I love top ten lists. Call me a geek if you want, it’s okay. Whatever the list, if it’s a top ten something, there’s a good chance I’ll read it. I probably have read it. Top ten Presidential quotes. Top ten Seinfeld episodes. Top ten ballparks. Top ten Chicago hot dog shacks. Top ten one-hit wonders (yes, A-ha is in there). Top ten movies of the year. Top ten movies by genre.
Don’t even get me started on travel top ten lists. Lonely Planet has dozens of them. Travel + Leisure has dozens more. From “Top Ten Places to Ring in the New Year” to “Top Ten Multi-Day Hikes” to “Top Ten Places for Wildlife Watching,” you really can pick your poison. (Note: If I named any of those without crediting the actual publication in which they appeared, please accept my apologies. I really just pulled ‘em out of thin air.)
For my blogging (and your reading) pleasure, here’s my own top ten list – city-specific, to keep the list manageable.
Top Ten Mexico City
1) The history – One of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the Americas, Mexico City teems with history. This is never more obvious than when you pay a visit to the Centro Histórico. The Plaza de la Constitución – or Zócalo – is the city’s main square. The northeast corner is literally a hole in the ground, in which pedestrians can peer down at the Templo Mayor, excavated pyramidal ruins from the pre-Colombian Aztec citadel of Tenochtitlan. Several blocks south from the Zócalo is the busy metro station of Pino Suárez, around which point the tracks veer suddenly to avoid a partially-excavated Aztec temple, fenced off from the rest of the station and visible from street level. This single ruin is part of Tenochtitlan as well, which in turn was built on swampy ground along the shores of Lake Texcoco.
A perhaps even more impressive example of old-meets new can be found at Tlatelolco, also known as the Plaza of the Three Cultures. Here, an Aztec temple sits adjacent to a 7th-century Spanish church, which in turn sits adjacent to a modern government building, home of the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Foreign Ministry). All of these buildings are surrounded by shoddily-constructed apartment towers, not the first such hi-rises to be built here, as the 1985 earthquake sent many such constructions crumbling to the ground (the Aztec temple, meanwhile, was unscathed).
Religious history, also, abounds in Mexico City. Although modern Mexico City is a tolerant place for people of all faiths, it remains a majority-Catholic city, and perhaps the only one in the world with more Catholic churches than Rome. This is no doubt helped by Mexico City being home to the Basilica of Guadalupe, which ranks with Lourdes in France and Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina as among the planet’s most sacred pilgrimage destinations. As the story goes, an Aztec-turned-Christian by the name of Juan Diego was greeted on four occasions by a vision of the Virgin Mary. She eventually emblazoned her image on his cloak, and the church accepted his story. When the city was spared from the ravages of typhoid – which had swept through the area – the Virgin got the credit and the story gained a cult following, inspiring the construction of several churches on the ground. December 12th is the annual feast day, and a visit here on that day will bring you shoulder to shoulder with, literally, millions of pilgrims. It’s quite the spectacle.
An inspiring bit of military history-turned-legend can be found in the Bosque de Chapultepec (see #4 for more information), where a Spanish-built, Austrian-occupied castle towers over the surrounding parkland. It is here where subsequent conquerors – Americans this time – surrounded the castle and six of its young cadets (niños heroes, or “boy heroes”) fought to the death, one of them even jumping to his death after wrapping himself in the Mexican flag.
2) The people – It may be the ultimate travel writer’s cliché to call a city’s people one of its best attractions, but so often it’s the truth. Mexico City has something like 20 million people, and while there are probably a few jerks in the bunch, the large majority are among the friendliest, hardest working people you’ll ever meet. Where else do restaurant patrons wish you “Buen provecho” (or whatever its regional translation depending where you are in the world) as they pass you on their way out the door? Where else do taxi drivers engage passengers in conversation – even though a tip is not expected compensation? Sure, friendly diners and cabbies can be found anywhere, but the sheer number of them in Mexico City seems disproportionately high. This is not a bad problem to have, as the city can benefit from such PR.
Many people I know think of the Mexican capital as a place rife with crime, and as such they are too scared to visit. There are dangerous neighborhoods, to be certain, but in general, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Want directions somewhere? Just ask someone on the street. (They probably won’t have a clue, but they’ll enthusiastically tell you where they think it is, anyway.) Want to make sure you don’t miss your bus stop? Just ask the driver, who will be more than willing to help. Need help but you don’t speak Spanish? No worries – almost anyone you ask under 40 will likely insist that they don’t speak English, before answering you with a better command of the language than I’ve observed in many European capitals. Have an invite to someone’s house for dinner? Expect one helluva good meal, and several mini-bar-sized bottles of tequila as a souvenir.
I recently hopped on the metro en route to the Centro Histórico, where I planned on checking out one of the myriad museums to be found there (most of which are free on Sundays). As I boarded, I noticed that most riders were in their underwear and little else. A group of presumably college-age girls chanted at me (in Spanish) to take off my pants. At first I thought everyone was riding in protest of something political, but I later confirmed (in English) with a bilingual passenger that this was just an annual ritual that originated in New York and was on its third year in Mexico. What the hell, right?! But when in Rome, as the saying goes….I dropped trou and joined the masses (estimated to be 10,000) in gathering at the Monumento a la Revolución. Many photos were taken that day, and I even posed with a clown (who was perhaps the only one that day not sans pantalones). New friendships were formed that day with people who otherwise were perfect strangers, and it was liberating not only to buck the system, but to see others doing so as well. Most revelers were under 30, which to me suggests that maybe – just maybe – Mexico has a great, progressive future to look forward to. ¡Viva México!
3) The architecture – I haven’t spent enough time in Spain to say that I’ve truly fallen in love with that country. But I do love its colonial architecture, and España’s conquistadors were generous enough to bring it with them as they made their way across Latin America. Mexico, one of their first footholds into the New World, was especially blessed, architecturally-speaking. Though the Spaniards arrived by sea, they seemed to save their best construction work until they reached the central highlands. Inland cities like Guanajuato, Querétaro, and yes, Mexico City, shine with stunning examples of post-Renaissance building design. Seemingly every church appears straight out of a Madrid storybook; brick walls, rounded domes, dark interiors with gold-trimmed wooden altars and ornate stained glass windows are the norm. Government buildings around the Zócalo feature arched stone colonnades and grand staircases. Single-family homes in some of the city’s oldest colonial neighborhoods feature terracotta roofs and brightly-colored window and doorframes. Postmodern constructions such as Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli interpret Aztec and Mayan design elements as well.
Mexico City is a mega-city in every sense of the word, and as a result, so much pollution and foot traffic hasn’t always been kind to these heavy old buildings; nor has the fact that they were all built on soft earth. Many appear to be sinking. I visited an art gallery housed inside a centuries-old chapel attached to the Palacio de la Autonomia. The main exhibit was spread across the wide altar, and walking from one side to the other felt like a steep uphill trek, even if I’d only walked 30 feet. This building – and dozens like it – is slowly sinking, not unlike the palazzos of Venice, Italy.
4) The parks – In addition to providing much-need oxygen for this high altitude mega-city, Mexico City’s numerous green spaces provide valuable space for its 20 million residents to have a picnic, walk their dogs, kick a futbol around, enjoy a siesta under the trees, take a romantic stroll, or just get some fresh air. The granddaddy of all Mexico City parks, the Alameda Central, was recently refurbished with desert grasses, new benches, dancing fountains, and a restored, historic gazebo. Parque Hundido, along busy Avenida Insurgentes, is sunken (“hundido”) below street level and sprinkled with pre-Hispanic ruins, including an Olmec head from La Venta as well as serpent columns from Chichén Itzá. Closer to my own neighborhood is Parque de los Venados, a lively spot that packs a lot into a small space – including a planetarium, a much-photographed Pancho Villa statue, and a wonderfully kitschy amusement park!
Lest I forget, the three sections of Bosque de Chapultepec (literally, “forest of grasshoppers,” though most people simply call it Chapultepec Park) house several lakes, a hilltop castle, miles of jogging paths, the presidential residence, and many of the country’s finest museums. Chapultepec is Mexico City’s green lung, and the place to be on a Sunday, when almost all of its attractions are free. Millions of Chilangos flock here then, and the park takes on a carnival atmosphere. That said, the acres and acres of land absorb the crowds nicely, and if you’re willing to walk a bit, you can still find a quiet corner where the only other visitors are the park’s resident ardillas (squirrels).
5) The public transport – Prior to my move here, I had longed to live in a city where I didn’t need a car. I’ve known a few Angelenos who managed to live in Los Angeles without a vehicle, but most of them lasted less than six months before caving in. Even my Chicago friends have cars. Here in Mexico City – where the local government bans cars from driving one day/week in an effort to cut down pollution (it’s actually worked, sort of) – having a vehicle is more trouble than it’s worth.
Public transportation in Mexico City is nothing short of amazing. You’ll seldom have a bus or subway car that is anything less than packed, but the route networks of both are comprehensive and you rarely have to wait longer than ten minutes. At least twelve subway lines cross Mexico City, and a single, three-peso boleto (ticket) allows for unlimited rides throughout the system as long you don’t exit to street level. Green-friendly Metrobúses ply the city’s main thoroughfares and connect the city center with the international airport (so does the subway, as a matter of fact). Minor streets are connected to major ones by a series of microbúses, usually a bit larger than a UPS van and running frequently enough that if the first one you encounter is full, another one won’t be far behind so you probably won’t have long to wait.
Buses and especially subways are also sources of the city’s best people-watching. Most public transport around the world gets you up close and personal to amorous, lip-smacking lovers, to inebriated sports fans (and the game hasn’t even started yet!), or to that young ruffian playing his stereo so loud that people in the next three cars can hear the lyric clearly. Mexico City is no different, except that here you also witness the funniest hawkers – every time you ride. As soon as the bus or metro pulls into the station, at least one tout boards your car. Often it’s a person selling mix CDs, or useful toiletries such as chapstick, tissues, and dental floss (yes, dental floss). The cost almost always is ten pesos (about 80 cents). Sometimes it’s a blind person. How does he or she make it from car to car, walking stick in hand, on such lurching vehicles without falling?! Occasionally, mariachis will board, playing a tune for money (this is more common on buses).
Once, on a long subway ride several years ago, I hit the mother lode. All of the aforementioned salespersons made their rounds, and as the train slowly emptied out en route to its final station, two men boarded the train. One of them was shirtless, his camiseta bundled in his hand. I could tell the shirt was stuffed with something. Rocks, maybe. Shit, was I about to get mugged? No, and what happened made for a much more colorful story. Barechested Man unfolded his t-shirt on the floor of the subway car, revealing an impressive pile of broken glass. He laid, face-up, on the shards of glass, and his partner jumped onto his stomach. Barechested Man rolled over onto his stomach and the act was repeated. I looked around at the other passengers. Jaws dropped, mortified. The two men got up and made their rounds, asking for tips. Seriously, caballeros, there has to be a better way of making money.
6) The murals – Like most cultured sorts, I have a favorite artist. Picasso’s cool, Monet and Manet are great, Rodin is the tits (to use the parlance of our time). But the political art of Diego Rivera (aka Frida’s husband) puts them all to shame. Earlier I noted my love of Mexico City’s colonial architecture. Many of the city’s finest buildings – particularly government buildings in the Centro Histórico – feature central courtyards with walls ordained with magnificent murals by Rivera, Juan O’Gorman, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others.
A few of my favorites: 1) “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda” – Diego Rivera, in the appropriately-named Museo Mural Diego Rivera. 2) “Man, Controller of the Universe” – Rivera again, in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. 3) UNAM campus murals – Biblioteca Central by Juan O’Gorman, and La Rectoría mosaic by David Alfaro Siqueiros. 4) Grand staircase murals – José Clemente Orozco, in the Museo de San Ildefonso.
7) The food – I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like Mexican food. Even my dad – with the pickiest of stomachs – likes tacos, churros, and arroz con leche (rice pudding). Mexico City is home to every kind of cuisine on the planet, and with a population of 20 million, many restaurants are open late. The requisite fast food joints are found here – McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway are everywhere, and I even spotted my first Carl’s, Jr. yesterday! Before ripping on me for dining there, let me interject that the occasional visit can be fun, if only because their respective menus in Mexico City are just a little bit different than in the U.S. McDonald’s does not carry chicken wings down here, but Burger King sells Whopper-flavored potato chips that aren’t available anywhere else.
But enough about U.S.-based fast food restaurants. Chilangos (people of Mexico City) are, by-and-large, a cultured lot, and they enjoy fine dining as much as the next person. Sanborns and Toks are just two high-end local restaurant chains (Sanborns being owned by Carlos Slim, of course) that, if a bit overpriced, offer large plates of delicious food – usually Mexican-influenced but certain not to induce the infamous Moctezuma’s Revenge. For me personally, my love of Mexican cuisine is never greater than when it is of the “street food” variety. Give me some tacos al pastor (bite-size tacos with shredded pork), or a bag of chapulines (fried grasshoppers, much tastier than they sound) and I’m a happy gringo.
8) The shopping – Do you like shopping? Are you a clothes horse? If so, come to Mexico City, where a combination of high-end department stores and everything-under-the-sun markets compete for your hard-earned greenbacks (or pesos). There is a market to be found in every neighborhood, each one selling food, shoes, cosmetics, toys, antiques, and flowers. I love photographing the produce counters, with oranges and limes stacked so ornately that it seems a crime to take one from the pile. Weekends bring the upscale craft markets. And again, there’s one in every neighborhood.
If you prefer to buy your goods at chain stores, those exist as well. Mexico City has Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Sears (much nicer than any Sears store you’ll ever visit in the U.S.). Not found in the U.S. or in Europe are Suburbia (think JCPenney) and Liverpool (think Macy’s – I love this store!) Best of all: prices are generally better than what you’ll be quoted in the states (though still expensive).
9) The weather – Mexico City’s climate is mild year-round, without the extreme winter chills of, say, Boston, and without the extreme torrid heat of, perhaps, Miami. That said, I’m ranking it #9 instead of higher because nights can still be quite chilly, rainy ones especially so. Few apartments have heat. What this means is that everyone dresses in layers. A t-shirt and jeans might be fine for an afternoon stroll, but be sure to have a sweater come nightfall. As I’m writing this it is probably the coldest weather day I’ve yet experienced. People outside are wearing hats, scarves, and gloves.
Additionally, it rarely rains in Mexico City. This is mostly a good thing, but if there’s a negative it’s that pollution levels can climb off the charts after several weeks of no rain. Have you ever been to Delhi? Cairo? Beijing? Mexico City air is not that bad, but sometimes it’s bad enough to make my eyes burn.
10) The sounds – Surely not everyone will agree with me – and perhaps I rank these so high because I’m still a “newbie” with regards to my Mexico City residency, but I think the sounds of the capital are as magical as the sights. In particular, I love the roving vendors, who pedal bicycle carts through the streets at all hours of the day and night. Ricos! Tamales! Oaxaqueños! beckons the pleasant, pre-recorded voice of a Mexico City caballero – the same in every neighborhood. A much louder female voice bellows Colchones! Refrigeradores! Estufas! from a loudspeaker strapped onto the roof of a 1970’s-era white van as it makes the rounds, its driver offering to buy your used mattresses, refrigerators, stoves…or any other junk you wish to part with. This must be a lucrative, all-hours trade, as I’ve heard them plying my residential street as late as 3 a.m.!
I’ll wrap up #10 by stating two things: 1) that if either person whose voice was recorded were to earn, say, five pesos each time their announcement was made, they’d probably be richer than Carlos Slim, and 2) these omnipresent sounds, and others just as common – the buzz of the subway car as its doors are about to close, the blasting of music from a CD hawker’s backpack stereo – aren’t always the most pleasant of noises, but I love them anyway. They tell me I’m home. 🙂
Thanks for sticking with me this far, Loyal Reader, for what may be the longest top ten list in history. Perhaps I should blog about the top ten longest top ten lists! 😉
Coming soon: Top Ten Mexico – The Country!
Above photo: The historic hilltop castle of Bosque de Chapultepec.
Below photo: Ardilla (squirrel) at Bosque de Chapultepec.
Above photo: Jim, a friendly vendor at Coyocan’s Central Market. Check out his Hollister, CA hoodie!
Below photo: Tacos al pastor, one of my favorite things. Sometimes they come with slices of pineapple, and those are even better!
Above photo: “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda,” a mega-mural by Diego Rivera.
Below photo: Mural detail: Many of Mexico’s most prominent history-makers are seen here, including Benito Juarez in the top left.
Below photo: More murals, by Orozco this time. The Museo de San Ildefonso is housed in one of the Centro Histórico’s gorgeous colonial buildings.