Mexico in a nutshell

Travel “experts”, by which I mean those with a national byline, advise that the best time to visit Mexico City is between March and May.

That may be true, but my advice, based on personal experience, is go whenever you can.

When I said Mexico City was my destination, a lot of people asked me, “Aren’t you a little nervous?”

Frankly, it never occurred to me to be nervous. What, we just lump all of Mexico into one cartel-ridden country? All Mexicans are murderous drug-lords? Sigh. Talk about a jump to judgment.

No, I was not nervous about going to Mexico City and was never nervous when I was there. We booked an Airbnb within walking distance to the Zocalo, we called a Lyft when we wanted to go beyond walking distance and everyone we met was friendly and helpful in our efforts to navigate this mega-city and see as much as possible in the four days we were there.

Which is, frankly, impossible.

You already know this: Mexico City is huge. The greater metropolitan area is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere with a population of close to nine million. It’s the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.

For the traveler this means one thing. Pick and choose. You will never see it all or even all the things on your wish list.

That’s why we chose to stay near the Zocalo, formally called the Plaza de la Constitucion, the vast square at the center of the city. It’s bordered by enormous historical buildings that tell the whole history of Mexico. Originally, this plaza was an island in a large lake, Texcoco, and served as the ceremonial center of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan, founded around 1325. Here were the famous platforms for the sacrifice of gladiators and here was the ancient tlachrli, or ball game court (surely the origin of the Mexican passion for soccer) with its walls of skulls. And here was the Templo de Mayor, the center of the universe, according to the Aztecs. Visit the archaeological site and museum to learn more about the ancient culture. On feast days, you’ll see people dressed in ancient Aztec costume in the Zocalo, alongside the street vendors and organ grinders.

Aztec civilization is just one of the cultural rabbit-holes you can go down while exploring this massive city— you could spend a whole trip focused on antiquity.

On the other hand, right by the Templo Mayor, is the largest cathedral in Latin America, the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, to use its formal name. Its design was inspired by Spanish Gothic architecture, but since it was built over the course of 250 years starting in 1571, a dizzying number of different styles are incorporated into the building’s sixteen chapels, three portals, two bell towers (with 25 bells), five naves, sacristy and multiple altars.

The combination of Aztec and Spanish Catholic civilizations is at the core of modern Mexican culture and the uneasy history is depicted in Diego Rivera’s vast mural “The History of Mexico,” painted between 1929 and

1935 in the stairwell of the National Palace, one of the buildings bordering the Zocalo. It houses the executive federal government in Mexico but the murals are its main attraction. Commissioned to justify the Mexican Revolution and glorify ancient Mexico, the mural is gorgeously packed with detail and could take hours to peruse.

Frankly, we did what we could and when our senses were exhausted, we headed to another side of the Zocalo, to the Gran Hotel. (Standard rate for rooms are under $150) Originally built as a residence in 1526, it changed hands several times before being restored in 1968 to its full Art Nouveau glory, with curliqued iron balustrades and a soaring Tiffany-style stained glass ceiling over the inner courtyard. Go up to the fifth floor, ask for a table on the balcony and sip an expensive tequila as you gaze over the entire Zocalo and try to digest the day, a mental collage of ancient Aztec paintings, gilded Catholicism at its colonial peak and the birth of moralism as a revolutionary art. Chances are, you’ll need another drink.

Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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