Life in Santa Barbara is heavily influenced by our historic roots as part of Mexico and Spain. We embrace the food, the architecture, the festivals, and of course the people and the Spanish language as part of life here. Yet most of our friends were puzzled when we told them we were going to Mexico City for Spring break. Cabo, Acapulco, Tulum, San Miguel de Allende - yes. But in their minds Mexico City conjured up notions of cartels, crowds, and smog. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps we were being naive to think Mexico City offers what we were seeking - interesting history, food, people, art - without all the bad stuff. Well I’m happy to report we were right and the naysayers were wrong! It is cheap to fly to ($310 round trip in coach), the food is terrific and inexpensive, and our hotel was very affordable. Here’s a rundown of our 5 day experience.
This massive square in the Centro Historico is a logical starting point for first time visitors. It’s surrounded by grand structures of historical significance and is a central gathering spot for locals. On our first foray to the square we experienced a “communal wedding” of couples under a big tent with food, music, and onlookers. Apparently this regular goodwill event is a political gesture by the governor aspiring for re-election. The Catedral Metropolitana (National Cathedral) is the centerpiece of the square, built partially from volcanic rock Cortes and the conquistadors of 1521 scavenged from the Aztec pyramids. The surrounding Spanish colonial buildings were constructed on top of what archeologists believe are nineteen pyramids, no doubt contributing to the obvious tilt of many of these structures. Inside the Cathedral are two enormous pipe organs and a wealth of chapel niches.
Nearly adjacent to the Cathedral is the one exposed Aztec pyramid called Templo Mayor. This is well worth a guided tour to begin to understand the significance of what you’re looking at. For starters this exact spot is thought to be the center of pre-Mexico City known as Tenochtitlan, when the place was literally an island in a lake. The pyramid was enlarged seven times and remnants of the ancient walls are still evident. The adjacent museum (Museo Del Templo Mayor - 65 pesos) houses the artifacts unearthed from the Templo Mayor since 1978, when utility workers accidently unearthed the pyramid.
On the east side of the Zocalo is the enormous Palacio Nacional (National Palace). This government building is open to the public, and after careful screening (be prepared to surrender your passport) you’re allowed to enter the interior courtyard and tour the historic murals on the interior building walls, including the famous “Epic of the Mexican People” by Diego Rivera. Well worth a visit. A guide would be very helpful if you’re seriously interested in deciphering the myriad scenes and figures.
About 30 miles northeast of Mexico City and an hour’s drive is Teotihuacan, the site of what was once the largest metropolis in the Western hemisphere and the commercial hub of meso-America. What remains today are the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon and many temples arranged in a grid layout. The site is well worth a half-day excursion which, unfortunately, often involves side trips to kitschy souvenir shops when booked through the tour companies. The site spans many hundreds of acres, and you will walk quite a bit (and climb steep stone steps if you’re looking to “bag” the top of the Sun Pyramid). The tours can run $130 per person including transportation to and from the city and the entrance fee. Oddly, our guide, referred to us by the front desk of our hotel, did not accompany us inside the site which is where we’d have benefitted the most! We suggest you research ahead of time and reserve a well informed professional guide or tour group. Consider hiring a private guide so you can opt out of the cheesy side trips
Bosque de Chapultapec (“grasshopper park”), the largest urban park in Latin America, is surrounded by upscale neighborhoods west of the city center. There are many sites worth visiting at Chapultapec. First and foremost is the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology - 70 pesos) whose 12 halls house the country’s most precious pre-Hispanic artifacts from 2300 BC to 100 AD. The Teotihuacan, Aztec, and Maya halls are a treasure trove of ancient art and sculptures. Not to miss!
We struck up a conversation with a local at dinner, who insisted one of the “must see” sites is the Castillo de Chapultapec (Chapultapec Castle - 70 pesos). The former residence of several presidents is high on a hill with terrific views of the city. The setting is beautiful, but the interior of this museum will draw you in with fabulous murals, stained glass, and period furnishings. While we chose to guide ourselves throughout the estate, the security guards are positioned strategically around the grounds to ensure that you follow the somewhat byzantine tour route.
Art Along the Paseo de la Reforma
This grand boulevard, modeled after the Champ d’Elysee in Paris, runs through Chapultapec Park. Along the tree lined median close to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia were several striking public art displays which we stumbled upon on our walk to the museum. Our first encounter was with these large scale stick sculptures of ants carrying various objects. Just beyond the ants were a series of bronze sculptures that we discovered were Salvador Dali originals. All of this was for public enjoyment courtesy of the Carlos Slim foundation.
About 7 miles south of Chapultapec Park is the area known as Coyoacan, once a separate village and now a borough of Mexico City. Well worth a visit for the striking cubist architecture and the fantastic art works is the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera Y Frida Kahlo (Museum House Studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo - 30 pesos).
We skipped the famous “blue” Frida Kahlo museum because of the long line but we did drop into the Museo Leon Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Museum - 40 pesos). Well worth a visit to learn about the intriguing storyline of Trotsky’s escape from Stalin and brief connection to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Colonia Roma Norte
There are charming neighborhoods adjacent to Chapultapec Park like Polanco, La Condesa, and Roma Norte. Since our hotel was located in Roma Norte, we spent our time strolling this neighborhood with its very walkable tree-lined boulevards and varied storefronts. Interspersed within the colonial era architecture are buildings designed in the art deco style.
We stayed at Hotel La Casona (Durango 280, Col. Roma hotellacasona.com.mx tel (55) 5286-3001), a wonderful Swiss/Mexican family owned boutique hotel housed in a colonial era building. We paid $157 per night excluding meals. The staff was very friendly and the front desk was very helpful and spoke fluent English. The room was spare but comfortable and clean.
While the food in the hotel was just okay there are many restaurants within easy walking distance including the well known Contramar seafood restaurant, and small taquerias like Taqueria La Negra where $30 gets you six delicious tacos and 4 beers.
We walked a lot, but to cover long distances we used taxis from established stands (known as Sitios) or taxis arranged by our hotel. We got wise two days into our trip and started using Uber. The experience was every bit as good or better than in the US - clean, newer model cars and courteous, attentive drivers. We highly recommend it as it was cheaper than cabs with very little wait time.
Dinners in the better restaurants ran us only $100 or so even with drinks and dessert. Flying direct from LAX takes only four hours and cost us $310 round trip in coach, making this an easy escape. All told the trip cost us around $2500, and.we’re already looking into a return trip to this wonderful country.