Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Mexico City
Mexico City (Ciudad de México), capital of the country and seat of the central government, lies at an altitude of over 2200 m (7300 ft) in the Valley of Mexico or Valley of Anáhuac, a high valley surrounded by mighty mountain ranges. Its situation is breathtaking, seeming to lie at the foot of two magnificent snow-covered volcanoes rising to over 5000 m (16,000 ft), Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The city preserves countless reminders of its past of more than 650 years, though pre-Columbian art and architecture exist almost solely in isolated fragments and museum reproductions, since the conquistadors built the nucleus of their new town on the ruins of the old Aztec metropolis of Tenochtitlán which they had destroyed. Against this, however, there are many churches and palaces of the colonial period, mainly in the Baroque style; and modern Mexican architecture is represented by numbers of fine buildings, particularly those of the 1950s and 1960s.
The city area extends for more than 40km/25mi from north to south and for an average of 25km/15mi from east to west. The Federal District (Distrito Federal; see entry), which is headed by a Regente directly responsible to the President, was created to establish the capital as a separate administrative unit but is no longer adequate to contain the city's northward growth, so that its new industrial suburbs extend into the neighbouring state of México.
The city's rate of growth, primarily due to the influx of population from the agricultural regions to the north with their harsh climate, is enormous. The present population of Mexico City is estimated at almost 20 million (some estimates are as high as 26 million), making it the most populous city in the world. This over-population, combined with the increasing growth of industry - which, however, fails to produce enough jobs for those who need them - creates serious economic and social difficulties. The number of those seeking their fortune in the capital and being forced to live as "paracaidistas" (parachute-jumpers) and spend the nights huddled-up in the streets of the "cardboard city" district in the east of the capital, is estimated at about 2000 per day.
Traffic problems have been eased somewhat by the construction of the Metro and intersection-free roads such as the Anillo Periférico, a highway round the city, but conditions are still chaotic at peak periods. The number of vehicles on the city's roads is estimated at about 3.5 million. In addition to the motor car, environmentalists place much of the blame for the 11,000 tons of particles to which the inhabitants of Mexico City are exposed every day, on the 35,000 industrial concerns operating in Mexico's high-altitude valley. Many of these are located in the one and only outlet from the Anáhuac Valley, which might otherwise provide a source of much-needed fresh air. Instead, vast quantities of only partly filtered factory emissions blow across the city, contributing to a truly appalling state of affairs. The valley's once crystal-clear mountain air has been replaced by a bell-shaped cloud of pollutants, usually blotting out the view of the city's magnificent mountain backdrop while at the same time giving rise to streaming eyes and respiratory problems. Newspapers publish reports on air quality using the so-called IMECA index (on a scale from 1 to 500).
The federal government is now attempting to address the problem. Mexico spends 1 per cent of GDP on environmental protection, and the NAFTA Agreement incorporates measures against air and water pollution. Since the late 1980s a programme called "Un Dia sin Auto" - "A day without the car" - has been in operation (applying to tourists but not hire cars; note: they must be newer models). PEMEX is making lead-free petrol more widely available, and catalytic converters are compulsory on new cars. Environmentally damaging industries are being forced to shut down temporarily (and in some cases even permanently), while others have agreed to relocate. Mexico City is built on unstable ground. The marshy subsoil means that the city sinks about 20 cm (8 in.) every year. Many buildings, such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, lean at an angle. It was the Spaniards who first made a start on draining the ancient city of Tenochtitlán, surrounded as it was by lakes and pierced by canals. Today only the dried-up beds of these lakes remain. As the springs no longer meet demands for drinking-water a third of the water supply has to be pumped into the high-lying city at considerable cost in terms of energy. At the same time many parts of the city are considerably lower than the level of the drains and sewer systems, so that their waste has to be pumped away. If the pumps were to fail large areas of the city would be flooded with sewage.
Despite conditions which leave much to be desired, and notwithstanding the areas of nondescript, uniform new housing (which promptly collapsed during the earthquake) and wretched slum districts on the outskirts, Mexico City nevertheless holds an abundance of fascination for the visitor - the style and dignity of the Paseo de la Reforma, the art treasures in its many museums, the numerous parks with their magnificent old trees, the secluded little nooks and corners with their old Spanish atmosphere which can be found only a few hundred yards from the noisy swirl of the city traffic. As a major traffic centre it is also an ideal setting-out point for excursions elsewhere in the country.
The pre-Columbian history of the area around Mexico City centres mainly on the Náhuatl-speaking Aztecs or Mexica, who in 1345 founded their capital of Tenochtitlán (Náhuatl: "place of the cactus fruit") on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco, which until the Spanish conquest covered the eastern part of the present city area. Clustered around the capital were a number of other, originally independent, towns occupied by other Chichimec peoples including the Tenayuca, Texcoco (Alcolhua tribe), Chalco (Chalca tribe), Tlatelolco, Coyoacán, Tlacopán (now Tacuba, a Tepaneca tribe), Atzcapotzalco (Tepaneca tribe), Xochimilco (Xochimilca tribe, one of the Toltec Chichimecs) and Culhaucán (Colhua-Toltec tribe). Three great causeways and an aquaduct linked the island city, which was criss-crossed by numerous canals, with the mainland. In the centre of the city stood the massive principal pyramid, with two temples dedicated to the war and sun-god Huitzilopochtli and the rain-god Tláloc. The ceremonial precinct (Teocalli), surrounded by the "Serpent Wall" (Coatepantli), also contained the temples of other important gods (Tezcatlipoca, Xochiquetzal, Quetzalcóatl, Cihuacóatl). The remains of all these magnificent buildings lie under the present Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución) and the immediately surrounding area, and parts of these have been brought to light over the years. Outside the cult centre lay the royal palaces, the residential areas with their market squares and smaller groups of temples.
The older town of Tlatelolco, the rival and later the ally of Tenochtitlán, also boasted a pyramid similar to that of Tenayuca on which the remains of temples dedicated to the gods Tláloc and Quetzalcóatl were found. Tlatelolco's importance, however, was chiefly as the principal trading centre of the Aztec empire. The site of pre-Cortesian Tlatelolco is now covered by the La Languilla market, the church of Santiago, the Foreign Ministry and modern apartment buildings; some remains have been unearthed in the Square of the Three Cultures. On the lake around the two towns were the artificial islands (chinampas) which provided areas of cultivable land. Relics of this method of cultivation can still be seen in the "floating gardens" of Xochimilco. No doubt similar methods were employed on the lakes of Chalco to the south and Xaltocán and Tzompanco (now Zumpango) to the north.
On November 8th 1519 Hernán Cortés with his small force of Spaniards and more numerous Tlaxcalan allies set foot for the first time in the Aztec capital, which at that time must have covered an area of 12 to 15sq.km/4.5 to 6sq.mi with a population of 200,000 to 300,000, making it the world's third largest city after London and Peking. After the imprisonment of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II Xocoyotzín, in his own palace and his violent death, Cortés was driven out of Tenochtitlán by the Mexica under their new ruler Cuitláhuac (Náhuatl, "guardian of the kingdom"); during their flight on what came to be known as the "Noche Triste" ("Sad Night", June 30th 1520), the Spaniards lost more than half their strength as well as their booty. After reorganising their forces, securing reinforcements in the form of native auxiliaries and building thirteen brigantines to control the shores of the lake, the Spaniards laid siege to Tenochtitlán in May 1521; and on August 13th, after the capture of the last Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc, the city was compelled to surrender. Thereafter its buildings were razed to the ground and its canals filled in with rubble.
In 1522 the Spaniards began to build a new town, to which they gave the name of Méjico, on the ruins of the Aztec temples, using material from the demolished buildings, including the detested "idolatrous temples". In 1523 the town was granted its municipal coat-of-arms. In 1535 Franciscan friars established in Santiago Tlatelolco the Colegio de Santa Cruz, later to achieve wide reputation, in which the children of the Aztec nobility were educated. In the same year the Viceroyalty of New Spain, in which Mexico played a leading part, was created. By 1537 the population of the town had risen again to some 100,000 Indians and 2000 Spaniards. Now capital of New Spain, it became in 1546 the see of an archbishop, with Juan de Zumárraga as the first incumbent. In 1551 the first university on the American continent was founded here. During the Indian uprisings of 1692 several public buildings were devastated by fire, including the viceregal palace, which had originally been Cortés' residence. During the war of independence (1810-21) the supporters of independence were unable to dislodge the royal forces who held the capital, and it was only when Agustin de Iturbide joined the movement that the garrison was finally obliged to surrender in 1821.
After Iturbide's episodic "empire" there was a long struggle for power between Liberals and Conservatives and between supporters of the "centralist" and federal systems. During the war between Mexico and the United States (1846-48) the town was occupied for a time by U.S. troops. In 1863 French troops captured the capital, and from 1864 to 1867 the Archduke Maximilian reigned as emperor from Chapultepec Castle. During this period the city's finest boulevard, the Paseo de la Reforma, was laid out. After the defeat of the French invaders and the shooting of Maximilian at Querétaro, the dispossessed President Benito Juárez returned to the city.
During the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) Mexico City was modernised in a style which owed much to foreign and particularly to French influence, and there was a period of intense building activity. During the following decade Mexico was racked by bloody conflicts between the various revolutionary leaders - Francisco Madero, Victoriano Huerta, Alvaro Obregón, Francisco "Pancho" Villa, Emiliano Zapata - and it was only in the post-revolutionary years that the city could again begin to forge ahead. In 1930 the population reached the one million mark.
During and after the Second World War the modernisation and industrialisation of Mexico City made great strides, and there still seems no end to the influx of people from the poorer rural areas and a resultant "population explosion". Today some 50 per cent of the country's industry is concentrated in the capital, together with 70 per cent of banking and 50 per cent of all other commercial firms. In 1968 the Summer Olympics were held in the city, only to be preceded by a demonstration on the Square of the Three Cultures in which 250 people died.
Official figures indicate that almost 10,000 people died in the earthquake of September 19th 1985; in addition, 100,000 were rendered homeless and enormous damage was done which changed the face of the city completely. New concrete buildings in particular failed to withstand the shocks.
Mexico City is divided into sixteen main administrative units called Delegaciones or wards, with names such as Alvaro Obregón, Benito Juárez, Cuauhtémoc, Coyoacán, Atzcapotzalco, Xochimilco, etc. The wards are in turn subdivided into 240 Colonias or neighbourhoods, often with street names of a particular type, e.g. named after well-known rivers, philosophers, European cities, etc. Many streets in different neighbourhoods have the same names; for example, there are more than 100 named after Emiliano Zapata. It is therefore important to know the name of the district or neighbourhood as well as just the name of the street when quoting addresses or seeking directions.
Although Mexico City, like all Spanish colonial towns, was originally laid out on a regular "grid" plan, the city's frenetic pace of development has wrought such havoc with the system that visitors may sometimes have difficulty in getting their bearings. In general the avenidas (avenues) run from east to west and the calles (streets) from north to south, but there are a number of other designations such as bulevar (boulevard), calzada (originally a causeway), callejón (lane), prolongacíon (extension), eje vial (expressway) and urban motorway. Only the largest and most important thoroughfares retain the same name throughout their length; these include the great north-south axis, the Avenida de los Insurgentes, and the Paseo de la Reforma stretching from north-east to west. Another important north-south connection is formed by Calzada Vallejo, Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas (formerly San Juan de Letrán), Calzada Niño Perdido and Avenida Universidad, and a second east-west axis is provided by the Avenidas Chapultepec, Dr Río de la Loza and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier. There is also a ring road (circuito interior, partly of motorway standard) formed by the Calzada Melchor Ocampo, Avenida Río Consulado, Bulevar Puerto Aéreo and Viaducto Miguel Alemán. On the south side this ring is supplemented by Avenida Río Churubusco which, like the Viaducto, joins the outer ring road, the Anillo Periférico, the south-eastern section of which is not yet complete.
Those spending several days in Mexico City are advised to start by visiting the sights around the Zócalo (main square), taking in mainly the Cathedral and the adjoining Sagrario, the National Palace and the new Museo del Templo Mayor in the archaeological zone; this will easily fill the first day. The second day could be employed seeing the sights around Alameda Park and the adjoining Avenida Juárez, with the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Torre Latinoamericana, Casa de los Azulejos, Iglesia de San Francisco and much more. Peace and quiet away from the noise of the city can be found in the Bosque de Chapultepec with its botanical gardens, zoo and the Castillo de Chapultepec. The highlight must surely be a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, and a whole day should be set aside for this if possible; nor should the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) be overlooked. Lively night-life can be enjoyed in the Plaza de Garibaldi, where mariachi bands play. Those able to stay longer in the capital are recommended to visit the more outlying districts, with perhaps a stroll through Coyoacán with its Frida Kahlo Museum and Museo León Trotsky, a visit to the Ciudad Universitaria, a boat trip in the "floating gardens" of Xoccimilco and a visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe. Mexico City also has many other places of interest to suit all tastes.
Because of the chaotic traffic conditions and heavy smog visitors are strongly advised against renting a car for their own use.
The main and cheapest form of transport is the ten-line Metro by which most of the major sights can be easily reached. The underground network is used by 4,500,000 people every day. Directions are easily followed with the help of signs using both words and symbols, and most stations also have an information desk. Hand luggage may be taken on the Metro, and it is best to avoid using it during the rush hours (prior to 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), when the crush is unbelievable and pickpockets have a field day. At those times parts of the platforms are reserved for women and children and the trains have "ladies only" compartments. Ladies are strongly advised against travelling on the Metro alone at night, for obvious reasons.
Buses There are over 60 bus routes, but their use is recommended only for those who speak Spanish well and have a good sense of direction. Route 76 from the Zócalo via the Paseo de la Reforma to the Bosque de Chapultepec is quite popular with tourists, however, and in consequence with pickpockets too, so anyone using it should carry as little of value as possible and keep a sharp look-out.
There are several kinds of taxis in Mexico City.
The old peseros have been replaced by 22-seater VW mini-buses. Known as "colectivos" or "peseros" still they ply on fixed routes, with fares according to zone (from 1 peso at the time of going to press). Tourists are advised to take only those operating in central areas.
In Mexico City there are various kinds of taxis: The "peseros", mostly VW buses, are cheap collective taxis which have a fixed route in the area of the Paseo de la Reforma and the Av. Insurgentes. The driver signals with his fingers how many passengers he can take. Small change should be kept handy as the driver must be paid in advance when the passenger gets in. The "peseros" are to be replaced gradually by larger "midibuses" holding 22 passengers.
The yellow and white or green "taxis libres", often Volkswagen "Beetles", ply freely and pick up passengers on request. Insist on the meter being set and describe your destination exactly, as otherwise the driver cannot be expected to know where you mean in a city which has so many streets with the same name in different districts.
Red "taxis de sitio", or radio taxis, have fixed ranks from where they can be hailed.
"Turismos" wait in front of the major hotels; these are mainly large limousines with no meters and are correspondingly expensive. Visitors should be sure to agree the fare in advance.
A sort of bicycle taxi, known as "bici-taxis", can take you from one point to another, or on a short tour, within the old historic centre, for a flat rate.
Transport to and from the airport by taxi is at a fixed fare.