Mexico City Historical Walking Tour

Free walking tours are a great introduction to new cities when traveling, so it's one of the first things we seek out. As a world city, Mexico City has some popular walking tours, but they're not city-wide. No, in this large and sprawling city, you can only see one or two neighborhoods in a four hour tour.

The group we went with currently has five free walking tours. We chose the Historic Downtown tour since we were staying near the historic district, but despite our proximity, we were almost late to the tour because I kept underestimating the scale of the city on maps.

The tour started outside of the cathedral that looks onto the zocalo. At this point we've seen at least half a dozen zocalos in Mexico; all of them charming, centrally located and green. The DF zocalo is a different breed: absolutely massive, all stone and concrete, and under active reconstruction. Like most zocalos it was surrounded by historical government buildings, museums and a cathedral.

After taking in the massive plaza, we found the tour leaders in pink shirts and placed ourselves in the English speaking group. Our guide started by explaining why all Mexican cities call their central park squares zócalo: zocalo in Spanish is a plinth, or platform where a flag or monument is erected. In Mexico City history, there were plans to build the entire plaza but only the plinth was ever built. This has since changed, but for a long time it was just a zocalo, so that's what most Mexican cities call their town square.

The Cathedral

We started at the cathedral, La Catedral Metropolitana. It's a huge, beautiful cathedral, like many others. I guess it was the biggest one that we've seen in Mexico, but didn't look too different.

I loved the fact we learned about this cathedral though. When Pope Francis visited this cathedral, he blessed one of entrances so that anyone passing through it would be absolved of all sins. Normally this entrance is closed on all but a few sacred days, so the Pope ordered that these doors be kept open for a year so that visitors could benefit from this blessing.

The odd thing is that after the year was up they closed the doors again! Melissa and I couldn't understand it; if these doors are permanently blessed, why wouldn't you want them open all the time? Our best guess is that nobody would go to mass if it were that easy to be absolved.

The cathedral

We saw people walking up here, you can do tours of the cathedral itself for roof access

The cathedral, with some of the zocalo construction in the foreground

Templo Mayor

Next to the cathedral, like right next to it, are the ruins of Templo Mayor. It's stupid how close this ancient site is to an urban plaza. Even more odd is that it wasn't really discovered until recently, 1978.

And the weirdest part is that while these ruins were sitting under houses in the historic neighborhood of Mexico City, right next to a massive cathedral, the ruins themselves are way above street level! It's not like they're buried 15 feet down, they're more like 10 feet above the sidewalks.

The story we learned is that the site of the ruins was a neighborhood called "the island of the dogs," because when it rained and the streets flooded in this sinking, swamp city, all the street dogs would retreat to this hill.

We didn't go into the ruins but could see a lot from the sidewalks. Excavation is still in progress and who knows what they'll unearth. I would have loved to have returned to explore both the cathedral (you can walk on the roof!) and these ruins, but Mexico City is so big we kept busy elsewhere.

Detail of some of the Templo Mayor ruins, a serpent body with god knows what for a head

As you can see, these ruins rise above street level. It's baffling how they went undiscovered for so long.

More Historical Buildings

Also on the zocalo border was the National Palace of Mexico. The importance of this particular site extends back to the Aztec empire, and today it's a modern palace building that houses an art museum.

Moving on to another plaza, we sat outside a statue of Josefa Ortiz, a woman who played a role in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. Her most important contributions are summed up by Wikipedia:

The overthrow of King Ferdinand VII of Spain as a result of the Peninsular War in Spain suddenly increased the prospect of independence for the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The meetings in Ortiz de Domínguez's house became the official location of the revolutionary conspiracy and much of the insurgent planning was carried out there, including gathering weapons and supplies and storing them in various houses. The beginning of the revolution was planned for December 8, 1810. However, on September 13, the conspirators were betrayed by a supporter, who informed the Spanish colonial authorities about rebel activities in Querétaro. Unaware of his wife's allegiance, Miguel Domínguez was asked to conduct a house search in the town in order to apprehend the rebel leaders. He imprisoned Ortiz de Domínguez in her room to prevent her from exchanging information with her fellow conspirators.

The rebels had a large following, and Ortiz de Domínguez eventually managed to get a warning out through the town mayor, Don Ignacio Pérez. The news allowed the leaders of the conspiracy to abandon the town and prompted Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla to declare war against the Spanish colonial authorities, in which he made a speech to his followers known as Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores"), in the early morning of September 16 of 1810, an event that signaled the start of the Mexican War of Independence.
So she was basically the Princess Leia of the Mexican War of Independence, without the secret powers and royal birth.

The statue of Josefa Ortiz

Across from this plaza was a museum featuring Diego Rivera murals. I barely knew that he was Frida Kahlo's husband, and knew next to nothing about his life or career. We learned that he was a much bigger deal than her, at least initially (we haven't seen the movie). Earlier in his life, before he was internationally known, the Mexican Minister of Education approached him about producing murals to educate and influence the Mexican public on issues important to the government. The reason they approached an artist is that at this time, most Mexican citizens were illiterate farmers, so the written word wasn't going to have much impact on the population.

Diego Rivera started work on the murals, but his sponsor said that with his European art background, he wasn't ready to reach the Mexican public. He needed to travel the country and learn the folk art styles that his people knew and had used for centuries. So he traveled for years, and when he returned, he restarted the murals in a completely different style more familiar to his countrymen, and they worked. We later went to an exhibit featuring early Rivera and Picasso works (they were contemporaries and friends) and I couldn't tell who painted what without reading the placards.

As we walked through the streets, we stopped at the Teatro de le Ciudad, across the street from a former women's asylum (past societies tended to put women in an asylum when they were inconvenient). We paused outside a store specializing in quinceañera dresses, our first glimpse at the importance of the ritual. For those who don't know, quinceañera means fifteenth birthday, and is a coming of age event for girls only (boys don't really have an equivalent in Latin America), similar to a bar/bat mitzvah, or debutante balls from years ago.

Teatro de la Ciudad facade

The prevailing dress style is over-the-top and elaborate, with bright, floral, almost neon, colors. They're like American prom dresses on steroids. We later stopped at a bakery that makes quinceañera cakes that are similarly elaborate and colored.

Down a few more streets, we sat on some steps by a statue and learned about one of the most important names in Mexican history: Benito Juarez. We've seen streets, towns, docks, airports, nearly everything named after Benito Juarez. He is the Washington or Lincoln of Mexico; it's a name used so commonly you almost forget he was a person.

Benito Juarez is among Mexico's most beloved presidents in part because he was the first indigenous man elected to the office. He instituted many reforms and played a major role in the history of Mexico, but his birth alone catapults him to the top; all other presidents had been at least partly European.

At this tiny plaza with a Benito Juarez statue, we could see the building rooftops that James Bond runs across in the opening sequence in Spectre. Call me a dork, but I really liked that scene, specifically the incredible Day of the Dead parade. I don't feel ashamed to admit this because while that movie invented this parade, they now do it every year because so many tourists showed up disappointed that it wasn't real.

The plaza seen in Spectre, with our tour guide


The next few buildings we were able to enter and admire the architecture. The Museo Nacional de Arte is an art museum with a range of architectural styles. It's well done, not jarring, and apparently this mix of styles is the hallmark of one of Mexico's popular presidents, Porfirio Diaz, who had a hand in the design of many of this district's buildings. When the historical society had to categorize this building, they couldn't decide on any one style like neoclassical or Gothic, so it was given a new category called "Porfirio".

The Museo Nactional de Arte, with a statue of King Charles the IV, the last Spanish monarch to rule Mexico

Three types of columns visible in one row, in a courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Arte

Across the street from the art museum was the Palacio de Correos de Mexico, the Postal Palace. As a working post office, it may be hard to imagine why this is a stop on a tour, but this building is fancy. In past years, they incorporated a flag into the atrium for every country that had a diplomatic relationship with the young Mexican state. Our tour group was internationally diverse, and everyone took time to find their country's flag somewhere on the walls.

The Postal Palace from the outside, with fancy street lamps.
Due to pollution and geography, Mexico City rarely has blue skies.

The American flag close to the ceiling in the atrium

The atrium is dominated by high ceilings and this ornate, soaring staircase.

Melissa wanders the Palacio de Correos

Finally, we made our way to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (palace of fine arts). This building stands out; we had marveled at it when walking from our hostel to the tour start. It's at the end of a long park, with a massive, shiny, gold dome. This is another Porfirio building (they all have eagles incorporated into the outer decorations), with Neoclassical and Art Nouveau on the exterior and ancient Mayan and Aztec figures incorporated into the facade.

An almost blue sky above the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Aztec faces on the lower balcony

Bellas Artes from the department store across the street. They have an 8th floor cafe with a killer view, but long waits

Bellas Artes from the streets, with DF pink taxis and the Porfirio eagle on the dome

This is the building that was showing the Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso exhibit that we later visited. It's also a theater showing art and cultural performances. Standing outside the Palacio, we learned my favorite fact from the tour.

Mexico City is built on a drained swamp, and it's sinking. As much as 5 cm each year. This is an abstract fact until you see evidence of it. Across from the Palacio, our guide pointed out two buildings; one was anchored to the bedrock below the swamp and the other was built on the surface. They're visibly pulling apart where the latter building is sinking unevenly.

Looking at the ground in front of the Palacio after learning this, we could suddenly see how it sloped away in areas, and lines in the marble sidewalk panels that were laid straight are now crooked from the shifting ground. It was like a scene in the Matrix or Pleasantville where suddenly your eyes are open and you start seeing everything in a new light.

Not a detail everyone would notice, but these buildings are definitely drifting apart


The last part of the tour touched on food in Mexico City. Our guide gave us background on Mexican food and the four main ingredients that define this cuisine that Mexico has given to the world: the chile, corn, tomatoes and chocolate. As students of Mexican food, this was not new to us, so we focused on getting specific restaurant recommendations from our guide.

Our first food stop was Pasteleria Ideal, a massive, bustling bakery selling thousands of pounds of pastries a day. They must have produced every kind of pastry and bread found anywhere in Mexico. Our group went upstairs to the cake floor to finish our education on quinceaneras. Here were the enormous, multi-tiered cakes that they make for these and other events. These cakes are sold by weight; the biggest cake I saw weighed in at 110 kg (242 pounds).

Want some cakes? There were three rooms like this of display cakes.

The biggest I could find was 110 kg and at least 6 feet tall.

We finished up visiting a house covered with blue tiles and a smaller church. Melissa and I were growing hungry at this point, so we took a recommendation from the guides to visit one of the Salon Corona restaurants in the neighborhood and ate some solid tacos.

One the way back to our hostel we stopped back in the bakery and got a pastry that never got completely eaten (too full!) and struggled mightily to figure out how the checkout process worked there. This place is so high-volume that they separate boxing and itemizing your pastries from paying for it. As best we could tell, you go to one woman who will wrap and box your pastries and write up a receipt for your bill, which you then take to a cash register woman. After paying, you return to the box woman to show proof of purchase and take your pastries. That's three stops just to by a piece of bread. We were so confused we kept walking back and forth, clueless about what each station's responsibilities were. Honestly, it didn't make much sense to us, but they do a lot of business so I suppose there's a reason for it.

Overall, we're glad we did this tour but wouldn't call it unmissable. The Centro Historico has many incredible, unique, historical buildings, and we learned more about the history of the modern Mexican state on this tour than anywhere else in Mexico. If you're into art, museums and history then this would be a great introduction to some of DF's best assets, but if you are more about street art, culture, or modern history, another neighborhood tour may suit you better.

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