Mexico City, Part I

“A traveler should be happy, not perfect!”

Anonymous

Country Count: 5

Mexico City Cathedral

Reading Time: 12 minutes

This travelogue is an amalgam of two different trips I’ve taken to this history-drenched metropolis. The first was a solo trip I took in April of 2018; the second was a quick stopover on my way back from Guatemala in April of 2019.

Day 1

I think one of the most important lessons I ever learned from traveling was to step out of my comfort zone once in a while.

I am introverted and even shy by nature, but when I travel, I want to make the most of it. This doesn’t mean that I go out of my way to be wild at every hostel I stay at (though sometimes I do!). However, as someone who might prefer their own company most of the time, it really helps to take opportunities to socialize with locals.

The AeroMéxico flight from Austin into Benito Juarez International Airport was a breeze, even by my aviophobic standards. This was my first time in Mexico, and my first international solo flight. The adrenaline rush of being somewhere new was starting to give way to an all-encompassing feeling of being very out of place. Almost like I shouldn’t have come at all.

I decided to break up that tension by asking some English-speakers around me where the metro stop in the airport was, I made the acquaintance of Sophia, a Greek-American woman about my age who was in the Federal District on business. She said that some colleagues would be picking her up, and that my hostel was more or less on the way way to their destination.

Now, at first I was hesitant to accept rides from people I did not know in a foreign country. But my bullshit detector had gotten pretty good over the years, and I was getting a sincere vibe from her. So I accepted.

We met her coworker, Martín, and his girlfriend Gioconda. Martín was about 35, with a way about him that I would describe as “scholarly edge.” He wore black designer jeans, black boots, and a black suit jacket. Gioconda had shoulder-length hair with bright purple and blue streaks.

I thanked them for giving me a lift, even though the tops of my ears were burning from uncertainty. I took note of the license plate, and casually pulled up GPS on my phone to make sure we were actually driving in the right direction. I had no idea what I would actually do in the event of an attempted kidnapping. Bail out of a moving car? I’d cross that bridge if and when I got to it.

As they were dropping me off, the three of them invited me to lunch. Having become more comfortable talking to them, I accepted, and I’m very glad that I did.

Prior to my arrival, I was aware that Mexico City was big. But it wasn’t until I was in a car driving through it that I realized how big. With a city population approaching nine million, and about 21 million in the metropolitan area, it edges out New York City as the largest urban area in North America.

It’s also absolutely noisy. Drivers in Mexico City like to lay on their horns more than anywhere else I’ve been to in my life. Whereas in many parts of the US, other drivers may get offended if you honk at them, here in Mexico it served a vital purpose. Honking was used to signal immediate danger, if you needed to get over a lane, if the person in front of you needed to speed up, if you were letting the guy in front of you get ahead of you, etc. It does make sense, and to be fair I saw not one car accident the entire time I was there. But the honking of horns can be very pervasive to someone not accustomed to it.

In talking with Sophia and Martín I learned that they worked for NPS International, an American IT renovation company founded by Sophia’s father. They were both project managers, similar to what I did back home. Sophia was originally from New York City, now lived in North Carolina, and had been all over the world. Martín, a Mexico City native now living in Leon, had done plenty of travel himself, and at various points in his life been a tour guide, a stunt man, a writer, and a professor. When he was not working at NPS, he wrote short stories and historical narratives. Gioconda quietly played a game on her phone, though Martín told me that she worked with indigenous students in Guerrero, a state notorious for cartel violence and forced disappearances. She had worked at a Russian school in Mexico City, and spoke some of the language, which she proved when I tried to speak some of my half-remembered Russian.

We stopped for lunch at La Casa de Toño, a popular local chain. I had horchata, which for those of you who don’t know, is God’s gift to beverages. It is rice water and sugar, incredibly sweet and very refreshing. My new friends recommended the pozole, which is a sort of hominy with pork and spice. Of course no dinner in Mexico is complete without a plate of flan.

The waiters brought coat racks to our table, which was a nice touch. It was interesting to see how some things in Mexico were several decades behind the US, but not in a bad way. For example, the Sanborn’s (think of like an old school Walgreen’s if it had a restaurant attached) featured attendants who wore red blazers. One such Sanborn’s was located in La Case de los Azulejos, an historic structure famous for its colorful tiles.

Martín and Gioconda and Sophia and I talked and joked and got along really well for having just met. They introduced me to new music, like “Chilanga Banda” by Café Tacuba. This song did for the Mexico City accent what Outkast did for the Southern accent. Martín told me about his travels in Europe, which were unfortunately cut short with the outbreak of H1N1 avian flu, which in some parts of Europe was unfortunately nicknamed “Mexican flu.” The Spanish health administration had asked him and other Mexican travelers to leave.

Lunch ended up turning into several hours of dando la vuelta around the nighttime city. Everything they showed me was on my list. It was like getting a preview for the rest of my week in Central Mexico. The city passed by in flashes of blue and purple, white and orange.

L-R: Sophia, Martín, and Gioconda, in the Zocalo

We stayed out so late we ended up eating dinner at Taqueria Don Frank. It was a simple place, basically set up in a big top tent, but it was packed at 10 o’clock at night. It reminded me that much of Latin America eats dinner way later than their American counterparts.

After several hours of getting a nocturnal tour of this metropolis, my new friends dropped me off back at my hostel. I slept well, in good spirits from the best first night in Mexico I could have hoped for.

Day 2

I got up nice and late today, feeling well rested despite the late night. The Capsule Hostel, true to its name, provided little wooden “capsules” with curtains and reading lamps. I actually preferred these to the traditional hostel dorms because they afforded more privacy, although a small fan would have made it perfect.

I had breakfast at L’Ermitaño next door. Each guest of the Capsule is given a blue token that they can exchange at the little restaurant for coffee or juice, slices of pineapples and strawberry, and two thin ham & cheese sandwiches. Nothing special, but it gives you enough energy for the day’s adventures.

Putting on my daypack and setting off down the gray brick sidewalks, I was constantly dodging small teams of workers. These guys were repairing the damage done by the earthquake that had hit the previous year. Other than the shattered sidewalks, I saw little evidence of a massive earthquake in the metropolis. Martín had assured me that this had more to do with the city’s rapid rebound; he and Gioconda themselves had assisted in dragging bodies from the rubble.

I walked down to the Insurgentes station to grab a train into the historic center of town. The Mexico City Metro is one of the most heavily used subway systems in the world, and possibly one of the cheapest: a one-way ride is only 5 pesos, the equivalent of about 25 cents. The cars were crowded, and I was very conspicuously the only white American on the train. Even so, I felt no danger whatsoever; like on trains all over the world, everyone was on their phone, chatting, reading, or staring off into space in thought.

Image courtesy of InfrastructureMexico.com

In fact, the Mexico City Metro has taken steps to make the system safer in recent years. For example, all trains have several cars reserved specifically for women and children. I should touch on the dire warnings you might have heard regarding Mexico City taxis; yes, the green ones can still be a problem, Martín told me. But the newer ones, pink and white, are all background checked and certified, and are dispatched by radio. Apparently the new mayor had a thing for the color pink.

The Metro is also unique in that it does not run on rails, like a typical subway, but instead glides along on rubber wheels. The windows are also typically left open, allowing air to circulate in the cars. The ride is noisy, but smooth and breezy.

I took note of the unique pictograms for each station on the system map, each symbolizing something special about that particular stop.

Image courtesy of TheGuardian.com

After transferring and riding several stops, I got off at my stop: Zócalo.

Officially known as La Plaza de la Constitución (“Constitution Square”), this is the main square of CDMX, the pulsing heart of the city’s history. The massive square is known universally as El Zócalo, which means “the plinth.” This is in reference to a massive plinth that the government built back in 1812 for a monument to their newly gained independence. The monument was never built, and the plinth itself was eventually buried, but the name stuck. This location had been the site of Aztec meetings before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, as exemplified by the ruins of the Templo Mayor (Greater Temple).

Just to the left of the Greater Temple is the exquisitely named Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heavens Cathedral. Constructed between 1573 and 1813, this was what drew me to Mexico City in the first place. Even though I had seen it the previous night, all lit up and arguably at its most impressive, to behold it any time of day is a privilege. It’s one of the structures that you can’t take your eyes off of. The intricate baroque architecture allows you to scrutinize its detail, and also step back and admire it for the sum of its parts.

An offering within the cathedral
Mexico City Tabernacle

Unfortunately, you could no longer climb to the top of the bell towers, on account of the sismo, the earthquake last year. I had been looking forward to that, but I was content to just see it and walk around in it.

Sometimes it’s weird to behold such architecture: on one hand, it inspires me more than a modern skyscraper ever could; on the other, it was built by colonizers. In fact, the cathedral was built largely with stones taken from the Aztec Greater Temple. It’s a weird duality.

On a small courtyard on the side of the cathedral, native dancers (most likely Aztec, or Mexica, the more accurate term) performed a ceremonial dance to the sound of loud drums. I was astounded at their ability to dance for so long in such heat. Looking around, I noticed that, in 85- to 90-degree heat, I was one of the few people not wearing either a jacket or long-sleeve Under Armour.

Martín had pointed out the volcanic rock used in construction throughout much of the city. This stone helps insulate buildings in both winter and summer. He also pointed out the undulation in the sidewalks and buildings. This was the reality of Mexico City slowly “sinking” into the bed of Lake Texcoco.

Mexico City was originally Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, founded around 1325. Tenochtitlan was built on a series of islands in what was then Lake Texcoco. When the Spanish came and destroyed Tenochtitlan, they filled the lake in with earth, and built Mexico City on top of the ruins. Unfortunately, because it’s soggy earth that the city of nine million is built on, the weight of development literally forces the city into the ground.

Mexico City will never sink beneath the waves like Atlantis, but it will continue to settle farther down. You can see visible evidence of this in the undulations of the sidewalk and the buildings in some areas.  

Now that I had seen the craftsmanship of the Spaniards, I wanted to see the work of the people who were here first. Literally right next door to the cathedral is the Museum of the Greater Temple. I got into an unnecessary long back-and-forth with the security guard about not being able to bring in gum nor snacks nor even “candy Halls” in my backpack. You can’t even bring bottled water into to the ruins. I guess it never rained in Mexico City. Instead, you had to bring your water bottles to a nearby stand where even locals complained that “No hay vigilancia!” That there was no one watching out for your stuff.

There is unfortunately not much left of the Greater Temple, but you can definitely tell it was massive back in its day. Known in the Nahuatl language as Huēyi Teōcalli, this temple originally featured dual shrines at the summit, dedicated to Huitzilopotchli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain. It was constructed sometime around the founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325, and was expanded six times by successive rulers, until its destruction at the hands of the Spanish in 1521. Every now and then, I would see a beautifully preserved serpent’s head or a fragment of color mural, but it’s certainly a place where you have to appreciate being in the presence of something old. There’s a fair bit of imagination required.

Reconstruction of how the Templo Mayor would have looked like circa 1500.

The adjoining museum holds a variety of artifacts and information on all the different Pre-Colombian groups, how they interacted and traded, and the importance of jade and mother-of-pearl in their jewelry. For 70 pesos it is certainly worth it.

An eight-ton slab depicting Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec goddess of the moon.

I texted Sophia and asked her for some recommendations for lunch. She said I had to try La Casa del Pavo (“House of Turkey”). It’s a little hole in the wall diner, and though it was chock full of people, the service was impeccable. For 80 pesos, I got a chambarete de res (beef shank) with beans and rice soup, plus an apple soda made with cane sugar. It was a solid choice.

My culture quota filled from touring the cathedral and the temple, I decided to wander around and just get lost. Despite my efforts, I ended up on Avenida Francisco Madero, one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares. This street, named after the 33rd president of Mexico, was at one point the epicenter of the jewel trade in Mexico, and you can still see many stores that sell precious stones and handcrafted items.

Francisco Madero Avenue

I also spotted a lot of currency stores all along the street, so many that I felt compelled to duck into one. They’re all small affairs, with glass cases lining the walls, but they contain just about any kind of currency imaginable. On top of pre-revolutionary Mexican promissory notes, they had coins and bank notes from countries that I had never even heard of, like Vanuatu. They had bills from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and colorful bills from Madagascar that featured native flora and fauna.

After a while the sun and heat were starting to put me to sleep, so I hopped back on the subway and went back to the hostel. It started to rain gently, and I had the entire dorm room to myself, so I left the window open. I drifted off to the soothing sounds of rain drops, and drivers laying on their car horns.

Stepping out of your comfort zone as an introvert is very important, but so is recharging. Always be sure to congratulate yourself by taking some time to just relax.

After I had rested and showered, Martín, Gioconda, and Sophia picked me up for dinner. After getting stuck in a traffic jam with about half the population of Mexico during a torrential downpour, we finally made it to La Poste, a nice Italian restaurant in the Coyoacan neighborhood. While I was not expecting to have Italian food in Mexico, this place surprised me, and just went to show that a city the size of CDMX has something to offer anyone. Gioconda had brought her laptop to take an entrance exam for a high-level university class while the four of us talked and joked and shared stories over pasta and artisanal beer and flan and coffee. Afterwards, I even shared a cigarette with Martín. I had quit smoking and vaping about two years prior, but this was a special occasion.

I had met these people not 48 hours prior, and I was already genuinely sad to see them go. We hugged and exchanged numbers. Martín promised to send me some of his writing to reignite my desire to write. I hoped I would see them again in the future, and repay the incredible generosity they had shown me.

Since meeting Martín and Gioconda, I later learned that they ended up welcoming a baby girl, Lucia.

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