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Published: November 26th 2012
Mexico City truly is a beast of a metropolis, boasting the largest number of museums in the world, a huge assortment of great art galleries, and numerous parks and plazas. The architecture across the city is astounding, and the colours and styles that can be seen differ from district to district. And as there are museums, monuments and beautiful tree-filled plazas throughout the entire city, it is guaranteed that no matter which district you choose to spend your day in, there will be plenty to see and do. Our hostel (which was called Hostel Cathedral or Hostal Mundo Joven depending on who you asked), was situated directly behind the city's main cathedral, on the main plaza which is known as the 'Zocalo'. The Zocalo is a constant hub of activity, particularly during the Day of the Dead festivities, so there was always something exciting going on, from live music to group dances to art competitions.
I arrived in Mexico City from Colombia on Sunday 28th October. My friend Scott was joining me on my travels for two weeks, so after meeting at the airport we took a taxi to our awesome hostel. Originally we had only booked two nights there,
but as we enjoyed it so much we ended up staying until the 3rd of November. We arrived fairly late on the 28th so we passed the evening by catching up, drinking delicious cocktails at the hostel's restaurant, and filling up on a very unhealthy and very un-Mexican meal of hamburger and chips! We spent our first day in the city wandering around the nearby areas and getting acquainted with them, taking in some of the stunning and varied architecture around the Zocalo. And then we stumbled across an indoor market which had been set up to sell Day of the Dead-related gifts and foods.
I should pause here to try to explain a little about Day of the Dead, because along with Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas, I think it is one of the best and most important holidays of the year. It is sometimes said that Mexicans have an obsession with death, and perhaps that could be true, but this is by no means a bad thing. Rather than ignoring death until directly confronted with it, Mexicans embrace death and celebrate and honour their dead, particularly around the time of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead).
The roots of this holiday go back to pre-Hispanic times, when the dead were revered and festivals were held to honour and celebrate them. It was thought that the dead would return to the earth each year, and to assist with this, living relatives would put out food and drink for the spirits who would be tired after their journey from the underworld. After the Spanish conquest, the Church tried to mould indigenous celebrations with their own religious ones, and so this rite was melded with the Catholic's All Saints Day. Although it is still commonplace in some areas for families to spend the entire day and/or night camped out at graveyards, for many Mexicans the holiday now involves building altars in their homes, which consist of dressed-up skeletons and sugar skulls, food and drink, and other items which represent or were important to the departed. The celebrations which go on around the time of Día de Muertos (which is actually two days, the first, on November 1st, being dedicated specifically to children who have died, and the second, on November 2nd, being dedicated to adults), are really quite spectacular. As well as markets like the one we found, there
are decorations everywhere, such as marigolds and banners, and altars or ofrendas are set up, along with music and art celebrations. Nearby to the little market was a fantastic ofrenda of jovial-looking skeletons, marigolds, food and other relics and memoirs. By this point I was almost bursting with happiness: this was exactly the sort of thing that I had wanted to see.
On the Monday Scott and I went with a tour company called Wayak to Teotihuacán, which holds two epic pyramids built between the 1st century AD and about AD 600. Along with the pyramids (called Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon) the city contained temples, tombs and palaces, and was once Mexico's largest ancient city. On the way to Teotihuacán, the tour guide stopped at the Plaza de la tres Culturas, and the Basílica de Guadalupe, two important sites for the past and present of Mexico. The former gives a clear illustration of the incredible mix of history and culture that you find all over Mexico, containing an old Spanish Temple juxtapositioned next to ancient Aztec pyramids, and a more-recently built Centro Cultural Universitario. The Basílica is actually two seperate Basilicas, the first built
between 1531 and 1709, and the second built 1974 and 1976. They honour Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) who is one of the most important figures in Mexico. The story, which the tour guide explained to us, holds that the Lady appeared to Juan Diego, who was an indigenous man who had converted to Christianity, on the top of a hill and told him to build a shrine in her honour. When Juan Diego told the bishop his story, somewhat unsurprisingly, the bishop was not convinced. It took several more attempts to persuade him, and it was not until the Lady miraculously appeared on Diego's cloak that the bishop finally believed him. The old Church is incredibly beautiful, but it is sinking, which gives you a very peculiar feeling as you walk through it, whilst the new modern Basilica is a huge circular building, the outside of which is adorned with a huge cross. On the tour we also stopped off at an artisan shop on the way where they grow a variety of cacti, and from them create an array of products like pulque
, wash cloths and soap. Once we arrived in Teotihuacán, we decided to
count the number of steps that we climbed up. It's been a few weeks now, but as I recall the total number was 476. After stopping to be rather culturally-insensitive and act out some pretend ritual sacrifice scenes on the top of one of the tall platforms, we proceeded to climb Pyramid of the Sun, where we stopped briefly to take in the incredible view, and then make our way to the Pyramid of the Moon, and climb up that too. We stayed at the top of the Pyramid of the Moon for a while, partly to recover from the day's climbs, and partly to soak up the spiritual vibes and gaze in awe at the vista of the ancient city. We then made our way back to the tour guide and the rest of the group. In fact, we were actually a bit late to meet them, thanks to a slight haggling saga at a market stool which was set up by the exit to the ruins. We returned to the group, Scott a hundred or so pesos lighter, but pleased with his purchase of a stone Mayan calender, and together we went to a fancy little restaurant with
an awesome lunch buffet that had so many vegetables
. It was amazing. I know it is a bit sad, but good old brocolli and cauliflower are not that easy to come by when you're travelling, and at this restaurant they had so many of the little guys.
Aside from the amazing Teotihuacán, there are a number of other interesting towns and villages near Mexico City, and the following day we opted to visit one called Tepoztlán, about 50 miles south of the city. Aside from offering a brief respite from the manic pace of Mexico city, the main appeal of Tepoztlán is the ancient temple set atop Tepozteco mountain. Once we arrived in the town by bus, we spent some time wandering around the main plaza and market, before making our way through the quiet but colourful streets to the bottom of the mountain. I suppose the word 'mountain' should have made the intensity of the climb apparent to us from the beginning, and indeed my Lonely Planet guide pointed out that the climb is 'exhuasting', but somehow we hadn't quite expected the mountain to be so...well...high. What made the climb really extreme though, were the absurdly steep and
crumbly steps. If this mountain was in the UK you can bet that health and safety regulations would have dictated that the trail be entirely re-done so that the steps could be deemed safe! Strenuous though it was, the views from the top of the temple (when we finally reached it) were truly outstanding. The panarama gave breathtaking views of the surrounding mountain valleys, and the small towns and villages dotted sporadically around. Taking in the views at the top were also a set of animals called 'Coati' who are members of the racoon family. They became less cute however when they started trying to get into our backpacks, and stealing my cereal bar! In fairness, the views during the climb itself were rather lovely, as we were surrounded by tall grand trees, but after the first half an hour or so, our focus turned more towards actually making it to the top, rather than taking in the surroundings!
Over the rest of the time in Mexico City itself we managed to cover a lot of ground, and see a lot of incredible sights. One highlight was Templo Mayor, which was an important Aztec temple that was updated and
expanded several times throughout a period of roughly 200 years. The adjoining museum contains a wealth of information and relics which was impressive enough, but what made the Templo Mayor really stand out is the incredible position of the ancient temple, just a block or so away from the Cathedral, and across the street from beautiful and colourful modern buildings. Standing in the middle of the old temple, with the assortment of buildings around that each represent a different faith or era, was really quite incredible, and seemed to sum up the incredible mix of history and ethnicity that you can find in Mexico as a whole. Another highlight was the Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) which we went to see in the evening after we visited Teotihuacán. It was brilliantly tacky, and I'm not even going to try to hide how much I loved the outrageous outfits or the charasmatic wrestlers who had names like 'Black Titan', 'Fuego
' ('Fire'😉 and 'Strongman'. In such an epic city, it should come as no real surprise that the night life is also pretty damn good. As the drinks on the terrace bar at the hostel are so cheap, we treated ourselves to a
few there before heading out to sample some of the nearby bars and clubs. The places we found were obviously very popular, and for good reason, as the music was varied and fun, and the atmosphere was great. It seems that when I'm drunk I am a lot more confident with my Spanish skills so I had many interesting drunken conversations in Spanish with some random Mexicans (who were all extremely friendly - have I mentioned yet that I love Mexican people? Because I do. They are awesome). The following day we were feeling slightly fragile, but in the afternoon we headed out to an area called Chapultepec which is a huge park with a market, lakes and museums. The lakes were pretty grim, but the market was thriving and interesting, and nearby was yet another art competition, where artists had created big heart sculptures with different themes and patterns.
Now, of course, this is Mexico, and it would be an injustice not to mention another important highlight of the trip so far: the food! Although international food and standard things like sandwiches are widely available, and we certainly had our fair share of that sort of food as
well, the Mexican food really is fantastic. The enchiladas sold at the hostel's restaurant were particularly nice, although the amount of cheese was slightly excessive! Mexican people certainly seem to like frijoles
(beans) which are ground up to create what looks like a thick dark sauce and then sprinkled with cheese, and this is served with a lot of their dishes. I'm a pretty big fan of this frijole situation, but Scott was slightly dismayed to find them on his breakfast after our night out when his stomach was feeling rather fragile and he was craving simple, safe and familiar food only! Around Day of the Dead, a type of bread called Pan de Muertos is popular, and so we decided to try this out and were certainly glad we did. Covered in sugar, it is a soft sweet bread which is made in a round shape with what almost looks like a bow on top (which, I have been told, is supposed to represent the folded arms crossed across corpse's bodies). The fruit and fruit juices available are also extremely fresh and tasty and far superior to most of the stuff you usually get back home. Although we avoided tequila as neither of us are fans, we did try some pulque, which is a light alcoholic drink that comes in various flavours and has supposed health benefits, and that was pretty tasty too.
And that's all for this first blog on Mexico City. Thanks for reading!
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