Alaska Airlines Magazine
|MEXICO CITY ON THE RISE
|By: Nick Gallo
|With 20 million people, Mexico City is one of the world’s largest urban areas. Like New York, it needs no surname; it’s known simply as “Mexico” or “D.F.” (day EF-ay), referring to Distrito Federal. Whatever the term, the city is a rich, phantasmagoric blend of centuries-old tradition and modernity. Scratch the city’s surface and Mexico’s long, intriguing past rises up—its Aztec roots, colonial upbringing and noisy revolutions. At the same time, La Capitál is a flourishing hub of commerce and culture, boasting the nation’s best museums, top restaurants, and hippest nightlife.
As Mexico’s economic center, the city represents 35 percent of the nation’s overall economy and is home to the stock exchange (Bolsa Mexicana de Valores) and the federal reserve bank; it’s also the headquarters of the country’s largest banks, insurers, and multinational firms. With three major convention centers and 20,000 four-star guest rooms, the city has become a top meetings destination.
Like New York, Mexico City also is experiencing a major comeback. In recent years, billions of dollars of investments have helped revitalize its historic center, fix up its city streets, and reduce crime and pollution. Independently, several neighborhoods—such as the vibrant Condesa—are rippling with new restaurants, cafes and bars. For the first time in many years, locals are looking forward to the future, optimistic about what Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador calls the “City of Hope.”
“There’s a lot of momentum to make this city great again,” says Carlos Mackinlay, Mexico City’s tourism director. “Visitors will be able to see the change.”
The best place to begin exploring the city is its historic center, a 60-block area with 1,500 historic buildings and the Zócalo, one of the world’s largest plazas. This area was once known as Tenochtitlán, for centuries the center of Aztec civilization with 200,000 inhabitants when the Spaniards arrived in 1519. Dazzled by brightly painted palaces, barge-laden canals, and overflowing marketplaces, the conquistadors called the city the Venice of the New World before returning two years later to take control of it, dismantle its temples and erect a colonial capital directly atop the remains.
Despite its colonial heritage, this area suffered decades of neglect from the 1970s through the ‘90s, losing a third of its population. As buildings crumbled and tourists stayed away, an unlikely coalition of government leaders—including the leftist-oriented López Obrador—and private investors led by Mexico billionaire Carlos Slim, launched a campaign to save the area. The city made dramatic improvements in infrastructure, fixing drainage systems, repaving streets and adding street lighting. Police added more patrols and 100 security cameras.
Meanwhile, investors have bought and fixed up dilapidated buildings, many with elaborately carved facades and balconies decorated with grillwork. Aiming to lure back middle-class residents, developers are opening shopping centers and cinemas. Three new hotels welcome visitors. “For every peso the government has invested, the private sector has invested 23,” says Laura Martinez Alarcon, the district’s director of communications. “This district is the heart of Mexico City, and the heart is beating with more strength now.”
Start any tour of the historic center at the 10-acre Zócalo, a vast, flat square used as a stage for political rallies, special concerts, and holiday processions. Standing in the wide-open Zócalo where there is little ornamentation except for an immense flag, it’s possible to almost feel history’s layers shift beneath your feet.
Occupying the entire east side is the three-story, block-long National Palace, formerly the private compound of Hernán Cortés (built on the ruins of Moctezuma’s palace) and now the seat of the federal government. Inside, patios and walls are lined with remarkable frescoes painted in the first half of the 20th century by Diego Rivera, Mexico’s famous muralist.
To the north is the Metropolitan Cathedral, Latin America’s largest church. Started in 1573, it took 250 years to complete, which explains its eclectic mix of architectural styles. The ultrabaroque ornamental features on its façade are especially noteworthy.
For many years, the interior was cluttered with scaffolding used by construction crews working to prevent the cathedral from sinking into the unstable subsoil. The subterranean work is complete, and the cavernous interior is clear now (though the floor still tilts visibly) allowing touring of ornate altars and numerous chapels.
Half a block away is the Templo Mayor (Great Temple), the ruins of the sacred ceremonial center of the Aztecs, accidentally discovered in 1978 by city workers digging underground. Walkways wind through remains, leading to a museum housing an 8-ton stone tablet depicting the moon goddess, along with 7,000 unearthed artifacts. Exhibits tell the Aztec story and include surprising bits of art and poetry. One haunting verse goes; “Must I go just like this. Like the flowers that perish? Will nothing remain of my name? Nothing of my fame here on earth? At least flowers, at least songs!”
Outside the Zócalo, the city continues its genuflection to the past with narrow streets and centuries-old buildings. Until recently, streets throbbed with noise and color from 15,000 street vendors selling crafts, jewelry, and trinkets. Hoping to lessen commotion, the city banned vendors, but many have returned. Less hectic now, the sidewalks still seem like a combination of the village market and Wal-Mart, with vendors selling sunglasses, CDs, Day of the Dead skeleton toys, ice cream, tamales and more. Walking here is one part chaos, two parts amazement and discovery.
Ten minutes away on foot is a symbol of the new Mexico City—a 24-story, three-year-old Sheraton Hotel rising above Alameda Park. The park, a Sunday playground for locals, has a European-style garden of fountains, flowers and hedges.
Near the Alameda, several sights beckon. The Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles), formerly a 16th-century mansion, is extravagantly covered with blue-and-white Talavera tiles. Palacio Postal, the post office, boasts stunning marble, ironwork, and banisters. Farther away, Plaza Garibaldi swings into action at night with strolling mariachis gathered outside cantinas.
Then there’s Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Palace), an elegant, white concert hall and performing center. This landmark is a visual treat, built of Carrera marble and topped by copper-laminated cupolas. Inside is an art deco-style atrium, floor-to-ceiling murals painted by some of Mexico’s most famous muralists, and a Tiffany stained-glass theater “curtain.” The world-famous Ballet Folklórico de Mexico performs here on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Paseo de la Reforma, a broad, tree-lined avenue, links downtown to Chapultepec Park, where many major attractions lie. Built during Emperor Maximilian’s brief, tumultuous reign in the 1860s, the boulevard was modeled after the Champs-Elysées. Once adorned by French mansions and horse carriages, Reforma is now a major business corridor, anchored by high-rise office towers and hotels. Today, it looks brighter and cleaner, thanks to the city’s revitalization campaign, which has rebuilt sections, widened sidewalks, and added plantings and decorative sculptures.
Chapultepec Park, a 2,000-acre island of trees and greenery, hosts a castle that served as the residence of Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, and now is a museum filled with their lavish possessions.
Elsewhere in the park are three museums: the Museum of Modern Art, site of Frida Kahlo’s famous Two Fridas; the Rufino Tamayo Museum, a gem for contemporary arts, and the park’s prized offering, the world-class National Anthropology Museum. With 26 exhibit halls and 100,000 square feet devoted to 30 centuries of history, the anthropology museum can take a week to explore, but if you have just a few hours, head for the Mexica room, which holds an Aztec calendar stone and diorama of the Tlalteloco market. The Maya hall is loaded with statues and artifacts.
Three neighborhoods near Paseo de la Reforma invite walkers to stroll and explore. Just north of Chapultepec lies posh Polanco, a wealthy neighborhood that has the city’s best concentration of tony shops and haute couture. Avenida President Masaryk, the city’s Rodeo Drive, boasts shops with all the right names—Christian Dior, Gucci, Hermes, Versace, and so on.
The Zona Rosa (Pink Zone), another major shopping and entertainment, has enjoyable pedestrian-only streets and outdoor restaurants in a12-block area. Restaurants and art galleries make this a fun place for jaunts. Plaza del Angel has more than 40 shops selling antiques and collectibles. Late-night clubs line Niza and Florencia streets.
Less than a mile south of Zona Rosa is hip Colonia Condesa, an upper-middle class residential neighborhood in the 1920s; it fell on hard times after the 1985 earthquake. About a decade ago, empty buildings were filled by newcomers with a bohemian bent—artists, performers, writers—and now the district is booming with more than 100 restaurants, bars and cafes.
During the day, Condesa is meant for easy ambling along green, leafy streets flanked by Art Deco buildings. Stop at one of the two parks--Parque Mexico or Parque España—to sit in the shade beside fountains. At night, Condesa turns into a beehive of activity, as the city’s young and stylish flock here to eat, drink and be boisterous. Take your pick from the trendy or traditional. You can bar-hop at the city’s sleekest night spots or wander around old-time pool halls and cantinas, such as El Centenario. Everyone seems to end evenings with late-night tacos at El Califa, open until 4 a.m. The intersection of Michoacán, Vicente Suárez and Atlixco avenues has lively eateries and is a good base for exploring the area.
Coyoacán and south
Six miles south of the city center are two tranquil, residential areas where Cortés and his fellow conquistadors built haciendas. A world away from the center’s traffic and congestion, Coyoacán and San Angel have held on to the remains of their mansions and colonial charm: Narrow cobblestone streets twist and turn through mazes of high-walled Spanish mansions. Small parks gush with fountains.
Coyoacán is especially popular because it contains the Frida Kahlo Museum, an electric-blue house where Kahlo was born, worked and lived with her husband, Diego Rivera. For fans of the artist, a visit here can be quite moving. Kahlo put intimate, intense emotions on the canvas in surrealist ways, and it’s riveting to see her personal effects (her painted body cast is on display), her love notes to Rivera and sketches. Unfortunately, the museum has only a handful of minor paintings.
The spectacular Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum, a little farther to the south, holds the city’s largest collection of Kahlo’s work, totaling 25 paintings.
Another short walk away, two plazas—Jardín del Centenario and Jardín Hidalgo—come alive on weekends with vendors, mimes, musicians and street life, along with plenty of good bookstores, restaurants, and coffeehouses here.
West of Coyoacán, and similar in ambiance, is San Angel, best known for its Bazaar Sabado (Saturday Market), one of the city’s busiest arts and crafts markets. For those who want more Frida-and-Diego history, San Angel is where the two had a studio, actually two separate spaces in adjacent, box-like buildings. Called the Diego Rivera Studio, it holds mostly Rivera’s personal effects: Judas papier maché figures that he collected, his letters, photographs, brushes and paint.
Also in this part of the city is the famed Xochimilco (so-chee-MIL-ko), a network of “floating gardens”—little islands linked by canals where for decades the Mexican version of gondoliers have taken visitors out to picnic, drink, and sing. It’s still a pleasant place to hop on a boat and weave through canals amid flotillas of mariachis, flower sellers and food vendors.
If you make just one excursion, make it the hour’s drive to the pyramids of Teotihuacán. Inhabitants of this civilization lived here from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 750. When the Aztecs arrived 600 years later, the city was deserted. Believing it was a graveyard for kings who became gods upon their deaths, the Aztecs named it Teotihuacán, the Place Where Gods Are Made.
The first major city of the New World, Teotihuacán at its apex held 200,000 people, comparable to Europe’s biggest cities. Its people displayed a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, agriculture, and urban planning, but they did not leave behind a writing system; therefore much still remains shrouded in mystery. Experts know the society practiced human sacrifice, but some think it was also an egalitarian-minded, nature-worship culture. Drought or environmental problems may have caused the civilization’s downfall, with the final blow delivered by wandering tribes of invaders.
Today, the setting features two enormous pyramids and several temples containing red-hued murals and carvings of plumed serpents.
The most impressive structure is the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world, centered atop a cave that inhabitants believed was the birthplace of humanity. Climb this steep pyramid—248 steps up—and you’re likely to feel awed by this ghost world. From the top, you can also glimpse the modern city and its skyscrapers, a reminder of how easily the past and present blur to make magic in Mexico City. These days, Mexicans are optimistic the future will have some of that magic, too.
Upon arrival at the Mexico City airport, take only official airport taxis. Fares are fixed according to destination. Purchase a ticket at a brightly lit ticket window near major exits. Once in town, use licensed taxi stands called sitios; otherwise, have your hotel or restaurant phone for a cab.
Weather: At 7,350 feet, Mexico City is comfortable year-round. From May through September, sunny mornings are often followed by afternoon showers.
Hotel Marquis Reforma, a 209-room, pink, granite-and-glass landmark, has long enchanted travelers with its art deco architecture, luxurious interiors, and first-rate restaurant, La Jolla. Its location near the core of the financial center makes it popular with business travelers. Expanded meeting facilities and a new spa adds to its sophisticated appeal.
Paseo de la Reforma 465; 1-800-235-2387; www.marquisreforma.com
Sheraton Centro Histórico, opened in 2002, offers state-of-the-art business amenities in its modern, marble-lined 24-story tower. It’s located on the edge of Alameda Park, amid the city’s best cultural sights. Avenida Juárez 70; 5130-5300; www.sheratonMexico.com.mx
Condesa DF is the city’s newest, trendy boutique hotel. Set in a 1928 Beaux Arts building in the hip Condesa neighborhood, it has just 40 rooms, a dance club and plenty of youthful, edgy attitude. Ave. Veracruz 102; 5241-2600; www.condesadf.com
Izote is where renowned chef Patricia Quintana reinterprets regional cuisine, producing powerfully flavored dishes. Examples include shrimp cooked Yucatecan-style with achiote, and lobster enchiladas with pumpkin-seed sauce. Ave. President Masaryk 513 (Polanco); 5280-1671.
Fonda El Refugio, tucked in a converted house, has been serving traditional Mexican dishes drawn from old family recipes for almost 50 years. They’re as good as ever, especially the molé dishes—covered in a spicy chocolate sauce—and the roast pork. Liverpool 166 (Zona Rosa); 5555-8128.
La Opera is rich with the period charm of a 19th-century cantina—bullet holes in the gilded ceiling reportedly were left by Pancho Villa. Sip tequila in a cozy booth and soak up the atmosphere while you enjoy tapas or Veracruz-style red snapper. (Historic Center) Cinco de Mayo 10; 5512-8959.
Moon Handbooks: Mexico City, by Chris Humphrey and Joe Cummings (Avalon).
Mexico City Tourism Authority: www.mexicocity.gob.mx
Mexico Tourism Board: www.visitmexico.com
Murals: The Colorful, Incendiary Billboards of Mexico
No nation has such a rich tradition of murals as Mexico. They arose in the 1920s, when the Mexican government, flush from the excitement of the revolution, hoped art would foster pride in the nation’s history.
While dozens of artists created lasting work, three captured the most acclaim: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They created animated, unabashedly political work, often using class struggle and social injustice as their themes. Here’s a brief sample:
• National Palace (Zócalo) Rivera’s frescoes line walls and stairways, using vibrant colors, brilliant use of space and revolutionary fervor to present his view of Mexican history.
• Fine Arts Palace (Juárez and Eje Central) The city’s best collection of murals includes Rivera’s Mankind at the Crossroads originally commissioned for Rockefeller Center and then destroyed when the Rockefellers noticed a portrait of Marxist leader Lenin in it. Rivera did this copy for the Mexican government. Other stirring murals here include Orozco’s fiery, turbulent The Catharsis, Siqueiros’ powerful New Democracy, and two abstract works by Rufino Tamayo, a famous muralist who made his mark in the 1950s and ‘60s.
• Diego Rivera Mural Museum (Colón and Balderas) holds one mural: Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda, a delightful, ebullient rendering of the park that contains many famous Mexican figures.
• Supreme Court of Justice (Pino Suárez and Corregidora). An expressionistic series by Orozco includes his National Wealth, in which a huge tiger representing the national conscience defends the country’s wealth from human greed.
• Hotel Camino Real (Mariano Escobedo 700). The main lobby is dwarfed by the huge Man Encounters the Infinite, Tamayo’s spectacular abstract that appears to contain a beckoning extraterrestrial.
Nick Gallo (email@example.com) is a Seattle writer and two-time winner of the Pluma de Plata, Mexico's prestigious prize for travel writing.