So it’s been a bit quiet over here on the blog lately. In part, this was due to my work commitments, which I explained here a while back. But then I also went on holiday for three weeks, and took a blogging break during that time. Now I’m back home in Scotland, and shit has hit the fan somewhat with the coronavirus outbreak. My tour guide work is completely gone, but I’m at least still getting some pay for managing the company from home – however, you may notice the new little coffee symbol to the right, which is a means for you to support my little blog if you enjoy it, to top up my income right now. I’ve never asked for this before, but it’s a very uncertain, slightly alarming situation for me and the rest of the company right now, so I’m just trying to do what I can to keep going, and take things a day at a time.
But, the whole reason I’m writing all this now is to preface the fact that I have a ton of extra free time now and therefore not excuse to write up all the blog posts about my trip, which involved 2 weeks in Mexico, followed by a week in Cuba. So, let’s stop talking about the virus and instead let me imagine I’m back on holiday right now – starting with Mexico City! I was travelling with a good friend (Cintia, her name will keep coming up in these posts no doubt), and we were doing an Intrepid tour in Mexico, then Cuba by ourselves. It took us an entire day to get there, on an 11 hour flight from London. We actually flew on the 14th of February, so with the timezone change, we had the longest Valentine’s Day ever, much to our disgust! We arrived late at night, so it was straight to bed once we got to the hotel.
We had a full day to ourselves before the Intrepid welcome meeting that evening, and we started pretty early – largely because we were six hours on UK time still! That served us well though, as we were heading out of the city to visit Teotihuacan, the ancient pyramids of the Pre-Hispanic people. There are day trips to the site, but these often incorporate other locations on the way, so we had researched how to get there on public transport ourselves – this was a very helpful blog
for it! It took about two hours, on the metro and then the bus – Mexico City is huge, so most of that is just driving through the city itself, past thousands of coloured houses on the hillsides. We managed to arrive not long after opening though, so it was still pretty quiet inside. The land that is now Mexico was once home to various different Mesoamerican groups of people, and it is actually unknown who built the city of Teotihuacan. Archaeologists have dated it back to around 400BC, and it is assumed that inner conflict led it to its ruin around 600AD, and it was abandoned by the mid-8th century. Later, the Mexica people (commonly known as Aztecs, but we were informed by our tour leader that this isn’t the correct name for them) took over the area, and built their city of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. However, they also found the ruins, which they viewed with reverence themselves as well, dubbing it Teotihuacan, “the place where men become gods”.
The city is centred around the Avenue of the Dead, which aligns with the north-south axis. Nearly all the Mesoamerican cultures we learned about on this trip had great knowledge of astronomy, and the cardinal compass points were very important for them. We entered through Gate 2, which is more or less in the middle of the avenue (tour buses drop off at Gate 1, at the southern end), directly in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. In most cases, the names used for the buildings within the Pre-Hispanic sites were given to them by archaeologists, as we don’t know what the original inhabitants called them. This pyramid may have been built in worship of the sun, but there’s also evidence it was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of water, fertility, and agriculture, and one of the most important gods across all Pre-Hispanic cultures (known by various other names). All pyramids across Mexico are sealed structures – offerings, including sacrifices, have been found inside, but once they were built, no one could enter again. Instead, there is often a temple on the top, which priests would climb up to for ceremonies and to make further offerings. Some sites no longer let visitors climb the pyramids, because of damage over time, but it’s still possible at Teotihuacan. We headed up the Pyramid of the Sun straight away, all 66m of it, to beat the heat and the crowds. It’s a pretty steep ascent up big stairs, although actually that made the descent even harder! From the top, we could see the whole site – or at least what’s been uncovered so far, as there’s likely more hidden below ground – and the surrounding hills and countryside, which is fairly dry and desert-like here.
After climbing down, we walked north up the Avenue of the Dead, passing various other smaller buildings on the way, which are assumed to be temples to other gods, and administrative or civic sites for the city. At the northern end is the Pyramid of the Moon, which is much smaller, at 43m high, and you can only climb halfway up this one. We like the view from here a lot though, as it looks back down the Avenue over the whole city, with the Pyramid of the Sun in the middle, a larger contrast compared to the smaller buildings around it. By the time we had climbed both pyramids, the site was starting to get much busier, so we were glad we went up them straight away. There were also so many people selling crafts, many of which were little ceramics that made bird call or jaguar cry noises – which got really annoying when you were hearing them every two seconds….
Anyways, we headed away from the crowds and south down the Avenue of the Dead, away from the main pyramids. We came to several open courtyard-like areas, with altars in the centre. These were surrounded by ‘superimposed’ buildings, which are now hidden below ground, and were generally residential complexes. We were able to go down inside one of them, which was a welcome cool relief from the midday sun outside! Many of the buildings were later built around or on top of – this is true for the pyramids as well, which often have multiple smaller pyramids inside (think like Russian dolls!). At the southern end, across the river that intersects the Avenue, we came to the Citadel, which is a huge open courtyard, containing elite residences, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. He is the feathered serpent god, one of the most important in Pre-Hispanic culture. It’s well worth the short climb up this temple though – it looks fairly small and unassuming at first, but hidden in the middle is an incredibly well-preserved facade, with carvings of jaguar and feathered serpent heads. Archaeologists have done a lot of restoration of the site in general, but this was definitely the most impressive part in terms of intricacy and detail! From there, we walked back up the Avenue to Gate 2 again, to catch the bus back to Mexico City.
We took the metro to the Zocalo, the main square in the city centre, which is one of the largest square in the world. It was full of people, especially as there was music playing in the bandstand, and lots of people dancing around it, which was fun to see. This is also where the Mexica city of Tenochtitlan originally used to be. It was actually built on an island, criss-crossed with canals, in a lake. When the Spanish conquistadors came to the country, they made the indigenous people demolish their own pyramids, and use the stone to build the new colonial city on top of their remains. They also filled in the lake, but because that earth is still very soft, many of Mexico City’s buildings – including the Cathedral next to the Zocalo – are slowly sinking down into the ground over time! Combined with earthquake activity in the region, some of them are pretty precarious, and you can actually see them leaning over into each other! We had a wander around the area, up and down the Avenue 5 de Mayo, where we stopped in a cafe for lunch.
We visited inside the Cathedral after that, which is simply gigantic in size, and filled with gold ornamentation. Mexicans are a fairly religious people, following Catholicism, so there is a major cathedral in almost every town we went to throughout the rest of the trip. They’re all pretty impressive, but honestly they did all start to look the same after a while. The size of this one made it more memorable though, as well as the bell towers, which are made in the shape of bells, not an easy feat to achieve. We then crossed over to the National Palace, the government headquarters of the country. It’s open to the public, mainly because of the murals inside, which were painted by Diego Rivera over eighty years ago now. They tell the story of Mexico’s history, from Pre-Hispanic times through to the 20th century, and are highly significant to the people and so have always been available for them to visit for free. We actually ended up coming back to these the next day, with our Intrepid tour leader, who told us more about them, so I’ll share a bit more of that further on in this post!
We returned to the hotel after that, in time for our Intrepid welcome meeting, with our leader and the rest of the group. I’ve used Intrepid a few times in the past, though it was the first time for Cintia, as I like having the safety of travelling in a group, the knowledge of a local guide, and the ease of not having to plan all the transport and accommodation myself. But they are small groups, where you get plenty of free time to do your own thing, and they’re highly focussed on responsible, sustainable tourism. We went out for dinner together, to have our first of many, many, many tacos on the trip.
Cintia and I split off this morning to do different things. She was desperate to go to the Frida Kahlo Museum, which was basically her number one thing for Mexico City, but what we didn’t know is that they sell out of tickets online days in advance. Our tour leader had advised that her best option in this case was to go first thing in the morning to queue up, and hope to get in. She decided to do this, but as I’m not such a big Kahlo fan as her, I opted out. She got in eventually, after waiting in line for three hours (people watching to keep entertained!), and she said it was well worth it for her, but agreed that I probably wouldn’t have gotten as much enjoyment from it.
Instead, I joined the rest of our group for a tour with our leader around the historic centre. We started by the Zocalo again, which was almost completely empty this time – a very rare occurrence according to the our leader, as there’s nearly always an event of some sort going on, requiring a stage or platform or the like. We saw the Cathedral again, but could only access part of it since it was Sunday and there was a Mass happening, which is why Cintia and I had gone in the day before already. We also saw the remains of Templo Mayor just behind it, which is the ruins of the lower levels of a Mexica pyramid – the rest of which was used to build the cathedral. It was actually hidden under other buildings for many years, and only discovered when they started building the metro in the 1970s, at which point they demolished the buildings to uncover it and it literally ‘rose up’ from the sunken ground without the weight on top of it! There were also models of Tenochtitlan beside it, where we learned about the early Pre-Hispanic history of the city, which I mentioned before.
We went into the National Palace again next, to see the River murals, and got a lot of history about Mexico in the process. Many of the murals along the walls show various scenes of Tenochtitlan, including temples, markets, crafts, and agriculture. The largest piece is on the staircase, and includes the Mexica people worshipping Quetzalcoatl; political figures and events from the Spanish invasion, subsequent colonial era, and the fight for Mexican independence; and depictions of 20th century Mexico, showcasing Rivera’s own communist political opinions, heavily criticising religion, and including his own wife, Frida Kahlo. We were a little surprised to see such critical work inside a government building, but our leader explained that he was given free reign when designing the piece, and that is fairly common and accepted in Mexico – it was certainly true that we saw dozens of political demonstrations, usually outside government and civic buildings, in almost every town on our trip! He told us so much history and detail about the murals, that I can’t possibly remember and repeat it all here. The last mural in the collection prominently features a blue-eyed baby, who is mixed race between Spanish and indigenous, representing the ethnicity of most modern-day Mexicans now.
His tour continued around the historic centre, to some of the most notable Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings in the area, many of which were built in the run-up 1910, commissioned by the president at the time, Porfirio Diaz (whose dictatorship also sparked the Mexican Revolution the same year), to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Mexican independence. These included the National Art Museum, the Palacio Postal (easily the fanciest post office I’ve ever seen!), and finished with the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an opulent Art Nouveau cultural centre – which is also sinking! We went inside it, which was a good way to see the Art Deco entrance foyer, and to buy tickets for the Folkloric Ballet that evening. The tour was finished then, so I returned to the hotel at this point to wait for Cintia to get back from the Frida Kahlo museum, which didn’t take too much longer.
We headed out again in the afternoon, this time walking west from our hotel, away from the historic centre, and through the Zona Rosa. This seemed liked a fairly affluent area to us, with tree-lined avenues and towering skyscrapers, certainly more modern than the city centre. We stopped for lunch along the way, before continuing on to Chapultepec Park. It’s a huge park, and was absolutely crammed with people, being a Sunday afternoon. We passed by dozens of market stalls and pedal boats on the pond. Our destination was beyond the park there, the National Museum of Anthropology, which had been highly recommended to us as the best museum in the city (and there’s a lot of them to pick from).
First of all, one of the most interesting things about it is the building itself. It’s quite a modern complex, centred around a square courtyard, so everything is very balanced and symmetrical. Inside the courtyard, there is a huge fountain column, with water pouring down from the roof above it, so it resembles a mix between a tree and a waterfall, is the best way to explain it I guess. The museum has lots of different wings on different Pre-Hispanic peoples and cultures. We wouldn’t have time to visit them all, so we prioritised the ones that we would be learning about on this trip. We started off in the Maya area, which I was pretty interested in anyway, having visited many Maya sites on my last Central America trip. It definitely proved to helpful later in the trip, especially when we got to Palenque, as the museum had many artefacts that were originally found there. We went to Teotihuacan exhibit as well, which was relevant after the previous day, and then the Mexica exhibit. This last one was helpful for me to fill Cintia in on some of the history she had missed from the tour that morning, and it definitely seemed appropriate to learn about the origins of the very city we were in. The sheer number of artefacts was staggering, and it would be impossible to remember and explain them all!
Later that evening, we met up with some of the group to go back to Palacio de Bellas Arts in the city centre for the Folkloric Ballet we had bought tickets for that afternoon. The show is a collection of different traditional dances from various parts of Mexico – our leader explained that you’d have to travel huge distances to see them all in their original locations, so this was a great way to get an overview all in one go. It would have been good to have known a bit more about each one, as there were some I preferred over others, but it was interesting to see some of the post-colonial Mexican culture, as a lot of the trip was focussed on the Pre-Hispanic cultures. The costumes were so fun and colourful, with plenty of swirling skirts, and the dancers were accompanied by a live mariachi band, who were very talented. It made for a different sort of evening out, and was just fun to watch.
We didn’t have a full day this time, as we would be departing Mexico City later that afternoon, but we still had a good few hours to fill in the morning first. Cintia and I headed into the historic centre again, in search of the Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles). This is an 18th century colonial building which, as the same suggests, is completely covered in blue and white tiles, made in Puebla
in the traditional Talavera style there. Inside, there’s a glass-roofed courtyard, with a balcony above, and murals lining the walls, which is all very pretty. They have a restaurant inside as well, so we tried some Mexican breakfast dishes. The restaurant is part of a larger chain, so it isn’t that special really, but it was a nice venue to have it in.
It’s located on the Avenue Francisco I Madero, a pedestrianised shopping street, which we walked along to reach our next location, the Museo de Estanquilo. This is a lesser-known place to visit in Mexico City I’d say, but nearly every museum is closed on a Monday, so it was one of the few options available to us. It houses an exhibit of photos of Mexico City residents from the 19th century, so it was interesting glimpse back at that historical period, which was the first century of Mexican independence. There were significant figures, like Porfirio Diaz, as well as soldiers and musicians and workmen, and many other everyday people, and the important events in their lives, such as first communion, weddings, and even funerals. The museum also has a roof terrace, with a cafe and bookshop, where you can look down at the street below (it’s not high enough to see much more of the city!). From there, we wandered back to the Zocalo, so Cintia could see the Templo Mayor, which she had missed the day before.
We still had plenty of spare time before we would be leaving, so we opted to walk back to the hotel, instead of taking the metro, just to see a little more of Mexico City. We were just walking along ordinary streets, past shops and schools and houses, but it lets you see a bit of how the citizens live there nowadays, away from the historic sites and tourist attractions. We saw yet another demonstration, which seem to be near-daily occurrences here (there were always plenty protestors picketed outside the National Palace). We also went into a bookshop Cintia had read about, which was pretty small but crammed with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and hundreds of old books on all sorts of topics. Most were in Spanish, so I was unlikely to be buying one, but we browsed a bit, before continuing back to the hotel.
We departed that afternoon for Puebla
, which is just a couple of hours outside of Mexico City – it’s actually a popular day trip option if you don’t have time to stay there. Mexico City is so huge that we only saw the very tip of what it has to offer. There are so many sites and museums and neighbourhoods that we didn’t have time for, but we managed to see a lot of the major sites in the short time we had. I’m very glad we had time for Teotihuacan, and the Anthropology Museum was definitely a standout as well. It was also a great location to start the trip, as we got a pretty good overview of Mexico’s history to build on throughout the rest of the trip.