By Karlie Marrazzo
The 737 began its final descent into Mexico City shortly after midnight; the jet-black sky preventing me from seeing my first glimpse of the largest city in North America sprawled out below. Mexico is one of the top destinations for Canadians year after year, yet it was my first time visiting the country. The majority of those tourists plop themselves down beside the resort pool and don’t move for a week, but our plans were different. My travel partner and I are avid travelers and some of our vacation destinations in the past have garnered quizzical looks, and Mexico City was no exception. The city is a hub of Mexican culture, the home of brilliant examples of many architectural styles; it claims to have the most museums in the world, is a Mecca of Mexican cuisine, and is near to some of the most important ruins around. Despite all of this, it is often dismissed as a travel destination due to preconceived misconceptions about safety and culture.
After a wild taxi ride from the airport to the trendy Roma neighbourhood, we checked into our Airbnb and crashed for the night. The next morning we were ready to hit the pavement and discover our surroundings. The temperature was already 17C at breakfast time, paradise for two Canadians in January. Locals and their dogs walked by bundled up from head to toe in hats, scarves and boots, with the pups in jackets to match. I had never seen so many well-dressed dogs anywhere in my life.
To get acclimated to the city, we headed to the historic centre of town to check off the most important tourist sites before moving on and doing our own thing. We peeked into the Palacio Bellas Artes, a breathtaking example of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture with a pristine Art Deco interior. The otherwise bare Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, proudly displayed the largest flag I have ever seen. We passed the day wandering streets lined with art deco buildings, fading signs, and lunching on the first of dozens of tacos. That evening we met a friend from an online travel group for dinner and shared stories from our travels while savouring fantastic fish tacos and Mexican beer. Our first full day in Mexico drew to a close and we walked back to our apartment long after the sun had set, sharing our thoughts on the city and looking forward to the week ahead. It felt perfectly comfortable and casual, as if we were walking home in Lisbon, Reykjavik or Rome. Prior to our departure, friends, family and co-workers exclaimed with worry when they found out we were traveling to Mexico City. Remarks ranged from the ignorant “Mexico City? Why? Do you want to get kidnapped or worse?” to the naïve “Do they even have a beach there?” to “I hope you come back alive.”
Sunday morning was bright and crisp. The streets of Condessa were nearly bare as we strolled to a tiny café for breakfast while the rest of Mexico City was still behind closed doors. We feasted on chilaquiles, tortilla chips bathed in green salsa and topped with fried eggs, while chatting with the incredibly friendly café owner. Her husband happened to be obsessed with Canada and the idea of visiting the Rocky Mountains, a place near and dear to me. After stuffing ourselves silly, we came to Chapultepec Forest, a massive urban park that act as the lungs, and heart, of the city. Rivers of people flowed around us as we swam upstream through the park. Stalls lined every inch of sidewalk, vendors offering up wrestling masks, t-shirts, shoes, bags, mountains of candy, all kinds of food and any other souvenir imaginable.
We made it through the crowd, past the imposing Altar de la Patria to the Museum of Modern Art. The circular building is modest in size but holds works by an impressive list of artists – big names like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. The main collection introduced us to compelling Mexican artists like Remedios Varo, Juan O’ Gorman, David Alfano Siqueiros and Antonio Suaro. I was absorbed by Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), a large-scale painting that is one of the few Kahlo pieces in the museum. The most striking and disturbing piece in the gallery was Nuestra Maravillosa Civilización by Juan O’ Gorman. It depicts a hellish, post-apocalyptic world on fire, heavy with themes of religion, greed and corruption. We further enjoyed a wonderful exhibit from Mexican sculptor Francisco Toledo, and an exhibit from American photographer Lee Miller, which showcased portraits of famous painters, including Picasso, and unusual images taken at the end of World War II at Buchenwald concentration camp.
Mexico is rich in archaeological and anthropological treasures, and the National Museum of Anthropology, itself an architectural masterpiece, boasts an incredible, extensive collection of artifacts. We made our way from room to room, trying to absorb facts while being visually assaulted by thousands of pristine pieces from pre-Columbian civilizations such as Mayan, Olmec and Aztec, to name only a few featured there.
Horror stories abound from travelers to Mexico coming down with a case of Montezuma’s Revenge, a cheeky term for traveler’s diarrhea. In anticipation of this, my medicine bag was packed to the brim and I was ready for anything. I woke up on Monday with an unsettled stomach, but was able to nip it in the bud before it turned into anything traumatic. Nonetheless, we took it easy that day, visiting another icon of Mexico, the Angel of Independence, a victory column topped with a golden angel in the centre of a traffic circle surrounded by shiny glass skyscrapers and city life.
Although we stayed in the centre of the sprawling city, most of the things we wanted to see required half an hour of travel time. We far surpassed our 10,000 steps per day, at least doubling it, pounding the pavement and riding the extensive metro system. Each and every metro car was packed like a can of sardines, the air stifling and hot. One day I decided to ride on one of the cars designated for women and children only, and was treated to a nearly empty and silent metro experience, with the exception of a sudden stop that resulted in a tiny Mexican grandmother ending up in my lap and breaking into a fit of laughter.
The metro brought us to the Mercado de Artesanias La Ciudadela, home to over 350 vendors from all over Mexico and the first market of its kind in the country. The atmosphere was calm and quiet, unlike markets I have visited in other parts of the world such as Morocco and Turkey. Vendors did not call out or hassle us, which took away the anxiety of browsing with someone watching your every move. I was on the hunt for Mexican blankets and bought two – a rainbow patterned one and one in muted browns and black. Another favourite stall was packed with interesting tiles and cool skulls. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping in Condessa, scoring sweet fashions from local designers.
The next day promised to be a full one. We were visiting two archaeological sites – the mega popular ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the lesser known warriors of Tula.