Tourism will be a vital part of Mexico’s recovery from the recent earthquake and the capital, mostly unscathed, is the vibrant centre.
Flying in over its sprawling mass, the reality of Mexico City’s sheer size hit me for the first time. I had known, of course, that it was one of the world’s most populous cities but hadn’t been able to visualise it until that moment. A thin blanket of smog or cloud or both covered the sea of concrete below.
Sandwiched in a valley some 2200m above sea level between mountains and volcanoes and resting on the collapsing bed of clay that was once Lake Texcoco, Ciudad de Mexico is slowly sinking.
Prone to flooding and earthquakes, I couldn’t help but think of it as a city doomed.
Who would have thought its poor location had all come down to a bird? Legend has it the Aztecs were instructed by the gods to build the city in the place where an eagle was seen atop a cactus devouring a snake. If this image seems familiar, it’s on the Mexican flag.
My brother Rob and his Mexican friend Cheo were accompanying me and we stayed in fashionable Condesa, popular for its many galleries, boutiques and restaurants.
I loved it and felt at home wandering its tree-lined streets to admire Art Deco and colonial architecture. Not far from the city centre’s attractions and green heart, the Bosque de Chapultepec, Condesa attracts students, young professionals and dog lovers alike.
Neighbouring Roma, where Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs once lived, retains its bohemian nature and boasts some of the city’s most exciting night-life, modern fusion restaurants, mezcalerias and arts venues.
Mexico City is now said to have the most museums of any city in the world, with more than 150.
Top of my list was Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, the painter’s family home which she later shared with her husband, prominent artist Diego Rivera.
Standing in the queue at Kahlo’s house, I was surprised to learn a big percentage of visitors were not foreign tourists but Mexicans. A woman standing next to me confessed it was her sixth visit. She said her daughter was obsessed with Kahlo. It seems the spirited surrealist is a heroine of a lot of little girls as I spotted miniature lookalikes posing for photos against the house’s famous blue wall.
Inside, I was moved by Kahlo’s personal journey as I listened to an audio guide and made my way through her home. It felt as if it really was her voice I was hearing as the history of each room, work of art and personal item was given. I loved the meanings she attached to the colours she used in her work and home.
For example, the bold blue and red trim of the house were chosen because they are the colours of indigenous Mexico. For Kahlo, blue also meant electricity, love and purity.
Colour can be found in every corner of Mexico City. Unlike some other big cities, where its use seems reserved, Mexico City seems unafraid to splash it about, to rejoice as if stating that colour is life. From its crowded street markets to its animated people to the big, bold flavours of its food, the capital has an ability to express emotion honestly.
Emotion and drama continued that night with a visit to the lucha libre (“free fight”). Although only a 15-minute walk from the main tourist area, Arena Coliseo is not in the best of neighbourhoods. We were told not to dawdle and as we bought our tickets I saw armed guards on the arena’s steps.
“Don’t worry”, Cheo said. “They’re here for our protection.”
As we walked through the main doors, the atmosphere changed. Led to our seats by a smiling usher who offered us snacks and beer, we were seated among laughing families, some with babies bouncing on their knees. Couples on date night held hands as if at the movies.
One middle-aged man even sported a bright pink mask. “What we are doing is really Mexican,” Cheo proudly shouted above the crowd.
I had assumed lucha libre was more for tourists but, looking around, I could only see a few other people who didn’t look like locals. In fact, wrestling is the second most popular sport in Mexico, after soccer.
Performance seems like a better description though, as the antics of the masked fighters were even more staged than I had expected. But the crowd happily contributed performances of their own, swearing, yelling abuse and cheering on their heroes.
After the show, the wrestlers were mobbed like rock stars. Women cried as they tried to kiss their favourites and men posed for selfies.
The next day we visited the National Museum of History at Chapultepec Castle.
This location has been everything from an important Aztec site to a stately colonial-era home to a military academy after the Mexican War of Independence to perhaps its most well-known function, the home of Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota after the French invasion. This is when the castle acquired its current look, with European architects brought in to alter its style.
Strolling through the grand rooms and rooftop garden as a live orchestra played in the courtyard was impressive but the stunning views over the city were alone worth the trip.
In the historic centre, the Plaza de la Constitucion — or as the locals call it, Zocalo, meaning “base” — is one of the world’s biggest squares, dominated by the Presidential Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Following the sound of drums, we found a troupe of chanting Aztec dancers dressed in feathered headdresses and snakeskin. I began chatting to one of them and before long was convinced to have my aura cleansed by a shaman. The smoke of burning herbs brushed away evil forces and gave spiritual strength.
Drawn to explore more things Aztec, we walked to Templo Mayor, a temple thought to be the site where the eagle was seen sitting on a cactus. Amazingly, this temple, considered by the Aztecs to be the centre of the universe, was only unearthed by accident in 1978. The connection to colour also surfaced here: it was believed the four directions of the universe radiated from the temple and that each direction was associated with a colour.
The ferocity of the late afternoon sun showed no sign of waning so it was the perfect time to see some of Rivera’s famous political murals within the cooling marble walls of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Whether it was the after-effects of the heat or Rivera’s skill, when the time came to leave, I felt I had been mesmerised or bewitched by it. And I knew I had only scratched the surface.
Considered a safe haven from the drug wars plaguing other parts of the country, Mexico City seems to be shrugging off its notorious reputation for crime and entering a cultural renaissance.
Exciting, unapologetic, honest and beautiful, the city is a giant pinata, filled to the brim and just waiting to shower colour over anyone who is brave enough to take a swing.
- Expect to pay an average of $100-$150 per night for a four-star hotel. Suite/apartment style accommodation is from $150 per night and B&Bs are from $30 per night.
- Brunch at popular cafe Lalo! There’s usually a queue but you are compensated with free coffee while you wait. Order the chilaquiles for some Mexican home-style comfort food.
- Try the delicious “hipster tacos” and mezcal cocktails at modern taqueria and bar, Paramo.
- Frida Kahlo Museum, Palacio de Bellas Artes and Templo Mayor are open from Tuesday- Sunday. The latter two have free admission on Sundays. museofridakahlo.org.mx, palacio.bellasartes.gob.mx and templomayor.inah.gob.mx/english
- The main venues for lucha libre are Arena Mexico and the older Arena Coliseo. Tickets are available at the door or via Ticketmaster. arenamexico.com.mx and cmll.com
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