Teotihuacán

Located about an hour outside Mexico City, lies arguably one of the greatest archaeological sights in all of North America, if not the world, Teotihuacán!  The city, registered as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, emerged around 100 BC and died out some time between the 7th and 8th century.  Surprisingly, no-one quite knows who built Teotihuacán, though the name itself is from the Aztec Nahuatl language, and is thought to mean the "City of the Gods."  Whoever founded the civilization, Toltecs vs.Totonac, did not really matter to us.  What did matter is the fact that many believe its infamous pyramids have connections to extraterrestrials!

Our concierge hooked us up with an all day tour that set out quite early in the morning.  The tour also included stops at Tlatelolco and the Villa de Guadalupe (see below for descriptions).  After re-boarding and crossing the entirety of vast Mexico City we carried on another 30 minutes, past hundreds of make shift homes made out of junk littered along the highway.  The slums looked almost exactly like the ones we had recently seen throughout Brazil and Argentina except that the homes near Teotihuacán were made out of grey cinderblock instead of red.  After miles and miles of these grey hillside neighborhoods, we truly felt as though we had left “civilization” behind.

Before reaching our final destination, our driver Jorge took us to an artisans complex to witness Aztec-style masks being crafted out of obsidian (see “goodies.”)  After an hour of hard sales and heated anticipation, we were finally back on the van on our way to Teotihuacán.  Jorge first led us through the Quetzalpapalotl palace, a meandering temple with some pretty impressive wall paintings.  Thought to have been the Royal residence of Teotihuacán, the palace of Quetzalpapalotl is located southwest of the Pyramid of the Moon on the west side of the "Avenue of the Dead."  The building lay in ruins until the 1960's, when restoration work began.  Much of this temple has now been reconstructed to show how it would have looked "back in the day," complete with figures of quetzal-mariposa, a mythical bird/ butterfly that appear painted on walls, or carved into the pillars of the inner court

The Pyramid of the Moon lies at the end of Teotihuacán’s broad central thoroughfare, the "Avenue of the Dead," which itself is flanked by impressive ceremonial architecture.  When the Aztecs discovered Teotihuacán, they believed the talud-tablero platforms which flank the main thoroughfare were tombs, inspiring the name of the avenue.  (These small structures are now known to be ceremonial platforms that were once topped with temples.)  Unlike the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, the structures at Teotihuacán aren't build of solid stone.  Instead, they consist of stone and brick rubble covered with layers of cut stone.  It is believed that the Pyramid of the Moon was constructed between 200 and 450 A.D.  The platform atop the pyramid was once used to conduct ceremonies in honor the goddess of water and of the moon, while a slope in front of the staircase gives access to the other structures of Teotihuacán via the “Avenue of the Dead.”

One of these structures, the Pyramid of the Sun, is the 3rd largest pyramid in the world - behind the collapsed great pyramid of Cholula in Puebla, Mexico and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt!  Many believe the the pyramid to have special healing powers.  We must confess, we joined the masses, climbing all the way to the top of the mammoth 233.5 feet tall structure to take in the panoramic views.  Getting to the apex, however, is not as easy as it looks.  Many of the steps are short and narrow, and with the momentum of the crowd swarming all around, you there is not much time to stop and rest.  Don’t even attempt this if you are less than able-bodied!

The view down onto the “Avenue of the Dead” is quite intriguing.  The minions of visitors below appear as "insignificant" as ants following in lines to their desired destinations.  Because of the constant trampling of tourists such as these, the Pyramid of the Sun is somewhat softened and muddled as though the top of it had been ground into a mortar.   So why are all these people flocking here each year?  Well, it is thought that the Pyramid of the Sun venerated a deity within the Teotihuacán society, but the destruction of the original temple on top of the pyramid has so far prevented identification of any particular deity.  Still, visitors to the pyramid seem entranced by the powers accumulating here.  We saw many a sun worshiper that afternoon, raising their hands in the sky to tap into that undefined solar energy.  A small metal divot which harnesses the energies of the pyramid is found underneath the clamor of tourists milling about.  We all touched it for a few moments and then arose to feel slightly wobbly and light-headed.  It really was quite freaky, kind of like a ‘60s “love-in,” yet without drugs and on top of a pyramid - with families.

Of course, the “Avenue of the Dead” does not just stop with the Pyramid of the Sun; it continues on to the temple of the feathered serpent, also knows by the Aztecs as the Palace of Quetzalcoatl.  Sadly, it was boiling hot (even in January) and after the trek up and down the Pyramid of the Sun, we could not go on any longer.  After a brief rest, and a trip to a nearby restaurant, we hopped back into our van and fell asleep during our ride home.  The groovy sounds of Rocio Durcal was our soundtrack for the journey back to Mexico City.  When we asked our driver the name of the artist he gave us the CD!  Now that’s what we call hospitality.

Set of Drifters tip:  We would have loved this adventure so much more if there had been less people swarming around, but what can you do?  Of course “lots of tourists” = lots of bad souvenirs.  Our guide Jorge told us that we should not answer, or even look at, any of the numerous vendors wandering around the “Avenue of the Dead.”  These shiesters will hold up objects and say "$1," and then when you hand over the money they advise you that the "bargain price" is actually just to take a photo with said object!  WTF??

If you need help booking your tour to Teotihuacán’s “Avenue of the Dead," please shoot us an email and we can hook you up with more information, and perhaps even a discount!

Teotihuacán - Avenida Tuxpan, San Martin Centro, San Martin De Las Piramides,        011 (52) 04455-1072-7936


http://teotihuacan.com.mx/




Xochimilco Floating Gardens

One of the more visually unique places to visit in Mexico City is the “floating gardens of Xochimilco,” located within a small borough south of Mexico City.  What used to be the very large ancient lake of Xochimilco (pronounced So-Chee-Milk-O), is now a series of canals that you can enjoy with the locals on Sundays - or with loads of other tourists any day of the week.  Each boat, or "trajinera," is guided from the Embarcadero through the canals by a gondolier.   (Please remember to tip these guys because they work really hard for their money!)  The trajineras are painted in bright flamboyant colors and festooned with signs made out of tissue paper that display the boat's name.  (Our boat was called “Magdalena.”)

What makes the experience so fun and different is the fact that you can shop for bootlegged Simpsons toys without leaving your boat!  And that’s just the beginning.  Food and souvenir vendors float by on separate vessels, sliding up against your trajinera to sell you anything from roasted corn on the cob to buckets of beer based on your interest.  We opted for a "restaurant boat" which sold us some amazingly simple meals of rice, chicken, cactus and tortillas.  The food was cooked right in front of us and resulted in some of the tastiest Mexican fare we experienced throughout our trip.  And it’s all so easy!  You don’t even need to return the plates and silverware as the vendors come to collect them after your boat ride!

The flat section at the front of each trajinera is the best seat in the boat to watch the world go by, and overall, the journey is very serene and relaxing with its leisurely pace.  Some locations along the route looked almost too picture perfect; their flora and fauna so perfectly coiffed that it reminded us somewhat of “It’s A Small World” at Disneyland.  Of course, first impressions can be deceiving...  Just beyond the banks in the background, you can see the taxis and houses that butt up against the canals.  It is curious that people actually live right along the banks of this very heavily-visited tourist destination.  We can’t imagine that it is a very peaceful existence with the food vendors and mariachi bands constantly floating up and down the canals in search of customers or tips.  Not to mention the noise from barking wild dogs who wait along the sides of the canals for any food scraps that may be thrown their way.

After you disembark, there is a huuuuge market just off to the side.  We spent quite a long time browsing through the various trinkets, and unfortunately, not finding all that much of interest.  While the prices are better here than in the city, you’ll have to scour through loads of junk that you would probably never buy unless you were a compulsive shopper.  Every stall seems to have the same stuff so make sure you follow Doug’s rules and don’t buy anything from the first shop.  Check out the prices first and head furthest away from the foot traffic to secure a good bargain.  Or, if you are looking for more unusual artisan items, check out the of the other Mexico City markets listed in the “goodies” section.

Although very touristy, we really enjoyed the experience at Xochimilco.  For roughly USD $20 you can take a (mostly) relaxing 45-minute boat ride.  Of course, the dinero doesn't start passing through hands until after you have disembarked and consumed whatever you desire from the bucket 'o beers available on board.  Make sure not to go too crazy en route otherwise you may not have enough money to pay at the end!

Set of Drifters tip:  Movies filmed in Xochimilco throughout the years have given the area a romantic reputation, much like its obvious comparison of Venice, Italy.  Yet, Xochimilco is decidedly more rugged.  Whatever you do, don’t fall in to the canal!  The water reeks of gasoline and we even noticed a dead dog lying on the banks alongside numerous cans and trash.

Xochimilco Floating Gardens - Metro to Tasqueña Station (Line2), then take Tren   Ligero to the end of the line (or just grab a taxi which is what we did!)

http://www.xochimilco.df.gob.mx/



Catedral Metropolitana and the Zócalo

When visiting Mexico City, it is virtually impossible to avoid its bustling center, the Zócalo.  Imagine going to New York City for three or four days and never passing by Times Square!  The modern Zócalo in Mexico City is 240 meters wide, which makes it the 2nd largest "square" of its kind in the world, just behind Moscow's famed “Red Square,” and with its holiday decor and grandiose political and religious structures, the Zócalo definitely brought us right back to our New Year's trip to Russia back in 2006.  The Palacio Nacional is much like Moscow's Kremlin, and the majestic Catedral Metropolitana certainly rivals the St. Basil's Cathedral in ornateness, if not color and whimsy.

One thing that has impressed us about all of the Latin American countries we have visited is the proliferation of grand architecture.  Then again, it should really be no surprise.  The United States of America is such a young country when compared to Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico.  It just can't keep up with the added years of history so many countries have to offer!  Another concept that has kept creeping into our minds over and over again is how Euro-centric many Americans are when it comes to travel.  Everyone grows up with this idea that Europe is so great, and it is, but there are many locations that are closer (and cheaper to access) that offer so-called "world-class" art, design, architecture and shopping.  Mexico City is certainly one of them.

Taking center stage in Mexico City’s Zócalo is the incredible Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, the oldest (and largest) cathedral in the Americas.  When the Spanairds first claimed the city in 1521 there was an Aztec temple on this site.  So, naturally, they just mowed it down and built their church on top of it! Construction began in 1573, but its many sections were not completed until the 1800's.  Drawing inspiration from various European cathedrals of Gothic design, Spanish architect Claudio de Arciniega infused the project with an extravagant amount of ornate detail, borrowing heavily from three architectural styles that predominated during the Spanish colonial period: Renaissance, Neo-classic, and Baroque.  Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the exterior of the cathedral is its two main bell towers that encase 25 bells between them!  The massive gnarled wood doors are another must-see before heading inside.  Their weather-beaten imperfections making for the perfect backdrop for your next Facebook profile pic!

Naturally, the interior of the Catedral Metropolitana is equally as stunning, overflowing with passionate tapestries, paintings, statuary, and enough gold to gild more than a million lilies.  The spectacular sculpted altar of Spanish architect Jerónimo Balbás is well worth a visit and easily accessible at the front of the cathedral interior.  Of course, your eyes will undeniably travel upwards to the magnificently vaulted ceiling.  Be sure to seek out the incredible choir loft and conglomeration of pipe organs in the center of the cathedral!  We took more than a handful of photos from the ground up.  Set of Drifter Brady was immediately reminded of a good quote from a Tom Robbins book that he had been reading at the time which was meant to describe a similar cathedral in Lima, Peru: "vaulted ceilings strained to scruff [the] lofty beams on the doormat of heaven, only to be yanked back to earth by the leaden weight of statuary and a sad geology of catacomb bones.”

Heading back outside, the bells of the Catedral Metropolitana started ringing.  It was a pretty extraordinary moment that further solidified the passion that exudes from every cobblestone of this soulful city.

Set of Drifters tip:  While touring the interior, make sure to watch out for the pendulum that demonstrates the tilt of the building throughout the years.  (Sadly, the entire building is literally sinking into the soft soil of what was once a vast lake.)  Oh, and once back out in the Zócalo, remember that the organ grinders of Mexico City are a scam!  While one dude grinds the music, another walks through the crowd forcing you to hand over money!  Still, don’t let that deter you from checking out some of the other great street performers that set up shop in the Zócalo.

Catedral Metropolitana de     la Asunción de María -     Plaza de La Constitución, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 55 5510 0440


Centro Histórico architecture and the Torre LatinoAmerica

Like we have mentioned before, much of Mexico is a strange concoction of classic architecture, chic modern buildings, and what can only be considered as a mixture between the two - modern buildings that are severely run down and therefore look old.  Recently, Set of Drifter Brady has noticed that he is becoming increasingly more interested of taking images of lost moments and hidden corridors, and Mexico City, specifically its Centro Histórico, has plenty of them.  While on a walking tour of the Centro, make sure to keep you eye out for the stunningly ornate religious buildings (they are on almost every other block), and even the public works buildings that get similar treatment.  The main post office stands out as a beacon of that old adage “they just don't make ‘em like this anymore, kids.”

As congested as the city’s Centro Histórico may be, it seems there are very few tall buildings here, or anywhere in Mexico City.  That being said, there is one skyscraper that sticks out like a sore thumb smack dab in the middle of the Centro Histórico.  We happen to like sore thumbs so, after a jaunt to the Catedral Metropolitana (see above), we made a B-line to the Torre LatinoAmerica building.

When it was constructed in 1956, the Torre LatinoAmerica was the tallest building in Latin America, and the fourth tallest in the world outside of New York City.  Its position has slipped considerably since then.  Nevertheless, from the various viewing platforms, one is subject to a series of daunting views of the extremely vast city below.  Unexpectedly, the Torre LatinoAmerica also houses a great exhibit on the 37th floor devoted to 20th Century architecture in Mexico City.  Photographs by Frida Kahlo’s father Guillermo are on display within the gallery!  Make sure you take some time to view this exhibit; more than likely you will have no choice since the queues to the top of the building take some time to conquer.

The Torre LatinoAmerica is known as "the tallest building ever exposed to a huge seismic force."  Back in 1957, the tower survived a huge earthquake while many other buildings around it crumbled to the ground.  The architectural design of the Torre LatinoAmerica is rooted in steel frame construction with deep-seated pylons, necessary given Mexico City's propensity towards earthquakes - and its muddy soil composition.

Visiting the Torre LatinoAmerica is somewhat like touring the Empire State Building in New York. Everyone (and their madre) is trying to get the best aerial view of themselves set against the city.  The 37th floor will be your first stop after getting off the main lifts.  Your view here will be marred not only by the erratically-placed gift shop, but also by the thousands of finger and hand prints offered onto the windows by sticky young kids wielding lollipops!  If you are able-bodied, head on up the narrow staircases to the 44th floor.  This vantage point offers some pretty amazing vistas in which the outskirts of Mexico City seem to spread out forever and ever.  From one side, check out the tiny little Zócalo, complete with the Palacio Nacional, the Catedral Metropolitana, and that Mexican flag waving in the center (still huge even way up here)!  From the other side, witness an almost bird’s eye view of the splendid domed roof of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (see below for more information).

Make sure you bring your camera, and a friend, to help you snap a photo or two.  There is a cage that prevents anyone from falling off the viewing platform, but just be careful not to drop your camera when dangling it outside to grab the best shot of your group, or if you are visiting at twilight, the incredible sunset!

The cost to travel up the elevator to the 37th floor is $50 pesos for adults (about USD $5 ), and $40 pesos for children (about USD $4).  The lift is open daily from 10:00 AM to 11:00 PM.

Set of Drifters tip:  The vibe of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico changes once night falls.  The "Chinatown" tucked away between a few streets south of the Paseo de la Reforma show that other cultures certainly thrive within this bustling metropolis.  While the neighborhood may be small compared to other cities like Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco, have no fear, shopkeepers still find enough room to cram in some cheap souvenir shops! 




Torre LatinoAmerica - 1 Centro, Cuauhtemoc, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 5518 7423

http://www.torrelatino.com/




Templo Mayor

We were not quite sure what secrets were held by the archaeological site Templo Mayor, a crazy complex of ruins situated right in the middle of the Centro Histórico and adjacent to the Zócalo.  The "templo mayor" ("great temple") was one of the main constructions built by the indigenous Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which you may know is present day Mexico City.  Construction of the complex began way back in 1390, yet its discovery camel very late in the archaeology game, 1982 to be exact!  Most of the complex had been buried under centuries of Mexican history.

In 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés ordered a Catholic cross placed on the Templo Mayor but did not stop there.  After the fall of Tenochtitlan, all Aztec temples, including the Templo Mayor, were sacked; all objects of gold and other precious materials were invariably thieved.  Due to the Spanish occupation, the temple’s exact location was then forgotten for hundreds of years, and while portions of the complex were discovered in the 1930's, 1940's and 1960's by different archaeology exploits, the first full-scale excavation did not get under way until 1976!  Large displays alongside the tour show the laborious process of excavation throughout the years; to fully explore the complex, the team had to demolish 13 modern-day buildings, revealing a misbegotten aqueduct that at one time was tunneled straight through the temple!

In happier times, the Aztecs dedicated the temple to two gods, Huitzilopochtli (“god of war”) and Tlaloc (“god of rain and agriculture”).  After the initial construction, the temple complex was rebuilt on top of itself six times over!  Each new ruler sought to expand the temple to reflect the growing greatness of the city of Tenochtitlan.  Therefore, archaeologists who dug through this temple complex in the late 1970's were able to see generation after generation of Aztec rule.

So what did they find?  Some pretty impressive stone carvings, including gorgeous serpent heads that were sculpted to guard the base of the main staircase, and intricately-carved eagle heads.  They also chiseled away centuries of stone deposits to reveal an entire wall of skulls!  You see, during the Aztec reign, the decapitated remains of sacrificed prisoners were often mounted on wooden stakes and arranged in such a way as to impress and/ or intimidate!

While touring the site it occurred to us that much of the exterior is just sitting out in the open, set against the backdrop of modern day Mexico City.  We would have thought that the ruins of the temple would be completely sheltered from the outside elements, but that is not the case here.  And yet, it is this juxtaposition of old and new that makes the Templo Mayor so interesting.  Where else can you see the melting of three such diverse cultures - the native Aztecs, the Spanish colonists and the modern day Mexican - all literally on top of one another?

A museum adjacent to the temple was built in 1987 to house the finds of the massive archaeological project completed earlier in that decade.  The main hall of the museum features a reconstruction of how things might have looked during the time of the Aztec reign.  This interesting display shows how the pyramids were often built on top of one another thereby extending further and further out to create a larger structure.  There are so many unusual objects on display in this museum that is undeniably overwhelming.  Be on the lookout for a skeleton of a saber-toothed tiger, numerous comical masks and carved stone pieces and the impressive life-size "eagle knight" sculptures!

The Templo Mayor complex and Museo del Templo Mayor are open for self-guided tours Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM; closed on Mondays for maintenance.  Adults are $16 pesos (about USD $1.40), making this an extremely affordable attraction with a lot of educational value!  If you are in town on a Sunday, entrance is FREE for all!  Guided tours are also available by calling in advance at 01 (52) 55 542 4784.  These tours (in Spanish or English) begin at 9:30, 11:30, 2:30 and 4:30 Tuesday through Friday.  There are only two guided tours on Saturdays at either 10:00 AM or 12:00 Noon. 

Templo Mayor and Museo del Templo Mayor - Seminario 8, 06060, Centro Histórico, Metro Zócalo, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 55 5542 4943

http://www.templomayor.inah.gob.mx/


San Ángel (neighborhood)/ Ex-convento e Iglesia del Carmen

To really see some of the most vibrant and interesting attractions in Mexico City, one must leave the Centro Histórico and the Zócalo behind.  Retaining the cobblestones of yore, the charming barrio of San Ángel is dotted with pleasant gardens, parks and plazas, as well as stunning architectural details.  San Ángel also serves as the center for many different cultural and artistic activities for the city.

Our first stop in San Ángel was the Ex-convento e Iglesia del Carmen.  Built for Carmelite monks in the 17th century, the Convent of el Carmen complex features a museum of religious artifacts as well as a basement crypt occupied by mummified priests, nuns and nobility!  Of course, the main attraction very well may be those three gorgeous multicolored domes.  The cost to visit “one of the most important Colonial art galleries” in Mexico is $25 pesos (about USD $2.50), though entrance is FREE on Sundays.  (Students, professors and children under the age of 12 are FREE every day.)  The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and well worth a visit if only to stroll through its picturesque courtyard.  In fact, we had to peel ourselves away in order to take in the rest of San Ángel’s sumptuous pulse.

Just west of the Ex-convento e Iglesia del Carmen is the Plaza San Jacinto, the triangular city space that houses the shopper’s paradise known as “Bazar de Sábado.”  This weekly marketplace is a must for those looking for more interesting objects d’art (see “goodies” for more information), though we highly recommend another attraction that is just a bit further out of the way, the famed art studio and apartment of notorious Mexican muralist and painter Diego Rivera (see below).

Ex-convento e Iglesia del Carmen - Avenida Revolución número 4 y 6 esquina Monasterio, San Ángel, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 5616 2816


Museo Casa Estudio de Diego Rivera

The pair of buildings at the corner of what is now calles Diego Rivera and Altavista in San Ángel was considered one of the first functionalist houses built in the city.  Designed in the 1930’s by Juan O’Corman, the building caused somewhat of a controversy as its boxy form bucked then current architectural trends.  The edifice still startles to this day with its stark facade so well contrasted against the wall of organ pipe cacti planted out front.

Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s celebrated Mexican muralist Diego Rivera spent much time here in the white apartment attached to his studio, while the blue apartment on the right belonged to his paramour Frida Kahlo.  Today, the set of apartments houses an art gallery devoted to the life and work of Rivera, who aside from being married on-and-off to Kahlo, is best known for helping to establish the Mexican mural renaissance.  From the 1920's through the 1950's, he painted large politically charged murals in Mexico City, San Francisco, Chapingo, Cuernavaca, Detroit and New York.

Strolling through his apartment and studio is like stepping into a time machine as virtually everything has been left intact.  Paintbrushes lay waiting in a jar in the studio, watched over by a cadre of large papier-mâché monsters looming in the shadows.  A bust of Mao Tse Tung rests on a bureau in the bedroom next to a bed that seems not nearly large enough to support the gigantic frame of the muralist.

A walkway on the second floor joins the two apartments, yet separated the two artists when they were entertaining "others."  Because their marriage was often tumultuous, Rivera and Kahlo traded spaces between this complex in San Ángel and Frida's childhood home in the nearby neighborhood of Coyoacán.  In fact, Frida's blue apartment in San Ángel was painted to resemble “La Casa Azul” (see below).

Mexico is clearly very proud of this artistic heritage.  The grounds of the Museo Casa Estudio de Diego Rivera and Frida's "Blue House" were both maintained impeccably.  Hours of operation are 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM Tuesday through Sunday.  Admission to the Diego Rivera museum is $10 pesos (about USD $1), but FREE on Sundays.  Expect to pay an additional nominal fee if you want to take photos inside (no flash allowed).



Museo Casa Estudio de Diego Rivera - Diego Rivera 2, Altavista, Álvaro Obregón, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 5550 1189

http://www.estudiodiegorivera.bellasartes.gob.mx/



Chapultepec Park and the Museo Nacional de Antropología

One truly memorable excursion that is a must in Mexico City is a trip to Chapultepec Park and the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Anthropology Museum).  In fact, you could probably make this a two or three day excursion depending on how much time you spend in the cavernous museum!  We might have missed visiting this dazzler altogether if it wasn’t for the fact that our friend Michele had taken a bad fall at a nightclub the night prior.  With two days left on our vacation we needed to find attractions that would be easily accessible via wheelchair!

But, first things first.  Chapultepec Park itself is truly beautiful, well-sculpted and manicured like New York’s famed Central Park, and equally as expansive.  It was just our luck that there was a unique exhibit of Leonora Carrington’s three dimensional sculpture taking place along the park’s main thoroughfare.  Carrington's works are a complex web of mysticism, animism and other space-age oddities that delves deep into the worlds of alchemy and magic.  Carrington was born in Britain, and after falling into the world of the Parisian surrealists, she began an affair with Max Ernst.  Escaping the horrors of Nazi Europe, Carrington arrived in Mexico in the 1940's where she began intermingling in the same artistic circles as Frida Kahlo (see below), Remedios Varo and Tina Modotti.  Today, Carrington, who is known throughout the world as one of the main pillars of surrealism, still lives in Mexico City.  In 2007, she celebrated her 90th birthday!

We loved looking at Carrington’s public art, the perfect appetizer for Mexico City's piece d'resistance, el Museo Nacional de Antropología.  The National Anthropology Museum is actually comprised of two smaller bodies, one behemoth space focusing on Pre-colonial anthropology, and another located in the Chapultepec Castle, which focuses on the Spanish occupation of the city which began in the 1500’s.  We only had time to hit up the Anthropology Museum, which with its 23 separate galleries, covers an area of about 20 acres!  From the entrance, this place totally blew the museum at the Templo Mayor (see above) literally out of the water with its incredible cylindrical fountain pillar!  (You just have to see it to believe it.)

Once inside the hallowed halls, visitors are immediately surrounded by the many haunting cultures of Mexico.  Olmecs, Toltecs, Aztecs, Mayans, you name it.  The amazing sculptures, artifacts and models of these sophisticated civilizations are all here for you to explore.  The collection is truly breathtaking, albeit a little overwhelming.  Get acquainted with Chac Mool, a Mayan sacrificial statue from the region of Chichen Itza, or meet Coatlicue, "the mother of gods," who gave birth to the moon, stars, and the god of the sun and war!  The Olmec wrestler dudes were pretty groovy; the giant “Papa Olmec” statue was as tall as a standard human!  Of course, how can you miss the main gallery’s central focal point, a large monolithic sculptural disc excavated from the Zócalo's Templo Mayor site that is often informally considered to be one of the national symbols of Mexico?

But if you thought the INSIDE of the museum was spectacular, just wait until it spills you out into a series of gargantuan exterior exhibits!  (Cue the Indiana Jones theme music.)  And yes, even though the faux temple scenarios are all completely fabricated, they are still pretty kick-ass.  There is even a small scale replication of the "Avenue of the Dead" from Teotihuacán (see above)!

While visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropología, we were lucky enough to be able to take in one of the special weekly performance of the Ballet Folklórico de México held on the grounds of the museum in their aesthetically charming auditorium (see below for more information).  We pretty much spend the entire day here from midday to almost midnight!  It was the perfect ending to our Mexico City sojourn!


The Museo Nacional de Antropología is open 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM Tuesday through Sundays, closed like most Mexico City museums on Mondays.  Ticket prices are $51.00 Mexican pesos (about USD $5).  Entrance if FREE for children under thirteen, students, and teachers, as well as the general public on Sundays!  Make sure to check out the well-equipped gift shop just off from the main lobby!



Museo Nacional de Antropología - Av. Paseo de la Reforma y calzada Gandhi s/n, Col. Chapultepec Polanco, Delegación Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 5553 6332, 01 (52) 5553-6266

http://www.mna.inah.gob.mx/index.html 




Coyoacán/ Plaza Hidalgo/ Iglesia San Juan Bautista

Fan of more quiet and quaint neighborhoods oozing with charm?  When in Mexico City, look no further than the village of Coyoacán, south of Mexico City proper.  Coyoacán is the Spanish translation of the Nahuatl name "coyohuacan” which actually means "place where they have coyotes" - who knew?  Perhaps the most famous attraction of this locale is Frida Kahlo’s “Blue House” (see below).  Though, even if you are not interested in seeing the fabulous Museo Frida Kahlo, we recommend a stroll through the surrounding environs.  There was something about Coyoacán that actually reminded us a lot of Buenos Aires and the higgledy-piggledy village of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro.  And even though the pace is quieter here, there is still much to see and do (and buy - if the price is right!)

Coyoacán's bustling marketplace (yes, yet another one) is called Plaza Hidalgo.  Hot-ass breakdancers perform in the center of the plaza amidst a horde of other buskers not unlike the ones you might find at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf or New York's Union Square.  (It turns out “silver people” really are EVERYWHERE!)  After trying to steer clear of a huge stoop sale featuring oodles of vintage Mexican vinyl, we ran into some other street entertainers who were putting on some faux wedding ceremonies for the locals.  We didn't quite get the concept to be honest, but the red clown nose was ace!

One of the main features of Plaza Hidalgo is the Jardín del Centanario.  Like much of Mexico City while we were in town, it was under renovation and pretty much inaccessible.  Nevertheless, there was still much to browse in and around Plaza Hidalgo, a nexus point of Mexico City’s many different architectural styles.  The main draw here is probably the magnificent Iglesia de San Juan Bautista.

Like the others we had seen in Mexico City, this jumbo church edifice was equally impressive on the inside as it was on the outside.  The elegant Baroque altarpiece dates from the 17th century and features all of the gold-and-glitz we had come to expect from Mexico City’s most prominent basilicas.  The day we were visiting, a gaggle of sharply-dressed mariachi gentlemen were practicing in the wings of the church.  It seems there was a wedding in the midst.  All tuckered out and taking refuge in the pews of the beautiful church, the impromptu performance was quite a nice, and unexpected way to spend an afternoon.

Set of Drifters tip:  Get off the main roads!  If you have some extra time, get lost in the side streets of Coyoacán, or any neighborhood you may be visiting.  Take your camera and capture those rare moments of everyday life that you may have missed if taking the road more traveled.  Just remember to always use common sense.  If a place looks unsafe, turn back around and head for the crowds as there usually is safety in numbers.



Iglesia San Juan Bautista - Jardín del Centenariio, Villa Coyoacán, Mexico City, Distrito Federal


Museo Frida Kahlo (Coyoacán)

On the corner of Calle Allende and Calle Londres in the charming neighborhood of Coyoacán lies a little blue house.   Well, it is not such a little house actually.   This is the "Museo Frida Kahlo" which stands at the site of Frida Kahlo's childhood home "La Casa Azul."   Um yeah, we were pretty thrilled to be here after having been fans of the Surrealist artist for so long.  Frida's vibrant (and sometimes painful) pieces were not widely recognized until decades after her death.   In fact, until the early 1980s she was often remembered more for simply being Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's wife.  But if there was any doubt as to Miss Kahlo's position in today’s art world, the line outside “La Casa Azul” proves that she has all but eclipsed the popularity of her dear love.  (The queue to Rivera’s apartment in San Ángel was a total breeze compared to the one outside “La Casa Azul.”)  While waiting, we took a bunch of photos against the brilliant cobalt retaining wall.  (Was that Chelsea Handler behind us?)

Frida was born at the blue house in 1907 when Coyoacán was a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City.   Frida's father, Guillermo Kahlo, was of German descent; he did quite well for himself as a photographer in Mexico City.  In fact, some of his historical photos can be seen in the museum at the Torre Latinoamerica (see above).  While Coyoacán must have been a small dusty town at the time of Frida's birth, the grounds of "La Casa Azul" were more extensive than we ever had imagined.

The Kahlo’s house had obviously been rearranged to accommodate the needs of the museum.  Various artifacts were strewn throughout the grounds as “points of interest,” and since you are not allowed to take photos inside, we had to be somewhat crafty to get any images!  Still, if you can manage it, rooms to look out for include Frida and Diego's "humble" kitchen (which ultimately resembled a festive Mexican restaurant), and Frida's studio that includes her final, unfinished portrait of Josef Stalin resting on an easel.   (Late in life, Frida became a supporter of the communist party’s world leaders - out of solidarity for the local under-represented peasant workers in Mexico.)

Many of the artifacts and objects that inspired Kahlo’s vibrant Surrealist paintings are displayed throughout the complex.  Similar to Diego Rivera’s apartment in San Ángel, intriguing papier-mâché monsters can also can be found in the exterior courtyard of Frida's house in Coyoacán.   As a painter, “Set of Drifter” Brady can imagine that this environment would have served Frida well.  She often had a host of "exotic" animals running through her garden as well (from small deer to spider monkeys), and this setting must have given her countless options for inspiration.

The courtyard within the museum was so peaceful.   If we had arrived earlier in the day, we would have loved to have spent more time here, checking out the lush landscaping and the tremendous tented shrine devoted to all various aspects of Frida's tragic, yet colorful, life.  (Here it seems some of José Posada's calaveras have come to life!)

The Frida Kahlo Museum was actually dedicated to Mexico City by Diego himself in 1957, three years after her passing.  In his autobiography, Rivera noted that the day Frida died was the most tragic day of his life; it was then that he realized that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for her.

Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, the Museo Frida Kahlo costs $55 pesos (about USD $5).  Students and teachers receive a reduced price while children under six are FREE. 

Set of Drifters tip:  If you are a fan of Frida Kahlo, make sure to check out the 1984 film Frida - Naturaleza Viva.  The film is much more visceral than the later Hollywood biopic starring Salma Hayek - even though it clearly had a much smaller budget.

Museo Frida Kahlo - Londres 247, Col. del Carmen, Coyoacán, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 55 5554 5999

http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx/



Palacio de Bellas Artes

First-time visitors to Mexico City should really not miss a trip to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (“Palace of Fine Arts” for all of you non-Spanish speakers).  Simply put, this structure is one of the most important cultural buildings in all of Mexico City!  And, with its unique architectural mixture of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Neo Classical influences, it is also arguably one of the most beautiful structures as well!  Italian architect Adamo Boari designed both the exquisite Palacio de Bellas Artes, an official UNESCO site, as well as the nearby Palacio de Correos de Mexico, which is also worthy of a visit.

The Palacio de Bellas Artes is famous for its gorgeous Beaux Arts exterior that was formed out of imported Italian white marble, and capped off with no fewer than four extraordinarily delicate, yet robust, domes.  Even though construction of the building began in the early part of the 20th century, political and economic upheavals delayed completion until 1934.

The outside gardens, also designed by Adamo Boari, were not completed until 1994.  Here, the city of contrasts once again mixes the very old with the very new.  Four statues of Pegasus created by Agustin Querol stand out front, nestled amongst rusted modern monoliths and red, white and black-painted metal silhouette sculptures of cyclists.  We took a few photos in the esplanade and then rushed inside the Art Deco foyer to see the theatre that was to close in just five minutes.  (The Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of the premier opera house of the city!)  Alas, the auditorium was closed for renovations! 

Sadly, a special event going on at the third floor also closed off access to an exhibit dedicated to architecture!  Still, we were able to check out the many art galleries, and an extraordinary collection of murals, devoted to artists by the likes of Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Rivera's controversial mural "Man at the Crossroads" is proudly on display here.  The piece was originally painted inside New York's Rockefeller Center, but the famous muralist had finished only ⅔ of the work when the Rockefeller patrons objected to a depiction of Vladimir Lenin amongst the faces.  Rivera refused to remove the portrait and his commission was cancelled soon thereafter.  The mural was then completely destroyed!  Eventually, Rivera repainted the same scene here in 1934 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, complete with Lenin - but on a much smaller scale. 

We will definitely take a trip back here some day, as the grand interior of marble and iron definitely left us wanting more.  The Palacio de Bellas Artes is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM.  Admission is 25 pesos (about USD $2.50), but entrance is free on Sundays.  Twice a week you can see the extraordinary Ballet Folklórico de México perform here as well. 



Palacio de Bellas Artes - Mariscal, Tabacalera, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 5512 2593

http://www.bellasartes.gob.mx/index.php/palacio-de-bellas-artes


Ballet Folklórico de México

Our trip to Mexico City was beautifully capped by one of the most spectacular shows we had seen in recent months, the Ballet Folklórico de México!  When staged in Mexico City, the world- renowned show is usually held in the same theater at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (see above) that was under renovation during our visit.  Luckily, Sunday's performance just happened to be moved to the National Museum of Anthropology on the evening that we were there checking out the extraordinary museum in Chapultapec Park (see above for more information).

Simply put, the Ballet Folklórico is not to be missed.  The technique and professionalism that exudes from each and every one of the performers will impress you no matter what you think of dance.  And to be honest, this is not your traditional ballet; there are no pirouettes or pas de deux here.  Yet steeped in the richness of Mexican history, the Ballet Folklórico de México is entirely traditional at the same time.

For five decades, the Ballet Folklórico de México has presented dances in costumes that reflect the traditional cultures of Mexico.  First up on the roster was the "Matachines" dance, historically performed in the northern part of Mexico City and inspired by the customs of Pre-Hispanic people who danced exclusively to worship their gods.  The movements of the performers in their jangly Matachines costumes were nothing short of of intoxicating, and perfectly complimented the live music that accompanied much of the numbers that evening.  Later, the “platform dance” (from Tixtla) focused on a tender courtship episode, but as the girls’ brilliantly colored skirts kicked higher and higher up, the dance more resembled something out of an Old West 1870's bordello... not that there’s anything wrong with that!
What amazed us from a strictly performance standpoint was how all these dancers and musicians (at times numbering up to 35 on stage at one time) were able to change into such different elaborate costumes in such a short amount of time.  And with such dynamic energy being spent, we kept wondering where all of the darned sweat stains were?

Another of the show-stopping centerpieces was the ”Fiesta de Tlacotalpan.”

The party starts off rather typical... guy meets girl and they dance together in matching costumes.  Eventually as the party swells, more and more people join the stage.  The scene finally explodes into a sea of insanity as huge dancing puppets descend cheerily into the audience.  The puppets reflect various stories passed down through the many generations of Tlacotalpan people.  The frivolity made us all somewhat giddy.  There were many a streamer thrown into the air as well... and people running around with fish heads on sticks(?)   Absolute mayhem we tell you!

Another crowd pleaser was the "charreada" (or rope dance), a tremendous demonstration of dexterity dispatched by Mr. Lorenzo Escamilla.  This dude twirled his lariat for 15 minutes straight, seducing a girl in the midst of it all.  Still, the most impressive number was saved for the finale.  The classic "Mexican hat dance" comes from the state of Jalisco, a Spanish-colonized area where the men typically wore "charro suits” (the ones with silver studs on the pants), large matching sombreros and a big red bow around the neck.  The male performers in this number were hoofing it like nobody's business.  Of course, the ladies soon joined in.  Oh you better belieeeeeeve there were many shouts of "Olé!" in this one.  The spicy number ends comically with one of the girls making a huge tower out of the many collected hats of her suitors.

The company does tour the United States often, but quite honestly, seeing this performance in Mexico really sweetened our appreciation of the city and its people while in town.  The Ballet Folklórico de México was truly a fabulous way to say "adios" to Mexico on our final night!  Check with your hotel’s concierge about current ticket and venue options, or visit Ticketmaster for more information.




Ballet Folklórico de México - Palacio de Bellas Artes - Mariscal, Tabacalera, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52) 55 5512 2593, http://www.balletamalia.com/eng.html

http://www.balletamalia.com/ and http://www.ticketmaster.com.mx/




Paseo de la Reforma architecture

One of Mexico's main thoroughfares, the Paseo de la Reforma, was fashioned after the Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1865.  The Paseo de la Reforma is in interesting mixture of sleek modernism and classic architecture, fountains, flower gardens, bronze monumental sculptures, and bizarre park benches of high design.  And even though the more modern architecture of the city seemed robust and intriguing, everything seemed slightly run down at the same time.  Again, Mexico City is full of contrasts. 

The Paseo de la Reforma houses 36 different statues of national heroes along its many glorietas (traffic circles).   One monument represents the last great Aztec ruler to reign over this part of Mexico, while another, el Monumento a la Independencia, was inaugurated in 1910 to commemorate Mexico's first century of independence from Spain.

One of the attractions of this meandering street is the Caballito Monument, a modern sculptural interpretation of a horse's head that was erected in 1992 by renowned Mexican artist Sebastian.  Sadly, it was being renovated while we were in town in January of 2009 and we could barely see it peeking from behind its over-sized protective vinyl raincoat.

Perhaps that is why we found the most intriguing statue along the grand thoroughfare of the Paseo de la Reforma to be a small alligator-type creature constructed out of untreated copper, and designed by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington!  (See "Chapultepec Park" above for more information on Leonora Carrington's work).



Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo

Our guided tour to see the pyramids of Teotihuacán also included a side trip to the northern section of Mexico City known as Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo or “La Villa.”   What makes this area such a large tourist destination is a concept that, for most of us, might seem pretty extreme.

However, every year in December, millions of faithful pilgrims arrive at the Villa de Guadalupe - many of them crawling on their hand and knees for the last few hundred yards - to pray for divine favors.  You see, it is from this location where, in 1531, the "apparition" of "Our Lady of Guadalupe" once appeared to an Aztec man named Juan Diego. 

The story goes that Juan Diego had seen a vision of the “Virgin Mary” back in December of 1531.  The vision told him to build a church on the very spot where he was standing.   Juan left and went to speak to his Bishop who in turn asked for proof of this so-called holy vision.  Juan returned to the spot where he had the apparition and this time, the Virgin instructed him to take some roses back with him to see the bishop.  Juan cut some flowers from a nearby rosebush and then put them in his poncho.  Upon his return, he opened up the cloth to show his colleague, and miraculously, there was the image of “the Virgin Mary.”  Voila!  The “Our Lady of Guadalupe” legend was born! 

In the years since, an amalgamation of new and old cathedrals and basilicas has sprouted along this plaza.  Since the structures are all sinking each year due to Mexico City's soft foundation, the plaza is under renovation.  The basilica built in 1709, and its predecessor, "Antigua Basílica" built in 1536, have both weakened over the centuries and are no longer safe enough to accommodate the masses of worshipers that come each year.  Unfortunately, during our visit, we were not able to truly view the magnificence of the 1709 cathedral due to the bluish-green scaffolding that filled the structure as though it were expanding foam!  The holy image of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” that has been mass- produced throughout the world is on display here, but it is not the original.

Nevertheless, religious followers, have no fear!  The famous "real" image of the Virgin Mary is encased high up in an altar of a newer, more modern basilica that was built in the 1970’s.  Here, the image of “the Virgin of Guadalupe” can be viewed from all angles no matter where you are standing inside the church.  The "Nueva Basílica," designed by architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, is a gigantic, circular mass of wood, copper, and polyethylene that seems more space-age than spiritual.  Our group of four stopped in during a mass and the place was swarming with devotees.  (Speaking of swarming, we loved those green honeycomb lights suspended from the ceiling!!)  

Of course, if you have traveled thousands of miles to see “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and you would like a closer look, you may view it from an unexpected 25 ft. moving sidewalk that passes below.  The hidden sidewalk was added so that as many people as possible could worship the image - with no one staying around too long to ogle it.  In an odd turn of fate, this one-way sidewalk empties right into, you guessed it, a gift-shop!

The many religious buildings at Villa de Guadalupe all operate on different hours, but to see the famous image of “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” the Nueva Basílica is your best bet.  The modern space-age cathedral is open daily from 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM.  Expect multiple masses throughout the day, but have no worries; those worshipping will not even notice you are there!  A museum can also be found on the grounds and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 Am to 6:00 PM.

Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo  - Plaza de las Américas número 1, Col. Villa de Guadalupe, Delegación Gustavo A. Madero, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, 011 (52)    5577 6022

http://www.virgendeguadalupe.org.mx/Santuario.htm


Zona Rosa (neighborhood)

The Zona Rosa neighborhood, also known in Mexico City as “ Colonia Juárez,” could easily be compared to London’s Soho with a “South of the Border” flavor.  Filled with nightclubs, shops, and restaurants and a bit of vice, “The Pink Zone” is best known now as Mexico City’s gayborhood.  Like much of Mexico City, the architecture of this area is diverse with some buildings standing out as modern masterpieces and others crumbling in antiquity.  The Zona Rosa used to be a lot more "swinging" back in the day, but it has somewhat fallen on hard times; there is some work to be done to fix everything up.  (Pothole covers were everywhere so expect a bumpy taxi cab ride back to your hotel!)  With towering dense foliage clamoring for attention, the pretty, sun-soaked streets somewhat reminded us of Rio de Janeiro, and that’s just fine by us!

The somewhat bohemian streets of the neighborhood are filled with vendors selling trinkets and artifacts, dance and strip clubs, and the usual lottery of beggars and those offering services of their own. 

“Massage? You like good F....?”  One more time?

Yes, it’s true.  While our group of four was walking through the Zona Rosa seeking out a place to eat, we were propositioned by many different types of people in broad daylight!   Eschewing all seedy behavior aside, the Zona Rosa does contain a good number of cool restaurants, bars, and shopping opportunities.

Our favorite was an extensive indoor market that featured well over 50 different merchants selling silver and gem stone jewelry, marionette puppets, papier-mâché flowers, you name it!   We also found a really fun dance party happening on the third floor of an antique mall; it ended up being one of our best nights out (see "sips.")  If you are looking to shake your culo, the Zona Rosa, a twenty minute walk from the Centro Histórico, is a pretty safe bet!


Tlatelolco and the Plaza de las Tres Culturas

Tlatelolco is yet another archaeological site in Mexico City where the remains of a Pre-Columbian city-state has been found.  The discovery of a pyramid inside the main temple of Tlatelolco suggests that the complex is more than 700 years old!  Like the Templo Mayor (see above), Tlatelolco is a convergence of three cultures.  In fact, the temple complex has been renamed the "Plaza de las Tres Culturas" to pay homage to the excavated Aztec ruins, 17th-century Spanish church, and the modern-day office complex of the Mexican foreign ministry that surround the square.

Sadly, Tlatelolco seems to be a nexus point for tragedy.   A memorial plaque describes how Hernan Cotes led his Spanish Army to victory over the Aztecs in 1521, slaughtering over 40,000 warriors.  Then in 1968, following months of political unrest in the Mexican capital, 300-400 student activists were massacred on this site by military armed men!  The student demonstrators wanted to harness the attention focused on Mexico City during the 1968 Summer Olympics for their revolutionary agenda of the day.  Years later, in 1985, an earthquake laid further devastation to this already traumatized historical melting pot.

Things are much less volatile today.  Casual self-guided tours of the ruins can be made during the day with a guided tour offered each day at 1:00 PM.  Admission is FREE.



Tlatelolco ruins - Ricardo Flores Magón 1, Tlatelolco, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Distrito Federal