Highlights of Mexico (5): Mexico City

Day 2 (Maundy Thursday) was devoted to time in Mexico City.

The present site of Mexico City was developed by the Aztecs in 1325 when it was known as Tenochtitlan before being destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors of Hernan Cortés in 1521. The Spanish built a new capital which the United States briefly occupied at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. The city suffered a devastating earthquake in 1985.

Today Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world. The city proper has a population of around 9M (similar to London) but Greater Mexico City has a population of around 23M. The city is the economic powerhouse of the nation and almost a third of Mexico’s industrial output is concentrated in the metropolitan and surrounding areas.

Mexico City is situated in a plateau 2,240 metres (7,350 feet) above sea level and is surrounded by volcanic mountains and, as effectively a large bowl with an atmospheric cover, the city is prone to serious pollution. In 1992, the UN declared it the most polluted metropolis in the world. Since then, massive improvements have been achieved. Nevertheless, a week before our arrival, the city had its first air pollution alert in 11 years as smog was trapped in the valley and an emergency alert was in force for four days.

We spent all morning – over five hours – at the National Anthropology Museum as effectively the scene-setter for the rest of our trip which will involve visits to several ancient sites. We drove through the business district – lots of modern tall office blocks – to the nearby museum which is located in Chapultepec Park, one of the great urban parks of the world. The museum was opened in 1964 and is designed around a courtyard to replicate the style of Mesoamerican structures. It houses one of the finest anthropological and archeological collections on earth, so our guide Luis could only give us an overall of the major pre-Hispanic cultures with a particularly focus on the Aztec and Mayan civilisations.

It’s is noticeable that the Mesoamerican civilisations developed at similar times to those of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus and China and for the same reason – that there was suitable climatic conditions to sustain the growth of staple foods. This is why some historians have referred to these civilisations as being located in the “lucky latitudes”. In the case of the Mesoamerican cultures, the staple crop was maize.

Perhaps the most famous and impressive artefact in the museum is the huge Aztec stone of the sun. This was carved in 1479 but not found – near the cathedral in Mexico City’s main square – until 1790. It is almost 12 feet in diameter and weighs around 24 tons Some people have mistakingly called it a calendar but it is actually a sacrificial altar called a ‘temalocatl’. It is often called the calendar stone or the stone of the five eras because it has at its centre the sun surrounding by four squares representing previous flawed creations of our world. The sun is the fifth creation which is our current world.

After a buffet lunch at the museum, we spent the afternoon in and around Mexico City’s main square. We drove there through the historic centre of the city which has many statues and monuments commemorating heroes from Mexican history. The proper name for the square is Plaza de la Constitucion but locals call it Zocalo or ‘base’ because, in the 19th century, plans for a major monument to the constitution went no further than the pedestal. Indeed the term ‘zocalo’ has come to mean ‘main square’ throughout Mexico.

This one in Mexico City is among the larger squares in the world, measuring 220 metres (720 feet) from north to south and 240 metres (790 feet) from east to west. It is built on the site of the centre of pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan. On the north side is the Metropolitan Cathedral (close to where the Aztec temples and pyramids were located); on the east side, the Presidential Palace (where Montezema’s palace was located); on the south side, city government offices; and, on the south side, hotels and shops. We all felt we knew this square because we had all seen the latest James Bond film “Spectre” which features the Zocalo in a brilliant opening segment. In fact, years ago, I set part of one of my short stories in the square.

The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the Presidential Palace to see the frescoes of Diego Rivera (1886-1957). If you have seen the wonderful film “Frida” about Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo, you will have seen scenes of Rivera creating these huge and detailed representations of Mexican history from the pre-Aztec period to the 20th century and depicting an eclectic range of characters all the way from Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés to German philosopher Karl Marx.

As it was Maundy Thursday, there a raucous ringing of bells from the Metropolitan Cathedral to announce the holding of 5 pm mass. This is one of the largest and oldest cathedrals in Latin America with construction starting in 1525 but extending over three centuries which explains the mixture of styles. When we went inside, we observed the start of the mass which was an impressive audiovisual experience with around 200 robed officiants parading to the gold-embellished altar with candles and incense plus a very loud organ playing and the whole performance shown on a set of large television screens with multiple camera positions plus panning and zooming shots.

We were back at our hotel at 6 pm after a full day of nine and a half hours during which the jet lag had continued to work its wonders.


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