Mexico’s sprawling capital was not what I expected. After being heavily influenced by American cinema, I was expecting a dangerous, dirty and unwelcome city that would serve as simply a stopover in our travels. Instead I found a huge city with lots to see, do and experience. Its true that the city was known to be unsafe several years ago, but the ever present sight of well armed policemen has served as a strong deterrent to crime. There are affordable restaurants, dynamic nightlife, and outstanding museums all within easy distance by subway or on foot.
Founded by the Aztecs as Tenochtitlán in 1325, Mexico City is both the oldest and the highest (7,347 ft) metropolis on the North American continent. And with nearly 22 million inhabitants, it is the most populous city in the world. It is Mexico’s cultural, political, and financial core — braving the 21st century but clinging to its deeply entrenched Aztec heritage. One of the interesting factoids about the city is that it is built on a water basin and thus is experiencing some of the same issues as Venice in Italy – sinking ground and water damage. You only have to go as far as Xochimilco to see that the city is built on uneven ground.
I encourage you to spend at least a few days in Mexico City if you decide to visit Mexico. It is here that you can get a taste of the true heart of Mexico!
Plaza de Las Tres Culturas (Plaza of the Three Cultures)
The Plaza of the Three Cultures is so named because it is here that one can see the fusion of pre-Hispanic and Spanish roots into the Mexican identity. It displays the Aztec pyramids of Tlatelco, the 17th century Spanish Templo de Santiago and the former Foreign Relations Secretariat building on the plaza’s south side.
One of the best ways to experience a new culture is to walk through their markets. We walked through Mercado de Sonora and de La Merced. At both markets we saw more types of peppers than we could ever imagine, different types of mole, live birds and even voodoo trinkets. Mercado de La Merced occupies four blocks and has a host of products necessary for daily needs. Mercado de Sonora has a part of its market dedicated to everything you’ll need to place a curse on someone! Aisles are crammed with amulets, voodoo dolls, portions and even sex toys!
This unique restaurant is owned by luchador (wrestler) Super Astro. It features a wall of wrestler masks, many donated by his pals. Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling) is a huge sport in Mexico and you will see the masks sold widely throughout the country. At this restaurant, you will get huge portions which is to be expected given the audience it likely caters to! Note that if you can eat the 1.3kg “Torta Gladiator” in under 15 minutes you get it free!
Xochimilco is one of the sixteen delegaciones within Mexican Federal District and is located south from Mexico City. It is known for its extended series of canals — all that remains of the ancient Lake Xochimilco. All inhabitants travel in colorful trajineras (Xochimilco boats) between chinampas covered with flowers. Its a decent experience — much like a Mexican Venice!
Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls)
Isla de las Munecas (or Island of the Dolls) is a truly unique experience. We took a boat from a port in Xochimilco (southern part of Mexico City) to the island. This installation was created by recently deceased island resident don Julian who fished the dolls from the canals to appease the spirit of a girl who had drowned nearby. As you walk through the area, you will notice many decapitated dolls and I guarantee you will feel a strange tingle down your spine. Truly a great experience – particularly for a Chucky doll fan!
Basilica de Guadalupe
In December 1531, Juan Diego stood on Cerro del Tepeyac, site of an old Aztec shrine, and beheld a beautiful lady dressed in a blue mantle trimmed with gold. She sent him to tell the bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, that he had seen the Virgin Mary, and that she wanted a shrine built in her honor. Returning to the hill, Juan Diego had the vision several more times. After her fourth appearance, the lady’s image was miraculously emblazoned on his cloak causing the church to finally accept his story and a cult developed around the site. Today she is one of the most revered patrons of Latin America and her image can be seen throughout Mexico.
By the 1970s, the old yellow domed basilica, built around the 1700, was swamped by worshippers and was sinking slowly into the soft subsoil. So the new Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe was built next door. The image of the Virgin hangs above and behind the main altar, with moving walkways to bring visitors as close as possible. If you look closely, you can see the image of Jesus in the eye of the Virgin.