Clark and I traveled to Mexico City in April 2009. Our goal was to really see Mexico and not do the usual beach resorts that most Americans frequent. No Cancun for us, we wanted the real thing. We definitely got it. Mexico City is real, gritty, and full of history and culture. I’d recommend it over a lame resort any day. We came back with full bellies and only one of us caught Swine Flu!
Ciudad de México is the capital and largest city in the country of Mexico. It is also the Federal District, or seat of the federal government, and technically not part of any state, like Washington D.C. It is the most important political, cultural, and financial center in the country.
The Aztecs, also called the Mexica, founded the city in 1325. The city was then called Tenochtitlan. According to the story of the Aztecs, their principal god, Huitzilopochtli, indicated their new home with a sign, an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. The Aztecs took the land by force as well as much of the surrounding lands. By the time the Spaniards came to conquer in 1519, the Aztec Empire reached from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.
Hernán Cortés came to Tenochtitlan with a fairly small army and was at first welcomed by Montezuma. That is, until Cortés placed him under house arrest and eventually took over his city. The Aztecs fought back in an uprising called “La Noche Triste”, or the Night of Sorrows. They were successful for some time, but Cortés came back with a vengeance…and small pox. His army took over the city house by house.
Cortés summarily destroyed the entire city to rebuild it to his liking. The Spaniards maintained the city’s basic layout, adding churches where temples used to be, and renaming the city Mexico (easier to pronounce). For the most part, the city prospered under Spanish rule. They allowed existing cult and culture to exist only within the framework of Catholicism. Social nobility flourished in the city. Many palaces were taken over by wealthy Spaniards and new, even more immaculate ones were built. By the 18th century, the city had earned the nickname “The city of many palaces”.
Independence for Mexico was declared by Agustin de Iturbide in 1821 after he and his army marched into the city. While Iturbide’s regime tried to keep as much of the old order as possible, he soon had to abdicate and Mexico was declared a republic in 1824, with Mexico City as its capital. The new government set up a constitution based heavily on the United States’ system. Money was poured into infrastructure while the people surrounding the city were ignored and poverty increased. This eventually led to the Mexican Revolution. The most important time for the city was the La decena trágica, or “The Ten Tragic Days”. The chief general of the Federal Army led a coup against President Francisco I. Madero. He forced Madero and Vice President Suarez to sign resignations and they were later murdered.
The city grew rapidly in the 20th century. Skyscrapers were built, the city hosted the Olympics, and a metro system was developed. The population doubled between 1960 and 1980 to about 8,831,079. There was an influx of poverty stricken villagers streaming into the city and creating huge overpopulation issues. Shantytowns sprung up on the outskirts and air and water pollution increased to alarming levels.
The corrupt government had its day of reckoning on September 19, 1985 when the Mexico City Earthquake hit. The regime was paralyzed and slow to action. Citizens were left on their own to rebuild the city. This paved the way for a member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution to be elected Mayor and later President.
We enjoyed the food in Mexico City, to say the least. Actually, we loved the food. It was our favorite part. Real Mexican food is wonderful and you can’t beat the prices. We dove right in to the street food and never regretted it. As long as you are careful about which vendors you pick, your risk of illness is low.
Make sure the area they are cooking in looks clean, obviously. Also, don’t eat any meat that has been sitting around in a plastic container or warming tray all day. Go for the ones who are actually cooking right in front of you. There is always the chance that you’ll run into something your stomach doesn’t approve of, though, so be prepared.
Some of our favorite things were the tamales. These are purchased from a street cart with your choice of red or green filled, sometimes with meat. They are the breakfast of choice for many locals. These tamales are unlike anything we ever had in the U.S. They were moist and full of flavor. The cornmeal is prepared just right and the texture was great. The best part? You’ll only pay about 5 pesos (about 40¢) per tamale.
Another dish we enjoyed was Chilaquiles. I’d had this before at a few places in Chicago and was looking forward to trying the real thing. Essentially, the dish is made up of day-old hand made tortillas, scrambled eggs, and salsa. The tortillas are chopped up and fried in a skillet, then the eggs and salsa are added with lots of spices. Sometimes shredded chicken or pork is added as well. It is also topped with a shredded cheese. Its quite delicious and I highly recommend it.
You can’t write about food in Mexico City without mentioning the tacos. We were in taco heaven. You could get a taco for about 10 pesos or 80¢. The quality and flavor of the meats were delicious and the hand made tortillas we perfect. Our favorite was Al Pastor. We never got anything back in Chicago, even in Pilsen , that quite compared to the tastiness of these guys. A typical taco in Mexico City consists of a small corn tortilla (preferably hand made by a little old lady), meat of your choice, onions, and cilantro. Forget refried beans, lettuce, or cheese. Sorry, Taco Bell. I suggest being bold and going for the mystery meats. It might be goat, brain, stomach, or tongue, but we never had anything that we didn’t like. Sure, we didn’t love some of the more uncommon meats, but they were interesting.
A popular drink in Mexico City is the Michelada. We still crave them on warm summer days. A traditional Michelada is beer, lime juice, and clamato. It is served in a glass, or big paper cup, with the rim salted and caked with pepper and chili powder. Doesn’t sound good? Just try it! I think you’d be surprised. Another variation leaves the clamato and chili powder out and makes it into sort of a “beergarita”: beer, lime, salted rim. I highly recommend making your own for your next BBQ. Yum!
Another popular drink we saw the locals enjoying was tequila y sangrita. Sangrita is a juice that combines tomato, chili, lime, orange juice, and sometimes other fruit juices. It is sipped along aside a shot of quality tequila. It sounds gross, but was actually quite good!
The city itself has a lot to see and do, which may surprise some. There are some great museums, parks, and buildings. We spent a few days walking around the little area where our hostel was, as well as visiting the museum, Teheotuican, and Xochimilco.
We found the people to be fairly friendly, even though they didn’t understand a lot of what we were saying. Don’t expect to hear or see much English. If your Spanish skills are minimal like ours, it’ll be quite an adventure ordering food or asking for directions. At a restaurant we order something hoping that we said it correctly. We’d get a response from the waiter or waitress, usually a question. We would answer with “si” and see what we get. We were never disappointed.
The National Museum of Anthropology
This museum has some great pre-Columbian artifacts including the Stone of the Sun. The architecture is beautiful in and of itself. The museum is chronologically divided into different buildings. The admission fee is about $4.
This place is quite impressive. You’ll ride a bus from the north bus terminal that leaves every 30-60 minutes. It costs about $4 to get in to the park. This is a large archeological sight that contains some of the largest pyramids pre-dating the pre-Columbian Americas. The city was built around 200 BC and is thought to have had nearly 200,000 citizens at its peak. You’ll walk through the Aztec ruins and climb up huge and imposing stone pyramids. The Pyramid of the Sun is the second largest in the world.
TIP: You’ll be approached over and over to purchase trinkets and toys. Get used to saying “No, Gracias!”
These “floating gardens” are like the Venice of Mexico. It is a little touristy, but wasn’t extremely crowded and worth the trip. You’ll pay about $10 per person to hire a boat to take you up and down the river. You’ll see little houses, chapels, and gardens lining the shore where the locals live and work. Other boats will float by, some with costumers like you and others with Mariachi bands who will stop and play for you for a fee. There are also boats floating around selling food and Micheladas. They float right up and hand you what you want. It was quite relaxing floating on the river, listening to boats of musicians, seeing families float by, and sipping our Micheladas.
This is not an ice cream town. You will mostly find fresh fruit and juice to combat the heat. This was good, but I like ice cream. You could get some pre-packaged stuff from street vendors, but I wasn’t satisfied.
While we had a great time in Mexico City and I liked it a lot, I’ll admit that it isn’t all rosy. The city on a whole is very dirty. There is garbage everywhere, in the streets, the sidewalks, and the parks. There is also a huge pollution problem because of the massive number of cars in the city. Not unlike L.A., there is a cloud of smog that hovers above the city, especially on very hot days when there is no wind. The tap water is polluted and undrinkable as well. It is also sad to see the poverty of many of the inhabitants. On our bus ride out to Teotihuacan, we saw miles and miles of shacks. None of these things would keep me from going there, but I felt they should be mentioned.
3-Days in Mexico City
Day 1: See the City
- Start your day with some tamales from a street vendor.
- Walk around the city, hitting up the major ears like The Plaza de la Constitución, or Zocalo, Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace, or Templo Mayor.
- Head over to the Anthropological Museum and spend a few hours learning the history of the city.
- Grab a few tacos for lunch.
- Hang out at a restaurant in the evening sipping your Michelada or Tequilla y Sangrita
Day 2: Teotihuacan
- Start your day with some tamales from a street vendor.
- Get on the bus and head to the ruins. You’ll probably spend all day there. Pack a picnic lunch and you’re good to go!
- Find a good restaurant with some live music and splurge a little on dinner.
Day 3: Xochimilco
- Find a little restaurant that serves Chilaquiles and enjoy a nice breakfast with fresh squeezed orange juice.
- Take the Tram to Xochimilco and hire your boat for a few hours. Don’t forget to order your drinks!
- Walk around the little village and market where the boat leaves you off and have some dinner.
- If you have time and are up for more, visit the Museo Frida Kahlo.