Jan 102012

Our introduction to Mexico City was both hectic and stressful.  Despite our lack of a real map, we optimistically (read: stupidly) attempted to drive around the city to our campsite in the north with only a couple hours of daylight ahead of us.  Distance-wise, this was not an unreasonable goal – the drive amounted to only about 80 km, or 50 miles.  But we’re stubborn and as such, we avoid the toll roads as much as possible.  In this case, that meant driving through the center of countless small towns on the outskirts of what is arguably the largest city in the world.  It took us FIVE hours. 

The reputation of Mexico City, at least in the United States, is not a good one.  We’d come to expect an over-populated, smog-filled, and crime-laden metropolis, literally bursting at the seams at 20 million people and counting.  Instead we found a reasonably clean, extremely modern city with excellent public transportation, cultural diversity and character-rich neighborhoods, not to mention an impressive history and many world-class museums.  Over-populated and smog-filled – yes, but what city isn’t?  And in our three days spent exploring this vast metropolis, we never once felt unsafe, though it’s worth noting that we did take the precautions necessary when visiting any large city (watching our pockets on crowded subways, avoiding poorly lit or empty streets, not carrying valuables, etc).

What struck me as one of the most impressive things about Mexico City is the way it has managed to retain its historical charm while also keeping pace with the modern world.  It is a classic dichotomy of old and new.  This is never more apparent than when visiting the lively zócalo in the historic center.  One of the world’s largest city squares, it houses the offices of the current Mexican government only a stone’s throw away from the ceremonial center of what is arguably Mexico’s most famous ancient city, Aztec Tenochtitlán.  We explored the impressive palacio nacional, home of the president, marveling at the murals of Diego Rivera which depict Mexico’s storied history from the arrival of Quetzalcoattl (the Aztec plumed serpent god) to the 1910 revolution.  Simply walking across the street allowed us to travel back in time to the ruins of Templo Mayor, believed by the Aztecs to be the literal center of the universe.  The following day we spent nearly 8 hours exploring the world-renowned Museo Nacional de Antropologia, learning about Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilizations and viewing relics discovered from many of the ruins we will be visiting, a cultural highlight for me.  Juxtaposed to exhibits featuring its ancient civilizations is a look at modern day Mexico in each of its culturally diverse regions.  Many of the traditions of Mexico’s pre-columbian cultures are still practiced today by its many indigenous peoples.

To ensure our trip was not all “business”, we finished off our stay with a night on the town, including tickets to Lucha Libre, Mexico’s famed professional wrestling league.  We have seen the colorful masks for sale throughout the country and we just had to find out what it was all about.  Turns out, though never having attended a US professional wrestling match, I imagine it is, well, exactly the same: a show fraught with acrobatic stunts and ridiculous theatrics.  It entertained us for a while, but one can only watch so many body slams.  We walked out the door just as we heard the crowd cheering emphatically for two newly released, colorfully clad midgets.

Many travelers seem to leave Mexico City out of their itinerary, perhaps because of the perception of danger, perhaps because the sheer amount to see and do here can be overwhelming.  If only a couple days, I highly recommend taking some time to explore this city, as both its  fascinating history and present-day relevance make it one of a kind.