Mexico City - Andale, Andale!

The face of Mexico!
I’m playing catch up with my blogging, so let’s jump back a few months to a time when people were younger, Spring was in the air, and I had all my organs ;o)

In early Feb we took a jaunt south of the border to Mexico City. No, we are not running a drug cartel and I refuse to comment on the rumours that spleens go for thousands on the black market down there.

Every country has a ‘smell’, America for example smells of spearmint, it does! It took me a while to work it out, but yes it’s spearmint. Mexico City.... well, let’s just say it doesn’t smell minty fresh. It has a kind of thick musty smell, you get used to it of course but for the first hour I kept looking for a window in the sky I could open and let some air in.

Smell aside, I noticed two things straight off the bat, Mexican men like to wear snazzy shoes, snakeskin boots were common place. And, you have to press a button when you enter the country. Swear to God, you’ve got your luggage, you’re about to burst forth into the arrivals hall and you get the tap on the shoulder. A big smiling man points to a large green button, ‘Push’, was his command. Nothing happens, no door opens up, no gameshow host comes out and hugs you, you just plod out into the Mexican heat.

I’ve always wanted to go to Mexico City, ever since my primary school teacher said it was the most populated city in the world. There was something about the hustle and bustle of swathes of people crushing, grinning and grimacing on their daily grind that intrigued me. Btw, before someone writes a strongly worded letter to the editor, according to google the most populated city in the world is currently Tokyo (37m) with Mexico City coming in a mere 10th (19m).

Still and all, it’s an expansive city, a Mexican chap, who was very proud of his city, told us the city covers 3,000 sq kilometres and he estimated the population at 25m (take that google!). He did share his thoughts on the number of cars in the city which I can’t remember so I’m going to say it was around 50 billlllllllion.

I’m delighted I finally made it there and I would recommend it to all. Drop all your preconceived notions of sinister danger (ha, is there any other kind), backward sophistication (that doesn’t even make sense) and dirty streets (that’s just an outright lie!). Mexico city is full (and yes, it is full) of friendly people, not a hint of unease in the air, parts of town were very like Madrid (I know, who knew?!) and it was as clean as any ancient city I’ve visited.

Cheryl Sandberg can stop 'leaning in', I've found the glass ceiling, it's breakable

We stayed in the Gran Hotelde Ciudad bang in the historic centre which revolves around a massive central plaza called the Zocalo. It is the third largest city square in the world coming after Red and Tiananmen. It bleeds atmosphere as the city throbs and beats around and across it. When we arrived it looked like a noisy protest demo was in full swing on the square, but as the evening wore on we realised it was in fact a celebration, of teachers (go figure). The hotel was proper old school posh, the glass ceiling was a mosaic of beautiful stained glass, it was like taking shelter under a humongous Tiffany lamp. However the coolest aspect of all was the antique bird cages which lined the lobby with real live birds knocking around inside them.
Some birds, wha!

Hotel brekker (that’s ‘breakfast’ for the non Dubliners) is always a rip off so a handy spot is Sanborns in the Casa de los Azulejos. It’s actually a chain of drug store cum eateries but this one happens to be housed in a former palace where the exterior is made of beautiful decorative tiles. The inside has quirky Mexicana drug store paraphernalia, e.g. little dolls that I’m pretty sure you could eat!

Back to the Zocalo, it is built over the remains of the ancient Aztec city. There is a Cathedral on one side that dominates the square and was built with the brick remains from the ancient city. People mill around it selling stuff and others burning incense (to be honest I couldn’t say for certain it was incense and bear in mind this was the very spot where the Church used to burn heretics and witches, maybe those dolls from Sanborns ended up in the pot!). An interesting thing about the Cathedral is that it is sinking but instead of stopping it the Mexicans have decided to let nature take its course, but they have made efforts to make sure it sinks in sync.

As with all cities that were dominated by the Catholic religion there are lots of churches, chapels, etc dotted all over the place. The kind of city where churchbells wake you in the morning. There is one chapel that is solely dedicated to St Jude, I liked the idea of that, a church devoted to the patron saint of lost causes. Once a month they have a mass there and people come from far and wide with lists of their lost causes hoping for, I dunno, answers, hope, resolution, or maybe just a good ole ‘how long is your list’ session, ‘Only 5 lost causes, eh, look at mine, I’m technically dead’.

Mexico Stock Exchange

There is a financial heart to the city which is full of expensive suited and booted people rushing to Starbucks flapping their iPads around. If that doesn't interest you, a TOP highlight of the city was the Museum of Anthopology, I’m a museum fan and harbour a desire to turn back time and study anthropology so this was right up my alley, but even if you’re not normally the museum type, you should consider checking this one out, it’s fascinating. It covers the rich history of the country, it even boasts Montezuma’s headdress.

That's one hell of a hat!

Montezuma, if you slept during history class, was the Aztec ruler in charge when the Spanish conquistadores (ie Cortes) came to town. Monty (as his friends called him, I’m sure) had never seen a white man but there was an ancient Aztec prophecy that a dark haired fair skinned man would come on the exact day that Cortes (who was dark haired and fair skinned) arrived. (Top contender for 'World's biggest ever coincidence). Monty felt he had to placate the ‘god’ or he would be endangering the universe, so he welcomed him and gave him all the gold and the kingdom. The Aztec people were not happy about this, they revolted against M, the Spanish got involved and Montezuma was killed. The Spanish ultimately won the battle and Mexico did not fully gain it’s independence from Spain until 1821.

A gem that you will repeat at parties (yes you will) is that the Mayan civilisation understood the concept of zero 800 years before the Europeans copped on to it. It is because of this understanding that they flourished, they were able to keep track of calendars and perform arithmetic required for trade and commerce. Over in Europe I’m gonna guess we were probably just drinking and fighting.

Bench made from playing cards

The Mexicans, not surprisingly, are a joyous folk, street perfomers would bounce among the cars when the traffic lights went red risking life and limb to juggle with fearsome acrobatics, all for a few pesos. Neighbourhoods in Mexico are called colonia. We ventured into a few and each had their own distinct charm. One that sticks in my mind was called Condesa, it is a very bohemian, lots of arty intellectual types loitering around with no intent. There seemed to be a fine array of restaurants and if you’re into nightlife it looked like the place to be. (I love the way I will happily admit even the word ‘nightlife’ fills me with fear and dread, unless it involves ovaltine and a digestive biscuit - I joke, I’m not even sure if ovaltine still exists).

Random note, the street sweepers don’t use automatic cleaning trucks or turbo mops, they use massive brooms that wouldn’t be out of place with a witch on board. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

If you have a few days in Mexico city I would highly recommend you take a trip (about 40km north of the city) to see the biggest pyramids in Mexico in a place called Teotihuacan (“the city of the Gods”). Unlike Mexico’s more famous Mayan pyramids (Chichen Itza) the pyramids in Teotihuacan were built by the (pre) Aztecs. You get to climb the Pyramid of the Sun (3rd largest pyramid in the world) which has impressive views to the Pyramid of the Moon and down along the Avenue of the Dead.

Two human sacrifices coming up
Similar to visiting the pyramids in Eygpt (yes, I’ve been abroad, you get it, don’t you just want to reach into your screen and slap me silly) a great sense of history and gravitas envelops you as you walk amongst the ruins. I say ‘ruins’ they are actually in very good shape. If you squint your eyes the pasty tourists change into a parade of native tribesmen in colorful dress walking along the Avenue of the Dead bringing a chosen sacrifice to his end. Although sacrifices to the Gods were part of life back then, I should point out that the general belief is that the settlers were peaceful people.

Not a photo of the guide

Our pyramid guide was an older gentleman who had few teeth but a contagious smile. He was as interested in us as we were in the pyramids. When he revealed that he had lived in San Francisco for 15 years as a younger man, our bond was set. As well as the pyramids he took us to visit a cactus farm. Cactus is (was) very important to the Mexican people, they use it for food, drink, medicine, and can even make clothes from it. I’m not sure if the cactus farmer was hoping we would buy a cactus, there were a lot of empty silences as we all stared at cacti. There are many things I will force into an already full suitcase but a cactus plant is not one of them!

It was time to say adios to our guide and the wonders of a happy vibrant country. The guide shyly took out a battered notebook and asked us to write down our first names and the country we came from. He said he would reread his book of names and think of all the people from all over the world that he had met. Awwww, I thought that was the sweetest thing (obviously I gave a fake name and a made up country).

Mexico, great first impression but I want to come back and see those Mayan temples, however, next stop Panama.

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  1. Fascinating account, Sheilagh. Very different angles to what you usually hear. Love the sound of the Cathedral and the Anthopology Museum and your tour guide sounds like a sweetheart.... Brilliantly written as usual....

  2. Love the roundup on Mexico City! I was personally terrified to visit (assuming it was all drug cartels with no place for fun) but your summary is changing my mind!

  3. Can feel the energy coming off the page. All the senses sated. Can almost smell the city like I was there too. Brilliantly written.


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