Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mexico City

Mexico City is a passionate, cosmopolitan, sprawling metropolis -- and one of the largest cities in the world. In recent years, travelers dismissed Mexico's capital because of its problems with crime, pollution, and unbridled growth. Now that these unsavory trends have begun to reverse, the culturally curious are rediscovering what originally led so many to this magnificent place. I love Mexico City, with all of its urban energy and historic and cultural treasures. Although many compare it to the great cities of Europe, I find it a singular experience. Along with urban sophistication, you'll find enduring traditions that date back to pre-Hispanic civilizations and a strong sense of Latin culture shaped by Spanish influence; it's an endearing mix of the majestically ancient with the irresistibly new.

Standing 2,239m (7,347 ft.) high, on an enormous dry lakebed in a highland valley surrounded by mountains, this was the power center of pre-Hispanic America, and it remains one of the most dynamic, fascinating, and charismatic cities in the world today.

For me, Mexico City is the only place where you can find clear insight into this captivating country -- veiled in mysticism, infused with an appreciation of the moment, and proud of its heritage. Founded in 1325 A.D. as the ancient city of Tenochtitlán, it was the capital of the Aztec Empire and most important city in Mesoamerica by 1428 A.D. Today, Mexico City and its immediate surroundings hold more than 25 million inhabitants -- making it the most populated city in the Western Hemisphere (only Tokyo, in Asia, is larger).

You need only to stand in the center of the zócalo -- the central plaza -- to visually comprehend the undisputed significance of the Mexican capital. Here, the remains of an Aztec pyramid, a colonial church, and a towering modern office building face one another, a testament to the city's prominence in ancient and contemporary history. The Teotihuacán, Toltec, Aztec, and European conquistadors all contributed to the city's fascinating evolution, art, and heritage. Although residents refer to their city as simply México (meh-hee-koh), its multitude of ancient ruins, colonial masterpieces, and modern architecture has prompted others to call it "The City of Palaces."

The central downtown area resembles a European city, dominated by ornate French and Spanish-style buildings and broad boulevards, and interspersed with public art, parks, and gardens. This sprawling city is thoroughly modern and, in places, unsightly and chaotic, but it never strays far from its historical roots. In the center are the partially excavated ruins of the main Aztec temple; pyramids rise just beyond the city.

The sheer number of residents trying to exist here -- amid economic malaise, high unemployment, and government corruption -- has created an environment where petty crime (principally robberies) is common. Several years ago, Mexico City's notoriety came from its rising crime rate, a trend that is fortunately in reverse. Over the past several years, the city has achieved admirable progress in making visitors feel more secure, with special safety programs, faster response to reports of crime, a vastly increased police presence, and programs that are effectively combating corruption. By 2006, Mexico City had reduced crime rates by almost 40% from 1994's historic highs, with only .02% related to visitors to the city.

Violent crime in Mexico is largely concentrated among drug traffickers and politicians, but kidnappings and murders of businesspeople, both Mexican and foreign, are numerous. Mexico City has many treasures, but safety concerns demand that you dress and behave conservatively as you explore the city.

Technically, Mexico City is a federal district (similar to Washington, D.C.), called the Distrito Federal, or D.F. One finds here a microcosm of all that is happening in the rest of the country. It's not just the seat of government; in every way, it's the dominant center of Mexican life.

You've undoubtedly heard about Mexico City's pollution. Major steps to improve the air quality (restricted driving, factory closings, emission-controlled buses and taxis) have worked wonders, but the problem persists. On some days you won't notice it (especially during the summer rainy season); on other days it can make your nose run, your eyes water, and your throat rasp. If you have respiratory problems, be very careful; the city's elevation makes matters even worse. Minimize your exposure to the fumes and refrain from walking busy streets during rush hour. Sunday -- when many factories are closed and many cars escape the city -- should be your prime outdoor day. One positive note: In the evenings, the air is often deliciously cool and relatively clean.

Mexico City is a feast of urban energy, culture, dining, and shopping. The city has sidewalk cafes and cantinas; bazaars and boutiques; pyramids, monuments, and museums; and a multitude of entertainment options. And when you've had your fill of the city, it's easy to explore memorable towns and historic national landmarks only a couple of hours away in any direction.

On the basis of sheer scale alone, Mexico City is an overwhelming sightseeing destination rich in Aztec, colonial and modern art and architecture. Tourists tend to center on the original Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. At its center is the Plaza de la Constitución, or Zócalo, the city's main square and political and religious focus. On two sides of the square are the Palacio Nacional (Presidential Palace), with its fine Diego Rivera murals, and the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral). Close by, the Templo Mayor (Main Temple) and the adjacent Museo del Templo Mayor are filled with the artifacts unearthed from the site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán.

Leafy Alameda Central park is a popular haunt with Mexican families at weekends. At one end is the impressive Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), an arts center housing some of the greatest works by Mexico's muralists and a must-see for its art deco interior.

Modern skyscrapers and hotels flank Paseo de la Reforma, the handsome street that runs from the Centro Histórico to the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park). On the way is La Zona Rosa (Pink Zone), a lively neighborhood popular for shopping, dining and nightlife. Chapultepec Park is the city's largest park and home to many fine museums, including the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Museum of Anthropology), one of the most impressive museums of its kind in the world.

Two southern suburbs, Coyoacán and San Angel, formerly separate villages, have a colonial charm and merit a visit for their markets, museums and memories of their famous residents: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. El Bazar del Sabado (Saturday market) in San Angel offers paintings and quality crafts, while the main square in Coyoacán hosts a colorful market every weekend accompanied by bands of musicians together with jugglers, street magicians and face-painters.

To venture further afield, the volcanoes Ixtaccihuatl and the very active Popocatepetl can be visited as a day trip as can the ancient ruins of Tula and Teotihuacan.

Mexico City's museums are closed on Monday, as is the Chapultepec Park. Free admission to museums each Sunday ensures day-long big crowds and long queues.

  • Centro Histórico (Historic Center)
The focus of the Centro Histórico, the Zócalo, or Plaza de la Constitución, is second in size only to Moscow’s Red Square and is quite literally the capital’s political and religious center. During the day and evening is animated and alive with people –with official ceremonies and celebrations, demonstrations and marches, impromptu performances and artisans plying their wares, but is surprisingly empty from around 2200 onwards. The ceremonial raising and lowering of the huge flag at the square’s center takes place at 0600 and 1800 and is an early alarm for guests in hotels overlooking the plaza.

On the north side of the Zócalo is the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral). Built in 1573, consecrated in 1667, and completed in 1813 in a Baroque style known as churrigueresque, it is the largest and oldest cathedral in Latin America. The cathedral has suffered from subsidence over many years, sinking into the bed of Lake Texcoco and the restoration work that is under way to build new foundations does detract from its grandeur somewhat. There are no opening hours or admission fees but visitors are asked to be respectful during religious services.

Next to the cathedral are the ruins of the Templo Mayor (Main Temple), the principal teocalli of Aztec Tenochtitlán, which was demolished by the Spaniards in the 1520s and rediscovered in 1978 while telephone cables were being laid in the area. First constructed in 1375, the Aztecs then built a new temple every 52 years – seven have been identified layered one on top of another. The site’s museum displays various artifacts found in the main pyramid of Tenochtitlán.

The whole eastern side of the Zócalo is taken up by the Palacio Nacional (Presidential Palace), which houses the Federal Treasury, the National Archives and, until recently, the offices of the President of Mexico. Inside are colorful murals by Diego Rivera – his México a Través de los Siglos (Mexico Through the Centuries), in the main stairwell leading to the first floor, depicts every major event and personality of Mexican history, from Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs to the Mexican Revolution.

A few blocks west of Zócalo, the Museo Nacional de Arte (National Art Museum), built at the turn of the 20th century in the style of an Italian Renaissance palace, houses an exhaustive collection of Mexican art from every school and style.

Templo Mayor Plaza de la Constitución Tel: (55) 5542 0606 or 4784. Opening hours: Tues-Sun 0900-1700. Admission charge, free on Sun. Palacio Nacional Plaza de la Constitución Opening hours: Mon-Sat 1000-1700. Free admission; identification required for entry. Museo de Arte Moderno Tacuba 8 Tel: (55) 5510 2999. Opening hours: Tue-Sun 1030-1730. Free admission.

  • Alameda Central
Originally the site of an Aztec marketplace and later a place of execution during the Spanish Inquisition, the Alameda Central is Mexico City’s largest central park. A welcome green respite where office workers stroll past the many food stalls and hawkers sell a variety of wares; the place throngs with activity on Sunday and there are often open-air concerts. For an artistic impression of the park, the nearby Museo Mural Diego Rivera displays the artist’s Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park), a huge mural painted in 1947. It depicts the many characters from history that Rivera imagined to have walked in the Alameda.

The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), a sumptuous, white-marble concert hall at the eastern end of the Alameda, also houses a museum and theater within its Art Deco interior. Intended to mark the 1910 centennial celebration of Mexican Independence, work began in 1904 under the Italian architect Adamo Boari, who also designed the spectacular Correo Mayor (main post office) nearby, but was finally completed in 1934 following a number of setbacks, including the Mexican Revolution. The museum on the second and third floors displays old and contemporary paintings, sculptures and handicrafts. Powerful works by the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo are on display on the third floor. Operas and orchestral concerts are frequently performed in the theater, which has a glass curtain designed by Tiffany. Opposite the Palacio is the Torre Latinoamericana (Latin American Tower), a landmark skyscraper built in the 1950s. Its 43rd-floor viewing platform is 2422m (7950ft) above sea level and on clear days affords splendid panoramic views over the city, the Valley of Mexico and the distant volcanoes.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera Plaza Solidaridad, corner of Balderas and Colón Tel: (55) 5512 0754. Opening hours: Tue-Sun 1000-1800. Admission charge, free on Sun. Palacio de Bellas Artes Avenida Juárez, corner of Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas Tel: (55) 5512 2593. Website: www.conaculta.gob.mx/palacio/museo.htm. Opening hours: Tue-Sun 1000-1800 (museum). Admission charge, free on Sun. Torre Latinoamericana Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, corner of Avenida Madero Tel: (55) 5752 2887. Opening hours: Daily 0900-2200. Admission charge.
  • Paseo de la Reforma
The Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main boulevard, runs from the Alameda to Chapultepec Park (see below) and is lined with shops, offices, hotels, restaurants and some modern skyscrapers. It is a prestigious address and home to many multinationals, financial institutions and embassies. Based on the Champs Elysées in Paris, this thoroughfare was built to provide a direct path for the Emperor Maximilian between the Centro Histórico and his palace in Chapultepec Park and is lined with monuments, fountains and statues of Mexican heroes.

In particular, El Monumento a los Heroes de la Independencia (Monument to Independence), or Angelito as it is affectionately known, is a gilded statue of a winged Victory set atop a 46m-high (150ft) column in a glorieta (traffic circle) and the location for demonstrations and sporting and national celebrations. In 1956, the statue toppled to the ground in an earthquake, but was completely restored, much to the relief of the Mexican people. Displayed inside the monument is the skull of Hidalgo, the executed leader of a group of rebels who rose against the Spanish in October 1810, which can be seen daily 0900-1700 at no charge. On the night of 2 July 2000, hundreds of thousands of jubilant Mexicans flocked to the monument to celebrate the victory of Vicente Fox in the presidential elections that toppled the 71-year rule of the former Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Lying to the south of the Paseo and bounded by Reforma, Sevilla, Avenida Chapultepec and Avenida Insurgentes Sur, is La Zona Rosa (Pink Zone), a busy shopping and entertainment district with many stores, restaurants and nightclubs.

  • Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park)
Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s largest park, is a huge wooded area covering four sq kilometers (1.5 sq miles) and containing lakes, the presidential residences, several of the city’s finest museums, an amusement park and a zoo. Legend has it the wood served as a refuge for Toltec and Aztec kings during times of trouble. The park attracts thousands of visitors especially on Sundays when families come to relax and picnic. The park is divided into three sections, with the attractions listed below lying in the primera sección (first section), on Paseo de la Reforma. The segunda sección (second section) is occupied by La Feria (Amusement Park), and the tercera sección (third section) by Atlantis, a marine park with dolphin and seal shows and an aquarium – both are on Avenida Constituyentes.
The Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), situated on the Chapultepec Hill (the name means ‘Hill of Grasshoppers’ in the Aztec language Nahuatl), was built in 1785 for the Spanish viceroys and used as a residence for Mexico’s presidents until 1940. It now houses the Museo Nacional de Historia (National History Museum), filled with hundreds of paintings, murals, ceramics, furniture and carriages depicting the history of Mexico from the Aztecs to the present day. The rooms once used by Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlotta have been preserved and fine views over the Valley of Mexico can be had from the castle’s balconies. A road-train climbs the hill from inside the entrance to the park.
The Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) has permanent exhibitions of Mexican contemporary art – by Rivera, Siqueiros, O’Gorman, Rufino Tamayo, Frida Kahlo and Dr Atl, to name but a few – and also hosts temporary exhibits of international artists. There is a delightful sculpture garden in the grounds of the museum.
Parque Zoológico de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Zoological Park) has an impressive collection of animals from around the world and was the birthplace of the first panda born in captivity. The modern Museo Rufino Tamayo contains permanent exhibits of work by contemporary Mexican and international painters, donated by Tamayo and his wife, as well as a superb collection of paintings by the artist himself.

Chapultepec Park Tel: (55) 5553 6224. Opening hours: Daily 0500-1700, closed Monday. Free admission. Chapultepec Castle and the Museo Nacional de Historia Tel: (55) 5553 6224. Opening times: Tue-Sun 0900-1700. Admission charge. La Feria Tel: (55) 5230 2121. Website: www.feriachapultepec.com.mx Opening hours: Tue-Fri 1000-1900, Sat-Sun 1000-2000. Admission charge. Atlantis Tel: (55) 5273 2176 or 5271 8618. Website: www.parqueatlantis.com.mx Opening hours: Sat-Sun and public holidays only, 1000-1730. Admission charge. Museo de Arte Moderno Tel: (55) 5211 8331 or 8045. Opening hours: Tues-Sun 1000-1730. Admission: Charge. Parque Zoológico de Chapultepec Tel: (55) 5553 6229 or 6263. Website: www.chapultepec.df.gob.mx Opening hours: Tues-Sun 0900-1600. Admission: Free. Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo Tel: (55) 5286 6519. Website: www.museotamayo.org Opening hours: Tues-Sun 1000-1800. Admission: Charge but free on Sun.

  • Museo Nacional de Antropolog (National Anthropology Museum)
Perhaps Mexico’s City’s finest museum, the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Anthropology Museum) is also one of the best of its kind in the world. Situated in an extension of Chapultepec Park, this huge museum houses a vast and spectacular collection centered on a spacious rectangular patio and can take days to explore. Its well-organized collection is dedicated to each major culture that contributed to the evolution of a Mesoamerican civilization: Pre-Classic, Toltec, Teotihuacán, Aztec, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya, Northwestern and Western Mexico. Some of the most fascinating exhibits are the famous Aztec ‘sun’ (or ‘calendar’) stones, the giant stone Olmec heads from Tabasco and a replica of a Mayan tomb from Palenque. On the upper level, the rooms are dedicated to how modern Mexico’s indigenous people live.

Several times a day, voladores (fliers) give a daring performance in front of the museum’s entrance, re-enacting an ancient ceremony. Men dressed in colorful, traditional costume attach ropes to themselves and scale a tall pole, from where they launch themselves and ‘fly’ in circles as they unwind until they reach the ground.

Paseo de la Reforma (north of Chapultepec Park) Tel: (55) 5553 6381. Website: www.mna.inah.gob.mx Opening hours: Tue-Sat 0900-1900, Sun 0900-1800. Admission charge, free on Sun.
  • Coyoacán
Once a city in its own right, the suburb of Coyoacán is the oldest part of Mexico City and was the place from which Cortés launched his attack on Tenochtitlán. Along the peaceful tree-lined avenues are beautiful buildings from the 16th to 19th centuries. Especially at weekends, the craft stalls, musicians and mime artists around the central squares of Plaza Hidalgo and Jardín del Centenario create a bohemian atmosphere.

The Museo Casa de Frida Kahlo occupies the family home of the artist Frida Kahlo. She was born here in 1907 and then lived here with her husband, the revolutionary muralist Diego Rivera, from 1929 until her death in 1954. The couple was part of a glamorous, leftist, intellectual set during the 1930s and the house is full of mementoes of this period. Two rooms are preserved as lived in; the rest display paintings by both artists. The Kahlo work on display is not her best known but expresses something of the pain and torment in her life. The small collection of folk art – a passion of Kahlo’s –includes a number of regional costumes worn by the artist.

The Museo Casa de León Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Museum) the house where the Russian revolutionary spent the last four years of his life, is a very dark and sombre place. Very little has changed in the house since 1940, when Trotsky was murdered in his study with an ice pick by an assassin sent by the KGB, while the living room wall, pockmarked with bullet holes, is a reminder of a previous failed assassination attempt. There is a tomb in the garden where his ashes were interred.

Museo Casa de Frida Kahlo Londres 247 (corner of Allende), Coyoacán Tel: (55) 5554 5999. Opening hours: Tue-Sun 1000-1800. Admission charge, free on Sun. Museo Casa de León Trotsky Avenida Río Churubusco 410, between Gómez Farías and Morelos Tel: (55) 5658 8732. Opening hours: Tue-Sun 1000-1700. Admission charge, free on Sun.
  • San Angel
San Angel is an elegant, colonial neighborhood about 9km (6 miles) south of Paseo de la Reforma. The affluent suburb is best known for its weekly arts and crafts market, the Bazar Sábado (Saturday Bazaar), in Plaza San Jacinto. The Museo Estudio Diego Rivera (Diego Rivera’s Studio Museum), where Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo lived in the 1930s, is an avant-garde building designed for them by Juan O’Gorman. There are only a few of the artists’ works on display but plenty of memorabilia. The Museo Carrillo Gil Arte Contemporano (Carillo Gil Contemporary Art Museum) is a fine art museum containing works by Mexican and international artists.

Museo Estudio Diego Rivera Diego Rivera 2 (corner of Altavista) Tel: (55) 5550 1518. Opening hours: Tue-Sun 1000-1800. Admission charge, free on Sun. Carrillo Gil Arte Contemporano Avenida Revolución 1608 Tel: (55) 5550 3983. Opening hours: Tue-Sun 1000-1800. Admission charge, free on Sun.
Further Distractions:
La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe)
In the northern suburbs of Mexico City, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, often known as La Villa de Guadalupe, is the holiest shrine in the country. It is built on the site where, in 1531, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared three times, in the guise of an Indian princess, to Indian Juan Diego, leaving her image miraculously emblazoned on his cloak. After investigating the story, the church authorities decided to build the shrine and the Pope is set to canonise Juan Diego this year, despite doubts over his existence. The original basilica was built in 1709. When a large crack appeared and it began to sink into the swampy subsoil, a new basilica was constructed in the same plaza and consecrated in 1976. Juan Diego’s cloak has been preserved and hangs in the church, behind the main altar. Moving walkways allow visitors to get as close as possible. The original basilica is now a museum displaying many representations of the image on the cloak.

Throughout the year, pilgrims come from all over Mexico to visit. However, for the Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Patron Saint’s Day), on 12 December, millions throng to pray and give thanks to the dark-skinned virgin. Some worshippers hobble on their knees to the church, while others dance their prayers in traditional Indian costumes with feather head-dresses and skirts in a festive atmosphere.

Plaza Hidalgo 1, Colonia Villa de Guadalupe Tel: (55) 5577 6022. Opening hours: Daily 0800-2300 (basilica); Tue-Sun 1000-1800 (museum). Admission charge, free on Sun.

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Luxury Traveler said...

Beautiful photos... I would wanna spend luxury Mexico holidays. It's so wonderful out there.

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