Mexico City – home of the Aztecs and Frida

Friday 20 – Thursday 26 March

Another farewell! We left Ev & Steph at Puerto Vallarta airport, as they prepared to fly home. How special to spend a few days with them. If all goes well we will see them in New York in August as Steph starts a masters at the University of Columbia in Education Research.

Our hotel was on the Paseo de la Reforma, a beautiful road lined by a variety of trees. Amongst them were Jacarandas providing a dazzling purple to the streetscape. For both Bruce & me it brought back various memories of Australia.

The next day we took the Turibus to get a feel of the city. It was disappointing. Information on sites was very limited. I am sure we passed many sites of interest that weren’t included. The English description we got from our headphones was competing with the Spanish descriptions over the speakers. Some of the streets we travelled through were less than interesting, including one street full of derelict houses and rubbish dumps. Not recommended.

A highlight of our visit to Mexico was the Museo Nacional de Antropología. It covered man’s development from homo erectus to the period of the Aztec’s and much of it was displayed in small dioramas showing lifestyle in the different stages of man’s development, which were excellent.

The museum has many doors leading to outdoor displays and an opportunity to grab a breath of fresh air in such an intense museum.

The next main display was about life in the Mexican valley. Covering the various tribes who had lived there and their contribution to managing the environment.

The valley had a huge salt lake that over years was channelled. Islets were built where crops could be grown and aqueducts built to bring fresh water from other sources.

Many temples of pyramid structure were built for worship and sacrifice. Human sacrifice was common.

This is how Cortez found the Mexican valley in 1519. It was a quick and easy defeat of the Aztec’s with most of the population annihilated by disease in the following years.

There were rooms representing other parts of Mexico where we could quickly see how different the cultures and artefacts were.

It was a long walk from our hotel to the museum and it was Sunday. Mexico City shuts this important avenue to powered vehicles. Foot traffic, bikes of all shapes and sizes, roller blades and skateboards are all fair game. And the street was busy!  As it happened the same ‘slow’ traffic had taken over on Saturday afternoon for an extra monthly closure. Imagine shutting down Punt Road or St Kilda Road?

Monday is ‘museum closed day’ so we had to be inventive about our touring. We took a particularly long walk into the centre of town and around the major sites.

It seemed that the fire brigade were practising for some sort of event as they marched back and forth in front of the Monumento a la Revolución. Here the tombs of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary heroes are buried. It sits high in the cityscape with a glistening dome and is brightly lit at night.

We wandered up Avenue Juárez, firstly to admire the Alameda Central gardens and the beautiful white monument to Hemiciclo a Juárez.

Next to the park is the Palacio de Bellas Artes with a fine manicured garden in front. We discovered the best viewing was from Sears department store across the road.

From here we wandered up the pedestrian street of Francisco I Madero, where spruikers were out enticing the passers-by to buy. They were representing jewellery, coffee shops, bars and optometrists. In fact it seemed that all the jewellers and optometrists were concentrated in this area. They didn’t bother the tourists, we were clearly unlikely candidates to purchase what they had on offer.

At the top of the pedestrian street is the Zócalo (meaning plinth). It was the main ceremonial centre for the Aztecs. The main square, Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square) had a giant skeleton display in it which was being prepared for the newest James Bond movie that is currently being filmed in the city.

The square is surrounded by various buildings that have been built and added to over the years, such as the Federal District buildings to the south, parliamentary buildings to the west and the Palacio Nacional which is home to the Federal Executive. It was built on and using the materials from the palace of Moctezuma II. On the northern side is the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City, built atop a major Aztec sacred site. Just behind the cathedral is the Templo Mayor, which the Aztecs believed was the centre of the universe. This has been preserved to a certain extent.

So Mexico City, like many other cities we have seen, is built on top of of a previous culture. Of course the aim here is to ensure the population convert to the new life style as quickly as possible. Destroy their temples and build on top, so the places of worship are still in the same place – they are just another ‘brand’.

Every city has its distinct features and it is fun looking out for these. Probably the first thing I noticed was the shoe shiners. They mostly had carts which were packed up at night, consisting of a raised chair for the client and a stool for the shiner. They are well patronised by both men and women. I started to notice how many well dressed business people had shiny shoes.

It’s a busy city – lots of people on the streets. But then the population of Mexico City is about the same as the population of Australia. But it is mostly a low rise city. There are a few taller buildings provide a ‘skyline’ on the main avenues.

To cater for transport, there is a metro as well as the metro bus. The metro buses have doors you would have to scale were it not for the massive platforms along their dedicated routes. Think of it as a diesel fuelled tram. There are also lots of smaller buses, but no bus stops. There must be a special way to wink at the driver when you want to hop on. Bus routes are scrawled on a piece of cardboard in the bus window.

Of course that lake – it smells. Frequently you walk over a drain and catch the aroma – it isn’t pleasant. Not only does it smell, but building are sinking. The Aztecs had devised a way to work with the lake, but Cortez simply built over the top. No foresight there!

The other thing that we noticed was the massive police presence. There were national police, city police, traffic police, tourist police. Many of the police were armed with guns or rifles and wore flak jackets. It was nothing to see an armed policeman wandering down the street, swinging his weapon as he walked.

The next day we took a tour to see the pyramids of Teotihuocán but that’s another story.

On our final day we followed the art of Mexico City’s most famous and popular artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kohla. Firstly we visited the museum where Diego’s famous mural ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central’ is housed. It was originally on a wall in a hotel that collapsed in an earthquake. The mural survived and is now housed in its own museum. What is special about this mural is the history of Mexico, starting with Hernan Cortez with blood on his hands. It traces some of the big events and important people, including his various lovers, one of whom is Frida Kahlo. Diego appears more than once but as a child.

We then challenged the metro to go to Frida’s ‘blue house’. It was raining, which added depth of colour to the beautiful colours both inside and out.

Frida suffered from polio as a child and then was seriously injured in a bus accident, leaving her permanently disabled. She took up painting during her convalescence. To support her broken spine she wore corsets of plaster of Paris and of leather. She created a dress style that hid her imperfections and also related back to her mother’s Mexican roots.

The museum showed a little of her work, concentrating on her design and unfinished pieces, as well as Diego’s work. Her kitchen, workshop and bedrooms were featured, as well as the bedroom where Leon Trotsky lived when he was seeking asylum in Mexico. There was an exhibition of the clothes, giving a good impression of how she merged style and practicality given her injuries.

Frida’s style was colourful with many portraits.

The metro journey was interesting, crowded and smelly. We always feel good about taming an underground system. On the other hand the taxi from the metro to Africa’s house provided us with an interesting insight into taxi driver’s tricks.