Mexico City spreads itself furthest to the south, where a series of old villages have been swallowed up by the urban sprawl. These harbour some of the most enticing destinations outside the centre, including the colonial suburbs of Coyoacán and San Ángel, the archeological site of Cuicuilco and the canals of Xochimilco.
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Around 2km south of San Ángel, Insurgentes enters the great lava field of El Pedregal, which gets its name from the vast lava flow that spreads south of San Ángel through the University City and beyond. Craggy and dramatic, it was regarded as a completely useless stretch of land, the haunt of bandits and brigands, until the early 1950s, when architect Luis Barragán began to build extraordinarily imaginative houses here, using the uneven lava as a feature. Now it’s filled with an amazing collection of luxury homes, though you’ll unfortunately be able to see little of what is behind the high walls and security fences even if you drive around. El Pedregal is also home to the university campus, the Olympic Stadium (Estadio Olímpico) and Cuicuilco, the oldest pyramid in central Mexico.
The Pirámide de Cuicuilco is dominated by the circular temple visible to the east of Insurgentes by the periférico, around 3km south of the Estadio Olímpico and opposite the former Olympic Village, now a housing complex. This is much the oldest construction of such scale known in central Mexico, reaching its peak around 600–200 BC before being abandoned at the time of the eruption of Xitle (the small volcano that created El Pedregal, which took place around 100–300 AD), just as Teotihuacán was beginning to develop. Not a great deal is known about the site, much of which has been buried by modern housing (completing the work of the lava). The pyramid itself, approached by a ramp and a stairway, is about 25m high by 100m in diameter and is composed of four sloping tiers (of a probable original five), the lowest one made visible only by digging away 4m of lava. A small museum displays objects found here and at contemporary settlements.
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
Just round the corner from La Noria Tren Ligero station, the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño sits amid peaceful and beautifully tended grounds where peacocks strut, oblivious of the busy streets outside, and houses the largest private collection of Diego Rivera’s work. It’s built into a seventeenth-century mansion, donated in 1994 by the elderly Dolores Olmedo, a wealthy collector and longtime friend and patron of Rivera’s. Over the years she amassed over 130 of his works, all of which are on display here. They span his career, from his Cubist period in the early twentieth century through self-portraits (exhibiting varying degrees of flattery) to 25 sunsets painted in Acapulco from the balcony of his patron’s house. The collection is immensely varied, making this perhaps the best place to get a true sense of just how versatile a master he was. Look particularly for three large and striking nudes from the early 1940s, and sketches for his famous paintings of calla lilies.
Rivera’s work is reason enough to come here, but the museum also has an outstanding collection of two dozen paintings by Frida Kahlo. With the works arranged in approximate chronological order, it is easy to see her development as an artist, from the Riveraesque approach of early works such as 1929’s The Bus, to her infinitely more powerful self-portraits. Many of her finest works are here, including Henry Ford Hospital, A Few Small Pricks, La Columna Rota and Autorretrato con Mono (Self-Portrait with Monkey), the latter featuring Mexico’s most distinctive canine breed, the grey-skinned Xoloitzcuintle, of which Kahlo kept several as pets. To see these hairless pre-Colombian dogs in the flesh, wander out into the garden where a few are still kept. There’s also a portrait of Kahlo by Rivera elsewhere in the museum, in a pastiche of her own style.
Though easily overshadowed by the Rivera and Kahlo pieces, there is also a worthwhile collection of wood-block prints done by Angelina Beloff, Diego’s first wife, featuring scenes from Mexico and her native Russia.
XochimilcoThe floating gardens adjoining the suburb of Xochimilco offer an intense carnival atmosphere every weekend and are likely to be one of your most memorable experiences of the city. Considerable effort has been expended in recent years to clean up the canals and maintain the water levels that had been dropping here, so Xochimilco (“place of the flower fields” in Náhuatl) looks set to remain the most popular Sunday outing for thousands of Mexicans. It’s also the one place where you get some feel for the ancient city and its waterborne commerce, thriving markets and dazzling colour – or at least an idealized view of it. Rent any of the colourful boats and you’ll be ferried around miles of canals, continually harangued by women selling flowers, fruit and hot food from tiny canoes, or even by larger vessels bearing marimba players and entire mariachi bands who, for a small fee, will grapple alongside you and blast out a couple of numbers. The floating gardens themselves are no more floating than the Titanic: following the old Aztec methods of making the lake fertile, these chinampas are formed by a raft of mud and reeds, firmly rooted to the bottom by the plants. The scene now appears like a series of canals cut through dry land, but the area is still a very important gardening and flower-producing centre for the city. If you wander the streets of Xochimilco town you’ll find garden centres everywhere, with wonderful flowers and fruit in the market that enlivens the town centre for much of Saturday (though whether it’s healthy to eat food raised on these dirty waters is open to question).
Off the huge central plaza is the lovely sixteenth-century church of San Bernardino, full on Sundays with a succession of people paying homage and leaving offerings at one of its many chapels; in the plaza itself there are usually bands playing or mime artists entertaining the crowds.