In an empty square under a darkening sky, a kneeling man makes the sign of the cross. Like a statue, he prays in silence, and then walks on his knees toward the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most beloved saint here in Mexico City, where 80 percent of the population is Catholic.
With a flutter of wings, a white dove flies from a smaller church nearby, circling over the square before returning to her perch. A woman carrying her infant in a blanket walks toward the entrance. She will present her baby to a sacred replica of Our Lady, a 500-year-old cloth that bears her image hanging inside the Basilica.
Inside I step onto a moving walkway, take a few strides, and step off. When I turn around, I see a woman on the walkway, standing still with raised eyes, her hands at her heart in prayer. I finally understand and wait in line to get back on the walkway. This time I look up and see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, her head bowed, her hands also folded. Around me everyone stares up at her, wearing a peaceful expression—pure adoration, and I feel humbled.
Around the corner a priest speaks Spanish in a musical cadence as he gives a sermon in the sanctuary of the Basilica, a space that fits 10,000 people. Masses are held here every 45 minutes all day, every day. Back outside, our guide, Pedro, says even though he’s not religious, he feels spiritual energy here. I feel it, too.
Mexico City is a study in contrasts. There’s crazy honking traffic, busy shopping streets, and 22 million people moving in and out and around the city. But during a recent visit Peter and I see another side of Mexico City, a place of peace and tranquility, where people welcome you with a smile. Even in this beehive-busy metropolis, it’s possible to slow down and feel the city’s rich history and culture, enjoy its pulsating rhythms, and taste its flavors. Join us as we discover the magic of this colorful city.
Our visit begins with a tour of Mexico City’s beautiful “Centro” with Pedro Moran. Dressed in warm jackets—it’s chilly at 7300’ altitude—we head across Zocalo Square on foot to the National Palace, where Pedro shows us an amazing mural. Known as “The Epic of the Mexican People,” it was painted between 1929 and 1935 by three muralists—Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Siquieros. The mural has multiple panels that depict Mexico’s bloody history—and I mean bloody.
The country’s earliest inhabitants, the Olmecs, were a peaceful society. However, the Aztecs, who came next, believed human sacrifice was necessary to bring rain, crops, and good fortune. You know those pyramids scattered from the Yucatan to Oaxaca? Without going into gory detail, let’s just say it’s a long way down from the top of the pyramid, especially when jagged edges define the steep trajectory. Ouch.
The Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, bringing their own brand of violence—as well as diseases for which the native people had no resistance. They also brought Catholicism to Mexico and destroyed most written records of the pre-Hispanic people, who were actually highly skilled in areas of mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture. Our neighbors to the south have a rich history, and viewing murals like this one in Mexico City’s National Palace brings it to life.
Near the main square Pedro shows us the ruins of Templo Major, a pyramid built in pre-Hispanic times. Spanish conquistadores destroyed many of the pre-Hispanic’s sacred sites and built thousands of chapels, churches, and cathedrals across Mexico. Zocalo Square is dominated by the Metropolitan Cathedral, an imposing structure that took 200 years to construct and has a variety of architectural styles. Our visit was just a week after Mexico City’s recent earthquake so the main entrance was closed, but we peeked inside a side entrance later, and the interior is stunning. The cathedral has 35 bells in its many towers. “Sometimes they ring them all together, and it’s really noisy,” says Pedro.
After a delicious buffet lunch—featuring Mexican food, of course—we continue our tour in Pedro’s car. Traffic is a nightmare in Mexico City; six million cars navigate its streets. Luckily, Pedro is an excellent driver. “He squirms like a worm,” Peter says.
Pedro shows us a few impressive monuments and buildings and then takes us to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the world’s most visited Catholic pilgrimage site. He tells us the story of how a shepherd had a vision of the Virgin while picking flowers in 1531, but his priest didn’t believe him. The shepherd returned to the same spot and saw the Virgin again. She instructed him to gather flowers and carry them down the mountain to the bishop. When the shepherd opened his cloak for the bishop, the flowers fell, and on his cloak appeared an image of the Virgin Mary.
The 500-year-old cloak with the image of the Virgin has become one of Mexico’s most popular religious symbols and attracts 11 million people every year, seven million of whom come in December during the saint’s feast day, many walking on their knees to pay homage to their beloved saint.
WINGS TO FLY
Museums abound in Mexico City, and Peter and I quickly discover that a five-day visit isn’t enough to see all this city has to offer. One day, we visit the Museum of Popular Art, a must-see for folk art fans. When we arrive, we discover that it’s a free admission day. Truth is admission fees for Mexico City’s museums are very reasonable, usually under $10, but of course getting in free is even better!
The museum’s colorful exhibits show how Mexicans incorporate art into daily life—think beautifully engraved and painted pottery—as well as their religious beliefs. I am drawn to the narrative votive or retablo art, small paintings on tin that depict a favor or miracle usually painted by the petitioner in gratitude. The paintings are simple, but powerful. One shows a person lying in a road after an accident, a woman praying, and the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. The prayer at the bottom expresses thanks for the person’s recovery. There is energy in the art.
The realm of the “fantastico” is portrayed in another area of the museum. From bizarre masks to skeletons at a bullfight, there’s a surprise around every corner. I love the crazy animals, colorfully painted with intricate details. One looks like a scary frog with dragon’s wings, sharp teeth, and a pointy tongue. Other exhibits show Mexican toys, musical instruments, and clothing. It’s a cool museum, definitely worth a visit.
The Museum of Anthropology is another must-see, located in Mexico City’s 1700-acre park, Chapultepec, one of the largest city parks in the Western hemisphere. The museum is huge and a bit overwhelming. There’s too much to see in a single afternoon. Peter and I bravely start out and soon get lost among the 23 exhibit rooms. I’m astonished at the artifacts on display: giant stone heads from the Olmec civilization (circa 900 BC); the Aztec Sun Stone, a calendar wheel carved in the 1500s; and many Mayan treasures.
The building itself is an architectural marvel and covers 20 acres with a huge courtyard and reflecting pool in the center and a giant umbrella-like fountain, where water pours down from above. It’s Mexico’s most visited museum, and we can see why. Peter and I are blown away by the artifacts, murals, and sculptures, but only view about one-fifth of the collection. Too much to see, too little time.
We do make time to see Casa Azul, once the home of Frida Kahlo and now a museum devoted to this popular Mexican artist. I have always admired her, not only for her art but also for overcoming endless physical challenges. As a teen she was severely injured in a trolley car accident during which a metal spike pierced her body and broke her back. She underwent multiple surgeries, wore a corset her entire life, and eventually had to have her right leg amputated. In spite of her physical problems, she led a colorful life, married fellow artist Diego Rivera, became an amazing painter, and exhibited a devil-may-care attitude towards life.
She painted self-portraits, many of which are characterized by her fixed gaze, indigenous attire, strong brushstrokes, and emotional charge. Known for her colorful clothes and thick, black eyebrows, Frida was said to own a room when she entered it. Children would see her walking on the street and ask, “Where’s the circus?” After her leg was amputated, Frida said, “Who needs feet when I’ve got wings to fly?”
LOVE AFFAIR WITH FOOD
One day we explore Mexican gastronomy during a market tour offered by a company called Eat Mexico. Peter and I meet our guide, Carla, a vivacious transplant from the Canary Islands, and two 30-something gals, and the eating commences. Wow. We start with a fabulous shrimp broth, which Carla says is great for hangovers, at a small family-run restaurant, where we also sample octopus and crab tostados. Next we sip multiple flavors of pulque, Mexico’s homebrew, in a pulqueria that’s 147 years old.
That’s what impresses me on this tour: how much history and heritage permeates the food pathways of Mexico. Carla, who also teaches cooking classes, fell in love with the city’s gastronomy when she visited and decided to stay. She’s passionate about local cuisine and enthusiastically shares her knowledge. We stop by a tortilleria and watch corn tortillas being made in an old-fashioned machine—and sample them of course. We smell the rich aroma of vats of ground coffee at a local grinding shop.
We visit two produce markets, where we taste fried grasshoppers (tasty, salty-sweet, and full of protein!), exotic fruits, delicious cheese from Oaxaca, coffee from Veracruz served by the proud owner, molé, salsas, even a salt blend that has bits of dried maguey worms! We sample wine and mescal and eat until we can barely move. It’s an extraordinary tour that teaches so much about Mexico, its people and their love affair with food.
A highlight of our stay is a meal at Azul Historico, one of Mexico City’s most popular restaurants. The festive dining area is a courtyard with a retractable roof and trees lit by candles hanging among the branches. Very romantic—and fabulous food to match the setting. To start, we enjoy a stellar Mexican red wine from the Valley of Guadalupe, a wine region in Baja California. Our appetizer, a Mexican delicacy, is—wait for it—ant eggs! I know it sounds gross, but the little white strands are delicious—creamy, earthy, nutty with the consistency of scrambled eggs. They are served with small corn tortillas, guacamole, and epazote, a Mexican herb I love.
Peter and I are avoiding meat for health reasons, so we opt for vegetarian entrees. I choose hibiscus enchiladas. Who knew flowers could taste so good—tart with a touch of cheese and cream. Yum! Peter orders a seasonal specialty: chiles en nogada. Only available in fall, the dish has its own special ritual. First a black tablecloth is laid on the table, then gold silverware is presented. The chiles arrive decorated with ribbons and filled with fruits and nuts (also available with a meat stuffing), and the server pours the precious walnut sauce over top. Finally a glass of champagne accompanies the festive dish.
Both Peter and I can barely eat everything, but make room for Mexican hot chocolate for dessert. Mine has vanilla and ginger, and Peter’s has anise. Sorbet is the perfect ending to this memorable Mexican meal.
Our last morning we wake up while it’s still dark and head to breakfast on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel overlooking Zocalo Square. Dawn is spilling over the distant mountains, and the square below us is peaceful and quiet. As we sip on coffee, the sun peeks over the horizon, and another day in magical Mexico City begins.
Where To Stay
Zocalo Central Hotel is conveniently located in the Centro, and we loved the rooftop breakfasts! www.centralhoteles.com
For More Information
Coming up in January: Peggy and Peter travel to Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Sign up for TW’s monthly ezine and make sure you don’t miss it.
Find more travel and adventure at www.tidewaterwomen.com/travel-articles.