The heart of Mexico City is the Zócalo, built by the Spanish right over the devastated ceremonial centre of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. Extraordinary uncovered ruins – chief of which is the Templo Mayor – provide the Zócalo’s most compelling attraction, but there’s also a wealth of great colonial buildings, among them the huge cathedral and the Palacio Nacional with its striking Diego Rivera murals. You could easily spend a couple of days in the tightly packed blocks hereabouts, investigating their dense concentration of museums and galleries, especially notable for works by Rivera and his “Big Three” companions, David Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
West of the Zócalo the centro histórico stretches through the main commercial district past the Museo Nacional de Arte to the sky-scraping Torre Latinoamericana and the Palacio de Bellas Artes with its gorgeous Art Deco interior. Both overlook the formal parkland of the Alameda, next to which you’ll find a number of museums, principally the Museo Franz Mayer, which houses an excellent Alameda-related arts and crafts collection, and the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, with the artist’s famed Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda. Further west, the Monumento a la Revolución heralds the more upmarket central suburbs, chiefly the Zona Rosa, long known as the spot for plush shops and restaurants, though that title has largely been usurped by swanky Polanco and hipper Condesa.Read More
The ZócaloThe vast paved open space of the Zócalo – properly known as the Plaza de la Constitución – was once the heart of Aztec Tenochtitlán, and is today one of the largest city squares in the world after Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and Moscow’s Red Square. The city’s political and religious centre, it takes its name from part of a monument to Independence that was planned in the 1840s for the square by General Santa Anna. Like most of his other plans, this went astray, and only the statue’s base (now gone) was ever erected: el zócalo literally means “the plinth”. By extension, every other town square in Mexico has adopted the same name. It’s constantly animated, with pre-Hispanic revivalist groups dancing and pounding drums throughout the day and street stalls and buskers in the evening. Stages are set up here for major national holidays and, of course, this is the place to hold demonstrations. Over one hundred thousand people massed here in March 2001 to support the Zapatistas after their march from Chiapas in support of indigenous people’s rights; in July 2006 the square proved too small to contain the millions of demonstrators who gathered to challenge the result of that year’s presidential election, a contest widely believed – especially in the left-leaning DF – to have been fixed. Spreading out from the Zócalo, the crowds reached as far as Paseo de la Reforma.
Though you’re not guaranteed to see any protests, among the Zócalo’s more certain entertainments is the ceremonial lowering of the national flag from its giant pole in the centre of the plaza each evening at sundown (typically 6pm). A troop of presidential guards march out from the palace, strike the enormous flag and perform a complex routine at the end of which the flag is left, neatly folded, in the hands of one of their number. With far less pomp, the flag is quietly raised again around half an hour later. You get a great view of this, and of everything else happening in the Zócalo, from the rooftop terrace restaurants in the Hotel Majestic and Gran Hotel Ciudad de México on the west side of the square.
The Zócalo does, of course, have its less glorious aspects. Mexico City’s unemployment rate is tellingly reflected by the people who line up on the west side of the cathedral seeking work, each holding a little sign indicating their trade.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes
West of the Zócalo, on Avenida Juárez, stands the impressive Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was designed in 1901, at the height of the Díaz dictatorship, by the Italian architect Adamo Boari and built, in a grandiose Art Nouveau style, of white marble imported from Italy. The construction wasn’t actually completed, however, until 1934, with the Revolution and several new planners come and gone. Some find the whole exterior overblown, but whatever your initial impressions, nothing will prepare you for the magnificent interior – an Art Deco extravaganza incorporating spectacular lighting, chevron friezes and stylized masks of the rain god, Tlaloc.
Much of the interior splendour can be seen any time by wandering into the amazing Art Deco foyer (free) and simply gazing around the lower floor, where there is a good arts bookshop and the Café del Palacio restaurant. Some of the finest interior decor in the building is generally hidden from view in the main theatre, an important venue for classical music, opera and dance, but it can be seen, without attending a concert, if you join a tour, on which you’ll be shown the amazing Tiffany glass curtain depicting the Valley of México and volcanoes, as well as the detailed proscenium mosaic and stained-glass ceiling.
Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes
If you want to see more of the building, you might consider visiting the art museum on the middle two floors, the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes. In the galleries here you’ll find a series of exhibitions, permanent displays of Mexican art and temporary shows of anything from local art-school graduates’ work to that of major international names. Of constant and abiding interest, however, are the great murals surrounding the museum’s central space. On the first floor are Nacimiento de la Nacionalidad (Birth of Our Nationality) and México de Hoy (Mexico Today) – dreamy, almost abstract works by Rufino Tamayo. Going up a level you’re confronted by the unique sight of murals by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros gathered in the same place. Rivera’s El Hombre en Control del Universo (Man in Control of the Universe), celebrating the liberating power of technology, was originally painted for Rockefeller Center in New York City, but destroyed for being too leftist – arch-capitalist Nelson Rockefeller objected to Rivera’s inclusion of Karl Marx, even though he was well aware of Rivera’s views when he commissioned the work. This is Rivera’s own copy, painted in 1934, just a year after the original. It’s worth studying the explanatory panel, which reveals some of the theory behind this complex work.
Several smaller panels by Rivera are also displayed; these, too, were intended to be seen elsewhere (in this case on the walls of the Hotel Reforma, downtown) but for years were covered up, presumably because of their unflattering depiction of tourists. The works include México Folklórico y Turístico, La Dictadura, La Danza de los Huichilobos and, perhaps the best of them, Agustín Lorenzo, a portrayal of a guerrilla fighter against the French. None of them was designed to be seen so close up, and you’ll find yourself wanting to step back to get the big picture. Catarsis, a huge, vicious work by Orozco, occupies almost an entire wall, and there are also some particularly fine examples of Siqueiros’ work: three powerful and original panels on the theme of Democracía and a bloody depiction of the torture of Cuauhtémoc in El Tormento de Cuauhtémoc, and of the same Aztec ruler’s heroism in Apoteosis de Cuauhtémoc (Cuauhtémoc Reborn). The uppermost floor is devoted to the Museo de la Arquitectura, which has no permanent collection, but frequently has interesting exhibits.
West of the Palacio de Bellas Artes lies the Alameda, first laid out as a park in 1592, and taking its name from the alamos (poplars) then planted. The Alameda had originally been an Aztec market and later became the site where the Inquisition burned its victims at the stake. Most of what you see now – formally laid-out paths and flowerbeds, ornamental statuary and fountains – dates from the nineteenth century, when it was the fashionable place to stroll. It’s still popular, always full of people, particularly at weekends, but it’s mostly a transient population – office workers taking lunch, shoppers resting their feet, messengers taking a short cut and street vendors selling T-shirts.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera
Museo Mural Diego Rivera
One of the buildings worst hit by the 1985 earthquake was the Hotel del Prado, which contained the Rivera mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda). The mural survived the quake, and was subsequently picked up in its entirety and transported around the Alameda – it can now be seen in the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, at the western end of the park. It’s an impressive work – showing almost every famous Mexican character out for a stroll – but one suspects that its popularity with tour groups is as much to do with its relatively apolitical nature as with any superiority to Rivera’s other works. Originally it included a placard with the words “God does not exist”, which caused a huge furore, and Rivera was forced to paint it out before the mural was first displayed to the public.
Panels at the back of the sala housing the mural (Spanish on one side, English on the other), and also a leaflet available at the entrance, explain every character in the scene: Cortés is depicted with his hands stained red with blood; José Guadalupe Posada stands bowler-hatted next to his trademark skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, who holds the hand of Rivera himself, portrayed as a 9-year-old boy; Frida Kahlo stands in motherly fashion, just behind him.
- Paseo de la Reforma
México, Mexico City and El DF
México, Mexico City and El DF
For clarity, we’ve referred to Mexico’s capital as Mexico City throughout this site, though Mexicans frequently refer to it simply as México, in the same way that Americans refer to New York City as New York. It’s a source of infinite confusion to visitors, but the country took its name from the city, so “México” can mean either, and in conversation it most often means the latter. To avoid misunderstandings, the nation may be referred to as La República Mexicana, or occasionally in speeches as La Patria, while Mexico City may be referred to as El DF (“El Day Effay”), short for “Distrito Federal”, the administrative zone that coincides with the city boundaries and contains most of the urban area. The title Ciudad de México is used much less commonly, usually in an official context.
Coughs and robbers – Self preservation in Mexico City
Coughs and robbers – Self preservation in Mexico City
Mexico City comes with an unenviable reputation for overcrowding, grime and crime, and to some extent this is deserved. Certainly there is pollution. The whole urban area sits in a low mountain bowl that deflects smog-clearing winds away from the city, allowing a thick blanket of haze to build up throughout the day. Conditions are particularly bad in winter, when there is no rain, and pollution levels (reported daily in the English-language newspaper, The News, wthenews.com.mx) tend to peak in the early afternoon. In response, the Hoy No Circula (“Don’t drive today”) law prohibits car use from 5am to 10pm for one day in the working week for vehicles over six years old, the day depending on the car’s number-plate. Nonetheless, those prone to respiratory problems may have some difficulty on arrival, due to the city’s air quality and altitude.
The capital is where the Mexican extremes of wealth and poverty are most apparent, with shiny, valet-parked SUVs vying for space with pavement vendors and beggars. Such financial disparity fuels theft, but just take the same precautions you would in any large city; there is no need to feel particularly paranoid. Keep your valuables – especially credit or debit cards – in the hotel safe (even cheap hotels often have somewhere secure; muggers who catch you with an ATM card may keep hold of you till they have extracted enough cash with it), don’t flash large wads of money around and keep an eye on your camera and other valuables in busy market areas. At night, avoid the barrio known as Doctores (around the Metro station of the same name, so called because the streets are named after doctors), and the area around Lagunilla market, both centres of the street drug trade, and therefore opportunist crime. Note that mugging is not the only danger – abduction for ransom is increasingly common too.
Taxis have a bad reputation and, though drivers are mostly helpful and courteous, there are reports of people being robbed or abducted (often in stolen taxis). If possible, get your hotel to call you a cab (more expensive), or call one yourself. If you do have to hail a cab in the street, always take one whose registration, on both the number-plate and the side of the vehicle, begins with an L (for “libre” – to be hailed while driving around), and which has the driver’s identification prominently displayed. Better still, find a taxi rank and take a sitio taxi that can be traced to that rank (with a number beginning in R, S or T, and again with the driver’s ID prominently displayed). Do not take taxis from the airport or bus terminals other than prepaid ones, and avoid taking those waiting outside tourist spots.
Diego Rivera (c.1886–1957), husband of Frida Kahlo, was the greatest of Los Tres Grandes, the “Big Three” Mexican artists – the other two being José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros – who interpreted the Revolution and Mexican history through the medium of enormous murals, and put the nation’s art onto an international footing in the first half of the twentieth century. His works remain among the country’s most striking sights.
Rivera studied from the age of 10 at the San Carlos Academy in the capital, immediately showing immense ability. He later moved to Paris, where he flirted with many of the new artistic trends, in particular Cubism. More importantly, though, he and Siqueiros planned, in exile, a popular, native art to express the new society in Mexico. In 1921 Rivera returned from Europe to the aftermath of the Revolution, and right away began work for the Ministry of Education at the behest of the socialist Education Minister, poet and presidential hopeful José Vasconcelos. Informed by his own Communist beliefs, and encouraged by the leftist sympathies of the times, Rivera embarked on the first of his massive, consciousness-raising murals, whose themes – Mexican history, the oppression of the natives, post-Revolutionary resurgence – were initially more important than their techniques. Many of his early murals are deceptively simple, naive even, but in fact Rivera’s style remained close to major trends and, following the lead of Siqueiros, he took a scientific approach to his work, looking to industrial advances for new techniques, better materials and fresh inspiration. The view of industrial growth as a panacea (particularly in the earlier works of both Rivera and Siqueiros) may have been simplistic, but the artists’ use of technology and experimentation with new methods and original approaches often had startling results.
Rivera and Trotsky
Communism continued to be a major source of motivation and inspiration for Rivera, who was a long-standing member of the Mexican Communist Party. When ideological differences caused a rift in Soviet politics, he came down on the side of Leon Trotsky’s “revolutionary internationalism”. In 1936, with Trotsky running out of countries that would accept him after seven years on the run from Stalin’s henchmen, Rivera used his influence over Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to get permission for Trotsky and his wife Natalia to enter the country. They stayed with Diego and Frida rent-free at their Coyoacán house before Trotsky moved down the road to what is now the Museo Casa de León Trotsky. The passionate and often violent differences between orthodox Stalinists and Trotskyites spilled over into the art world, creating a great rift between Rivera and ardent Stalinist Siqueiros, who was later jailed for his involvement in an assassination attempt on Trotsky. Though Rivera later broke with Trotsky and was eventually readmitted to the Communist Party, Trotsky continued to admire Rivera’s murals, finding them “not simply a ‘painting’, an object of passive contemplation, but a living part of the class struggle”.
Following the Rivera trail
There is a huge amount of Rivera’s work accessible to the public, much of it in Mexico City, but also elsewhere around the country. The following is a rundown of the major Rivera sites, approximately ordered in accordance with their importance within each area.
Near the Zócalo, the Alameda and Chapultepec
Palacio National Major murals right in the heart of the capital.
SEP There are many of Rivera’s early murals around the courtyards of the Ministry of Education.
Palacio de Bellas Artes Rivera’s monumental El Hombre en Control del Universo (and others), as well as murals by his contemporaries.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera One of Rivera’s most famous murals, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda, is on display here.
Museo de Arte Moderno Several quality canvases by Rivera and his contemporaries.
Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (ENP) One relatively minor Rivera mural.
Museo Nacional de Arte A handful of minor canvases.
Cárcomo de Dolores Two murals on water-related subjects by a lake in the Bosque de Chapultepec.
Estadio Olímpico Mosaic relief depicting the relationship between sport and the family.
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño A massive collection of Rivera works from almost every artistic period.
Museo Frida Kahlo Just a couple of Diego’s works displayed in the house where he and Frida spent some of their married life.
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo Diego’s and Frida’s pair of houses designed by Juan O’Gorman.
Museo Anahuacalli Large Maya-style house built by Rivera and housing his collection of pre-Colombian sculpture.
Museo de Arte Carrillo-Gil A couple of paintings from Rivera’s Cubist period.
Teatro de los Insurgentes Mosaic depicting the history of Mexican theatre.
Outside the capital
Palacio de Cortés, Cuernavaca. Early murals on a grand scale.
Museo Robert Brady, Cuernavaca. A few paintings by both Frida and Diego.
Museo Casa Diego Rivera, Guanajuato. Relatively minor works and sketches in the house where Diego was born.