One of the world’s mega-cities, with over 25 million people occupying a shallow mountain bowl at over 2400m above sea level, Mexico City has to be seen to be believed. 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 and cosmopolitan at the same time. Despite its 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 around, 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 makes 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 laidback 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 backstreets. 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), an ambitious and flourishing culture, founded their capital of Tenochtitlán in 1325 on an island in the middle of a lake, at a spot where their god Huitzilopochtli told them they would find an eagle devouring a snake atop a nopal cactus. 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.