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Hello From Mexico City – A Compact Day Of Discovery Of Downtown

After our visit to the huge government-owned pawnshop, Nacional Monte de Piedad, we saw a side view of Mexico City’s and Latin America’s biggest cathedral: the Catedral Metropolitana. It is also at the heart of the world’s largest Catholic diocese. Due to the fact that Mexico was built on the former Lake Texcoco, the cathedral is slowly sinking and scaffolding in the interior of the building attests to the efforts to try to stabilize it.

In front of the Cathedral are numer...

Mexico City, The Zocalo, Catedral, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Moctezuna, Texcoco

After our visit to the huge government-owned pawnshop, Nacional Monte de Piedad, we saw a side view of Mexico City’s and Latin America’s biggest cathedral: the Catedral Metropolitana. It is also at the heart of the world’s largest Catholic diocese. Due to the fact that Mexico was built on the former Lake Texcoco, the cathedral is slowly sinking and scaffolding in the interior of the building attests to the efforts to try to stabilize it.

In front of the Cathedral are numerous merchants that sell all sorts of handicrafts to the tourists. The wide open public space in front of the church is called the Zócalo and it is said to be the second largest public square in the world, after Red Square in Moscow. An indigenous healer was performing a cleansing ceremony in public with a local couple. He had a variety of herbs and was burning incense for this purification ritual.

To the left side of the cathedral is the Palacio Nacional which today houses the office’s of Mexico’s president. One of the typical “organiceros” was stationed outside, playing his automated melody, but none of the organ grinders we saw today were willing to have their picture taken and they always conveniently looked away when a camera was pointing at them.

We had to talk our way into this beautiful building since a guard stationed outside demanded that we show identification which we unfortunately did not have on us. However, with Vanessa’s feminine charm we were able to obtain a few minutes in this astounding building.

The National Palace was built on the site of Montezuma’s Palace and was initially the residence of Hernán Cortés after he conquered Mexico. The building has a beautiful courtyard with arcades and a fountain in the middle. The staircase to the 2nd floor and the walls on the upper floor are adorned with a series of murals by Mexico’s most famous muralist, Diego Rivera. The wall paintings illustrate the history of Mexico, from the pre-Columbian peoples, to their subjugation by Spanish conquerors, the fight for independence from Spain, revolutionary leaders, as well as the dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz which was put to an end by Francisco I. Madero.

We then walked around the crafts market just outside the Cathedral and had a look at the Templo Mayor, an imposing complex built by the Aztecs in the 14th and 15th century. It was at the heart of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city that, like so many others, was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish invaders had a habit of destroying any preexisting architecture and building their churches and palaces on top of them.

Calle Tacuba took us towards our well-deserved late lunch in the historic Café de Tacuba, a famous restaurant located in a building from the 17th century. The café itself dates back to 1912. I had a very tasty sopa de ajo (garlic soup) with some even tastier quesadillas con guacamole which were even hotter. Vanessa strengthened herself witha tamal (spicy rice cooked in a husk of corn). We needed the strength since our next adventure was a ride in Mexico City’s subway.

I always love riding in public transport in other cities, particularly in subways, since they all have their own peculiar atmosphere. Mexico City’s subway stations are quite utilitarian (not a lot of spectacular public art in the stations we saw) and the subway cars themselves ride on rubber wheels. This contrasts quite strongly to the metal clanking of our subway cars here in Toronto. Vanessa indicated that you have to be careful in public transit here and during rush hour the subway cars are subdivided in cars for men and for women.

We took several subway routes to the Universidad Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a former monastery dedicated to the nun of the same name who was an interesting character and lived from 1648-1695. She was colonial Latin America’s pre-eminent poet and scholar during the 17th century. Around age 19 she became a nun, declaring that only life in the monastery would give her sufficient opportunity for her studies and intellectual pursuits. Today her monastery is the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana and we explored this historic building and were impressed by the inner courtyard that was full of eager students and, interestingly enough, numerous hungry cats waiting to be fed by the staff.

On the subway ride back to Vanessa’s parents’ apartment I reflected on my first day in Mexico. It is an immense city, and the downtown just swirls with people. One thing I noticed was how ethnically homogeneous Mexico City is: the vast majority of people I saw were of indigenous or mixed indigenous / mestizo background and we both mused about how few tourists / foreigners we saw.

We saw a ton, and Vanessa is certainly a phenomenal tour guide and local expert. I just wish I had more time to explore all the historic buildings with their fascinating inner courtyards. There is just so much to see and so little time...

 

Hello From Mexico City - A Relaxing Evening In Coyoacán

Last night after our big first discovery of Mexico City I had a couple of hours of rest before Vanessa and her mom took me to one of the most picturesque areas in the city: Coyoacán, an area located south of the downtown core. The traffic to get there, as you can imagine, was absolutely incredible – 4 lane streets with no markings, people squeezing in and out between cars as they pleased, trucks cutting in right in front of us with just millimeters to spare…

Fortunately we...

Travel, Mexico, Mexico City

Last night after our big first discovery of Mexico City I had a couple of hours of rest before Vanessa and her mom took me to one of the most picturesque areas in the city: Coyoacán, an area located south of the downtown core. The traffic to get there, as you can imagine, was absolutely incredible – 4 lane streets with no markings, people squeezing in and out between cars as they pleased, trucks cutting in right in front of us with just millimeters to spare…

Fortunately we made it without a scrape and we finally got to our destination: the well-preserved colonial area of “Coyoacán” whose name literally means “Place of the Coyotes”. Sure enough, in the center of the Jardín Centenario there is a big fountain featuring two coyotes.

Coyoacán is one of the most historic areas of Mexico City and almost 5 centuries ago, Hernán Cortés, Mexico’s conquistador, and his Indian mistress “La Malinche” spent a lot of time here. Today the whole area is full of cafés, restaurants and bars, and there are a variety of crafts and food markets to be visited here.

Three famous personalities had their homes here and all three buildings have been turned into museums. The house of Mexico’s most famous muralist, Diego Rivera, has been turned into a museum. His one-time wife, Frida Kahlo, also lived in Coyoacán and spent most of her life in this house and eventually died here. Her ex-husband Rivera donated the house to the public in 1955, shortly after Frida’s death.

Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, also lived in a house in the Coyoacán area after he had lived with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Trotsky invested great efforts to safety-proof his house to protect him from Stalin’s assassins, yet in May of 1940 his house was attacked and machine-gunned for twenty minutes. Then 3 months later Trotsky was fatally wounded after having been stabbed with an ice pick. So Coyoacán has some pretty interesting historic tidbits to offer.

We sat down in a quaint café next to the Jardín Centenario and had some snacks. I enjoyed a crepe with a variety of syrups such as strawberry, mango and blueberry. Vanessa’s best friend, whom she has known since they were 12 years old, and her boyfriend, a sociologist, joined us. There was lots of noise: live music coming at us from behind us in the restaurant, from the restaurant next to us and from the street musicians that would stop right in front of our table.

Social sciences always hold great interest for me, so I took advantage of the opportunity of talking with a sociologist. We had a very interesting conversation about how tough it is to find a job in his field under a government that has a "neoliberal" agenda. According to him, the social sciences are not funded very well in Mexico, but a lot of funding is dedicated to private universities for engineering and science projects. He also gave me a quick overview of Mexico’s political parties, very interesting since national elections are coming up on July 2 of this year.

After our animated discussion we returned to rest up for another big day of discoveries tomorrow.

 

Hello From Mexico City - Part 5 - Exploring The Paseo De La Reforma, The Bosque De Chapultepec And A Nice Evening In San Angel

This morning another wonderful Mexican breakfast was in store: Vanessa had made "tlacoyos con nopales" (fried dough covered with fruits of the prickly pear cactus and melted cheese on top) which I really enjoyed. Around 9:30 we got going and Vanessa’s sister dropped us off, right in front of the Angel de la Independencia, a monument erected in 1910 to commemorate independence from Spain, on the Paseo de la Reforma.

The Paseo de la Reforma is an almost 4 km long tree-lined ...

Mexico, Mexico travel, Mexico City, Taxco, Tepoztlan, Cuernavaca

This morning another wonderful Mexican breakfast was in store: Vanessa had made "tlacoyos con nopales" (fried dough covered with fruits of the prickly pear cactus and melted cheese on top) which I really enjoyed. Around 9:30 we got going and Vanessa’s sister dropped us off, right in front of the Angel de la Independencia, a monument erected in 1910 to commemorate independence from Spain, on the Paseo de la Reforma.

The Paseo de la Reforma is an almost 4 km long tree-lined boulevard, connecting the center of the city with the Bosque de Chapúltepec. Various monuments adorn its glorietas, or traffic circles, and we had already seen one of the monuments, the Caballito, yesterday.

Right next to the Angel de la Independencia, an officer of the tourist police stopped us and asked us where we were going and if he could be of help. He was a very charming young man and pulled a laminated map out of his security jacket and pointed out all the major sights in Mexico City. We had seen quite a bit, but inevitably we were going to miss quite a lot as well since there was so much to see and there just was not enough time.

After a photo op with the tourist policeman we headed on and kept exploring the Paseo de la Reforma. From the Angel de la Independencia we continued on to the Diana Cazadora (Diana the Huntress) statue, which caused quite a stir when it was originally unveiled since it is a statue of a naked woman. The city authorities decided to cover up the statue for a while, but sanity prevailed and the shameful covers were removed after some time.

We continued our mid-morning stroll towards the Bosque de Chapúltepec, a former sacred ground for the Pre-Colombian cultures and now Mexico City’s biggest park. Walking up to the castle, you first encounter a big monument called the Monumento a los Niños Héroes, commemorating the army cadets (the “boy heroes”) who died defending the castle from an American attack in 1847.

From there we explored the Castillo de Chapúltepec, which was originally built in the 1760s, but is most well-known for having being the residence of the unfortunate Austrian-born emperor Maximillian, and his wife Princess Charlotte, who only governed Mexico for a few short years until 1866 when he found an unfortunate end by firing squad.

We slowly strolled up the castle hill, paid our entrance fee and started exploring the castle. In true Habsburg tradition, it is furnished with ornate, baroque style furniture, and the first thing you see are the royal “carrozas” (carriages) when you come into the first hall of the exhibition. From that point onwards you see a variety of rooms as they were used by the Habsburg monarchs – dining rooms, living rooms, a bedroom as well as a meeting room, that illustrate the extreme opulence that these royals enjoyed. No wonder the population, who was merely scraping by, got upset with the dominance and privilege of the aristocrats.

We then walked to the top level garden which is enclosed by glass windows. Right next to one of these glass walls on the ground we noticed a tiny “colibri” (hummingbird) that had flown against the glass enclosure and knocked itself out. Vanessa rescued it by taking it gently in her hand, we then walked downstairs and Vanessa set the tiny bird free on the grass. When she opened her hand, the bird had regained its wits enough to fly away back into freedom.

Then we explored the Museo del Caracol (the “Snail Museum”, due to its shape), which also holds a museum on the history of Mexico (Galeria de Historia), featuring a series of dioramas depicting scenes from the fight for independence to the Mexican Revolution.

The view over the city from the castle hill is astounding and you literally enjoy a 360 degree panorama. Then we walked down the hill, past a whole series of street vendors, selling everything from Mexican snacks, to sun hats and visors, to disposable cameras, much of which is announced by promotionally shouting out the assortment of merchandise to the parade of visitors.

The Lago Chapúltepec is a popular weekend destination for Mexican families and features rowboats, swans, stages for theatre and ballet presentations and many beautiful spots to relax. We explored the Casa del Lago, an art centre run by Mexico’s largest university, the UNAM. Right in front of the Casa del Lago people of all ages were painting, drawing, reading newspapers, and this location offers many free artistic and cultural activities to the local population.

Just after our visit we continued walking on the walkway with all the street vendors and saw a local artist who was producing miniature paintings, using his fingers, his fingertips, and the occasional brush stroke. He produced a variety of landscapes, including one with the well-known Mexican volcano Popocatépetl. I had a chance to take a video of his artistic endeavours and ended up buying 3 very colourful miniature paintings depicting typical Mexican scenes. While he was painting he was telling stories about the themes he was painting, and he cracked the occasional joke, which made the entire crowd of onlookers laugh.

Then we headed back onto the Paseo de la Reforma towards the Auditorio, Mexico City’s famous outdoor concert facility. On the sidewalk beside the busy 6-lane road, there was a public art project: a whole series of life-sized cows that had been painted and decorated in very unique ways and provided great photo opportunities for the enthusiastic visitors. This public art campaign reminded me of Toronto’s moose exhibits from a few years ago. I believe Chicago had a similar campaign with cows as well.

Once arrived at the Auditorio we purchased a refreshing “nieve” (crushed ice, in this case flavoured with lime) and walked back on the Paseo de la Reforma towards the famous Museo de la Antropología. We explored the outside and the lobby, unfortunately we did not have enough time to explore the inside. The Museo de la Antropologia is one of the most famous and most extensive museums in Mexico. It was opened in 1964 and has various collections of artifacts from Mexico’s various pre-Columbian cultures. Right outside the museum is a huge stone statue of the rain god Tlaloc.

Then we took a bus (a ”pesera”) to the another part of the Bosque de Chapúltepec, close to the Lago Mayor, where we exited near the Children’s Museum and started exploring this portion of this huge park. We were in search of the restaurant overlooking Lago Mayor and had a bit of a hard time finding it first, since there is a Restaurante del Lago and a Café del Lago. Finally after Vanessa had asked several passers-by, we figured out we had to go to the Café del Lago and sure enough we found our lunch destination. The Café is an attractive looking structure overlooking the lake, and it features a buffet lunch every day. Fortunately we negotiated our way into just ordering a soup since we had already snacked on “chicharrones” (usually puffed and fried pork rinds, but these ones were made of wheat flour) and there was no way we could handle a full meal. I simply had a delicious chile poblano, a green soup made of chili peppers that was very tasty and creamy.

Then we made our way back onto the road where we hopped onto another “pesera” that would take us to the subway station at Los Constituyentes, where we descended about 3 or 4 major staircases downwards (we must have been about 40 or 50 meters below the surface) and caught three subway trains back into Vanessa’s neighbourhood. After a quick and inexpensive stint (5 pesos, 70 cents) in an Internet café, Vanessa’s parents and her sister picked us up to take us to San Angel, another beautiful neighbourhood in Mexico City with colonial buildings and cobble-stoned streets.

We started by exploring the Iglesia de San Jacinto, which features an inner courtyard with a rain chute to capture rain water, and a beautiful enclosed private garden in the back of the church. Inside a big festivity was taking place: a "quinceñera” – a ritual celebrating a 15-year-old girl’s entry into adulthood. Then we explored the Plaza San Jacinto which had hundreds of street vendors, selling different types of artwork. San Angel is known as a city district that is home to many artists. It features numerous permanent galleries as well as the weekend “tianguis” or “mercado ambulante” (“walking market”) with vendors that set up shop only on the weekend.

For dinner we picked one of the restaurants overlooking the square and had some traditional Mexican dishes. I had a "sopa de la fonda" (chicken soup with pico de gallo and avocado) followed by an “ensalada de berros” (watercress salad with diced tomatoes, onions and bacon). Vanessa’s family had a variety of seafood dishes and “chile relleno” (chili peppers stuffed with minced meat, covered with a sauce made of cream, nuts and cinnamon).

At about 8 pm we had finished our dinner and since we had had a pretty exhausting day we headed back to catch up on some sleep and rest up for our departure day.

For the entire article including photos please visit
http://www.travelandtransitions.com/stories_photos/mexico_city_5.htm




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