at the emperor’s passivity, and at the rapacious behaviour of his guests, led to rebellion. In June 1520, Moctezuma was killed – according to the Spanish, stoned to death by his own people while trying to quell a riot – and the Spaniards fled the city with heavy losses on what they called Noche Triste (Sad Night). Cortés and his surviving followers escaped to Tlaxcala to regroup. In May 1521, with numbers swelled by indigenous allies, and ships built in secret to attack by water, the Spaniards laid siege to Tenochtitlán, landing on the south of the island and fighting their way north through the city, street by bloody street. The Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc was finally captured on 13 August 1521 and subsequently tortured to try to find out where his supposed treasure was hidden. He was finally executed four years later in Honduras.
Spanish and post-colonial Mexico City
The Spanish systematically smashed every visible aspect of Aztec culture, as often as not using the very stones of the old city to construct the new. The new city developed slowly in its early years. It spread far wider, however, as the lake was drained, filled and built over. Pestilent from the earliest days, the inadequately drained waters harboured fevers, and the native population was constantly swept by epidemics of European diseases. Many of the buildings, too, simply began to sink into the soft lake bed, a process probably accelerated by regular earthquakes.
By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the city comprised little more than the area around the Zócalo and Alameda. Chapultepec Castle, Coyoacán, San Ángel and the Basilica of Guadalupe were still surrounded by fields and the last of the basin’s former lakes. From late 1870 through to 1911, however, the dictator Porfirio Díaz presided over an unprecedented, and self-aggrandizing, building programme that saw the installation of trams, the expansion of public transport and the draining of some of the last sections of the Lago de Texcoco, which had previously hemmed the city in. These all fuelled further growth, and by the outbreak of the Revolution in 1910, Mexico City’s residents numbered over four hundred thousand, regaining for the first time in four centuries the population level it had held before the Conquest.
The modern city
During the Revolution, thousands fled to rapidly industrializing Mexico City in search of jobs and a better life. Between 1910 and the mid-1940s the city’s population quadrupled and the cracks in the infrastructure quickly became gaping holes. Houses couldn’t be built quickly enough to cope with the seven-percent annual growth, and many people couldn’t afford them anyway, so shantytowns of scrap-metal and cardboard sprang up. Most neighbourhoods had little or no water supply and sanitation was an afterthought. Gradually, civic leaders tried to address the lot of citizens by improving the services and housing in shantytowns, but even as they worked, a new ring of slums mushroomed just a little further out. This expansion badly strained the transport system, necessitating the construction of a Metro system in the late 1960s.
Urban growth continues today: some statisticians estimate that there are a thousand new arrivals each day, mainly from high-unemployment rural areas, and the urban area now extends beyond the limits of the Distrito Federal and into the surrounding states. Despite the spread, Mexico City remains one of the world’s most densely and heavily populated cities, with an unenviable list of major social and physical problems, including an extreme vulnerability to earthquakes – the last big one, in 1985, killed over nine thousand people, made one hundred thousand homeless and left many of the city’s buildings decidedly skewed.Read More
Tenochtitlán – the city that walked on water
Tenochtitlán – the city that walked on water
The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was built on an island in the middle of a lake traversed by great causeways, a beautiful, strictly regulated, stone-built city of three hundred thousand residents. The Aztecs had arrived at the lake around 1325, after years of wandering and living off what they could scavenge or pillage from settled communities. According to legend, their patron god Huitzilopochtli had ordered them to build a city where they found an eagle perched on a cactus, and devouring a snake. It is this legend that is the basis of the nopal, eagle and snake motif that forms the centrepiece of the modern Mexican flag.
The lake proved an ideal site: well stocked with fish, it was also fertile, once the Aztecs had constructed chinampas, or floating gardens of reeds. These enabled them to grow crops on the lake, as a result of which they were self-sufficient in food. The lake also made the city virtually impregnable: the causeways, when they were completed, could be flooded and the bridges raised to thwart attacks (or escape, as the Spanish found on the Noche Triste).
The island city eventually grew to cover an area of some thirteen square kilometres, much of it reclaimed from the lake, and from this base the Aztecs were able to begin their programme of expansion: initially dominating the valley by a series of strategic alliances, war and treachery, and finally, in a period of less than a hundred years before the brutal Spanish Conquest of 1521, establishing an empire that demanded tribute from, and traded with, the most distant parts of the country. Yet almost nothing of this amazing city survived the Conquest. “All that I saw then,” Bernal Díaz later wrote of his account of Tenochtitlán, “is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing.” It is only relatively recently – particularly during construction of the Metro, and with the 1978 discovery of remains of the Templo Mayor beneath the colonial Zócalo – that a few remains of Tenochtitlán have been brought to light.
The city’s defeat, moreover, is still a harsh memory: Cortés himself is hardly revered, but the natives who assisted him, and in particular Moctezuma and Malinche, the woman who acted as Cortés’ interpreter, are non-people. You won’t find a monument to Moctezuma in the country, though Cuauhtémoc, his successor who led the fierce resistance, is commemorated everywhere; Malinche is represented, acidly, in some of Diego Rivera’s more outspoken murals.
Mariachi in Plaza Garibaldi
Mariachi in Plaza Garibaldi
Plaza Garibaldi (Metros Bellas Artes and Garibaldi) is the traditional final call on a long night around the capital’s bars, and as the night wears on and the drinking continues, it can get pretty rowdy. The plaza is on Lázaro Cárdenas, five blocks north of Bellas Artes in a thoroughly sleazy area of cheap bars, grimy hotels and several brightly lit theatres offering burlesque and strip shows. Despite a high-profile police presence, pickpockets are always a threat and it’s best to avoid coming laden down with expensive camera equipment or an obviously bulging wallet.
Hundreds of competing mariachi bands gather here in the evenings, all in their tight, silver-spangled charro finery and vast sombreros, to play for anyone who’ll pay them. A typical group consists of two or four violins, a brass section of three trumpeters standing some way back so as not to drown out the others, three or four men on guitars of varying sizes and a vocalist, though a truly macho man will rent the band and do the serenading himself. Mariachis take their name, supposedly, from the French mariage, it being traditional during the nineteenth-century French intervention to rent a group to play at weddings. You may also come across norteño bands from the border areas with their Tex-Mex brand of country music, or the softer sounds of marimba musicians from the south. Simply wander round the square and you’ll get your fill – should you want to be individually serenaded, pick out a group and negotiate your price.
At the back of the square is a huge market hall in which a whole series of stalls serve simple food and vie furiously for customers. Alternatively, there is at least one prominent pulquería on the square, and a number of fairly pricey restaurant/bars, which try to drown out the mariachi bands with their own canned music, and tempt customers with their no-cover entry. The last Metro leaves at midnight.
La Lucha Libre
La Lucha Libre
Though its popularity has waned in recent years, lucha libre, or wrestling, remains one of Mexico’s most avidly followed spectator sports. Over a dozen venues in the capital alone host fights several nights a week for a fanatical public. Widely available magazines, comics, photonovels and films recount the real and imagined lives of the rings’ heroes and villains, though the nightly telecasts are now a thing of the past.
Mexican wrestling is generally faster, with more complex moves, and more combatants in the ring at any one time than you would normally see in an American or British bout. This can make the action hard to follow for the uninitiated. More important, however, is the maintenance of stage personas, most of whom, heroes or villains, wear masks. The rudos tend to use brute force or indulge in sneaky, underhanded tactics to foil the opposition, while the técnicos use wit and guile to compensate for lack of brawn. This faux battle, not at all unlike WWE on-screen antics, requires a massive suspension of disbelief – crucial if you want to join in the fun.
One of the most bizarre features of wrestling was the emergence of wrestlers as political figures – typically still in costume. The most famous of these, Superbarrio, arose from the struggle of Mexico City’s tenant associations for fair rents and decent housing after the 1985 earthquake to become part of mainstream political opposition, even challenging government officials to step into the ring with him, and acting as a sort of unofficial cheerleader at opposition rallies.
The most famous wrestler of all time, however, was without doubt El Santo (“the Saint”). Immortalized in more than twenty movies, with titles such as El Santo vs the Vampire Women, he would fight, eat, drink and play the romantic lead without ever removing his mask, and until after his retirement, he never revealed his identity. His reputation as a gentleman in and out of the ring was legendary, and his death in 1984 widely mourned. His funeral was allegedly the second best-attended in Mexican history after that of President Obregón.
In Mexico City, fights can usually be seen on Tuesdays at the Arena Coliseo, Peru 77 (Metro Allende) and on Fridays at the Arena México, Dr Lucio 197 at Dr Lavista, Colonia Doctores (two blocks south and one east of Metro Balderas, but not a good area to be in at night). Tickets are sold on the door.
Soccer and wrestling may be more popular, but there is no event more quintessentially Mexican than the bullfight. Rooted in Spanish machismo and imbued with multiple layers of symbolism and interpretation, it transcends a mere battle of man against animal. If you don’t mind the inherent cruelty of the spectacle (essentially you’re watching an animal being artfully tortured to death), it’s worth attending a corrida de toros to see this integral part of the Mexican experience. It is a sport that transcends class barriers; every Sunday afternoon during the winter season men and women from all walks of Mexican society file into the stadium – though some admittedly end up in plush sombra (shade) seats while the masses occupy concrete sol (sun) terraces.
Each corrida lasts around two hours and involves six bulls, all from one ranch, with each of three matadors taking two bulls. Typically there will be two Mexican matadors and one from Spain, which still produces the best performers. Each fight is divided into three suertes (acts) or tercios (thirds), each announced by a trumpet blast. During the first tercio, several toreros with large capes tire the bull in preparation for the picadores who, from their mounts atop heavily padded and blindfolded horses, attempt to force a lance between the bull’s shoulder blades to further weaken him. The toreros then return for the second tercio, in which one of their number (and sometimes the matador himself) will try to stab six metal-tipped spikes (known as bandilleras) into the bull in as clean and elegant a manner as possible.
Exhausted and frustrated, but by no means docile, the bull is now considered ready for the third and final tercio, the suerte de muleta. The matador continues to tire the bull while pulling off as many graceful and daring moves as possible. By now the crowd will have sensed the bravery and finesse of the matador and the spirit of the bull he is up against, and shouts of “¡Olé!” will reverberate around the stadium with every pass. Eventually the matador will entice the bull to challenge him head-on, standing there with its hooves together. As it charges he will thrust his sword between its shoulder blades and, if it is well executed, the bull will crumple to the sand. However barbaric you might think it is, no one likes to see the bull suffer and even the finest performance will garner the matador little praise without a clean kill. Successful matadors may be awarded one of the bull’s ears, rarely two, and perhaps two or three times a season the tail as well. An especially courageous bull may be spared and put out to stud, a cause for much celebration, but this is a rare spectacle.
Fiestas in Mexico city
Fiestas in Mexico city
Día de los Santos Reyes (Jan 6). Celebrations include a fiesta with dancing at Nativitas, a suburb near Xochimilco.
Bendicíon de los Animales (Jan 17). Children’s pets and peasants’ farm animals are taken to the cathedral to be blessed.
Día de San Pedro (June 29). Marked by traditional dancing in San Pedro Actopan, on the southern outskirts of the DF.
Día de Santa Marta (July 25). Celebrated in Milpa Alta, near Xochimilco, with Aztec dances and mock fights between Moors and Christians.
Independence Day (Sept 15). The president of the republic proclaims the famous Grito at 11pm in the Zócalo, followed by the ringing of the Campana de Dolores and a huge firework display.
Día de Santa Cecilia (Nov 22). Santa Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians, and her fiesta attracts orchestras and mariachi bands from all over to Santa Cecilia Tepetlapa, near Xochimilco.
Día de la Señora de Guadalupe (Dec 12). The saint’s day of Mexico’s favourite Virgin heralds a massive pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe, running for several days, with a more secular celebration of music and dancing.
Accommodation in Mexico City ranges from budget hostels to some of the swankiest hotels in the country, but the best-value places can fill up quickly, so booking ahead is always a good idea. Most places have 24hr reception desks and are geared for late arrivals and early departures, and with reasonably cheap taxi fares into the Zócalo or Zona Rosa, it seldom makes financial sense to stay near the bus stations or airport. However, if you arrive especially late or are just in transit and need a place to rest up for a while, there are places to stay that are very handy for the airport and Terminal del Norte.Book a hostel in Mexico City
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
There are reasonably priced restaurants, cafés, taquerías and juice stands on every block. The choice of where to eat ranges from traditional coffeehouses to fast-food lunch counters, taking in expensive international and rock-bottom Mexican cooking along the way, as well as food stalls in markets throughout the city: Merced is the biggest, but not a terribly pleasant place to eat. At the back of Plaza Garibaldi, there’s a whole market hall given over to nothing but food stands, each vociferously competing with its neighbours. Mexico City also abounds in rosticerías, roast chicken shops, serving tasty set meals and crispy chicken with beer in a jolly atmosphere. More so than anywhere else in the country, Mexico City is flooded with chain restaurants, both American franchises and slightly classier Mexican chains such as Sanborns and VIPS; on the whole, you’re much better off with a comida corrida. Top-class restaurants are mostly concentrated in Polanco.
Nightlife and entertainment
Nightlife and entertainment
Club-oriented nightlife starts late, with live acts often hitting the stage after 11pm and few places really getting going before midnight. Cuban music is particularly popular, and with Cuba just a short flight away, Mexico City provides a local but international proving ground for the island’s talent. Mainstream Hollywood movies make it to Mexico just a few weeks after their release in the US and often before they get a British or European release. One of the largest concentrations of cinemas is along Insurgentes, where half a dozen multiplexes total around fifty screens in all. While Mexican theatre tends to be rather turgid, there are often excellent classical music concerts and opera or ballet performances by touring companies. The Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Auditorio Nacional are the main venues, but other downtown theatres, as well as the Polyforum and the Teatro de los Insurgentes, may have interesting shows. For listings, see the weekly magazine Tiempo Libre (wtiempolibre.com.mx).
Shopping and markets
Shopping and markets
The big advantage of shopping in the capital is that you can get goods from all over the country and, if you are flying out of here, you don’t have to lug them around Mexico, though they will usually be more expensive than at the source. An odd hangover from Aztec times is the practice of devoting a whole street to one particular trade, which occurs to some extent throughout the city. There are blocks where you can buy nothing but stationery, while other areas are packed exclusively with shoe shops and still others only sell musical instruments. Every area of the city has its own market selling food and essentials, and many others set up stalls for just one day a week along a suburban street. Replica Mexican football shirts can be found in the tianguis (street markets) on San Juan Letrán between Bellas Artes and Salto del Agua, or those in the streets north and east of the Zócalo.
Sport is probably the city’s biggest obsession, and while football, wrestling and bullfighting are the three leading lights, the sporting calendar doesn’t stop there. One sport that’s missing is Frontón, which used to be played at Frontón México, on Plaza de la República, but it closed when the players went on strike in 1993, and has never reopened.