Know to Go

The reservations clerk was apologetic.

“I can book you through to San Jose for those dates, but on the outbound routing you are going to be stuck in Mexico City for ....a while.”

'How long is ...a while?”

“You arrive at 5 am but don’t fly out again till 10 pm.”

Alright. I love layovers that are long enough for a quick taste of somewhere I’ve never been. There would be plenty of time to get into the city for a quick look around. Thumbing through a guidebook , however, was a bit daunting. The section on Mexico City alone is 59 pages long.

“Largest city in the world” seems to be open to interpretation, but there is no doubt Mexico City is a contender. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the projected population of Mexico City for 2004 is in excess of 30 million people. That’s as many people as we have in all of Canada. And they all take the metro at 7 pm, but more on that later.

It’s a city of beautiful people, a centuries old genetic blend of ethnicities that began when the Aztecs built the magnificent city of Tenochtitlán, on an island in Lake Texcoco in the 13th century AD. Their war god, Huitzilopochtli, had told them to build it at the centre of the universe and they would know where that was when they found an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake. It would seem like a long shot, but sure enough they found it and the eagle, the cactus, and the snake are on the Mexican flag to this day.

The gene pool got its Spanish infusion in 1519 when Hernán Cortés squared off against the Aztec empire. The fierce Aztec warriors actually welcomed him into the city because they believed in the legend of Queztalcoatl, who it was said would return in the form of a fair-skinned, bearded god. Cortés was a match. Welcomed into the city, he promptly razed it, erecting his own monuments to power and Catholicism.

Knowing even a little, bare bones Mexican history is essential to understanding the Market Shamanurban landscape. Pre-Columbian ruins jut up against colonial cathedrals caught in the shadow of steel-girdered skyscrapers. The city vibrates with cultural disconnects. In this most Catholic of Catholic countries, Indian shamans chant in the cathedral courtyard while business people with briefcases line up to have smoke blown over them. A leather-faced peddler hawks healing stones while his neighbour lays out the rosaries. Dispensations from the almighty come in many flavours.

Getting into the city from the airport is easy. A taxi will take you for $24 US, but public transit is more fun. The metro stops at the airport and with its familiar colour-coded route maps is as easy to use as anywhere else in the world. Besides, the price is right: 2 pesos or about 20 cents per trip. A local warns us that before 10 am and after 4 pm the metro is no place for gringos, and never board the pink line during rush hour. But the pink line is the one we need to connect to and since we fancy ourselves veteran travellers we shrug off the warnings. How bad could it be?

Our system for protecting valuables in dodgy places? Money, tickets, credit cards and passports go under the clothes, next to the skin. Cameras and the like are buried deep in the daypack, under the sweater and snack food. Plastic locking ties are threaded through the zippers and the pack is worn front wards where we can keep our hands on it. Pockets carry just enough money for a transit pass.

We set off and yes, the metro is packed, but we have no problems.

Over breakfast at the airport we’d considered our options and decided that with a city this size and so little time, the only sensible way to cover any ground would be a tour with a local guide. A charming fellow worked very hard at selling us a private tour in his Marquis for $240 US. I guess he mistook the MEC brand on our daypacks for Gucci. We settled on a Greyline tour for $43 US per person which promised a local driver with a small car.

Luis turned out to be a personable young man with an excellent knowledge of his city and a zippy little Toyota which he wheeled around the congested streets with light-hearted panache. “Traffic lights are optional here,” he assured us and it was obvious his compatriots agreed. With 2.6 million vehicles making 29 million trips per day, the streets are exceedingly congested. Snaking through back alleys is a necessity, albeit one guaranteed to get a visitor hopelessly lost. I like to think there is nowhere in the world I wouldn’t be prepared to drive myself, but Mexico City may be the exception.

First official stop was Centro Histórica which includes El Zócalo, the historical heart of Mexico City and location of the Plaza de la Consititución, billed as the world’s largest town square. This plaza is where it happens in Mexico City, where it has always happened. Legend has it the Aztecs built Templo Mayor at the east end of the square because it was the exact place they found the eagle perched on the cactus eating a snake – the centre of the universe.

Today it is where everything from political protests to festivals to strikes to campaigns play out. And of course, the outdoor market. There have been official attempts to discourage the market but it would be like trying to stop the tides. This is where Mexican street vendors hang out. Always have, always will.

Market DayFor sale? Anything you can imagine in the way of foodstuffs, small electronics, clothing, footwear, household goods and of course, colourful souvenirs. Lots of religious gear as well; pictures and paintings of saints and deities, the aforementioned stone talismans and the feather-bedecked shamans hard at work healing supplicants on their lunch break.

The day was a scorcher so I sought relief in the cool marble sanctuary of the Metropolitan Cathedral at the north end of the plaza. This magnificent cathedral exhibits all the over-the-top opulence one would expect from one the largest and most renowned Catholic cathedrals in the world. What struck me most was the devotion of the penitents, many of them elderly and arthritic. Through the lengthy Latin mass they kneeled on the unforgiving cold stone slabs

Directly behind the cathedral are the ruins of the great Aztec Templo Mayor. When Cortés conquered the Aztecs he attempted to obliterate symbols of pagan culture by building his own cathedrals and edifices over their razed ruins. In this case, the stones from the temple were carried across the square and used to build the cathedral. Modern-day workers unearthed the ancient temple ruins while lying pipes for the Metro in the late 1970s. Archaeological excavation has now uncovered enough of the original temple to give us a sense of the size and scope of it.

On the east side of the plaza, the Palacio Nacional stands, the seat of political power since the Aztec era. While the actual palace has been razed and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the purpose of the site has never changed and currently houses the offices of the president of Mexico. Of most interest to us were the Diego Rivera murals in the concourses, now world-renowned as a result of the movie, Frida.

I am certain that if we’d been on our own we would simply have strolled around the Diego Riveracorridors, “Uhuh, uhuh, uhuh ...very nice.” The paintings are pleasant-to-look-at, masterfully executed. It was here, however, that Luis really earned his fee, talking us through each of the murals, explaining what we were looking at. The murals are the story of the Mexican people: the beginnings, the spirituality, the culture, the struggles, the revolutions, the sorrow and the joy that is Mexico. They explain so much. They are storytelling at its most eloquent, albeit from the intensely politicaXochimilco - Canal Boatsl Diego perspective.

In 1987 UNESCO designated Centro Histórica along with the Xochimilco floating gardens as a World Heritage Site. The gardens are 23 km outside of the city centre, an interesting drive with great opportunities to see how the locals live. Some of them live very well indeed, in charming hillside communities that bring to mind the pricier real estate in San Francisco or Sydney. Others, not so well.

Xochimilco is a destination that draws them all. The chinampas, or floating gardens Xochimilco - Canal Boats were created by Aztec agriculturalists by constructing large rafts of reeds and branches then heaping them with mud dredged from the bottom of the lake. Fruit, vegetables, flowers, trees, and shrubs were planted on the rafts which were secured in place with long wooden stakes. Eventually the roots of the vegetation matted and reached down through the raft into the lakebed anchoring the floating gardens with a permanence akin to islands.

Today the floating gardens are a popular spot for locals who, like us, enjoy being poled through the canals in trajineras, large flat-bottomed craft colourfully painted up in true Mexican style. It’s an exceedingly lively scene with parties of families and young people, Mariachi bands and vendors coming alongside to peddle their wares. Floating “kitchens” with waterborne barbeques and ice boxes pull up, passengers make their choices ....a kind of floating dim sum experience, Mexican style.

By the time we head back to the city it is 7 pm and rush hour gridlock has set in. Luis tells us we’ll make it to the airport faster by metro than we would by driving so we descend, once again, into the depths of the dreaded pink line. We needed to travel the pink line to its final stop, then switch to the less travelled yellow line for the Terminal stop.

It turned out to be the experience of a lifetime. For the first four or five trains we just watched, absolutely aghast at what we were witnessing. Each car was full. I mean FULL. Body pressed tightly to body. As each car pulls in, the doors slide open and men literally throw themselves against the mass. They grab onto those already inside, other men push from behind and usually, one or two makes it in before the doors slide shut again.

Several cars at the front are reserved for women and children but men are not allowed, armed guards see to that. I didn’t want to leave my husband, Steve, so we determined to tackle this together.

Our first attempt resulted in nothing but bruises. It was obvious we were not going to make it under our own strength. Our only hope was to use our brains and behave strategically. As the next train screamed in Steve looked at me, “If we are going to get to the airport, Carolyn, we MUST do this. Understand?” I did.

We wedged ourselves in front of some big men, held tight to each other and pushed with everything in our might. It is a case of struggling forward with every ounce of strength against an immoveable mass, despairing, then suddenly feeling those behind you literally lift you upward and forward. You are crushed in a mass of humanity unlike anything I have ever experienced before or frankly, ever hope to again.

Once inside there are two challenges – avoid being swept back out at the next station by the surge of those leaving and avoid being crushed by incoming. This is not for the faint of heart or physically frail. Knowing that we’d be staying on the pink line until its final stop, we worked our way into the centre of the train, confident we’d be able to disembark and make our connection.

Considering the aggressive behaviour required to get on and off these cars I was struck by the good humour of the passengers – no short tempers, no profanity. There were plenty of rueful smiles cast our way, however. I got the impression we may just have earned honourary Mexican citizenship on the pink line that night.


Official site of the Distrito Federal (Mexican City) Tourism Board

Official site of the Mexican Tourism Board

Any Mexico City guidebook will provide pages of attractions to satisfy special interests. The following suggestions hold wide appeal and are all easily accessible by Metro from the airport. If however, your return requires you to travel the pink line during rush hour you may prefer to arrange for a taxi to transfer you back to the airport.

Bosque de Chapultecpec
Every world-class city has a world-class park and Chapultecpec is Mexico City’s. Covering 2100 acres, it offers opportunities to hike, bike, ride and boat. Within the park are internationally respected museums, art galleries, concert venues, a zoo, an IMAX theatre, an aquatic show and children’s attractions.

Museo Nacional de Antropolgia is a world-renowned anthropological treasure within the Bosque de Chapultecpec that would take days to explore just on its own. Twenty-three chronologically arranged galleries explore the history of Mexico, including priceless artifacts like the Aztec Calendar Sun Stone within their displays.

Coyoacan – home of Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo
Fans will want to visit the Anahuanclili Museum built by Riviera, the Frida Kahlo Museum and the residential area where they lived. The Frida Kahlo Museum is actually housed in Frida’s home, offering an intimate walk through the space as it was when she lived there with Diego Riviera. Both museums display collections of their work. The home of Leon Trotsky, an integral player in the Riviera-Kahlo story, has also been made into a museum and is open for viewing in this area.

Carolyn Usher


This trip was taken in 2004 by Steve and Carolyn Usher. Costs are in US$. Information and contacts updated as of August, 2005.