La Impresionante Ciudad de Mexico

I am long overdue in writing a recap of my brief but visually packed recent visit to Mexico City. I have been in Ajijic, Jalisco for nine days now and will follow this post with a some initial reactions to a charming place I may well be calling home for the foreseeable future.

First of all, some interesting stats. CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico), as it’s sometimes abbreviated, is the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, with over 21 million residents living in the metro area. The capital of Mexico, it sits at 7350 feet in elevation and serves as the center of the country’s culture and economics. Mexico was founded in 1325 by the native Mexica people and has existed by its current name since 1524. As of this year, it has formally dropped the “D.F.” (Distrito Federal) from its name and is set to become the country’s 32nd federal entity, with the same level of autonomy as a state.

During this visit, I stayed in the famed Zona Rosa, an area that was considered for decades as the most fashionable, upscale part of the metropolis. Following a devastating earthquake in 1985 that did billions of dollars of damage and cost over 5,000 lives, the Zona Rosa fell into disrepair. It’s still in recovery mode, yet many of the older, elegant hotels have survived, including the lovely Geneve (Facts – The Hotel Geneve) in which I had stayed with my parents in the late 1970’s. For those of you, like me, who have forgotten about the tragic 1985 event, read more about it here: Facts – 1985 Mexico City Earthquake.

With a history that incorporates indigenous (Mexica, Aztec) and European (Spanish, French) cultures, the first impression of Mexico City is of a magnificent international capital that holds its own among any in Europe and the Americas. The layout has been influenced by rulers (Porfirio Diaz among them) determined to make it as grand and impressive as imaginable. On many levels, they succeeded:

The Angel of Independence sits on an island roundabout on the city’s major thoroughfare, the Paseo de la Reforma. The site, known as the Monument to Independence, was built in 1910 during the reign of President Diaz. The statue itself, 22 feet high and seven tons in weight, is built of bronze and covered in pure 24K gold. The plaza also serves as a mausoleum of many of the heros of the war of independance. Read more about that important conflict that resulted in the formation of modern Mexico here: Facts – Mexico War of Independence.

The Zocalo is the more common name for a main square of Mexico City, known as Plaza de la Constitución. It is among the most historic and scenic areas of the city and incorporates an abundance of major sites around and adjacent to the square itself. These sites include the national palace, the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and numerous federal buildings, with offices, museums and other cultural and governmental affairs departments. It is also the site of frequent protests, one of which I was able to capture while visiting. FYI – Click on any of the photos in this blog for a closer and more detailed view.

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I even ran into a colorful taxi, reminiscent of the tuk-tuks of Thailand. There seems to be no end to incorporating a bicycle or motorbike into a vehicle with fresh and expanded function and usefulness!

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On the right side of the cathedral was a sculpture plaza filled with large bronze whimsical figurines that both fascinated and provoked closer inspection.

The entire neighborhood around the Zocalo is a photographic delight. Between the gorgeous buildings and impressive galleries, it was better than I imagined.

Walking further from the Zocalo I came upon a shopping area filled with stalls, shops and vendors of all kinds. I captured this photo of a bra seller as she was yelling at me not to take her picture. Honestly, I had already snapped the shot before I realized what she was saying, so if she happens to read my blog at some point, I hope she’ll accept my apology!

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One day I hired a tour guide to show me things in the city I might have missed on my previous visit many years ago. Carlos picked me up at the hotel and shared his story of having been born and raised in Mexico City, as well as his seriously astounding ability to recount facts, figures and dates that made the day even more memorable and informative than I could have imagined. If you visit Ciudad de Mexico, consider contacting him. Facts – Carlos San Roman Tour Guide

One of Mexico’s most exciting archeological unveilings of the last 50 years has been the Templo Mayor, located next to, and partially underneath, the Zocalo. The Aztec site dates from the 14th century and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1987. Although the new colonial city had been built atop the site, historians had a good idea of its location from infrequent discoveries over the last century. It was not until 1978, however, during a construction project, that significant discoveries were made drawing international attention, and private and federal dollars, to begin excavation on a major scale. That process continues to this day, but the work completed has exposed a site that includes a total of seven temples and 78 buildings overall. This pyramid and temple complex was, at the time, one of  most significant and largest ceremonial centers of Aztec culture.

When the Spanish Christians arrived, they destroyed much of the complex, obliterating as much of the Aztec culture and beliefs as possible. Upon the rubble, using materials from the original site, they built a Catholic Church that is still in use today.

Bones from human sacrifices and additional artifacts have been uncovered during the decades of evacuation. Both were on display. To read more about this fascinating discovery, an integral part of the pre colonial Mexican history, go here: Facts – Templo Mayor.

Following a few days of cloudy weather and intermittent rain, the skies on my last day were stunningly clear. As is apparent in some of my next shots, the view of the twin volcanoes and their snowcapped peaks was a rarely seen joy. I spent that last afternoon at the most sacred site in all of Mexico, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Located on the northern edge of Mexico City, La Villa, as the area is sometimes known, includes the old and new basilicas, as well as numerous smaller sanctuaries and buildings related to the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.

The original basilica, known as Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey, was completed in 1709. Much of Mexico City is built on dry lake beds that have settled further over the last century due to overuse of underground water supplies. This ground instability caused the original basilica to begin sinking in the early to mid 20th century.  It has since been stabilized, however, and remains a holy shrine. A new basilica, located on the west side of the plaza, was completed in 1976.

The square on which both basilicas face is mammoth and was designed to approximate the grandeur of St. Peter’s in Rome. The road leading to the plaza is equally as impressive.

The new Basilica houses the original tilma (or cloak) of Juan Diego, which holds the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. One of the most important pilgrimage sites of Catholicism, the basilica is visited by several million people every year. Many of the devout will enter the basilica by crawling across the concrete and stone on their knees.

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My friend and former neighbor Barbara Levich encouraged me to revisit the basilica on this trip. Although it had been decades since my initial visit, I found the experience as profoundly moving as it was the first time. Thanks, Barbara!

Mexico City retains its allure as one of the most magnificent and beautiful cities in the world. I retain wonderful memories of my trip years ago and the feelings and impressions were only magnified by this most recent sojourn. Although Mexico itself continues to fight a sporadic and regional reputation for corruption and cartels, it is only the short-sighted and untraveled who accept this reputation as the true heart of the country. Mexico has witnessed the rise and fall of indigenous civilization, yet has embraced and nurtured the very best of its history and traditions. It is a powerhouse of growth, ingenuity and commerce, largely due to the resilience and spirit of its people. As my own knowledge and understanding grows, I gain an added respect for this amalgam of cultures and urge others to come visit and see firsthand. Viva Mexico is very much alive – and thriving!

Stay tuned for an update on my new place of residence – AJIJIC (ahee-HEEK). I’ve been taking some great photos this past week and can’t wait to share them with you soon.

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