Sprawled across an ancient lake bed 2,200 metres above sea level, Mexico City is a pulsating behemoth of a place, teeming with variety, mystery, filth, wonder and alleys full of lovely little morsels called tamales, amongst many, many other things. It’s a hulking, diverse animal, and I had the good fortune to smell its fur, feel its pulse and hear its cacophony of cries during the six months I lived there.
There were a few things that drew me to this vast metropolis. Firstly, Mexico City is one of the most important cultural centres in the world, as it was built over the Aztec empire of Tenochtitlan, decimated by Hernán Cortéz and his Spanish Armada. It also contains one of the world’s most eminent anthropological museums, while its streets house striking Mexican/French fusion architecture, spewed forth during the city’s tumultuous past.
There were other reasons I decided to go: I had a broken heart and needed to flee Sydney, and my university offered me an $AU8000 grant to study there. Mexico City, it seemed, was my destiny. So, armed with a copy of the Popol Vuh, the only Mayan book that wasn’t incinerated by the Spanish in the 16th-century, I boarded a plane and headed to the world’s third most populated city.
Shortly after arriving, I based myself at La Casa de los Amigos, a Quaker run hostel filled with many non-Quakers, like myself, who were mostly longer term travellers – people doing research, social work, volunteering, or people with a stronger interest in Mexico. I ended up in a room on the roof, and on many days I would climb to the top and gaze across the city skyline, taking in the energy of this wild, eclectic animal.
Getting around town
During my first few days wandering the streets I met a local bartender who told me, “look after yourself, because no-one else is gonna look after you in Mexico City.” Well, I found the people friendly and the city safe on the whole. Although, like many large cities in developing countries, there’s a distinct division of wealth. With rich universities and shanty towns, you’d expect there’d be problems. Fortunately I didn’t have any.
A good way to get about town is on the city’s metro system, which gets crowded. Keep your wits about you and you should have no problem. The collectivos, or microbúses, are also a handy form of transport, and traipsing through the city towards the Zocalo (the main square) makes for an interesting day out.
City cycling is generally okay, but be wary of any serious traffic. I used to be a bike courier in London and Piccadilly Circus has nothing on this place. I idiotically tried to ride from the CBD to my university, Universidad Iberoamericana, a distance of about 20 kilometres. You literally couldn’t squeeze between cars. I arrived an hour late for my Spanish class looking like I’d inched my way through the catacombs of a Chilean mine. My teacher thought I was crazy.
One thing I never forget is food, and Mexico City has some cheap, toothsome options. The tamales – maize (or corn) filled goodies mixed with vegetables or meat, wrapped in corn husks and steamed – are littered throughout the city’s alleys and sell for about a dollar. Superb. In restaurants, the salsas perched on tables are zesty bowls of love, while if you track down the local eateries such as I did, you’ll regularly be in cheap food utopia.
Mexico City contains more museums than any other city, however two stood out for me. The Palacio de Bellas Artes houses exquisite murals by Diego Rivera, although it’s the building itself which is a testament to the city’s clamorous past. Slated to be finished in six years, it took 30, largely due to political instability and the city’s soft soiled clay, as Mexico City rests on Lake Texcoco (the building has sunk four metres). Finished by two different architects, the building is a sunken mishmash of Neoclassical and Art Deco styles.
Of world renown is the Museo Nacional de Antropología. I loved the extensive collection of Mayan, Aztec and Zapotec artefacts on display here. Highlights include the Piedra del Sol (Aztec stone of the sun), an intricately carved basalt slab discovered under Mexico City plaza, and the tomb of an 8th-century Mayan ruler, Pacal. The collection is so big you’ll need several days to see it all.
As is often the case with interesting places, it’s not the big attractions, but the nuances within the layers of Mexico City that lend it its character – such as the feral squirrels darting about town and the gargantuan chess boards where old locals congregate. In all, it’s a whirlwind of a place, a colossal testament to the madness and splendour of life.