I think it’s safe to say that Lisbon may have lulled me into a false sense of security (not to mention a food coma) – after a month living there, I thought I’d got a reasonably good feel for the city, and maybe I was getting the hang of this working/exploring thing. But Mexico City – or CDMX to its friends – is a whole different kettle of tacos. It’s grande in every sense of the word. Way up at 2,250 metres above sea level, even just the central part of the city, home to over 8 million people, is already the size of Greater London and the urban area sprawls far beyond that, giving a total population of over 20 million. You couldn’t hope to get to know the whole place in four short weeks, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only succeeded in scratching the surface of the city this time round.
But what a surface. Tree-lined boulevards, verdant parks, cafes spilling out onto the streets and dog-walkers everywhere. I could be describing Paris. Except here the trees are often purple (the Jacarandas are in bloom), the parks look more like well-kept jungles, the cafes have stiff competition from the street vendors on every corner selling freshly made tacos (ten a penny), and the dog-to-walker ratio is at least 6-to-1. It’s true of course that large swathes of the city are likely nothing like this – we are lucky to be based in the up-and-coming neighbourhoods of La Condesa and Roma Norte – but the same can be said of pretty much any major city in the world. They all have their good and not-so-good districts.
One thing you don’t immediately notice about the surface though, is that it is sinking beneath your feet. According to a study carried out in 2014/5, parts of the city are sinking at a rate of over 20cm a year. This may not sound like a lot, until you see the alarming angles some of the older buildings in the city centre are leaning at as a result. Why? Well, I don’t want to point any fingers, but it can’t be said that the first settlers here–the Aztecs–were unimaginative.
According to legend, what became Mexico City was founded in 1325 by the Aztecs after a decades-long pilgrimage, in search of a sign from their Gods as to where the tribe should settle. Specifically: an eagle on a cactus, eating a snake (which graphic now adorns the Mexican flag). And that is what they apparently found here. Admirably, the fact that the cactus was on a small island in a massive mountain lagoon did not put them off, and so what is now Mexico City sits on what was once a huge lake complex, drained and filled-in with land over the centuries. So a little subsidence here and there is probably understandable.
I’m pleased to say, though, that structural problems aren’t the only things modern Mexico has inherited from its ancestors, as it seems to me that their imagination, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit live on in a big way. From the 101 different ways you can eat tortillas (I strongly recommend virtually all of them), to the woman who drives past our workspace every day with a loudspeaker inviting all and sundry to buy a mattress from the back of her truck (after a month of this I am beginning to be quite tempted), creativity thrives here.
One of the city’s most famous creatives has to be the artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) whose house in the Coyoacán district, La Casa Azul, now serves as a museum dedicated to her life and art. I’ll be the first to admit I knew far too little about Frida’s story before visiting (I hadn’t even seen the film) – and it is far too complex to attempt to repeat here – but one aspect that came as a particular surprise to me was her strong political belief in Communism, which lead to Leon Trotsky staying at La Casa Azul while in exile from Russia. Just a short walk away is the compound to which he then moved and stayed in hiding – although ultimately unsuccessfully, as it is also where he was assassinated. Suffice to say, the hideout of an exiled Russian Communist leader is probably the last place I expected to find myself while in Mexico City.
But getting back to our imaginative friends the Aztecs, one place that you can’t miss if you are visiting CDMX is the ancient city of Teotihuacan, home to some of the largest Mesoamerican pyramids ever built. Except, contrary to popular belief, it turns out that this is one thing the Aztecs can’t take any credit for. The city was built some 1000 years or more before the Aztec tribe happened upon its ruins during their pilgrimage, believing it to have been the home of their Gods. Nonetheless, the Aztecs remain strongly associated with Teotihuacan, with the two major pyramids taking their names from the tribe’s belief that this was the site where the sun and the moon were created by the Gods. Whether or not this is what actually happened, after climbing the 250 or so steps to the top of the majestic Pyramid of the Sun – the third largest pyramid in the world – you can see why they would have believed it.
So it’s been a fascinating month here in CDMX – I’m just very aware that I only saw the tip of the iceberg. All I need now is for someone to imagine up some extra time to explore the rest of the country. In the meantime it’s onwards and upwards to one of the few capital cities at an even higher altitude than this one…
Next month: Bogota, Colombia (via Cuba and Panama City!)