By Ed Boitano
Photos by Deb Roskamp
Eight Days in the capital of Mexico, Part 1
The rains came down in Mexico City, blessing this magical and sacred city of 21,321,000 inhabitants and giving them a gentle reprieve from their bustling and productive lives. It has been said that Mexico City has a perfect annual spring temperature, making it an abundant produce belt for Mexico and the rest of the world. Mexico is the first nation in the world awarded a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Listing for its contributions to world cuisine, and I did my best to sample as many dishes as my stomach would allow. The rains were good timing for me, too. I had already explored for eight days the city’s many museums and attractions – Mexico City has more museums than any city in the world next to London – and it was time to fly home. Reflecting on my Mexico City experience as I packed, I knew I would be asked questions from friends up north about the exaggerated reports of crime and the character of the Mexican people. I found no crime, and the locals were kind and welcoming. I could not pull out a map without someone rushing over to offer their guidance. Like any major city, there are robberies and assaults, but the crime rate in New Orleans, for example, is over five times higher than in Mexico City.
Cortés and the Aztecs
The nomadic and warlike Mexica (Aztec) people hailed from where the Arizona border and Mexico meet today. Legend tells us they were informed by a god that they would find their homeland in a place where an eagle is perched on a cactus with a serpent in his mouth. This sign was found on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, approximately 700 years ago in the high plateaus of central Mexico. The Aztecs’ arrival led to skirmishes with local tribes, but the Aztecs eventually prevailed, forcing the local tribes to pay high taxes and become the source of human sacrifices. The Aztecs created an empire of enchanting beauty and magnitude with the building of enormous temples, palaces and a ceremonial center on the island, along with canals, little inlets and additional man-made islands. In 1519, when Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors first laid eyes on this stunning empire, he commented that it was the most breathtaking metropolis which he’d ever seen. Cortés was first defeated by Moctezuma II and the Aztecs, but then returned with more conquistadors, easily defeating the Aztecs, who by now had been weakened by the spread of European diseases and the conquistadors’ alignment with anti-Aztec tribes who had not forgotten their brutality. Moctezuma II was killed, and Ferdinand and Isabella of the Kingdom of Spain instructed Cortés to destroy all Aztec structures and fill in the lake, offering a soggy support for immense European-style churches and buildings. Mexico City has been slowly sinking, at an average of 3 to 4 inches a year, since they were built. Tenochtitlan was rechristened Mexico City and the capital of New Spain. The Spanish plundered the lands for gold and riches, with the help of the enslaved populace. Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821.
Touring Mexico City
Centro Historico is the birthplace of Mexico City, and features historic buildings, magnificent churches, museums, friendly vendors, talented musicians and docents in Aztec attire. The Zócalo (main plaza) is built on the remains of the Aztec’s Tenochtitlan, and now houses the National Palace, which features the Benito Juarez Museum, named after Mexico’s most beloved president, and the remarkable murals by Mexico’s most famous painter, Diego Rivera. His murals cover the history of the Mexican people from pre-Hispanic origins to the middle of the 20th century, giving voice to the indigenous people and cultures of Mexico. His most famous mural, Epic of the Mexican People, is painted on the wall above the main staircase. To witness the power of this stunning masterpiece in person is to be moved to the depths of your soul.
In 1978, electricity workers discovered an eight-ton stone-disc carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui. A decision was wisely made to demolish the colonial buildings and begin excavation. The Templo Mayor museum was built in 1987, and visitors can now follow a winding walkway through the excavated ruins (as further excavations continue), plus visit the museum with many of its artifacts on display.
Cathedral Metropolitana is the oldest and largest cathedral in all of Latin America. Built in sections from 1573 to 1813, the stones from Templo Mayor were used in construction in a trinity of styles: Baroque, Neo-Classic and Neo-Renaissance, basically what was in vogue for that period. Highlights include five naves, 14 chapels, underground catacombs and many prized works of art from the colonial era. The massive cathedral dominates the Zócalo, and, like many structures in Centro Historico, is sinking due to its weight on the former Aztec temple and muddy subsoil.
Where to stay: Barceló México Reforma
This five-star hotel is nestled in Central Mexico City on the iconic Paseo de la Reforma avenue, making it the ideal location for exploring the city’s attractions. Just around the corner: The arch-like Monument to the Revolution, a modern-day architectural wonder and museum commemorating the Mexican Revolution of 1920; the Centro Historico’s main plaza, only a pleasant 20-minute stroll; and the Benito Juárez International Airport, just a 20-minute cab drive away. The creature comforts are endless with 505 luxury rooms, commanding views of the city, a swimming pool, wellness area, fitness center, and fine cuisine, along with a buffet breakfast and happy hour included in the price. But there was something more about Barceló México Reforma, something that I had never experienced before at a large hotel, particularly one that is part of a chain of 230 hotels under the Barceló Hotel Group banner. The staff at the hotel offered a sense of warmth and intimacy, and sincerely cared about my well-being.
A member of the concierge team was always available to answer any questions about restaurants, directions, tours – you name it. My mornings generally began with a “Good morning, Mr. Boitano. Can we be of any assistance today?” The pièce de résistance was at the end of the trip, when I had a bout with some unfamiliar bacteria. (Please note: My photographer enjoyed the same meals I did, and experienced no symptoms other than euphoria.) A member of the concierge staff actually walked to a local drug store in the middle of the night to purchase medications for me. It happened again at the crack of dawn, and another staff member did the same thing. When it was advised that I needed to go to urgent care at a hospital, Jesus Rodriquez, a pivotal member of the team, escorted me on foot for the six-blocks to the clinic. The professional care I received at the hospital was better than I’ve ever experienced at any U.S. hospital. In many respects, the kindness, attention and hospitality that I received at Barceló México Reforma was indicative of the very character of the people of Mexico City. I was told by famed travel writer Richard Carroll, who’s lived in the Yucatan and written guide books about Mexico, that the people in Mexico are the most gracious and hospitable people in the world. Now I know what he means.
In part 2, I will cover the Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s main park, which includes The Museo Nacional de Antropologia and Castillo de Chapultepec; the Coyoacán’s Frida Kahlo Museum and the Leon Trotsky Museum; the Roma Norte Neighborhood and two excursions outside of the city to Teotihuacan and Xochimilco Floating Gardens.
For more information, contact Visit Mexico City at www.visitmexico.com/en and Barceló México Reforma at www.barcelo.com/en-us/.