Mexico, in the southern region of the North American continent, is rich with flavour and history. It is the third largest country in Latin America after Brazil and Argentina. Before the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 1500’s, two great civilizations inhabited the region, the Mayans and centuries later, the Aztecs.
We travelled to Mexico with the same British friends who journeyed through the desert with us in Morocco. It was our first time in Mexico, a country bathed in complex culture, and highly influential in their cuisine, literature, and the arts.
Mexico City lies south of the country, and is one of the most populated cities in the world. The urban area is dense with residents where road traffic can be mind-numbing from the never-ending delays. The city is built in a valley which used to be a lake formed in a volcanic crater.
I arrived alone into the city on a rainy early evening, and spent the night in the historic city centre, near Allende metro station. I stepped out into the yawning night. Most street vendors nearby had closed up shop. The streets were energetic with people abandoning their homes for a chance at lighthearted entertainment from a night out.
My friends were staying in the La Condesa neighborhood, southwest of the city centre. La Condesa is a modern gentrified neighborhood, filled with trendy cafes and restaurants flaunting high ceilings and exposed brick. The people living in this neighborhood are a younger bourgeoise crowd. Tall foliage-heavy trees line the streets here.
When you walk around La Condesa you will notice destroyed deserted buildings with broken windows and cracks on the exterior. These buildings have yellow tape circling the facade. The locals living in the city who are friends of our British mates told us that these buildings were evacuated during the 2017 earthquake of Puebla. We learned an uplifting fact of displaced residents finding kindness in the hearts of strangers who invited them into their homes until they were able to get back on their feet. Even the emergency response during the earthquake was immediate and swift. The aftermath of this heartbreaking event shows how much Mexico cares for their citizens. There is a visible warmth among the people in the city.
City Centre of Mexico City
The centre of Mexico is a social hub of activity for visiting museums and historic buildings, shopping, and eating. One of the stunning buildings we saw was the Palacio de Bellas Artes. This beautifully constructed building is a performance hall and museum housing murals from Diego Rivera, a famous Mexican painter who married Frida Kahlo, another well-known Mexican painter. The pre-20th century style building with an ombré hued dome is a visual focus of the city.
Within the spaces of the city centre we saw spontaneous markets selling clay skulls painted in assorted colours and dotted with glitter, bold jewelry, intricate textiles, clothing with Mayan designs, Mayan calendars, and various arts and crafts.
Along Av. Francisco I. Madero you will see an eye-catching building called the House of Tiles. It is an 18th-century palace with an exterior completed in a mosaic of blue and white tiles.
This is the main plaza square in the heart of the city where many events are held. The day we went, we found tents set up with doctors and nurses performing free check-ups for the citizens.
We visited the rooftop bar at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México for an impressive view of Zócalo, and had a few drinks. The bartender served us Carajillo, a Spanish drink made with Licor 43 and a shot of espresso. The combination of sweetness from the liquor and the bitterness of the coffee is warming for the heart and enriching for the soul. It is now one of our favourite drinks!
Located in the La Condesa neighborhood is the Chapultapec park, a well-maintained public space with monuments, fountains, and market stalls.
We hiked up to the Chapultepec Castle, a national history museum. In the gardens of the castle you can look over the balustrade for a great 360 degree view of the city. The castle was originally built as a manor, then turned into a military academy, and was in disrepair for some time. Now the restored castle contains many historic and cultural collections.
This UNESCO heritage site located outside of Mexico city in San Juan Teotihuacán is an ancient religious city dotted with pyramids and temples built between the 1st and 7th centuries C.E. Archaeologists have found evidence that it used to be a large city centre with a population of at least 25,000. The origins of this architectural marvel is still unknown. However, it was the Aztecs who found it and named it Teotihuacán. The long, wide walkway is called the Avenue of Death and along it are the pyramids placed in a strategic manner for symbolic purposes. The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest building on the site. Many religious sacrifices were performed on these structures.
Underneath the pyramids are tunnels and walkways where carved columns surround a central courtyard. The carvings represent owls and quetzals, which are brightly coloured birds and an important symbol in both Aztec and Mayan cultures.
During the tour of the pyramids our guide brought us to a jewelry shop selling precious gems, including Jade and Obsidian stones. Outside of the shop was a cage of hairless grey dogs called the Xoloitzcuintli. This breed of dog has been around for thousands of years, and believed to be the guardians of the underworld. At times the dogs were used as food for the ancient Aztecs and Mayans.
Our guide also introduced us to a typical Agave tree where the nectar is extracted to make Mezcal, a popular Mexican distilled liquor. The tour does include a tasting of the delicious Mezcal.
Xochimilco is a borough south of the city, famous for its canals. We rented a colourful long boat, stuffed it with alcohol and snacks, and rode down the canal. We passed by a Mariachi band serenading the passengers sailing by in their boats.
A creepy and nightmarish destination in Xochimilco is the Island of the Dolls. Unfortunately we started our boat ride too late in the afternoon and didn’t get to visit the island. The Island of the Dolls was far away from where we started, and by the time we would have reached there darkness would have descended. Even though we were willing to visit the island in the dark, our boat guide feared the spirits possibly present at night time and refused to take us, preferring to skip the destination.
The disturbing story behind the Island of the Dolls is like a horror film. The story goes that a lone man lived on the small island. One day he discovers a little girl who drowned while swimming in the canal. There was a small doll with her. He hung it up on a tree to commemorate her death. After a while he started to hear voices and sounds which agitated his mind, even though the island he lived in was far from other inhabitants. He believed the voices were of the girl’s spirit. These voices drove him mad, so he started hanging up more dolls on trees to make peace with her. He did this for 50 years until he was found dead, floating in the same area where the little girl had drowned.
Mercado de Sonora
One morning we walked east for over an hour from La Condesa to a market called Mercado de Sonora. It’s a traditional market south of the centre of Mexico where food, textiles, housewares, pottery, and animals are sold. There are many stalls inside this market covering the floors in a densely packed maze where you are surrounded by food, spices, toys, clothing, religious artifacts, and eccentric goods. When you arrive at the stalls selling animals the smell punches the delicate bones of your nose. The caged animals are sold as food and pets.
South of the city nestled in the borough of Del Carmen is Frida Kahlo’s home, called The Blue House. Four years after her death in 1954 Frida’s beautifully constructed home was turned into a museum housing her art and belongings. She was a spirited woman and a talented artist who suffered from physical ailments, yet was determined to stand out and express the unique fire within her heart. In the museum you can see the creatively designed dresses she would wear, and the many self-portraits she painted. The home has been well kept by museum curators, showcasing its interior like an art piece.
Señor Taco & Food
Our preferred taco restaurant to visit was Señor Taco in La Condesa.
The small tacos full of ingredients were smoldering with flavour and left us wanting more. My favourite tacos were the Taco Al Pastor filled with roasted pork, onion, coriander, and pineapple; and Cochinita Pibil, filled with pork and flavoured with orange juice and spices, accompanied by purple onion and habanero. We went back a few times.
La Condesa is home to delicious churros from Churrería El Moro Parque. Lines extended outside of the entryway from the small shop. You can smell the warmth and sweetness of the churros being fried in the kitchen. The cafe offers different dipping sauces such as melted chocolate. We also ordered hot chocolate which compliments the mouthwatering churros really well.
Other Mexican dishes we tried included Enchiladas, and Flautas bathed in sauce with cilantro, cheese and bacon. As well as, dishes with Mole sauce made of chiles, dried fruits, spices, tomatillos, and nuts.
While walking the streets of Mexico City, you will see many vendors selling the popular street food of Lays chips drizzled in Valentina sauce, and a splash of lime juice. It is a perfect snack for those long tours of the city.
Our trip ended with a few days in Acapulco. This town in the state of Guerrero, can be found south of Mexico City on the Pacific coast. We stayed in a vacation condo near the beach owned by our local friends. It looked like a resort. It was the first time Chris and I experienced resort-style travel. The area we stayed in is near the airport, 30 minutes away from the famous Acapulco Bay where most of the locals live. The neighborhood of the condo is called Playa Diamante, a ritzier part of the city complete in newer developments, east of Acapulco Bay.
Most of our time in Acapulco was spent swimming in the pools and beach. We visited the main part of town near Acapulco Bay where it is generally packed. Although Acapulco has not been a favored vacation destination since the 50’s and 60’s, the town still sees many visitors who are attracted to the beaches and nightlife. Lots of military personnel are stationed in Acapulco due its current high crime rate.
We watched the famous divers at Le Quebrada cliff diving into the water. They are professional divers who jump into a small area in between two large cliffs. They have learned to dive since they were children and pass on this tradition to their offspring. There is some waiting involved when watching the divers because they wait for the tide to come in before diving. Otherwise the water might not be deep enough for a dive from 20-30 feet in the air.
The rugged cliff face is a marvelous sight against the glassy blue waters.
There are so many great cities to visit in Mexico and we’ve only just scratched the surface of this charming country.
Have you been to Mexico? What are your thoughts?
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