It’s safe to say that many travelers, particularly Americans, are no longer putting Mexico on their bucket list of places to visit. At one time Mexico was easily a top ten tourist destination. Consistent headlines during the last few years about bloody drug cartel violence, however, has changed all that. Dedicated trips are down, as are cruise ship stop overs and border tourism. Yet, many parts of Mexico are perfectly safe to visit, including some of its resorts like Cancun and, in particular, the nation’s capital.
In fact, it may not be going too far out on a limb to say that Mexico City is now one of the most exciting and stimulating cities in the world. The energy is palpable, especially in the art and food world. An added bonus is that it is still one of the most affordable tourist destinations on the planet.
According to a recent USA Today survey, Mexico City is one of the top ten affordable destinations in the world. Airline flights to the Mexican capital are cheap and plentiful. It also has one of the world’s cheapest rates for five star hotels. The cost of a subway ride just rose to a low thirty cents to a still cheap fifty cents. If one is a senior, many museums and other attractions are free.
Mexico City is particularly attractive to visitors in the Southern half of the United States. It takes just three hours to fly from Los Angeles. A long weekend, say Thursday through Tuesday, is a perfect time frame for a trip there.
Yes, visitors should be mindful that parts of Mexico are a danger zone, especially along northern borders and such places as Ciudad Juarez and trouble spots like the western state of Michoacan, which has been in the news lately because of armed citizen vigilantes who are taking the law into their own hands by fighting the cartels themselves. Mexico City, however, has escaped much of the violence. Most of the city’s 10-12 million residents are living their lives, going to work, eating at restaurants, and relaxing in parks just the way folks do in most major cities. There is also a sizable police presence.
Here is one suggested itinerary for an enjoyable long weekend there. One can easily do all of these activities over a five or six day period.
Where to Stay: A great area to choose is the Condesa neighborhood where there are many reasonable bed and breakfasts, such as the Red Tree House. Condesa is a very attractive, hip part of town, mostly residential, about 25 minutes from the airport and four miles west of the Zocalo, the city’s center. Many of the city’s attractions can be walked to from this neighborhood. Condesa itself has fantastic eye-catching art deco and brownstone-line architecture. There are also many tree lined ‘islands’ zigzagging through the area which are perfect for early or late in the day walks. The area also abounds with many great restaurants and nightspots.
City Center: This is a must see since it is the focus of so much Mexican history and culture. The crown jewel of the area is the remains of the major Aztec temple, the so-called Templo Mayor. It’s now a major archeological site. The temple’s exact location was hidden for many years as it was mostly destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors who rebuilt the city for New Spain. In 1978 the site was discovered by electric company workman. The area is slowing being uncovered and one can see substantial parts of the temple along with the remains of serpent statutes, idols and sacrificial altars. There is a museum adjacent that houses artifacts from the site. Imposing also is the nearby Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the largest and oldest Roman Catholic cathedrals in the Americas. Much of the stone used in its building is recycled from destroyed Aztec temples.
Museums: This is where Mexico City really shines. In addition to the museum at the Templo Mayor, there is the National Anthropology Museum. Not only is it the most visited museum in Mexico, it is considered one of the world’s first class museums. It is loaded with incredible archaeological and anthropological artifacts covering Mexico’s pre-Columbian heritage such as the Aztec “Stone of the Sun.” Visitors might be surprised to know that Mexico City has more than 175 museums, including Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya and the new Jumex. Slim is known to be one the richest men in the world. The Museo Soumaya houses some 66,000 pieces of art and features paintings by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Mexico’s own Diego Rivera. The new Jumex is a five story, 4,000 square-foot museum which is the largest contemporary art space in Latin America with a permanent collection of 2,600 pieces by both Latin American and international artists. There are also rotating exhibitions.
Art scene: Mexico City has become a magnet for art and artists, old and new. With a limited schedule visitors should absolutely gravitate to the former home of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Her home is now dubbed Casa Azul or the Blue House and is located a short subway ride south of the city center in the suburb of Coyoacan. Here visitors will not only see her art but can walk through her studio and see her easels, paintbrushes, and notebooks in perfect preservation as though she was out on an errand and is expected to return. She died in 1953. Her husband Diego Rivera and his art is the other must see. His incredible wall murals can be seen at various places around the city including the Palace of Fine Arts and various government buildings like the Ministry of Public Education Building near the city center. In fact, the Ministry of Public Education building is a hidden gem featuring more than 130 wall murals painted by Rivera between 1923 and 1929. It is not mentioned in many tourist guides but it should not be missed.
Xochimilco: Located in the south of the city this World Heritage area is known for its canals. The canals are what is left over from the Aztec civilization of the 16th Century. Mexico City used to be a large lake crisscrossed with canals through artificial islands called chinampas. Visitors can rent trajineras, gondola like boats around the canals. This vestige of remarkable Aztec engineering should be seen.
Teotihuacan: Maybe the bellwether of a short trip to Mexico City is this eight square mile site about 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. This ‘lost city’ contains two pyramids, one dedicated to the sun and one to the moon. The sun pyramid is one of the largest in the world and visitors, if they are up to it, can walk up its steep steps to the summit. The temples are surrounded by the remains of multi-family residential compounds. At its peak it was a large city built around 100 BC containing 125,000 residents. Still shrouded in mystery the area is 1500 years pre-Aztec.
Of course Mexico City has a lot more to offer such as outdoor markets, parks and many other interesting neighborhoods and sites to explore. The city begs for multiple trips.
If someone really wants to whet his or her appetite for Mexico, a good non-tourist book to check out is Bernal Diaz el Castillo’s The True Story of the Conquest of New Spain. Castillo was a foot soldier who accompanied Hernan Cortes to Mexico around 1521. His book is a first hand diary of the exploration, including harrowing battles with the natives, the conquest of Aztec cheiftein Montezuma, and the early colonization of New Spain. It reads like something Robinson Crusoe or Jules Verne would write, only this is truth, not fiction. A visitor’s perceptive on the entire city will be different if they read this book before they go. The time to go to Mexico City is now.
By Jim McCullaugh