Travel

Touring Mexico City, from castles and cathedrals to Kahlo

  • Author: Scott McMurren
  • Updated: December 16, 2017
  • Published December 16, 2017

The view of Mexico City from atop the Chapultepec Castle. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

One of the first lessons my wife, Christy, and I learned on arriving in Mexico City: You can't do everything.

The history of this bustling metropolis of more than 21 million people dates back to the 14th century, when it was an Aztec capital before Cortes and the Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519. In 1810, Mexico declared independence from Spain. From that point to 1917, there were many wars and revolutions, including the Mexican-American War in 1846. Gen. Zachary Taylor marched as a conqueror into Mexico City. Eventually, the U.S. appropriated almost half of Mexico's territory, including California and Texas.

Reminders of Spain's colonial rule, including the state religion of Roman Catholicism, are everywhere. There are cathedrals, castles and universities, which add to the cosmopolitan nature of this Latin American capital.

Our visits to some of the historic sites were interrupted by a huge religious pilgrimage. Mexico has a patron saint: Our Lady of Guadalupe. According to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared several times to Juan Diego in 1531. A church was erected on the site, and the "Virgin of Guadalupe" has been invoked over the years as a symbol of Mexican unity and revolution. Her feast day is Dec. 12. There are literally millions of people who make a religious pilgrimage to her shrine at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

We visited the Basilica a couple of days earlier, on Dec. 10. Even then, pilgrims from around Mexico were arriving in cars, buses, pickups and on bicycles. The Basilica houses the tunic worn by Juan Diego, which features an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It's encased above the altar in the church behind bulletproof glass. It's the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world.

We were caught up in the crowd, which moved slowly from the square outside into the church. There was a service going on, but thousands of pilgrims flowed around the altar and underneath it to get a close-up view of the tunic, which was draped with a giant Mexican flag. To keep things moving, there are three parallel moving sidewalks directly beneath the shrine.

It was crowded, to be sure. But the crowds were in good spirits and the atmosphere was festive. Many pilgrims brought flowers as a devotion. Some parents dress their children up in traditional costumes.

The Basilica is one of Mexico City's most important cultural touchstones. Another is the Chapultepec Castle, in the middle of Chapultepec Park, the "Central Park" of Mexico City.

The castle is the only royal residence in the Americas, home to Emperor Maximilian I during the second Mexican empire. Construction on the castle started in 1785. Throughout its history it has served as a military academy and now it's a national history museum. It's worth visiting just to get a stunning view of the city.

Also worth visiting in the park is the National Museum of Anthropology. Only the most dedicated museum fans can visit everything. But you can pick specific exhibits that detail the history of the Aztec civilization, complete with models of temples and artifacts which illustrate their way of life in and around Mexico City.

We selected a vacation rental near the park. The exchange rate is very favorable right now, so the big apartment was about $70 per night. It's located on a street with many restaurants that cater to the workers at nearby high-rise office buildings. Our hosts advised us not to drink the water out of the tap. Bottled water is for sale everywhere.

Although it's much smaller than the national museums, the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is worth the trek over to the Coyoacan neighborhood south of the historic city center. This husband-and-wife team both were prolific artists and were politically active. The couple interceded with the government to offer asylum to Leon Trotsky in 1937. In addition to artwork, Kahlo's clothing is also on display, including the stiff corsets, braces, wheelchair and other devices she used as a result of polio and a traumatic auto accident.

There is an extensive metro system in Mexico City, and it's really cheap: $5 MXN (five pesos) for a ticket (about 28 cents). There's also a comprehensive system of buses, which are a little more (six pesos). We mostly used Uber, which was fast and convenient. On arrival at Mexico City's airport, it's best to wait until you're outside on the curb before requesting a pickup. It's hard to know in advance how long it will take to get through immigration. We waited for about 40 minutes before getting our passports stamped.

One of the best meals we had was at Los Danzantes in the Coyoacan neighborhood near Frida's museum. They had delicious Mexican beer on tap, which helped to wash back the "chapulines." These are salty, toasted crickets. I was nervous about committing to an entire order, so our server, Alexis, brought out a sample. They were tasty. But, well, crickets. Alexis tried to comfort us, assuring us the insects were grown specifically for the restaurant and were not taken "from the dirt." Mas cervezas, por favor!

A dish of toasted, seasoned crickets at Los Danzantes restaurant in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

Today, we're taking a tour to the famous Teotihuacan pyramids outside of the city. It's also known as "City of the Gods," a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site dates back almost 2,000 years and we're looking forward to learning more about the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.

For everything that we saw here on our first trip, there were two or three places we missed. But you can't do everything.

My Spanish is limited to ordering beer and asking for directions to the bathroom. It is possible to stumble along in English, but you'll have more fun and things will go better if you brush up on your Spanish before you arrive!

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.