Mexico has a problem: its capital, Mexico City, is sinking, at the rate of a metre every 1,000 years.
Mexico City is the home of beautiful artefacts, shows, archaeological sites, and is a well-preserved centre of culture. In addition, with its recent currency devaluation, visiting it is relatively inexpensive. While the tourist looking to travel to Central America usually envisions Acapulco or Cabo San Lucas as perfect vacation spots, one who is more interested in the culture and history of this area could be much disappointed by these popular choices. The true centre of Mexico, legally and culturally, is Mexico City, or, as it is known to its 16 million inhabitants, Mexico, Distrito Federal, meaning Federal District, commonly known as Mexico, DF.
The Origins of Mexico City
Mexico City's beginnings go back to the time of the Aztecs1. The Aztecs were not native to the area where Mexico City now stands. The tribe are said to have travelled from the mythical village of Aztlan2, around the 12th Century. They stopped at a point where they found a bird perched on a cactus with a snake in it's mouth, and there they founded the city of Tenochitlan3. To this day, the symbol of the Aztecs - the bird perched on a cactus with the snake writhing it its mouth - is used as the symbol of the true origins of Mexico, and can be found on the national flag.
Places to Visit
Bearing in mind such historical beginnings, one of the first places you should visit in Mexico DF is Xochimilco4 Lake, a site where the Aztecs used ingenious farming methods, despite the water-saturated land and constant threat of flooding. The lake has so many islands on it that it looks like an immense network of rivers. The incredible thing about the islands is that they are actually man-made: so the farmland is literally floating on the water and is held together by wooden planks to keep the soil dry and stable. What is so fun about seeing these islands is that you are taken around by a 'pegger5' which makes for nice quiet way to travel.
Another wonderful place to visit is Chapultepec6 Park, which is divided into three parts - the amusement park, the zoo, and the castle. Pass up the zoo - the animals are in tiny cages, are fairly unhappy, and it's rather depressing. The amusement park is nothing special, but there's roller coasters, shows, 'lose your lover, find another' mazes, and the like. The real treat at the park is the Chapultepec Castle, home of the Great Maximilian von Hapsburg, and it's utterly spectacular. As soon as you step into the grounds of the palace, you'll feel as if you're in heaven. All the ostentatious belongings of the great man are still kept there - the original furniture, clothing, paintings, and jewellery. Occasionally, at the very top of the castle, you can catch theatre students performing classic Spanish works, which is really good fun, even if you don't know the language.
Pyramids of Teotihuacan
About an hour away from Mexico City are the mysterious Pyramids of Teotihuacan7 - no one knows who built them: carbon dating shows it definitely wasn't the Aztecs, and there are no human remains around, which means they were deserted long before the Aztecs even came anywhere near the area. It's not recommended to take your children to the pyramids, because not only is it hot and dry, but once you see the pyramid of the Sun you will immediately feel an urge to conquer it, and anyone with short legs, such as children, is going to blanch at the sight of the steep steps and the rough rope handrail. Oh and by the way, it is said that a curse is put on anyone to dares to climb to the top of the pyramid of the Moon God, but you could give it a go.
Other Places of Interest
Some other places you should visit include the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, which is a museum built on the site of the most important Aztec building which was demolished by the Spanish. It houses a random collection of exhibits such as a pure gold Aztec calendar four feet in diameter.
For a more modern view of Mexico, Diego Rivera's murals in the National Palace can be found at Zocalo*. Also on an artistic theme, the controversial artist Frida Kahlo has her own museum, located in what was her home and studio. The Papalote Children's museum is also worth a look, but adults can only visit if they are accompanied by a child. It's got attractions such as remote-controlled airplanes and a nightmare eater, and all exhibits are hands-on.
Tips for Travellers
If you go to Mexico City by yourself or just with your family you can see a whole lot more than if you travel in a tour group. But, if you are travelling alone, you have to fend for yourself for food, shelter and transportation, and it helps if you can speak Spanish. So here are a few tips to help you out:
Where to Find Food
Don't eat at well-known establishments such as McDonalds or Denny's, or buy food from street vendors. The best way to go is either to make your own food (yes, they have TV dinners in the supermarkets) or buy from one of the small indoor shops, which have got some of the best food. If you'd like to try actual Mexican food (as opposed to Yo quiero Taco Bell) try a torta, which is like a sandwich. The correct way to ask for one would be to sayPor favor, quiero una torta. Which means, 'I'd like a torta, please'.
Heard about the horrible Mexico City traffic? Don't worry. There is a method to the madness and a way around it. The vehicle distribution is something like this - 30% personal cars, 40% taxis, 25% public buses, 5% bicycles. Most of this traffic is crammed around cute roundabouts which are placed every 20 metres or so, although some traffic uses the pavement instead. Each roundabout has a beautiful statue on it representing a different milestone in Mexico's history.
A word of warning - do not take a taxi in Mexico City. Not only are they slow and not very clean, but they are liable to go around the same roundabout 15 or 20 times without you knowing due to the immense traffic blocking your view, and the driver will probably charge you 10 pesos (approximately US$1) each time. Instead, take a bus, which don't go around roundabouts at all and so you can actually get to places.They're also inexpensive, and stop at every block. In addition, bus routes go via residential streets and outdoor markets, so it's an excellent way to catch a glimpse of everyday life in Mexico City. If you need to go further afield, the subway isn't that bad, just be quick on your toes and make sure you don't look scared.