Mexico City: 5 Things That Blew Us Away
Mexico City is an extraordinary feast for all the senses. From the city's enthralling cultural and art history to the glorious aromas of street tacos (not to mention incredible taste), it is a buzzing metropolis that stimulated every square inch of our travel-loving hearts.
Mexico City had long previously been a place we dreamed of visiting and it was the city's captivating energy that left us blown away by how much one city could really embody. Here are five things that had our jaws dropping:
1. History - The Heart of an Ancient Capital
Mexico City's origins began as the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, which at its peak in the 15th century dominated the majority of present day Mexico as the capital of the Aztec empire. Tenochtitlan was located on an island in the now dried-up Lake Texcoco and was connected to the mainland using numerous causeways. With over 220,000 residents, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the western hemisphere and twice the size of London and Rome.
Laying at the centre of the city were several temples dedicated to important gods, the most imposing being the Templo Mayor, or Main Temple. This was the heart of the Aztec empire and centre of Tenotichlan's religious and political life. The city featured unseen advancements in engineering, ecology, agriculture and medicine. For this reason, many historians refer to it as the 'Impossible City'.
In 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived on the shores of Mexico beginning the Spanish conquest, an event that would forever change the course of history for the Americas. The Aztecs interpreted Cortés and his men as centaur-like demigods because horses, non-native to North America, were creatures the Aztecs had never seen before. Invited in with fortune and gifts, the Spanish razed and conquered Tenochtitlan, spreading small pox and ending the Aztec empire. This downfall paved inroads for the Spanish influence on Mexico until it's eventual independence from Spain in 1821. The Spanish destroyed the Aztec's Templo Mayor and used the stones to build a monumental cathedral in its place, the Catedral Metropolitana. The cathedral still stands today as the oldest and largest cathedral in all of Latin America, though ironically is slowing sinking into the soft ground of (the once) Lake Texcoco.
What was once the heart of the Aztec empire remains today the heart of Mexico City. The Zócalo, or historic centre, is one of the largest city squares in the world and is bordered by the cathedral, various federal buildings and the Palacio Nacional. This National Palace was home to the ruling classes of Mexico after the fall of the Aztecs and today is the seat of the federal government. In the centre of the square flies a massive Mexican flag that is ceremoniously raised and lowered each day.
The exact location of the Aztec temples was believed to be lost for nearly 500 years until 1978 when electrical workers performing construction on the cathedral discovered a 9-tonne oval stone with magnificent reliefs. This prompted a major excavation project adjacent to the cathedral that levelled an entire city block to unearth the heart of Mexico's ancient capital. It was a discovery that some say was comparable to the City of Troy. Visitors today can tour the foundations of the Templo Mayor and visit the museum containing over 7000 Aztec artifacts.
The Greater Mexico City population sits at just over 21 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. Our previous experiences with large metropolitan cities has typically been characterized by interactions with locals that are hurried and at times, unfriendly. The residents of Mexico City welcomed us with their warm hearts and beaming smiles as if we had arrived in a small town. We danced to Mariachi with locals at a bar, spoke with many students, and even helped them complete one of their english course assignments. Here, the saying that a place is defined by its people could not be more of a compliment.
3. Street Food
It could be possible to spend an entire week in Mexico City eating street food and never eat the same thing twice. The incredible abundance of options is enough to satisfy any foodie's dream. Juice carts and fresh fruit stands overflow in papaya, watermelon, strawberries and pineapple. Steaming tamales, sizzling tortillas and fresh pastries waft through the streets - and that's just breakfast! Bags of chips and crispy fried pork skin are sold drizzled in hot sauce. Grilled ears of corn, tortas (hot grilled sandwiches), quesadillas and tostadas filled with mushrooms, chicken, beef, chorizo and potato will satisfy any visitor's appetite.
Our real quest was to find the ultimate street tacos. We didn't have to search far to find parades of carts offering any and every part of the pig, cow and chicken prepared in every way you can imagine - stewed (aguisado), barbecued (barbacoa), roasted on a vertical spit (al pastor) and cooked on a griddle (a la plancha). Once you are handed your sizzling filling choice served on a steaming soft corn tortilla, the real fun begins. Toppings include red and green salsas, avocado-based salsas, mixtures of chopped onions and roasted chiles, pickled onions and peppers, and bowls of fresh cut limes. Some stands offer french fries or fried potatoes and grilled pineapple to garnish your tacos. All this will set you back anywhere between 50 cents to 1 dollar per taco. It's taco heaven folks. Simple as that.
4. Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo: Timeless Artists of Mexico City
As two of Mexico's most prominent artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's work and relationship are an integral part of the history of Mexico City. While Rivera was a world-renowned artist who gained notoriety for developing grand murals that spanned the width of buildings and often incorporated political messages, Frida Kahlo's work was intensely personal. Nearly all of her most notable paintings were self portraits based on tragedy and pain she experienced throughout her life.
Diego Rivera (1866 - 1957) was commisioned to do large paintings all around the world and was a major influence in the Mexican mural art movement. The National Palace in Mexico City contains ten of his murals, including the awe-inspiring 'The History of Mexico' painted in the palace's stairwell between 1929 and 1935. It details the struggles of the Mexican people from the fall of the Aztecs to the rule of dictators before independence. The Diego Rivera Mural Museum houses another famous mural, 'Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park' where hundreds of characters from Mexican history gather for a stroll through Mexico City's most famous park.
As a child, Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954) was diagnosed with polio and at the age of 18 was in a horrific accident that left her in constant pain. Her surrealist style of painting became a way for her to explore questions of identity and existence. She became the first Latin American to have her work in the Louvre and was featured in Vogue Paris for her bold fashion style full of vivid patterns and colours.
Diego and Frida's home, known as Casa Azul for its brilliant blue exterior, is now a museum that gives visitors an intimate look at her life and work as an artist. Their home, left almost exactly as it was after Frida's death, displays early sketchbooks and diaries, the elaborately decorated kitchen and Frida's studio overlooking the garden. The museum also houses an exceptional exhibit of her dresses, medical corsets and braces.
5. Teotihuacan - The Lost City
Teotihuacan is an ancient city that lies about 40km outside of modern-day Mexico City and is the site of some of the most extraordinary monuments in the Americas. In the fourth and fifth centuries it was the sixth largest city in the world and today two colossal pyramids remain with very little information left about the civilization that lived there and how they disappeared.
By the time the Aztecs discovered Teotihuacan it had been long since abandoned. Without any information as to how the pyramids got there, they believed they were built by the gods and the site of the sun and moon's creation.
Archeologists believe the city was established in 200 B.C. and the pyramids built around 200 A.D. No one has figured out why the Teotihuacan civilization disappeared so suddenly (around 750 A.D.). Some researchers believe the city was burned by invaders, others think it was due to a change in climate that made the dry conditions inhospitable.
The site is laid out along the Avenue of the Dead with the largest pyramid, Pyramid of the Sun, about halfway along the avenue and the slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon at the end. The Pyramid of the Sun is 230 feet (70 meters) high and 740 feet (225 meters) long making it similar in size as the Pyramid of Menkaure in Giza, Egypt. Both pyramids can be climbed, taking steep sets of stairs to a breathtaking view at the top.
Teotihuacan is open to the public year round and can be accessed by public transit from Mexico City's Terminal Autobuses del Norte (North Bus Terminal) on an hour-long bus ride costing approximately 100 pesos round trip (April 2016). We recommend going to Teotihuacan in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds and the heat. For more information on planning your visit check out the WikiTravel page.
Here are a few more of our favourite photos: