Prior to visiting Mexico City in April, we had a lot of preconceived notions. We had in our minds an enormous, sprawling city with the kinds of problems you’d expect from 22 million people living on top of each other. On the flip side, friends who had visited recently prepared us for scenic and cultural wonders that we’d only dreamed about.
Mexico City turned out to be all of that, and much, much more. Over our 11-day stay in la Ciudiad de México (CDMX), we fell in love with this chaotic, complex, and charming city. And we made some pretty amazing discoveries about Mexico and Mexicans along the way.
Here are our top six Mexico City discoveries. As usual, some of the photos are in galleries – just click on each photo to see a larger version.
1. The Aztecs of Mexico City? Call them by their true name, Mexicas.
The Mexicas were a civilization that occupied the Valley of Mexico for more than 300 years before the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived to conquer them. “Aztec” was an umbrella term coined by the Europeans to describe several indigenous groups speaking the Nahautl language, including the Mexicas.
In the centuries before Cortés’ arrival, the Mexicas thrived in their city/state of Tenochtitlan, located on an island in the middle of a huge lake, Texcoco. At the height of the Mexica civilization, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the western hemisphere.
Fun fact: The famous “Aztec Calendar,” such a potent symbol of Mexico’s indigenous past, is actually called the Stone of the Sun. Lying horizontally, it was probably used for blood sacrifices in which warriors fought each other to the death. Here’s a very interesting article about the Aztecs’ methods for measuring time (be sure and watch the video about the Stone of the Sun). Thank you to nuestra amiga Sylvia Nightengale for the article link!
2. Much of Mexico City’s historic center is built on Mexica ruins.
It’s a sad history John and I have heard time and time again in our travels – from the conquered Mayans in Guatemala and Incas in Peru all the way back to the Catholic conquest of the Moors in Spain, centuries before. When Cortés and his minions defeated the Mexicas in 1521, they set about wiping out as much of the previous culture as they could. In particular, that meant destroying Mexica temples and building new Catholic churches directly on top, using stone from the ruins and slave Mexica labor. Mexico City’s sprawling Metropolitan Cathedral, begun in the 1520s by Team Cortés, is a perfect example.
Today, there are vestiges of the Mexicas and Technochtitlan throughout Mexico City’s historic district and the Zocalo, the main central plaza. According to one of our tour guides, people are walking on top of Mexica ruins everywhere they go in central Mexico City. Through a special tour, visitors can also see some of the Mexica ruins deep in the bowels of the Cathedral (if only we’d known about that!). And just meters away, archaeologists are continuing to excavate the Templo Mayor, one of the Mexicas’ most holy places. Here’s a fascinating article for more on this.
Fun fact: Developers come across Mexica artifacts every time they renovate a colonial building for a modern use (remember, the Spaniards used Mexica ruins as their primary building materials). By Mexican law, the developer is required to incorporate the artifact into the remodel. Two amazing downtown examples: a McDonald’s and a Bershka clothing boutique.
3. Mexico’s most famous image depicts the founding of Mexico City.
You’ve probably seen it: an image of an eagle sitting on a cactus and chowing down on a snake. In Mexico, this image is everywhere: on the Mexican flag, on every form of currency, in murals and other works of art. The legend goes that the Mexica were bidden by their gods to leave their ancestral home, Aztlán, and found a new homeland. They would know the place when they spotted an eagle with a snake in its beak, perched on a prickly pear cactus. Eventually, while crossing Lake Texcoco, the Mexica spotted just such an eagle on an island that they would later name Tenochtitlan (which means something like “an abundance of prickly pears growing among the rocks.”) This all happened around 1325.
Given the first Spaniards’ contempt for the Mexica and their religious traditions, it’s interesting that their founding myth has become the national symbol of the country. Just one of the many contradictions that makes Mexico such a fascinating country!
4. Do you love Mexican food as much as we do? Thank the Mexicas!
Not just the Mexicas, but all of the other Mesoamerican cultures. Dating back thousands of years, the ancient inhabitants of Mexico were consummate farmers. The first plants they domesticated were corn and chilis, followed by beans and squash. These early-day agricultural innovators figured out that these four crops could be grown together, with each providing complementary assets to the others. This was the milpa system, still very much in use today in Mexican agriculture.
To this day, these four ingredients – corn, beans, squash, and chilis – are the mainstays of Mexican cuisine, with cheese, avocados, and savory proteins enhancing the deliciousness. Gosh, I’m craving a taco just writing this!
Fun fact: Some people say that the pointier the pepper, the more heat it’s likely to have. Think mild bell peppers or spicier jalapeños. There are exceptions, of course, like scotch bonnets – blunt little bombs of fire.
5. Mexico City is Ground Zero for the Virgin of Guadalupe
Throughout my childhood, growing up in southwest Texas less than 100 miles from the Mexican border, I was always aware of how important the Virgin of Guadalupe is to Mexicans. In fact, she’s probably THE most important mother figure in Mexico – the national patroness, “La Reyna de México.” What I didn’t realize is that the whole legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe went down in present-day Mexico City.
Here’s the story: In 1531, only 14 years after the conquest of Cortés, the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. Juan Diego’s haughty Catholic bishop didn’t believe him and asked for proof (“My son, how can you possibly be closer to the Virgin than I, a man of God?”). So the Virgin appeared again and gave Juan Diego the gift of Castilian roses that grow only in Spain. When Juan Diego returned to the Bishop, the roses spilled out of his tilma (cloak). But that wasn’t all – inside the tilma was a perfect image of the Virgin herself. All of this took place on Tepeyac Hill in what is now northern Mexico City.
I am so curious about Juan Diego. He was born in 1474, which would have made him 47 when the Spaniards invaded. He must have been raised with the traditions and spiritual beliefs of his native people, the Chichimecs. He wasn’t a young man when the Franciscans converted him to Catholicism, so surely he was invested in those traditions. Those Franciscan friars must have been pretty persuasive.
Juan Diego was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002, making him the first indigenous Catholic saint in the Americas.
6. Mexico City is sinking – fast.
And that’s because the city is built on an ancient lake bed. As we mentioned in #3 above, the Mexicas founded Mexico on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. When the Spaniards arrived, they began dismantling the Mexicas’ extensive system of canals and aqueducts and set about draining the shallow lake – both for flood control and also to increase buildable terrain.
Over the centuries, the ground has continued to compact under the heavy weight of stone cathedrals and other structures – and today, Mexico City is sinking at an astounding 50 centimeters a year! It’s a huge problem, harming the structural integrity of many buildings and contributing to Mexico City’s already severe water and wastewater problems. Our new friend Tim Leffel, whom we met in Guanajuato, has written a great article on this topic – worth a read.
On practically every block, especially in the Centro area, you’ll see slumping and sagging buildings. In our last hotel room, in a beautiful 1930s mansion in the Condesa neighborhood, the floor sloped so much that the dresser drawers on the upper side wouldn’t stay shut. It felt like one of those crazy gravity houses where everything seems level, but isn’t.
Coming Next – Our Top Things to Do and See in Mexico City!
Just an amazing review !!
Thanks, Petra! How are you, Carlos, and Bobbi? We miss you!
Loved reading every word of this!
So glad you enjoyed it, Bland!
The last trip I took was to see you in Columbia just before the world closed it’s doors. I have not been on a plane since. Your stories and pictures have allowed me the luxury and adventure of learning about and seeing incredible countries and hearing amazing histories. You definitely have the Baker writing genes. Thank you for allowing us to journey with you. Such a joy. Kay
Awww, gracias, querida tia! So glad you’re enjoying our posts. I hope you can find enough of a comfort zone to fly again soon (I know it’s complicated now that US airlines no longer require masks – so crazy!). John and I have done a lot of flying in the past year and – knock loudly on wood – so far so good. Vaccines, masking, and keeping distance really work. Anyway, thanks so much for your lovely comment! Come see us again in Colombia.
Really interesting read on this beautiful city! Your pictures are just lovely, you really captured the beautiful detail of the large buildings and the small designs 🙂
Thanks so much! Mexico City really is a feast for the senses. Fascinating in so many ways.
An interesting history of Mexico City and the Mexica people. I’d never really thought there’d be much more to see than some old colonial buildings but you’ve given me reason to check it out when we travel to Mexico next. Maggie
Hope you can visit Mexico City! We look forward to reading your posts and finding out new things that we didn’t discover 🙂
Awesome! When you guys come our way we will take you to Gettysburg and the Johnstown Flood Museum 😆.
Heyyy – it’s a deal! Hugs to you and Tracy 🙂
We were there for New Year 2019 / 2020 so just before Covid. We were pleasantly surprised and had a great few days there.
We were also pleasantly surprised by Mexico City. We’d heard all the negatives – overcrowding, bad water, bad air – but really didn’t expect so much history, charm, and beauty. Everyone should visit there at least once!
Great descriptions and photos! CDMX is a cultural center going back into history. I have been trying to puzzle out the difference between Mixteca and Mexica, terms used instead of Aztec. I’m not sure which is correct.
Thanks so much, Rebecca! I got curious about the Mixteca culture, so I Googled it. The Mixtecs were different from the Mexicas; in fact, they were rivals. The Mixtecs occupied mostly southern Mexico, but it seems the Mexicas conquered them in the 15th century. It seems like many of these cultures were at war with each other at one time or another. Very interesting history. I found all this in Wikipedia, which of course means it’s true 😉
Cool, thanks so much for looking it up! Good to know they were two different tribes.
Wow so many interesting facts I didn’t know about Mexico City. I can’t believe how fast it is sinking? I must admit the size of this city scares me a little, did you guys feel safe there? Certainly a very exciting place.
Thanks, Gilda! We felt the same way about Mexico City until we actually visited it. It’s actually a lot more accessible and less daunting, once you’re in the midst of it. And yes, we always felt safe, even walking late at night and taking the subway. We were staying in a pretty touristed area, which helped.
Once again you’ve taken me along on your amazing trip! I’m sad to see how rapidly this beautiful, historic city is sinking.
Gracias, Mimi! It IS sad, and I get the feeling that one more good earthquake would send a lot more of these beautiful old buildings toppling. Thanks for your comment and for reading!!
Guys, it’s Mike Potts from Thailand. Your blog continues to amaze. You ROCK!
Heyyy, Mike!! How are you?? Thanks for reading our little blog. Hope all is well with you there in Thailand!
This is a wonderful summary of the Mexican capital! Mexico City sounds like Jakarta in many ways: both cities are sprawling, bustling, and sinking fast. It’s just mind-boggling to think that so many ingredients Indonesians use to cook today actually originated in Mexico, including the much-loved chilies. One of the most fascinating aspects of Mexico City (and one that makes me really want to visit) is the omnipresence of its pre-Spanish past in many corners of the city.
Thank you, Bama! You are compelling us more and more to visit Jakarta. We may be knocking on your door someday! And how very interesting to hear that it also has a sinking problem. It’s very interesting to me how different foods have found their way around the world. Rice is one I wonder about – it’s in virtually every cuisine, everywhere, including Mexican food.
And when you do, please let me know! I’d be more than happy to show you around.
These are interesting and fascinating facts about Mexico City, a city I have yet to visit and have heard lots of positive comments about. Mark and I (and our two previous dogs) visited the major temple site about an hour outside of the city, but never ventured into the chaos of the capital as we were driving in a truck camper. I love that areal shot of the city. Like you said, it gives a good feeling of its magnitude.
Ah, yes, the Teotihuacán pyramids. We visited them also – amazing! Hope you two can get back to Mexico City someday – I can see why It would be pretty daunting to drive there with a camper. Thanks, Liesbet!
Mexico City is one of my favourites! I was alittle unsure as well about Mexico in terms of safety but persisted as I wanted to visit and I was blown away! There is so much to see and do in CDMX (not to mention all the museums). I can’t wait for your food post!
Thanks for visiting our blog! For such a huge city, CDMX is kind of a hidden gem – I think a lot of people avoid it because it’s perceived as unsafe. But we felt completely safe the whole time we were there. Food post is coming up 🙂
Oh wow just incredible, such a beautiful portrayal of the city. I had no idea it was sinking like that! I must admit I’ve never been brave enough to go, but maybe one day 🙂
Hope you can visit Mexico City someday, Hannah! It’s a lot safer and more accessible than people think. Cheers!
I love this post! Thanks for posting about the problem in Mexico City and its sinking problem. I’ve been listening to stories about Mexico City sinking since I was growing in Mexico in the 90’s. It would be a shame to lose important historic buildings due to this problem.
Hi Liz! So glad you enjoyed the post – I figured you would 🙂 Yes, it doesn’t seem like they know what to do about the sinking except to try to prop some of the old buildings up. It’s a sad state.
Gosh. What brave souls you are! I’d be afraid to walk near some of those buildings myself. Fascinating though. Muriel
Thanks, Muriel! As we walked on the crazy slanted floors of some of those buildings, it definitely gave us pause! Some of them don’t see safe, but they’re still open to the public. I don’t know what the future holds for Mexico City – there’s not much they can do about the sinking.