Mexico City. Ciudad de México. Distrito Federal: el D. F. México. All are names for the capital of Mexico, situated in the state of Mexico, in the valley of Mexico, (too) near the active volcano Popocatépetl.
This past weekend was something called a “puente,” (literally translates to bridge) or a long weekend: 4 days because of “Semana Santa” or holy week… or Easter. So, after 4 hours of sleep on Wednesday night, I got in a car with Daniel and our friends Omar and Pau (siblings, from church) at 6 am to go to Mexico City (called, by most. the D.F.). Now, mind you, I’ve only heard the not great things about Mexico City: largest population in the world (not true), so dirty and smoggy you can’t see the buildings around you, you’ll get mugged, etc. However, after driving almost 6 hours–through Silao, Guanajuato; Querétaro; and a score of other places I can’t remember–we arrived in a city that, in its’ center, looks surprisingly similar to a mix of New York City. Sky scrapers, a national forest called Bosque de Tlalpan, a central park which is situated around the Castle Chapultepec, small side streets with cute homes and coffee shops, and a subway. In other ways, it’s a lot like Washington, D.C.: monuments to national heroes, lots of museums, art, and flowers. Still, it was smoggy enought hat you cuoldn’t see the mountains (or the active volcano).
On our way in, we got stopped by state police, just before entering the actual federal district where they couldn’t stop us anymore. Omar was saying that they stop cars with plates from outside because they know the passengers are coming as tourists and will have lots of money. Something very common here is for police to ask for a mordida or bite, which means asking for money in place of giving you a ticket. Because 2 people in the car didn’t have their seatbelts on (something that is not illegal unless it’s the driver), and because Omar’s license had expired, they had a legitimate–albeit weak, in Mexico–reason to give a ticket. Instead, they asked for 1000 pesos, but Daniel talked them into 200.
We drove away, entered the city, and, what seemed like almost a fairy tale of a main street, called Reforma. It begins in the forest, with art and statues lining the sides and median, and beautiful architecture, and ending in the castle: Maximiliano, from Austria, built the castle on the hill and then created Reforma as a main street leading right to his house. We drove through all this first, then got kind of lost (even with our trusty guide, Lucy, the GPS), but eventually found our way to the hotel, Posada Vienna, this cute little thing on a corner with the expected indigenously Mexican-themed decorations and a thiny elevator with a swinging-open door (kind of scary… we took the 4 flights of stairs instead). Omar and Daniel were in one room, and Pau and I down the hall. Soon after entering the room we discovered that our window led out to an open area with the guys’ window across the way, and Daniel serenaded us (jokingly)!
After checking in, we began our walking tour throughout the city. By “walking” I include subway. The subways were packed, and this being the “holy week,” many people travel out of Mexico City to other places, so I cannot even imagine what it would be like on a normal day.
Did I mention the subway only costs 3 pesos, approximately one quarter USD. At one point, Omar and Pau got into one of the cars and Daniel and I got shut out of it (the doors closed so quickly!) so we had to meet at the next stop. Finally, we got off in the center of the city, because we decided we wanted to first go to the main plaza… well, it wasn’t too interesting, actually, unlike most other cities I’ve been in here. It was a big open square with a giant Mexican flag, and across the street was Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, one of the biggest cathedrals in Mexico. We went in, but it was PACKED. We had to keep with the crowd, like a river, going in only one direction. I think the coolest thing about the cathedral was the pipe organ that took up the entire middle of the cathedral.
After this, we continued walking down the street a while, came across an art museum (which had a line about 200 people long outside of the building, so we were content to just view the lovely statues outside). This time of the year, all the trees have beautiful flowers (especially the purple ones; Becky and I have decided they’re like Mexican versions of lilacs). Walking around, we saw so many interesting things, so there wasn’t an issue for any of us with not going into the museums;
new buildings with lots of modern architecture, old buildings that are starting to lean (noticeably) because Mexico City was built over a lake, long ago; people dressed up in all silver with paint, pretending to be statues…
Eventually we decided that being up since 4 am with only juice and coffee in our stomachs wasn’t a great idea; at about 2 pm we entered the first ever Sanborn’s Restaurant (Sanborns is a huge chain in Mexico, and there is at least one in every major city). This trip was a little difficult for all of us because the church we attend, from the beginning of this week, lasting for 3 weeks, announced a “Daniel’s Fast”, which comes from the book of Daniel, and everyone just eats fruits, vegetables, and legumes. So, I had a salad. However, I do have to say that it was one of my favorite salads, ever, with spinach, mango, walnuts, and some kind of a sweet vinaigrette. And it should be delicious; the food there was quite expensive, with the total coming to about 40 USD for the 4 of us, with no one really getting a very luxurious meal.
From Sanborns we continued on to the central park area and Castle Chapultepec. We arrived at the base of the hill of the castle at about 4:30, and, after an afternoon of walking all over the city, we had to run up the hill because we had heard the castle would close soon. The really neat thing when we got to the top was discovering that our student IDs would get us in free, and allowed us to bypass the line outside the gates! So, Castle Chapultepec was built by Maximiliano, from Austria, and he then built the street Reforma leading from downtown right to his castle. The castle is now a museum, with old carriages, clothing, and other artifacts from the 18th throughearly 20th centuries in Mexico City. Some rooms are also filled with newer artwork, depicting the revolution and other battles. This trip was really a neat experience because Omar knew a lot of information about Mexico City already, and I have been learning a lot about the things we saw in the castle, in my history class (19th Century Mexic0). One thing Daniel told me was that the main tower, at the very top of the castle, is quite infamous because the son of Maximiliano (as the story goes), jumped from said tower, using the Mexican flag as a cloak, to his
death, and this act kind of jump-started the Mexican revolution. Now, don’t quote me on that, because it’s not necessarily historic fact, but it is a legend that people discuss. I think we really spent more time outside the castle, viewing the city from above, than inside, however. From the castle you can see so much of the city, including a building that, at the top, has a restaurant, that each hour makes a revolution around the building.
After leaving Chapultepec and the surrounding garden (complete with pond and swans), we headed in the direction of some of the closer museums. The first we found was one of artifacts from all the pre-hispanic era tribes, like the Aztecs and the Mayans. We saw the Aztec sun stone, also called the Aztec calendar, which, according to many, is what predicts the “end of the world” on December 21, 2012… but those people would be wrong. If anything, it’s the Mayan “long count” (rather than circular) calendar that predicts this, but, according to most Mayan history scholars, this is untrue and unfitting of Mayan culture. The museum really was one of the fascinating parts about our trip, because each room in the museum had a different time period or group of indigenous people, and it was interesting to see how so many of the groups share similar stories (for instance, many were searching for an eagle atop a cactus, holding a snake, in the middle of a lake, as is depicted on the Mexican flag, and this would be their “promised land”).
After this museum, it was getting late and dark, and so we headed back in the direction of the hotel, seeing along the way things like the Calle (street) Reforma with statues of national heroes, ending in the famous Angel of Independence statue (which, funny enough, fell over in an earthquake about 50 years ago), and more of the architecture of the newer parts of the city (including the Mexican version of the New York Stock Exchange). Upon returning to the hotel, we all decided it was time for dinner, and we headed to a part of the city called Santa Fe, a district known specifically for its’ modern architechture, and tried to find (at almost 10 pm) an open restaurant that would serve us something we could eat (we were looking specifically for anything oriental or salads… that’s about all we could hope for). However, we ended up going to an italian restaurant, where I ordered a soup I thought I recognized as always being only vegetables… and yet it came with bacon. Oh, well, such is life when you don’t always understand what the menu says.
The next morning we awoke before 7 am so that we could arrive at the Teotihuacan before 8 am. On our way out of the DF, we noticed that we could actually see the volcano, and the snow that always sits atop it. My first volcano sighting!
We arrived at the pyramids almost before anyone else that morning, and once again, our student IDs helped us with free entry intothe park. Upon arrival, we saw 2 pyramids: one very small right at the entrance, and another down the road a ways. We assumed the small one in front of us was the pyramid of the moon, and so climbed up it, looked around it, and then realized that the other pyramid we saw was the moon pyramid… and the sun pyramid, the largest of them, had been hidden from our view at first by a group of large (and very close) trees. Making our way over to the pyramid of the sun, we glimpsed a group of hot air balloons rising from the mountain behind.
Climbing the pyramid of the sun was not the easiest thing any of us had ever done, because we had walked so much the day before, but it was by far worth it: the view from the top, and being able to say that I’ve been to the top of the pyramid of the sun, makes me feel so much like a world-traveler!