For the longest time, Mexico City was almost unknown to the outside world. We all knew about this place, the world’s largest city, an ancient history culminating with the original war of the worlds, but a recent past that included government fueled disappearances assassinations, and even a massacre of students protesting for democracy. For the longest time, Mexico City was closed off to the outside world, but now it has opened itself up, exposing its delicate pedals.
All this came about as a result of the election of Mexico’s first elected president in 90 years, Vicente Fox in 2000. He was sworn in at the National Palace overlooking the Zocalo (main square), and I think that is as fine a place as any to start your trip to DF (Federal District).
I have always stayed my first night in town at the Hotel Metropol (if you want something swankier I also recommend the Hilton Reforma). It’s a clean, friendly, and inexpensive option less than two blocks from the Alameda (city park). The first thing you will notice as you walk along the Alameda is the Benito Juarez Monument. This beautiful structure is dedicated to a man who became the first person of indigenous blood to become president of Mexico. Benito reigned during the time of the French occupation of Mexico under Maximilian I and eventually captured Maximilian and executed him at Queretaro.
Continuing along through the Alameda you will quickly come to the Bellas Artes Opera House. If you are lucky you will be able to catch one of the world famous Ballet Foklorico (traditional dances of all over Mexico) inside this beautiful Neoclassical building. Across the street from the Opera House is the Palacio de Correos (post office) which was designed by the same Italian architect as Bellas Artes and is just as magnificent. Please take ten minutes to Explore this beauty and bask in its opulence.
The 16th of September Avenue you will quickly see the Casa De Los Azulejos (house of the blue tiles) now home to Grupo Sanborns, Mexico’s most popular department store. The story behind this tiled behemoth dates back to the 1700’s. A wealthy merchant’s son was living a lifestyle his father believed unbecoming. The father told the son he would never be able to afford tiles (a sign of the wealth in colonial Mexico). The youngster of course did make his way and eventually built a house covered in blue tiles (the most expensive color), which I’m sure was not a shot at anyone in particular.
Further along the 16th of September Avenue you will see the residence of Mexico’s first Emperor, Iturbide, on your right shortly before entering the Zocalo. The Zocalo corresponds roughly with what was once the Aztec sacred complex in their capital, Tenochtitlan. This is also the location where the Aztecs made their last stand against the Conquistadors before surrendering on August 13, 1521. On the East end of the Zocalo you will see the National Palace, home to many of Diego Rivera’s finest works and the location of the Grito De Dolores (state of the union speech).
On the North side of the Zocalo is the Metropolitan Cathedral, a lovely Gothic church that’s worth a look (skip hiring a guide.) the interior of this church is gilded and the main altar is gigantic. The real highlight of this day though is behind the cathedral, the Templo Mayor Museum.
The Templo Mayor Museum houses the remnants of the main Pyramid of Tenochtitlan that was buried for centuries underneath the house of a conquistador. Rediscovered in the 1970’s, this museum is an outstanding view in to how Mesoamericans went about constructing their pyramids. Aztec temples were built over time, with each new enlargement being built over a previous layer and filled in with rubble. Not only does this museum allow you to walk through the different phases, at the end of the walk, you see the near perfectly preserved original Aztec Pyramid of Tenochtitlan.
After seeing the original temple you will continue through the courtyard to a section that houses relics found on site. This section of the museum includes many of the Eagle and snake head figures originally carved on to the pyramid as well as a few Chac-Mools (The Aztec messenger god who brought hearts to the gods). To be clear, this is my favorite museum in Mexico City and is worth about two hours. Admission is $57 pesos, closed Monday.
For your second day in Mexico City go to Chapultepec. Chapultepec is the world’s largest city park and offers a plethora of things to do. I recommend starting at the Niño’s Heroes Monument at the base of Chapultepec Castle. The monument honors 6 young cadets who rather than surrender to the US Marines sweeping the castle, wrapped themselves in the Mexican flag and leapt to their deaths. After briefly taking this in, walk the path leading up the hill to the Castle.
Chapultepec Castle is the only royal residence in North America as it was home to Maxilimilian. The Castle currently holds the National History Museum, a grand collection of pieces ranging from post conquest until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. On top of being an outstanding collection of artifacts, the castle is on beautiful grounds and offers one of the best views of Mexico City. Cost is $51 pesos, worth about 2 hours, closed Mondays.
A short walk along the Avenue Grutas leads you directly to another great museum, the Anthropology Museum. This museum is the most popular in Mexico City and widely considered the best collection of pre-Hispanic art on earth. In this museum you can see Montezuma’s headdress, the Aztec Sunstone, a replica of Pakals tomb, and a copy of the murals of Bonampak as well as abundant amount of artifacts from all regions and time periods of Mexico’s Mesoamerican past. This museum is a must see while in Mexico City, and you’ll need 2-3 hours. Cost is $57 pesos, free Sunday, Closed Monday.
After a long day of history, if you still have time and energy, stop by the Chapultepec Zoo. It is amongst the world’s largest collections of animals housing about 200 species and receiving about 6 million visitors a year. It was also the first location to breed Giant Pandas outside of China!
Your third day should take you to the Ancient city of Teotihuacan (ti-o-ti-wa-can, Nahautl for “City of the Gods,”) and the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. For this trip, I recommend hiring a taxi service for the whole day ($55-80 GBP depending on how well you negotiate). If that isn’t an option, take the buses offered from the Cathedral. The advantage of having a cab is that you will be able to add to your trip The plaza de los tres culturas (plaza of the three cultures) famous for the ruins of Tlatelolco (the ancient Aztec market city), a colonial Church, and a modern skyscraper.
You’ll first stop at the Basilica of the Virgin, where in 1531the Virgin Mary appeared to a native by the name of Juan Diego. The site of the appearance soon became one of the holiest sites in the new world. The original Basilica was completed in 1705 and housed the painting of the Virgin until the new Basilica was completed in 1976. While the main two churches are moving, there are a dozen or so other chapels on site, none worth visiting. You will need 1-2 hours, admission is free, closed Mondays.
About 35 minutes up the road from the Basilica ,depending on traffic, are the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan was founded around 100 BC by a currently unknown group of people. The city reached the height of its power around 400 AD after conquering a territory stretching from the Mexican/US border to Copan in Honduras. The city likely had a population around 250,000. Teotihuacan hegemony was short lived as its empire started decaying around 500 and by 700 it had collapsed with large amounts of damage done to its structures with signs of fire and looting.
Make sure you climb all three of the large pyramids of Teotihuacan. The pyramid of the moon lies at the northern end of the avenue of the dead and the plaza in front of it is unique. A short walk down the avenue leads you to the super massive Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Sun the world’s third largest pyramid by volume and stands 65 meters tall. The pyramid offers exquisite views of the ruined city. The ultimate stop along the Avenue of the Dead will lead you to the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (ket-zol-co-aut-ul). Make sure to climb this one as a surprise set of carving will magically appear! You will need 2-3 hours for this site. Open daily until 5 pm, admission $64 pesos.
Day Four should see you heading about two hours east of the capital to the colonial city of Puebla. Puebla is amongst the best collections of colonial architecture in the Americas. On top of its aesthetic beauty, Puebla is famous for its culinary creations, being home to both stuffed peppers (chiles enogada) and mole, a type of spicy chocolate sauce akin to an American barbeque sauce when done correctly.
While in Puebla, make sure to stop by their cathedral. It is a highlight of any trip to Mexico, especially when combined with a short hike to the nearby Rosary Chapel. These churches are worth and hour or so each. After visiting them, hail a cab and head on over to the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the world’s largest pyramid by volume and 55 meters high. This pyramid was the site of a massacre by the Spanish in 1519 and was also where the Aztec emperors were coronated. The original temple atop the pyramid was demolished and a beautiful little chapel sits atop the pyramid today offering great views of the Puebla valley.
Other than the Great Pyramid, there isn’t much left of the ancient town of Cholula. While sad that so little is left of a pre-Hispanic city of 100,000 souls, if its ruins you are after you may consider spending the night in Puebla and visiting cacaxtla to see the Murals and/or Cantona to climb pyramids and acropolis the next day. I would recommend Carlos Rivero Tours; he can arrange transportation and guide service to both ruins for about $70 GBP per person.
A good fifth day will take you to the southern of Mexico City, Coyocan and Xochimilco. Xochimilco (zo-chee-milko) is what is left of the ancient Aztec floating gardens of Tenochtitlan. Here you can ride colorful boats around the canals and take in a relaxing morning on the water. After an hour or so of boating around, continue on to Coyoacan (coyote city). Coyoacan in its prime was home to both of Mexico’s most renound muralist, Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Frida’s House, Casa Azul (blue house, they lived separately and seemed unhappy with each other) and houses a great collection of her work. Worth 1-2 hours, $80 pesos to enter, closed Mondays.
After visiting Coyoacan, continue about an hour south to Cuernavaca. Spend the night in Cuernavaca, but before settling in to your hotel try to check out the Palace of Cortez for its Diego Rivera Mural on the Conquest and after head down the main street to the Borda gardens, a lovely outdoor park that was Emperor Maximilians summer home.
When you get back to your hotel, arrange transportation for your next day via taxi to the Xochicalco ruins and Taxco (about GBP $55). Xochicalco is home to what must have been a city of 55,000 or so with a well preserved ball court, two large pyramids, and an exquisitely carved temple of Quetzalcoatl. Founded around 250 BC, the site reached its apogee around 800 AD controlling a large portion of the states of Guererro and Morelos. By 950, the site had mostly faded in to history. You’ll need 1-2 hours to see this site, admission costs $59 pesos, open daily.
After Xochicalco, head to Taxco. Taxco is a beautiful little colonial town in the hills of Guererro. Not only is Taxco famous for its colonial charm, it’s also the Silver capital of Mexico. In the 1920’s William Spratling came in to the fledgling little town and created a silversmithy that revived this sleepy little village and gave it the trade it is famous for. Two blocks from the center of town lies the Spratling museum, home to almost 300 pieces from his personal collection.
After a quick visit to the Spratling Museum ($31 pesos, closed Monday) and a walk through the daily Silver market, head to the center of town and check out the Cathedral of Santa Prisca. The Cathedral of Taxco is amongst the best in Mexico, being founded in 1758, it is also home to some of the most intriquite and dynamic religious carvings and alters in a nation of Churches.
After taking in all that Taxco has to offer, get back on your bus or taxi and head back to Mexico City. If you are spending a week in Mexico you will likely be leaving the next day, and you won’t want to be rushed on your way out trying to come back from somewhere far away. Keep in mind that taxi service around Mexico City is very affordable and first class busses connecting to all major towns (and most minor ones) are available at Benito Juarez International Airport.