What comes to mind when you think of Mexico City?
People living in garbage dumps?
Yeah, that’s why I was afraid to go there, too. In fact, after seeing the monarch butterfly sanctuary, I was planning to make a big circle around the city on my way to Oaxaca. Even though I was only an hour west of it.
But then I ended up with an extra week, and I didn’t want to move to the next place with so much time to kill. So I decided to go to Mexico City after all. I decided that I wouldn’t “do” Mexico City–an effort that seemed overwhelming. I would just find a budget place in a good location and do what seemed fun and easy.
Then I found Casa de los Amigos, a Quaker guesthouse with, I imagined, all kinds of interesting and selfless activities going on. Over the years, I’ve learned that the Quakers are the type that make chicken soup and clean up the kitchen afterward when everyone else is in the parlor comforting the bereaved. (Metaphorically and perhaps literally speaking)
They’re the quiet bunch working on a shoestring without a lot of whoopla to solve very knotty social problems. During slavery days in the U.S., for example, Quakers were quietly at the forefront of abolition. They were the ones who ran the Underground Railroad that very successfully moved slaves to Canada. In Mexico City, the Casa is located near the the Plaza de la Republica, a decent walk from the historic Center.
Budget place in good location. Check. With a side of altruism.
Did I mention that Mexico City is huge? With a population of 20 million (twice the size of New York City), it’s one of the world’s mega-metropolises, along with Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Mumbai. The city has always been the beating heart of Mexico.
Mexico City began when the leaders of a small, wandering tribe saw an eagle sitting on a cactus eating a snake. They interpreted that startling sight as an omen that they should build their city there, near the marshy Lake Texcoco. These were the Aztecs, but they called themselves Mexica (mesh-I-ca). The city they built is now Mexico City, and on the country’s flag is the image of the Aztec vision–an eagle on a cactus eating a snake.
The Aztecs were not the first great civilization there. The people who built the pyramids of Teotihuacan just outside Mexico City had come and gone by the time the Aztecs appeared on the scene.
But the Aztecs were the last great civilization in central Mexico. (The Mayans were in the south and in the Yucatan.)
When the Spanish first saw Mexico City in the center of the lake in all its splendor, they were amazed. This Aztec kingdom had reached such an apex of development and culture that Cortes and his conquistadores stood slack-jawed in wonder–before they methodically destroyed the place.
From the journal of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortes’s soldiers who came to the New World “to serve God and to get rich”:
When we saw so many cities and towns in the water, and other great settlements upon dry land, and that causeway so straight and level that lead to Mexico, we were awestruck…I don’t know how to describe it, seeing things never heard of , seen, or even dreamed of, like we saw.
Aztec history ends in 1521 two years after the historic meeting between Cortes and Montezuma on the causeway to the center of the city.
The trajectory of the city has been a bumpy ride ever since, with periods of peace and prosperity interspersed with many times of turmoil. First, the Spanish were ousted in the country’s first bloody and protracted revolution. Then, Mexico’s own dictator, Porfirio Diaz, was ousted in a second revolution.There was even a short period under French rule, when the Paseo de la Reforma was built to emulate the Champs Elysees in France.
Then, once the dictators were gone, Mexico City (and the rest of the country) had to figure out how to govern its huge and chaotic self.
Which took a while.
The city has recently washed its faced and donned a fresh coat of paint. It has largely squelched the corruption that scared away tourists, and it has restored many of its gracious boulevards and historic buildings, of which there are legion.
I didn’t begin to scratch the surface of even the Centro Historico, but what I did experience was both overwhelming (in a good way), fascinating, and enlightening. I can honestly say that I left Mexico City with deep respect for and a better understanding of its people and its past. In Mexico City, I became immersed in the history of the country and especially of its indigenous people. This is hard to avoid because the central city is literally drenched in history.
When I first arrived in Mexico City, I just wanted to ease into it. I hadn’t wanted to work that hard to understand Mexico’s complicated story, but my time in its most iconic city made it absolutely irresistible to learn more.