Mexico City

Mexico City,

Teotihuacan and Puebla


May 4th - 10th, 2022

This was a rather unplanned trip, that I had decided to embark on only two days before taking off. My original plan to visit Colombia that week was derailed by an unusually strong and long wet season there, which caused flooding and landslides all over the country. So, instead, I used the time for a short trip to the Mexican capital, which I had never been to.

I flew from New York on American Airlines with a stop-over in Miami. Mexico is one of the countries that have abolished all Covid restrictions for travelers; neither a vaccination record nor tests are required. However, unlike in the US, in Mexico masks are still mandatory in airports, hotels and most indoor public spaces. Taxis at the Mexico City airport are plentiful, but you can't just go outside and grab one. You have to book and pay the taxi inside at one of the booths for the various different taxi companies. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the infamous Mexico City traffic was not bad at all, and it took me only about 20 minutes to get to my hotel. I stayed at the Le Meridien Mexico City, which is a nice and large hotel in the business district not far from the historic old town, which I started to explore by foot the next morning.

The center piece of the historical city is the enormous Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. Its construction started in 1573 and continued over a period of 250 years. The building therefore combines several architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Baroque to Neoclassical.

The cathedral is among the largest churches in the Americas, and the huge and impressive interior space is separated into several sections. The main nave contains the largest organ in Latin America and the monumental golden Altar of the Kings, which was created in the early 18th century.

The Spanish colonial capital of Mexico City was built on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the once magnificent capital of the Aztec Empire. It is hard to imagine today, that this enormous city was once an island in a lake. The Aztecs built their capital Tenochtitlan on a number of islands in the middle of the huge but shallow Lake Texcoco and connected it to the mainland with several causeways. Much of the food for the huge city was grown in so called floating gardens, an agricultural technique of growing crops on artificial islands sitting on the shallow lake bed.

Less then three years after setting foot on the American continent, Hernan Cortez captured and destroyed Tenochtitlan and thus ended the Aztec empire. While the Spanish only had a fairly small number of warriors, they managed to build a large army by recruiting other local tribes, who saw in the Spaniards their chance to end the hated domination of the Aztecs. I recently read a very good book about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, which I can highly recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about this fascinating and hugely consequential chapter in history: Collision of Worlds by David M. Carballo.

The sacred heart of Tenochtitlan was the Templo Mayor, the exact location of which was unknown until the beginning of the 20th century. It was believed that the cathedral had been built right on top of it, but in fact it turned out that the Templo Mayor was a few hundred meters to the west. The first signs of the temple were found in the early 20th century, but it was not until after 1978, when workers of the electric company dug up a huge monolith, that the excavation of the whole complex began in earnest.

While excavations and restorations are still ongoing, the ruins of the Templo Mayor are open to the public. You enter the complex through a tunnel near the cathedral, where you pay the entrance fee. You then can walk through the foundations of the temple and see many of the structures and some impressive sculptures. On the other side you reach the temple museum, which was built in 1987 to house the major finds of the excavations. The centerpiece of the collection is the huge monolith found in 1978. It is 3.25 meters in diameter and represents the dismembered body of the goddess Coyolxauhqui.

This is a picture taken from the upper balcony of the museum, and it shows the three most iconic buildings, one from each of the three main historical periods of this city. In the foreground are the remains of the Templo Mayor, the centerpiece of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, right behind it the Cathedral, built to show the power of the Spanish Crown, and in the background the Torre Latinoamerica, the first skyscraper in Latin America and the then highest building in the independent nation of Mexico.

When I continued my walk after the museum, I came across another beautiful sight, that however may not be here for much longer. It is the dangerously leaning Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Loreto.

Apparently, the church's tilt is due to it having been constructed with stones of different weight on each side, and it is said to be in imminent danger of collapse. Yet, it is still open to visitors. The interior has some beautiful murals in the dome, but also some very large cracks in the walls, that made me not want to hang out in there for too long.

In the afternoon I hopped on one of the open-top tourist buses, which took me on a loop a bit outside of the city center and which was a great way to see all the highlights. We passed many landmarks, such as 'El Angel de la Independencia', which was erected in 1910 to commemorate the centennial of the beginning of Mexico's War of Independence,

and the beautiful building of the Palacio de Bellas Arte, which is used not only as a concert hall, opera and theatre, but also a museum for major art exhibitions.

On Sunday I ventured a bit outside of the city center and took an Uber (which are quick, cheap and available everywhere in Mexico City) to visit Chapultepec Castle. The castle, which is located on a hill to the south of the city was originally built as the summer residence of the Spanish Viceroy. Later it became the residence of Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg, during the short-lived Second Mexican Empire (which ended in Maximilian's execution in 1867).

The whole castle is decorated like a typical European 18th century palace. Particularly noteworthy are the rooftop garden surrounding the look-out tower, and the beautiful stained glass windows of the upper gallery.

This is the view from the terrace of the castle down the Avenue Paseo de Reforma.

A short walk from Chapultepec Castle is one of the best museums I have ever been to, the Mexico City Museum of Anthropology. Built around this impressive inner courtyard, it has an astounding collection tracing the entire history of Mesoamerica.

The most important item in the museum is the famous Aztec Sun Stone. Carved probably around 1502 to 1520, the huge monolith was rediscovered in 1790, and for a long time was displayed at the cathedral.

Another UNESCO world heritage site in Mexico City is the Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Built between 1949 and 1952 involving 60 architects, the campus was honored as an outstanding example of 20th century modernism and landscape design. It is located a bit south of the city, but easily reachable by metro and well worth a visit. UNAM is considered to be one of the top research universities in the world and the largest university in Latin America with more then 350,000 students currently enrolled.

The last site I visited in the city was the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which houses the cloak of The Virgin of Guadalupe. Considered to be the holiest shrine in the country, the basilica is the most visited Catholic shrine in the world.

The cloak with the image itself is mounted on the wall behind the main altar in the modern church. You can get close to it through a tunnel underneath the altar. In order to avoid overcrowding, it has a moving walkway in front of it, which whisks you by the holy image in a matter of seconds. This way everyone gets a chance to see it and quickly take a picture with their phone.

I spent three full days exploring the city, and I had two day trips outside, the first of which took me to the famous pyramids of Teotihuacan.

I have been wanting to come here for a long time, and today I finally got to visit one of  those very special places in the world, that should be high up on every traveler's bucket list. And it did not disappoint. The remains of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, with its two huge pyramids, are probably the most important archaeological site in the Americas. First established around 100 BC, the city grew over the next 600 years to become one of the largest cities in the world, before its abandonment some time in the 7th century.

Located just an hour outside of Mexico City, the archeological site encompasses a huge area, which contains the ceremonial parts of the city, while significant parts of the residential areas have not been excavated yet. A popular way to see the city from above is by hot air balloon, but you have to get up rather early, since the balloons take off before dawn. By the time I got there we saw at least 30 or 40 of them slowly floating over the pyramids, which was a beautiful sight.

I had a private trip with a very good guide booked through Viator. We started our walking tour at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, also referred to as the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, due to the many sculptures of the feathered serpent adorning the sides of the temple. This is the third largest pyramid at the complex, located at the southern end of the main avenue.

The main thoroughfare through the site is called the Avenue of the Dead, which passes the Pyramid of the Sun and leads straight towards the Pyramid of the Moon. The name 'Avenue of the Dead' is actually a misnomer coined by the Aztecs, who thought that the ceremonial platforms on either side of the avenue were burial mounds, which was found not to be the case by later archeologists.

These are the foundations of residential areas. It is believed that those were the living quarters of the elites, since they were located close to the temples and pyramids. Whereas the workers and artisans likely lived further out. The full extension of the city is still being revealed mainly with the use of new Lidar imaging. Many of the walls have the remains of the original red painted plaster. It is believed that the entire city was once covered in this plaster, which was produced in a similar manner as concrete.

Since I had a guide with me, I discovered many details, that I would have missed by myself. During excavation they found intricate buildings and temples underneath the newer structures. Rather than demolishing earlier buildings, successive rulers simply built on top of previous buildings.

The city also had a sewer system with running water latrines.

The adjacent museum (located behind the pyramid of the sun) contains many of the extraordinary pieces, that had been excavated here.

The huge square in front of the Pyramid of the Moon was likely used for ceremonies. Just like the Mayas and Aztecs in later centuries, the people of Teotihuacan performed human sacrifices. However, very little is known about the religious practices and social lives in Teotihuacan, since, unlike the Mayas, they had no written records.

All the pyramids and the avenue are perfectly aligned in East-West and North-South directions. The Pyramid of the Sun with a height of 65 meters is the larger of the two main pyramids. Although only about half of its height, the Pyramid of the Sun has almost the same width at the base as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Prior to the pandemic it was possible to climb to the top of the pyramid, but it is still closed for now.

Teotihuacan is truly one of the greatest monuments in the world, and it was a great privilege to finally be able to see it.

My second day trip took me to the south of Mexico City. I had another private tour booked through Viator, and my guide Marco (from Insolitours) picked me up from the hotel for the 2 hour drive to Puebla. However, before we got  there, we stopped at what by some measure is the largest pyramid on earth - the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

The pyramid is covered in so much soil and is overgrown with trees, that it could easily be mistaken for an oddly symmetrical hill rather than a man-made structure. When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century the Cholula pyramid was already overgrown, but still in use as a place for religious ceremonies. As a demonstration of their new power, the conquistadors built a Baroque church right on top of it. Over the centuries the knowledge of the enormous structure underneath was somehow lost, and after several meters of dirt and plant had covered the old pyramid, many people believed it was just a hill. When archaeologists in the 20th century wanted to begin excavations, in order to prove that this was a man-made structure, they were prevented from doing so by the catholic church, which owns the land and did not allow any excavations on it. However, due to a curious feature of Mexican property law, the owners of the land only own the surface but not the underground deep beneath their land. This allowed the archeologists to start digging tunnels that began outside of the church's property and tunneled into the pyramid. There they discovered several layers of different pyramids that were built on top of each other over a period of more than six hundred years. A number of tunnels from different sides were dug into the hill during the period of 1931 to 1970. Some of structures were also uncovered and restored just outside of the church property, while the church continues to forbid any archaeological work on its ground to this day. On one side there is a small piece partly excavated and reconstructed. You can see the original part on the righthand side behind the reconstructed terraces.

Cholula was never the center of an empire. Although a large population lived around the structure, it appears that the pyramid was always more of a pilgrimage site, to which people from many different groups all over Mexico came to worship their gods. And Catholics continue to do so today. The beautiful orange colored Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (built from 1574 to 1575) is visible from any direction far away.

Leaving Cholula for Puebla, Marco wanted to show me two very unusual churches, which weren't on the normal itinerary for this tour. The first was the incredible Santa Maria Tonantzintla, which is a prime example of the so called Native Baroque (also Folk Baroque) style, developed in Mexico by the local builders who combined European Baroque elements with nativist art.

While not particularly remarkable from the outside, this is one of the most richly decorated church interiors you'd find anywhere in the world. The dense decoration of incredibly colorful and varied figures, faces and animals, almost reminded me of a Hindu Temple. Unfortunately taking pictures inside was not permitted. Here are a couple of pictures of the interior I found on the internet:

The nearby Church of San Francisco Acatepec is remarkable for its exterior façade, which is entirely decorated in beautiful mosaics made of tiles. The craft of tile making is a particular specialty in this region.

The colonial city of Puebla de los Angeles (now just called Puebla) was founded in 1531 by the Spanish colonial rulers. Puebla was a purely Spanish foundation, there was no indigenous town here before. The Spanish deliberately picked an empty piece of land for their city. It is located about 100 kilometers to the south-east of Mexico City at the foot of the huge Popocatepetl Volcano. Despite having grown to be the fourth largest city in Mexico with a population of more than 3 million, Puebla has retained its small colonial era city center. Laid out in a grid pattern, the historical city center with its colorful colonial houses has been beautifully preserved and restored. It is a major tourist destination and has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1987.

The city occupied a strategic position on the road between Mexico City and the Port of Veracruz at the Caribbean coast. Puebla was an important waypoint on the global trade route from Asia to Spain. It was cheaper and safer for the Spanish Empire to ship goods from China, India and South-East Asia first to the Spanish port at Managua in the Philippines, and from there across the Pacific to a port near Acapulco. There the ships were unloaded and the goods transported overland across Mexico to the Caribbean Coast, a distance of over 500 km. The market in Puebla thus became a thriving center for the trade in Asian goods.

A particularly beautiful example of the colonial architecture is the Casa de Alfeñique, which has been turned into a museum. The interior was decorated like a European palace, and demonstrates the significant wealth created by trade here in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Cathedral of Puebla is an enormous building, whose construction started in 1575 but took 300 years to complete.

The Biblioteca Palafoxiana is part of the UNESCO world heritage dedication for being the first public library in the Americas.

Other noteworthy buildings are the Palacio del Gobierno (left), which overlooks the main city square, and the Templo Conventual de San Francisco, which was begun in 1535, but the 63 meter high tower was only completed in 1760.

We drove back into Mexico City in the afternoon, and I flew back to New York the following morning. Mexico City surprised me positively in many ways. This huge metropolis has long had a reputation of overcrowding, terrible traffic, air pollution and crime, but what I found was very different. It is a city with lots of trees, green spaces, wide open avenues, that felt very safe and welcoming. Six days was a good amount of time to get a first glimpse, but not nearly enough to explore everything this great city has to offer.

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