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, Mexica.
The Mexica 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 Mexica.
In the centuries before Cortés’ arrival, the Mexica 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 Mexica’s 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 Mexica 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 Mexica 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 Mexica’s 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 Mexica!
Not just the Mexica, 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 Chichimec. He wasn’t a young man when the Franciscans converted him to Catholicism, so surely he was invested in those Chichimec 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 Mexica founded Mexico on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. When the Spaniards arrived, they began dismantling the Mexica’s 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!