Mexico City Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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. Bursting beyond the official federal district, the sprawling city is edgy, yet laid-back and cosmopolitan. Around the city lie the chief relics of the pre-Hispanic cultures of central Mexico. Here you'll find the massive pyramids of Teotihuacán and the main Toltec site at Tula. Read our Mexico City travel guide for everything you need to know before you go.
The Aztecs founded their capital of Tenochtitlán in 1325 on an island in the middle of a lake. From here their empire grew to cover the whole of central Mexico. Hernán Cortés and his troops arrived in 1519, taking the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II, prisoner and attacking Aztec temples. Growing unrest led to rebellion, and in 1520, Moctezuma was killed – according to the Spanish, by his own people. The Spaniards fled but returned, stronger, a year later to lay siege to Tenochtitlán.
The Spanish systematically destroyed Aztec culture and created a new, bigger city. A turbulent period of disease and sinking buildings followed, and by the 1850s, the city comprised little more than the area around the Zócalo and Alameda.
From late 1870 to 1911, however, the dictator Porfirio Díaz presided over an aggressive building programme that fuelled growth. By the 1910 Revolution, Mexico City’s residents numbered over 400,000, regaining for the first time in four centuries the pre-Conquest population.
During the Revolution, thousands fled to rapidly industrializing Mexico City for work. By the mid-1940s the city’s population quadrupled, and shantytowns began springing up and then mushrooming. This expansion strained the transport system, resulting in the construction of a Metro system in the late 1960s.
Urban growth continues today, spilling out beyond the limits of the Distrito Federal. Despite the spread, Mexico City remains one of the world’s most densely populated cities. It has an long list of social and physical problems, including a vulnerability to earthquakes. The last big one, in 1985, killed over 9,000 people, made 100,000 homeless and skewed many of the city’s buildings.
Not only an architectural masterpiece in its own right, with a smashing Art Deco interior, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is also home to some of the city‘s most impressive murals.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera is the home of Rivera's most famous Mexican mural, depicting just about everybody from Mexican history, all out on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the Alameda.
The Museo Nacional de Antropología is the country’s finest museum, with displays on all of Mexico’s major pre-Columbian cultures.
Visit the houses where Frida Kahlo and León Trotsky lived, spend an evening checking out the local bars, then come back for the colourful Sunday market. You can book onto tours that take in the major sites.
Teotihuacán is the largest pre-Hispanic site in the country, dominated by the huge Pirámide de Sol and only slightly less huge Pirámide de la Luna. If you're feeling flush, splash out on a hot-air balloon flight over the pyramids.
Once a silver-mining centre, now a silver-buying centre, this whitewashed hillside town makes a welcome stop on the road to Acapulco. You can go on a tour and admire its silver jewellery, which is made in hundreds of workshops here.
A huge collection of works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Rent a boat and soak up the carnival atmosphere, flowers and traditional floating gardens at the Mexico City suburb of Xochimilco.
The frenetic site of massed mariachi bands competing for your attention.
Explore Mexico City’s largest and most vibrant market.
Mexico’s crazy, high-octane 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. Visit Mexico City and you’ll be rewarded with museums, murals and markets galore, while beyond the bustling colonial core lies a cluster of upmarket districts and leafy neighbourhoods.
Here are some of the best places to visit in Mexico City.
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 provide the Zócalo’s most compelling attraction, chief of which is the Templo Mayor. There’s also a wealth of great colonial buildings, among them the huge cathedral and the Palacio Nacional with its striking Diego Rivera murals. 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.
Originally an Aztec market and later the site where the Inquisition burned its victims at the stake, the formal Alameda parkland you see now dates from the nineteenth century. Around the Alameda is a clutch of museums, including Museo de Tequila y Mezcal, which tells the story of Mexico’s best-known liquors, and the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, with the artist’s famed Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda.
The Monumento a la Revolución heralds the more upmarket central suburbs, chiefly the Zona Rosa. You’ll know you’re there as the streets are all named after famous cities. Packed into this tiny area are hundreds of bars, restaurants, hotels and shops, all teeming with a vast number of tourists and a cross-section of Mexico City’s aspiring middle classes. Mexico City’s gay village can be found around the northern end of Amberes.
South of the Zona Rosa lie the leafy residential districts of Roma and Condesa. Both suburbs were developed in the 1930s and 1940s, but as the city expanded they became unfashionable and run-down. That all changed in the 1990s when artists and the bohemian fringe were drawn here by low rents, decent housing and proximity to the city centre. Small-time galleries sprang up and the first of the bars and cafés opened. Condesa, in particular, is now one of the best areas for good eating in the city, brimming with pavement cafés and bistro-style restaurants.
Accommodation in Mexico City ranges from budget hostels to some of the swankiest hotels in the country. Book ahead, as the best-value places can fill up quickly. Most places have 24hr reception desks and are geared for late arrivals and early departures. With reasonably cheap taxi fares into the Zócalo or Zona Rosa, it seldom makes financial sense to stay near the bus stations or airport. If you arrive especially late, there are places to stay that are very handy for the airport and Terminal del Norte.
There are reasonably priced restaurants, cafés, taquerías and juice stands on every block. The choice of where to eat in Mexico City ranges from traditional coffee houses to on-the-go lunch counters, taking in expensive international and rock-bottom Mexican cooking along the way. Food stalls can be found 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.
Club-oriented nightlife starts late in Mexico City. Live acts often hit 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 hosts a lot of the island’s emerging talent. Bars range from dirt-cheap pulquerías and cantinas to upscale lounges and hotel bars. As elsewhere in the country, cantinas and pulquerías are still largely a male preserve. The Zona Rosa (pink zone) is Mexico City’s gay zone, and in particular the northernmost section of Amberes between Hamburgo and Reforma, where you’ll find a slew of gay and lesbian bars.
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. To buy crafts, there is no need to visit the place of origin – shops in Mexico City and all the big resorts gather the best and most popular items from around the country. For bargain hunters, the mercado (market) is the place to head; La Merced is Mexico City’s largest and most vibrant market.
This section of the Mexico City travel guide will look at some of the best activities in the capital.
Though its popularity has waned in recent years, lucha libre, or wrestling, remains one of Mexico’s most avidly followed spectator sports. 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. More important, however, is the maintenance of stage personas, most of whom, heroes or villains, wear masks. Catch a 3.5-hour show if you can.
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, it’s worth attending a corrida de toros to see this integral part of the Mexican experience. Plaza México, a giant 48,000-seat arena in Mexico City, is the largest bullring in the world.
Ask any local what to see in Mexico City and they’ll say fútbol, which is undoubtedly Mexico’s most popular sport. The capital is one of the best places to see a football match. The biggest game in the domestic league, “El Clásico”, between Chivas from Guadalajara and América from Mexico City, fills the city’s 150,000-seater Aztec stadium to capacity. There are usually at least two games every Sunday afternoon from January to June and August to November.
Taking part in a local fiesta is one of the most exuberant things to do in Mexico City, and the following is just a teaser of the country’s jam-packed event programme:
The capital is where the Mexican extremes of wealth and poverty are most apparent. Such financial disparity fuels theft, but just take the same precautions you would in any large city. Keep your valuables – especially credit or debit cards – in the hotel safe. 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 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, it is best not to hail one off the street. Read our Mexico City Guide for more safety advice.
Look beyond the capital’s frenetic, high-octane core, and you’ll discover a raft of enticing places to visit around Mexico City. Spreading itself furthest to the south, the urban sprawl has swallowed up a series of old villages. These harbour the colonial suburbs of Coyoacán and San Ángel, the archaeological site of Cuicuilco and the canals of Xochimilco. The area north of the city centre has less to offer, but two sites of compelling interest are the emotive Plaza de las Tres Culturas and the great Basílica de Guadalupe. Further out, you’ll find the pyramids of Tenayuca and Santa Cecilia Acatitlán, the city’s two most dramatically preserved remains of Aztec architecture.
With its markets, ancient mansions and high-priced shops around flower-draped patios, San Ángel is a very exclusive place to live. It is also one of the most inviting places to visit around Mexico City, packed with little restaurants and cafés where you can sit outside and watch the crowds go by.
Around 3km east of San Ángel lies Coyoacán, another colonial township that has been absorbed by the city. Cortés based himself in Coyoacán during the siege of Tenochtitlán, and continued to live here while the old city was torn down. While the Plaza Central is the focus of the town, no visit to Mexico is complete without strolling out to the northern reaches to the Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky museums.
The floating gardens adjoining the suburb of Xochimilco offer an intense carnival atmosphere every weekend. Renting a colourful boat is one of the top things to do in Mexico City, as you’ll be ferried around the picturesque canals while marimba players and market stallholders compete for your attention.
The Plaza de las Tres Culturas is the site of the ancient city of Tlatelolco, located to the north of Tenochtitlán. Today, a lovely colonial church rises in the midst of the city’s excavated ruins, exemplifying the second of the three cultures from which the plaza takes its name.
The 20m-high pyramid in the main square at Tenayuca, a suburb just outside the city limits, is another site that predates Tenochtitlán by a long chalk. Indeed, there are those who claim it was the capital of the tribe that destroyed Tula. The pyramid that survives dates from the period of Aztec dominance and is an almost perfect miniature replica of the great temples of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán.
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Top image: Palacio de Bellas Artes or Palace of Fine Arts, a famous theater,museum and music venue in Mexico City © Kamira/Shutterstock
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.
Puebla’s expansion in recent years has made Cholula, 15km to the west, virtually a suburb. Nonetheless, it retains its small-town charm and has one abiding reason to visit: the ruins of Cholula. A rival of Teotihuacán at its height, and the most powerful city in the country between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of Tula, Cholula was, at the time of the Conquest, a vast city of some four hundred temples, famed as a shrine to Quetzalcoatl and for the excellence of its pottery (a trade dominated by immigrant Mixtecs). But it paid dearly for an attempt, inspired by its Aztec allies, to ambush Cortés on his march to Tenochtitlán: the chieftains were slaughtered, their temples destroyed and churches built in their place. The Spaniards claimed to have constructed 365 churches here, one for each day of the year. Although there are a lot of churches, the true figure certainly doesn’t live up to the claim. There may well be 365 chapels within the churches, though, which is already a few hundred more than the village population could reasonably need.
Arriving in Cholula, you can’t miss the Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, picturesquely sited atop a hill with Popocatépetl in the background. If you climb up to it, you can buy snacks such as chapulines (fried grasshoppers) on the way. What’s not immediately apparent is that the hill is in fact the remains of the Great Pyramid of Cholula – the Pirámide Tepanapa – the largest pyramid ever constructed, though it’s now ruined, overgrown and really not much to look at. At 66m, it is lower than the largest of the Egyptian pyramids but with each side measuring 350m it is also squatter and bulkier. As at other sites, the outer shell was built over a series of nested pyramids, constructed between 200 BC and 800 AD.
The archeological site around and underneath the pyramid is usually accessed from an entrance on San Andrés through a 400m-long series of tunnels dug by archeologists. Though undoubtedly fascinating, the ruins are a good deal less impressive than some of the more famed sites around the Valley of México. The ring of superimposed structures around the Patio de los Altares is certainly worth a look and there are some fine murals, but these can be better appreciated in the site museum where replicas are kept.
Even when you can go inside, the section open to the public is just a fraction of the 8km of exploratory tunnels which honeycomb the pyramid. They’re well lit and capacious enough for most people to walk upright, but there’s still a palpable sense of adventure as you spur off down side tunnels, which reveal elements of earlier temples and steep ceremonial stairways that appear to go on forever into the gloom. Emerging at the end of one tunnel, you’ll find an area of open-air excavations, where part of the great pyramid has been exposed alongside various lesser shrines with explanations in English of their importance.
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, thenews.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 numberplate. 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 numberplate 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.
COYOACÁN is a colonial township that has been absorbed by the city. Even before the Conquest it was a sizeable place. Originally the capital of a small lakeshore kingdom, it was subjugated by the Aztecs in the mid-fifteenth century. Cortés based himself in Coyoacán during the siege of Tenochtitlán, and continued to live here while the old city was torn down and construction began on the capital of Nueva España. The focus of the area is the spacious Plaza Central, but no visit to Coyoacán is complete without strolling out to the northern reaches of the suburb to the two main sights, the Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky museums.
The Museo Frida Kahlo is just a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Coyoacán. The appropriately named Blue House was the Kahlos’ family home and this is where Frida was born and spent most of her life, sporadically with husband Diego Rivera, who donated the house to the nation shortly after her death. It was during Frida and Diego’s tenure here in the late 1930s that they played host to the newly arrived Leon Trotsky and his wife. Trotsky, ever fearful of assassins, apparently expressed his concern about the ease of access from a neighbouring property, and in a typically expansive gesture Diego simply bought the other house and combined the two. Continually at the centre of the capital’s leftist bohemian life, Diego and Frida hosted a coterie of artists and intellectuals at this house; D.H. Lawrence was a frequent visitor, though he had little political or artistic sympathy with Kahlo, let alone Trotsky.
Several rooms have been set aside as galleries. The first features around twenty relatively minor (and less tortured) examples of Frida’s work, from some of her early portraits through to her final work, Viva la Vida, a still life of sliced watermelons. She painted it in 1954, when the pain and trauma of her recent leg amputation had taken their toll on her painterly control, if not her spirit. Look too for a beautiful charcoal self-portrait from 1932 and the more political El Marxismo Dará la Salud a los Enfermos (Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick) from 1954. A room full of Frida’s signature tehuana dresses leads to more paintings, including over a dozen by Rivera, such as Paisaje de la Quebrada, which shows a rock face at Acapulco into which Diego painted his own face in purple. Alongside are several works by Velasco and Orozco, as well as a Klee and a Tanguy.
Other sections of the house faithfully show the artesanía style that Frida favoured. Witness the blue and yellow kitchen with “Diego” and “Frida” picked out in tiny ceramic mugs on the wall. Its extraordinary decoration continues with bizarre papier-mâché animals and figures, and an impressive collection of retablos around the stairway. This leads up to Frida’s airy studio where her wheelchair is artfully set next to an easel and, of course, a mirror. Diego’s influence in the house is seen more through his interest in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic culture. Artefacts are scattered throughout the house and a small collection is displayed in the courtyard on a small two-step pyramid he had constructed there.
Trotsky’s House, or the Museo Casa de León Trotsky, where the genius of the Russian Revolution and organizer of the Red Army lived and worked, is about four blocks away and represents virtually the only memorial to Trotsky anywhere in the world. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky was forced into exile and condemned to death, and as increasing numbers of countries refused him asylum he sought refuge in Mexico in 1937, aided by Diego Rivera (at the time an ardent Trotskyite), who petitioned President Lázaro Cárdenas on his behalf. Here Stalin’s long arm finally caught up with him (see The assassination of Trotsky), despite the house being reinforced with steel gates and shutters, high walls and watchtowers. Today the fortified building seems at first a little incongruous, surrounded by the bourgeois homes of a prosperous suburb, but inside it’s a human place, set up as he left it, if rather dustier: books on the shelves, his glasses smashed on the desk and all the trappings of a fairly comfortable ordinary life – except for the bullet holes.
Since the 1970s, Frida Kahlo (1907–54) has been considered Mexico’s most internationally renowned artist, outshining even her husband, Diego Rivera, who recognized her as “the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women”. Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek, further consolidated her role as a feminist icon. Her work is deeply personal, centred on her insecurities and her relations with her family, her country and her politics. “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.” Her relatively short painting career was never prolific and the largest collection of her work is at the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño.
The daughter of a mestizo Mexican mother and Hungarian Jewish father, Frida was born in the Blue House in Coyoacán (now the Museo Frida Kahlo). When she was 6, she battled a bout of polio that left her right leg withered. She rebounded and, as a precocious 14-year-old at Mexico City’s top school, first met Diego Rivera (twenty years her senior) who was painting a mural there. She shocked her friends by declaring that she wished to conceive his child “just as soon as I convince him to cooperate”, but they didn’t meet again for many years.
At 18, and already breaking free of the roles then ordained for women in Mexico, Frida had begun to pursue a career in medicine when she suffered a gruesome accident. The bus she was riding in was struck by a tram, leaving her with multiple fractures and a pelvis skewered by a steel handrail. It was during the months she spent bedridden, recovering, that she first took up a paintbrush. Later in life, she reflected “I had two accidents in my life. One was the bus, the other Diego.” After her recovery she fell in with a left-leaning bunch of artists, free-thinkers and Communists where she again met Rivera. Within a year they were married: she a striking, slender woman of 21; he a massively overweight man twice her age with a frog-like face and an unparalleled reputation for womanizing. Diego went about his affairs quite publicly (including briefly with Frida’s sister, Cristina). He was furious when Frida took up with other men, but her several affairs with women seemed to delight him. After her death he wrote, “Too late now, I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”
Encouraged by Diego, Frida pursued her painting career. Over half of her canvases are self-portraits: imbued with sophisticated personal symbolism, with themes of abortion, broken bones and betrayed love explored through the body set in an unlikely juxtaposition of elements.
In 1932 Frida miscarried and was hospitalized in Detroit where she painted Henry Ford Hospital. This disturbing depiction of her grief shows her naked body lying on a bed in an industrial wasteland, surrounded by a foetus, pelvic bones and surgical implements all umbilically tied back to her. After returning to Mexico, her circle of friends expanded to include Trotsky (with whom she had a brief affair), Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella and muralist David Siqueiros (later implicated in an attempt to kill Trotsky). By now Frida and Diego were living in paired houses in San Ángel, which allowed them to maintain relatively separate lives. In 1939 they divorced, a devastating event Frida recorded in Autoretrato con el Pelo Cortado (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair), in which her trademark long tresses and indigenous tehuana dresses (both much loved by Diego) are replaced by Diego’s oversized suit and cropped hair. They remarried a year later, with Frida insisting on financial independence and a celibate relationship.
The injuries from her accident dogged her throughout her life, and as her physical condition worsened she found solace in her work (as well as drink and painkilling drugs), painting La Columna Rota (The Broken Column), in 1944, with her crushed spine depicted as an Ionic column. Despite increasing commercial and critical success, Frida had only one solo exhibition of her work during her lifetime, in Mexico City just a year before she died. In her later years she was wheelchair-bound, but continued the political activism she had always pursued, and died after defying medical advice and taking part in a demonstration against American intervention in Guatemala while she was convalescing from pneumonia in July 1954. By this stage, she knew she was dying; defiantly, on her last work, she daubed the words “Viva la Vida” – “Long Live Life”.
The first attempt on Trotsky’s life, in his house at Coyoacán, left more than seventy scars in the plaster of the bedroom walls. At 4am on May 24, 1940, a heavily armed group led by painter David Siqueiros (who had been a commander in the Spanish Civil War and was working under the orders of the Stalinist Mexican Communist Party) overcame the guards and pumped more than two hundred shots into the house. Trotsky, his wife and son survived only by hiding under their beds. After this, the house, already heavily guarded, was further fortified. Unknown to all, though, the eventual assassin had already inveigled his way into the household, posing as a businessman being converted to the cause. Although he was never fully trusted, his arrival at the house on the afternoon of August 20, with an article that he wanted Trotsky to look over, seemed innocuous enough. Trotsky invited him into the study and moments later the notorious ice pick (the blunt end), which had been concealed under the killer’s coat, smashed into Trotsky’s skull. He died some 24 hours later, in the hospital after an operation failed to save his life. The killer, who called himself Frank Jackson and claimed to be Belgian, served twenty years in jail, though he never explained his actions or even confessed to his true identity, Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río.
With its refreshing spring-like climate, CUERNAVACA has always provided a place of escape from Mexico City, but it isn’t always as refreshing as it claims to be. The state capital of Morelos, it is rapidly becoming industrialized, and the streets in the centre are permanently clogged with traffic and fumes. The gardens and villas that shelter the rich are almost all hidden away or in districts far from the centre, and many of them belong to narco-barons, whose rivalries brought a spate of violence in 2010. The spring of that year saw discotheques attacked and castrated corpses hung from bridges as deputies of a local kingpin fought for succession in the wake of his assassination by Mexican marines. The ensuing conflict left some fifty people dead, although the situation has calmed down somewhat since then.
The Aztecs called the city Cuauhnahuac (“place by the woods”), and it became a favourite resort and hunting ground for their rulers; the Spaniards corrupted the name to Cuernavaca (“cow horn”) simply because they couldn’t pronounce Cuauhnahuac. Hernán Cortés seized and destroyed the city during the siege of Tenochtitlán, then built himself a palace here. The palace-building trend has continued over the centuries: Emperor Maximilian and the deposed Shah of Iran both had houses here, and the inner suburbs are packed with the high-walled mansions of wealthy Mexicans and expats.
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.
Paseo de la Reforma is the most impressive street in Mexico City, lined by tall, modern buildings. It was originally laid out in the 1860s by Emperor Maximilian to provide the city with a boulevard to rival the great European capitals, and doubled as a ceremonial drive from his palace in Chapultepec to the centre. It also provided a new impetus, and direction, for the growing metropolis. The original length of the broad avenue ran simply from the Bosque de Chapultepec to the junction of Juárez – at 5km a very long walk, but there are plenty of buses and peseros – and although it has been extended in both directions, this stretch is still what everyone thinks of as Reforma.
“Reforma Norte”, as the extension towards Guadalupe is known, is just as wide (and the traffic just as dense), but is almost a term of disparagement. Real Reforma, however, remains imposing – ten lanes of traffic, lines of trees, grand statues at every intersection and perhaps three or four of the original French-style, nineteenth-century houses still surviving. Twenty or thirty years ago it was the dynamic heart of the growing city, with even relatively new buildings being torn down to make way for yet newer, taller, more prestigious towers of steel and glass. The pulse has since moved elsewhere, and the fancy shops have relocated, leaving an avenue now mostly lined with airline offices, car rental agencies and banks, and somewhat diminishing the pleasure of a stroll.
The elegant colonial city of PUEBLA, the republic’s fifth-largest city (after Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Tijuana), is an easy forty-minute trip from Tlaxcala, or a couple of hours by bus from Mexico City – with glorious views of the snowy heights of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl on the way. Known for its fine cuisine, Puebla has a remarkable concentration of sights – a fabulous cathedral, a “hidden” convent, museums and colonial mansions – while the mountainous surrounding country is in places startlingly beautiful. The city centre and Cerro de Guadalupe, where all these sights are to be found, form quite a compact area, easy to get around, and you can see the best of the city and nearby Cholula in a couple of leisurely days, or even – at a brisk trot – in one packed day.
Military defeat seems to play a larger part in Puebla’s history than it does in most of Mexico – the city fell to the Americans in 1847 and to the French in 1863 – but that isn’t what’s remembered. Rather, what’s remembered and commemorated here is the greatest victory in the country’s history, at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when a force of some two thousand Mexicans defeated a French army three times its size. The French were trying to make the Austrian prince Maxamilian emperor of Mexico, but when they tried to occupy Puebla, Mexican troops based in the two forts on the Cerro de Guadalupe (the Fuerte de Loreto and the Fuerte de Guadalupe) beat them off, forcing them to withdraw back towards their base at Veracruz and putting a serious dent into French plans. To this day, Puebla commemorates May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) with a massive fiesta, and there’s a public holiday throughout the country.
Fourteen kilometres north of Pachuca, draped across pine-clad hills, sits REAL DEL MONTE (aka Mineral del Monte), a once very wealthy silver-mining town, and, at over 2700m, a nice retreat from Mexico City. It’s a quietly appealing place where you can wander around the well-tended streets, and carefully explore mining relics in the surrounding hills. The town’s architecture is largely Spanish colonial, but is given an odd twist by the almost exclusive use of red corrugated-iron roofing, and the existence of Cornish-style cottages with their double-pitched rooflines.
As in much of Latin America, fútbol in Mexico is a national addiction, if not an obsession. Turn on the TV and often as not you’ll find a match. If you can get to see a live game, it’s a different experience entirely. For up-to-date information on Mexican league teams, fixtures and tables, visit futmex.com or futbolmexicano.net.
Football was introduced to Mexico in the nineteenth century by Cornish miners in Real del Monte, Hidalgo, and it was in that state, by descendants of those same Cornishmen, that Mexico’s first football club, Pachuca, was founded in 1901. The football league was created six years later. Mexico’s football league follows a complicated ladder system: the first division is divided into three tables of six teams each, which are decided by the previous season’s placings, with the league champions placed first in table one, second placed top of table two and so on. The top two teams of each table compete in a play-off for the league championship.
There are two seasons a year: Apertura (Aug–Nov) and Clausura (Jan–June). At the end of the Clausura season, the two seasons’ winners (if they are different) compete to decide that year’s champion of champions. Relegation to a lower division is decided over a two-season (yearly) loss average, so it is, in fact, technically possible to come first in the league and be relegated in the same season. However, relegation need not be the disaster that it might seem. Take, for example, Puebla C.F., who when relegated in 1999 simply bought the team promoted from Primera B (Curtodores), changed their name to Puebla and relocated them, which is perfectly legal under Mexican financial regulations. Similarly, there are no regulations preventing anyone from owning more than one team, which can lead to a clash of interests that are never more than speculated upon; suspicion of corruption is rife but rarely, if ever, investigated.
Matches are always exciting and enjoyed by even the most diehard “anti-futbolistas”. Music, dancing and, of course, the ubiquitous Mexican Wave make for a carnival atmosphere, enhanced by spectators dressing up and wearing face paint. They’re usually very much family affairs, with official salespeople bringing soft drinks, beer and various types of food at fixed prices to your seat. Stadiums tend to be mostly concrete, with sitting room only, and can sometimes be dangerously overcrowded, though accidents are thankfully rare.
The bigger clubs are those of Mexico City (América, Cruz Azul, Pumas – the national university side – Necaxa and Atlante) and Guadalajara (Chivas, Atlas and Tecos) and the games between any of these can draw crowds of up to eighty thousand, while smaller clubs like those of Puebla, Irapuato and Celaya may get no more than ten thousand or fifteen thousand spectators per game. The vast distances between clubs make travelling to away games impossible for many fans, one reason why smaller, more out-of-the-way clubs don’t get as much support. Opposing fans aren’t generally separated, but an atmosphere of self-policing prevails – making it an ideal family occasion. The greatest risk is often to the referee, who is frequently escorted from the pitch by armed riot police.
For national games the whole country is united, and football has many times been shown to rise above partisan politics. In 1999, despite being outlawed by the government, the EZLN football squad even played an exhibition match against the national side in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca.
In 1824, a British firm took over the old silver mines in Real del Monte, which had first been opened by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. Needing some mining expertise, the British brought over some 350 Cornish tin miners to help run the pits, but pulled out in 1848, to be replaced by a Mexican successor firm. Most of the tin miners stayed on however, and their legacy in Pachuca and Real del Monte lives on too, in the form of some surprisingly authentic Cornish pasties, and the introduction of fútbol (soccer), which was played for the first time on Mexican soil in Real del Monte. A plaque in the car park at the southern end of Hidalgo marks the spot where that first game was played, and it was this same Cornish community who went on to found Pachuca football club and the Mexican football league.
Silver has been mined in TAXCO since before the Conquest. Supplies of the metal have long been depleted, but it is still the basis of the town’s fame, as well as its livelihood, in the form of jewellery, which is made in hundreds of workshops here, and sold in an array of shops (platerías) catering mainly to tourists. The city is an attractive place, like some Mexican version of a Tuscan village, with a mass of terracotta-tiled, whitewashed houses lining narrow, cobbled alleys that straggle steeply uphill. At intervals the pattern is broken by a larger mansion, or by a courtyard filled with flowers or by the tower of a church rearing up; the twin spires of Santa Prisca, a Baroque wedding cake of a church in the centre of town, stand out above all.
Though it might seem a prosperous place now, Taxco’s development has not been entirely straightforward – indeed on more than one occasion the town has been all but abandoned. The Spaniards came running at the rumours of mineral wealth here (Cortés himself sent an expedition in 1522), but their success was short-lived, and it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that French immigrant José de la Borda struck it fabulously rich by discovering the San Ignacio vein. It was during Borda’s short lifetime that most of what you see originated – he spent an enormous sum on building the church of Santa Prisca, and more on other buildings and a royal lifestyle here and in Cuernavaca; by his death in 1778 the boom was already over. In 1929 however, the silver trade saw a revival, sparked by the arrival of American architect and writer William Spratling, who set up a jewellery workshop in Taxco, drawing on local traditional skills and pre-Hispanic designs. With the completion of a new road around the same time, a massive influx of tourists was inevitable – the town has handled it all fairly well, becoming rich at the expense of just a little charm.
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 nopal 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, in particular La Malinche, the Veracruz woman who acted as Cortés’ interpreter, are non-people. Tributes to Moctezuma are rare, 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.
Most visitors to Mexico City head out at some stage to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán: there’s a constant stream of tours, buses and cars heading this way, and the ruins can get quite busy, especially on a Sunday. As it’s an extensive site that can easily take up most of a day, it’s best, if possible, to head out here as early as you can manage and do most of your exploration in the cool of the morning, before the crowds arrive.
The ruins reveal a city planned and built on a massive scale, the great pyramids so huge that before their refurbishment one would have passed them by as hills without a second look. At its height this must have been the most imposing city in pre-Hispanic America, with a population thought to have been around 150,000 (though estimates vary), spread over an area of some 23 square kilometres (as opposed to the four square kilometres of the ceremonial centre). Back then, every building – grey hulks now – would have been covered in bright polychrome murals.
The main entrance, by Puerta 1, is at the southern end of the 2km-long Calzada de los Muertos (Causeway of the Dead), which originally extended 1.5km further south, and formed the axis around which the city developed. A broad roadway some 40m wide and linking all the most significant buildings, it was built to impress, with the low buildings that flank most of its length serving to heighten the impact of the two great pyramid temples at the northern end. Other streets, leading off to the rest of the city, originally intersected it at right angles, and even the Río San Juan was canalized so as not to disturb the symmetry (the bridge that then crossed it would have extended the full width of the street).
Its name is somewhat misleading, as it’s more a series of open plazas linked by staircases than a simple street. Neither is it in any way linked with the dead, although the Aztecs believed the buildings that lined it, then little more than earth-covered mounds, to be the burial places of kings. They are not, and although the exact function of most remains unclear, all obviously had some sacred significance. The design, seen in the many reconstructions, is fairly uniform: low three- or four-storey platforms consisting of vertical panels (tableros) supported by sloping walls. In many cases several are built on top of each other – clearly demonstrated in the Edificios Superpuestos (superimposed buildings) on the left-hand side shortly beyond the river. Here, excavated structures underneath the present level may have been the living quarters of Teotihuacán’s priests.
Directly opposite the entrance at Puerta 1 lies La Ciudadela, the Citadel. This enormous sunken square, surrounded by stepped platforms and with a low square altar in the centre, was the city’s administrative heart, with the houses of its chief priests and nobles arranged around a vast meeting place. Across the open space stands a tall pyramid construction inside which, during excavations, was found the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. With the back of the newer pyramid demolished, the elaborate (Miccaotli phase) temple structure stands revealed. Pyramids aside, this is one of the most impressive sections of the whole site, rising in four steps (of an original six), each sculpted in relief and punctuated at intervals by the stylized heads of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and Tlaloc, the rain god. Traces of the original paint can be seen in places.
The great Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) is Teotihuacán’s outstanding landmark, a massive structure 70m high and, of Mexico’s ancient buildings, second in size only to Cholula (itself a total ruin). Its base is almost exactly the same size as that of the great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, but the lower-angled sides and its stepped nature make it very much lower. There are wonderful views from the top nonetheless, and the bulk is all the more remarkable when you consider the accuracy of its alignment: on two days a year (May 19 and July 25), the sun is directly over the pyramid at noon, and the main west facade faces the point at which the sun sets on these days. This alignment just off the cardinal points determined the line of the Calzada de los Muertos and of the entire city. Equally remarkable is the fact that the 2.5 million tonnes of stone and earth used in its construction were brought here without benefit of the wheel or any beast of burden, and shaped without the use of metal tools. The pyramid you see was reconstructed by Leopoldo Batres in 1908, in a thoroughly cavalier fashion. He blasted, with dynamite, a structure that originally abutted the south face, and stripped much of the surface in a search for a more complete building under the present one. In fact, the Pirámide del Sol, almost uniquely, was built in one go at a very early stage of the city’s development (about 100 AD), and there is only a very small older temple right at its heart.
You approach the pyramid by a short staircase leading to the right off the Calzada de los Muertos onto a broad esplanade, where stand the ruins of several small temples and priests’ dwellings. The main structure consists of five sloping layers of wall divided by terraces – the large flat area at the top would originally have ebeen surmounted by a sanctuary, long disappeared. Evidence of why this massive structure came to be raised here emerged in 1971 when archeologists stumbled on a tunnel (closed to the public) leading to a clover-leaf-shaped cave directly under the centre of the pyramid.
This, clearly, had been some kind of inner sanctuary, a holy of holies, and may even have been the reason for Teotihuacán’s foundation and the basis of its influence. Theories abound as to its exact nature, and many fit remarkably with legends handed down through the Aztecs. It’s most likely that the cave was formed by a subterranean spring, and came to be associated with Tlaloc, god of rain but also a bringer of fertility, as a sort of fountain of life. Alternatively, it could be associated with the legendary “seven grottoes”, a symbol of creation from which all later Mexican peoples claimed to have emerged, or to have been the site of an oracle, or associated with a cult of sacrifice – in Aztec times the flayed skins of victims of Xipe Totec were stored in a cave under a pyramid.
At the end of the Calzada de los Muertos rises the Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), a smaller structure built slightly later (but still during the Tzacualli phase), whose top, thanks to the high ground on which it’s built, is virtually on a level with that of the Pirámide del Sol. The structure is very similar, with four sloping levels approached by a monumental stairway, but for some reason this seems a very much more elegant building: perhaps because of the smaller scale, or perhaps as a result of the approach, through the formally laid-out Plaza de la Luna. The top of the pyramid offers the best overview of the site’s layout, looking straight back down the length of the central thoroughfare. It is perfect for sunset, though as it is then close to closing time the guards will soon chase you down.
The Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl (Palace of the Quetzal-butterfly) lies to the left of the Plaza de la Luna, behind the low temples that surround it. Wholly restored, it’s virtually the only example of a pre-Hispanic roofed building in central Mexico and preserves a unique view of how the elite lived at Teotihuacán. The rooms are arranged around a patio whose elaborately carved pillars give the palace its name – their stylized designs represent birds (the brightly coloured quetzals, though some may be owls) and butterflies. In the galleries around the patio several frescoes survive, all very formalized and symbolic. Mural art was clearly very important in Teotihuacán, and almost every building has some decoration, though much has been removed for restoration.
Two earlier buildings, half-buried under the palace, still have substantial remains. In the Palacio de los Jaguares, jaguars in feathered headdresses blow conch shells from which emerge curls of music, or perhaps speech or prayers to Tlaloc (who appears along the top of the mural); in the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Plumed Snail Shells), you see a motif of feathers and seashells along with bright green parrots. Other murals, of which only traces remain, were found in the temples along the Calzada de los Muertos between the two pyramids.
Mural art was not reserved for the priests’ quarters – indeed some of the finest frescoes have been found in outlying apartment buildings. The famous Paradise of Tlaloc mural (reproduced in the Museo Nacional de Antropología) was discovered at Tepantitla, a residential quarter of the old city across the road from the back of the Pirámide del Sol. Only a part of it survives here, but there are others in the complex depicting a procession of priests and a ball-game. All have great vitality and an almost comic-strip quality, with speech bubbles emerging from the figures’ mouths, but their themes always have a religious rather than a purely decorative intent. More can be seen at Tetitla, to the west of the main site, and Atetelco, a little further west, just off the map.
Plan to spend at least some of your time in Teotihuacán’s excellent Museo del Sitio, situated behind the Pirámide del Sol and surrounded by a lovely sculpture and botanical garden. In the first room, artefacts from the site are well laid out and effectively lit to highlight the key features of each item in the cool interior. There’s just about everything you would expect of a ritual site and living city, from sharp-edged obsidian tools and everyday ceramics to some fine polychrome vessels decorated with animal and plant designs, and a series of five ceremonial braziers or censers ornamented with appliqué flowers, butterflies and shields.
Vast windows framing the Pirámide del Sol take up one entire wall of the second room, where you walk across a glass floor over a relief model of the entire city as it might once have been. The glass floor leads you to the third room, where burials from under the Temple of Quetzalcoatl have been relocated, along with statues of gods (often bottom-lit to accentuate the gruesome features), including a trio of braziers carried by the sun god Huitzilopochtli.
The rise and fall of Teotihuacán is almost exactly contemporary with imperial Rome. There is evidence of small agricultural communities in the vicinity dating to around 600 BC; by 200 BC a township had been established on the present site. From then until 1 AD (the period known as the Patlachique phase) the population increased, and the city assumed its most important characteristics: the great pyramids of the Sun and Moon were built, and the Calzada de los Muertos laid out. Development continued through the Tzacualli and Miccaotli phases (1–250 AD) with more construction and the blossoming of artistic expression. Then through the Tlamimilolpa phase (250–450 AD) there is evidence of the city’s influence (in architecture, sculpture and pottery) occurring at sites throughout modern Mexico and into Guatemala and Honduras. From 450 to around 650 AD (Xolalpan phase) it reached its peak in both population and power, with much new building and addition to earlier structures.
By the end of this period, however, there were already signs of decline, and the final phase, the Metepec, lasted at most a century before the city was sacked, burnt and virtually abandoned. This may have been the result of invasion or internal strife, but the underlying reasons could have been as much ecological as military. Vast forests were cut down to build the city (for use in columns, roof supports and door lintels) and huge quantities of wood burnt to make the lime plaster that coated the buildings. The result was severe soil erosion that left the hillsides as barren as they appear today. In addition, the agricultural effort needed to feed so many people (with no form of artificial fertilizer or knowledge of crop rotation) gradually sapped what land remained of its ability to grow more.
Whatever the precise causes, the city was left, eventually, to a ruination that was advanced even by the time of the Aztecs. To them, it represented a holy place from a previous age, and they gave it its present name, which translates as “the place where men became gods”. Although Teotihuacán features frequently in Aztec mythology, there are no written records – what we know of the city is derived entirely from archaeological and artistic evidence, so that even the original name remains unknown.
Allied to Cortés in his struggle against the Aztecs, as well as with colonial Spain in the War of Independence, TLAXCALA, the capital of a tiny state of the same name, has become a byword for treachery. Because of its alliance with Cortés, the town suffered a very different fate from that of nearby Cholula, which aligned itself with the Aztecs, and in the long run this has led to the disappearance of its ancient culture. The Spaniards founded a colonial town here – now restored and very beautiful in much of its original colonial glory, but whether because of its traitorous reputation or simply its isolation, development in Tlaxcala has been limited.
The town lies 131km west of Mexico City and 30km north of Puebla in the middle of a fertile, prosperous-looking upland plain surrounded by rather bare mountains. It’s an exceptionally pretty and much rehabilitated colonial town, comfortable enough but also fairly dull. Most of the interest lies very close to the zócalo, with its cluster of banks, post office and central bandstand, where the terracotta and ochre tones of the buildings lend the city its tag of “Ciudad Roja”, the Red City.
The capital of the state of México, TOLUCA DE LERDO is today a large and modern industrial centre, sprawling across a wide plain. At an altitude of nearly 2700m, it is the highest city in the country, and is surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, dominated by the white-capped Nevado de Toluca. It is probably not a place you’ll want to linger, but on Fridays it is the site of what is allegedly the largest single market in the country.
Unusually for a Mexican city, Toluca’s centre is marked not by an open plaza, but by a central block surrounded on three sides by the nation’s longest series of arcades, built in the 1830s and known as portales, lined with shops, restaurants and cafés: Portal Madero is to the south along Hidalgo; Portal 20 de Noviembre is to the east along Allende; and Portal Reforma is to the west along Bravo. The fourth side is taken up by the nineteenth-century cathedral and, to its east, the mustard-yellow church of Santa Cruz. Most of the central sights are clustered north of the portales and the cathedral, close to the two massive open plazas: Plaza de los Mártires, north of the cathedral, which is dominated on its north side by the Palacio del Gobierno, and to its east, Plaza Garibay, which is rather prettier, with shrubbery and fountains.
The modern city of Tula de Allende lies on the edge of the Valley of México, 50km north of Mexico City. A pleasant enough regional centre with an impressive, if fortress-like, mid-sixteenth-century cathedral and Franciscan monastery, Tula is most notable for its wonderful pre-Hispanic pyramid site, located 2km north of the town centre.
Only a small part of Tula’s archeological site itself is of interest: though the city spreads over some considerable area only some of it has been excavated, and the outlying digs are holes in the ground, meaningful only to the archeologists who created them. The ceremonial centre, however, has been partly restored. The significance of the site is made much clearer if your Spanish is up to translating all the information presented in the museum by the entrance, and filled with fragments of Atlantes, Chac-mools and basalt heads, along with assorted bits of sculpture and frieze.
The site’s centrepiece is the low, five-stepped pyramid of the Templo de Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Temple of the Morning Star, or Pyramid B), atop which stand the Atlantes – giant, 5m-tall basalt figures that originally supported the roof of the sanctuary and represent Quetzalcoatl in his guise as the morning star, dressed as a Toltec warrior. The figures wear elaborately embroidered loincloths, sandals and feathered helmets, and sport ornaments around their necks and legs – for protection, each bears a sun-shaped shield on his back and a chest piece in the form of a stylized butterfly. Each also carries an atlatl, or spear-thrower, in his right hand and arrows or javelins in his left.
Other pillars are carved with more warriors and gods. Reliefs such as these are a recurrent theme in Tula: the entire temple was originally faced in sculpted stone, and although it was pillaged long ago you can still see some remnants – prowling jaguars and eagles, symbols of the two great warrior groups, devouring human hearts. In front of the temple is a great L-shaped colonnade, where the partly reconstructed pillars originally supported a huge roof under which, perhaps, the priests and nobles would review their troops or take part in ceremonies in the shade. Part of a long bench survives, with its relief decoration of a procession of warriors and priests. More such benches survive in the Palacio Quemado (Burnt Palace – it was destroyed by fire), next to the temple on the western side. Its three rooms, each a square, were once covered with a small central patio to let light in. The middle one is the best preserved, still with much of its original paint and two Chac-mools.
The main square of the city stood in front (south) of the temple and palace, with a low altar platform in the centre and the now ruinous pyramid of the Templo Mayor on the eastern side. The larger of two ball-courts in the central area is on the western side of the square: although also largely ruined, this marks one of the closest links between Tula and Chichén Itzá, as it is of identical shape and orientation to the great ball-court there. To the north of the temple stands the Coatepantli (Serpent Wall), elaborately carved in relief with images of human skeletons being eaten by giant snakes; beyond this, across an open space, there’s a second ball-court, smaller but in better order.
In legend at least, the mantle of Teotihuacán fell on Tollan, or Tula, as the next great power to dominate Mexico. The Aztecs regarded the city they constructed as the successor to Tula and hence embellished its reputation – the streets, they said, had been paved with gold and the buildings constructed from precious metals and stones, while the Toltecs, who founded Tula, were regarded as the inventors of every science and art. In reality, it seems unlikely that Tula was ever as large or as powerful a city as Teotihuacán had been – or as Tenochtitlán was to become – and its period of dominance (about 950–1150 AD) was relatively short. Yet all sorts of puzzles remain about the Toltec era, and in particular their apparent connection with the Yucatán – much of the architecture at Chichén Itzá, for example, appears to have been influenced by the Toltecs. Few people believe that the Toltecs actually had an empire that stretched so far: however warlike (and the artistic evidence is that Tula was a grimly militaristic society, heavily into human sacrifice), they would have lacked the manpower, resources or any logical justification for such expansion.
One possible answer lies in the legends of Quetzalcoatl. Adopted from Teotihuacán, the plumed serpent attained far more importance here in Tula, where he is depicted everywhere. At some stage Tula apparently had a ruler identified with Quetzalcoatl who was driven from the city by the machinations of the evil god Texcatlipoca, and the theory goes that this ruler, defeated in factional struggles within Tula, fled with his followers, eventually reaching Maya territory, where they established a new Toltec regime at Chichén Itzá. Though popular for a long time, this hypothesis has now fallen out of fashion following finds at Chichén Itzá that seem to undermine it.
West from Toluca, the road towards Morelia and the state of Michoacán is truly spectacular. Much of this wooded, mountainous area – as far as Zitácuaro – is given over to villas inhabited at weekends by wealthy refugees from the capital, and nowhere more so than at the small lakeside town of VALLE DE BRAVO. Set in a deep, pine-clad valley, the town sits on the eastern shore of an artificial lake, Lago Avandaro. With terracotta-tiled roofs, iron balconies affixed to many of the older buildings and a mass of whitewashed houses all huddled together, it is an immediately appealing place, something that has drawn a coterie of artistic refugees from the big city. They mostly keep to themselves, leaving the water’s edge for weekenders who descend for upmarket relaxation: boat trips, sailing, swimming, waterskiing, riding, paragliding, hiking and golf.
The zócalo, ringed with restaurants and centred on a twin-towered church, sits on a rise a fifteen-minute walk from the waterfront, where most of the action is centred, and sees spectacular sunsets. Here there’s a wharf (embarcadero) from which you can take boat rides to the parts of the lake inaccessible by road: either rent one, or join a lancha colectiva.
Valle de Bravo is a good base for visiting the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary areas in the State of Mexico, which receive fewer visitors than those over the state line in Michoacán, and are more unspoilt, if less scenic. The easiest sanctuary area to visit from Valle de Bravo is at Los Saucos, whose gate is right on a main road and served by hourly buses between Valle de Bravo and Mexico City – make sure you get on a “por Saucos” bus. There are also organized tours every day in season, which can be booked through the tourist office or the tourist information kiosks in Valle de Bravo. Cerro Pelón, which is considered by many to be the prettiest of all the butterfly sanctuary areas, is slightly more remote, but can be reached on hourly Tepascelptepec-bound buses from Valle de Bravo.
The 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 water-borne 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 many kilometres 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.