Mexico City needs more than a Week
There are tourist-destination cities like Rome and London that you visit and after a week exhaustion starts to creep into your bones. You admit that you have had a good time but are just about done for now with ruins, or cathedrals, or museums, whatever that city had to offer most. On the sixth day you begin to look forward to your own bed and routine.
Mexico City is different because having just spent a week there I am eager to plan my return visit for the near future. With so many museums, the museum culture in Mexico City is alive and fresh, but the City has so much more to offer. The sheer variety of activities with its sensory and intellectual stimulation keeps each day fresh and leaves you looking forward to the next. The cuisine alone cannot be sampled in one week. This piece is not only about the things we did but about how this city and its people charmed us into wanting to stay longer and return soon. How did we choose to visit some places and not others is not exactly clear, even to us, at this point. Some activities came as recommendations from friends and family who had been here before, some came from perusing the Monocle Guide to Mexico City and the TripAdvisor website. As is our wont, restaurant and taco-stand guides, reviews, and recommendations were read far more closely and carefully in comparison to reviews for museums and other activities. In no particular order, we visited the following destinations within the city.:
Natural history museum
A cooking class
Museo de Templo Mayor
Reggae music at a night club
The pyramids at Teotihuacan
National Anthropology Museum
Mercado Sabado – and surrounding plaza, art on the street
Palacio de Bellas Artes -- Diego Riviera murals and the Kandinsky exhibit
Some open-air markets
The Soumaya Musuem with its white marble interior and the Khalil Gibran artwork and letters on display
The food in Mexico City deserves a special shout-out with the delicious street tacos to restaurants with world famous chefs, all together make this a city where you need never eat a low-quality meal. Where you stay is somewhat important because you want to be within easy walk to good restaurants. We stayed in Polanco which has many great restaurants, a wonderful street taco joint, and a safe neighborhood to walk back after dinner. Otherwise we took Uber everywhere, and Uber is cheap, safe, and affordable here. Mexico City is a city of neighborhoods, and while we really enjoyed Polanco, we would like to experience a different neighborhood next time.
The Accidental Visit to the Natural History Museum
We thought we were entering the National Palace and instead found ourselves in a small natural history museum. Having entered the museum, we felt somewhat foolish and awkward about walking right back out, so we stayed. We were almost immediately charmed by a notice that this museum showed “Mexico’s 150 years of Natural History”. This left us pondering what turns natural history had taken before 150 years, had there been a silent spring and then all of natural life in Mexico came suddenly into being? These thoughts were interrupted by a display of all 64 types of hummingbirds of Mexico, wow these birds was amazing, some so tiny, I could hide one under my thumb. This was followed by a fascinating stuffed, larger than life, saber-toothed tiger who appeared to be snarling at something equally nasty. We could not figure out the significance of the stuffed saber-tooth, especially since we were talking only about the last 150 years. Little glass shelves, somewhat dusty, harbored shells and other sea-life and the rest of the museum hosted some long-forgotten taxidermist’s dream – small stuffed mammals. I was so glad we got lost and wandered into that museum. I love natural history, especially when presented so earnestly.
The Cooking Lesson
The cooking class with our host Patti was simply brilliant. Not only was she a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (from New York State), but she was a native of Mexico City and was able to apply her culinary acumen to the Mexican dishes she demonstrated. She taught us the basics, as well as why certain things worked a certain way. This kept us all intellectually stimulated and interested and the resulting food was top notch and made for a delightful lunch whether or not we can reproduce it back home.
Museo de Templo Mayor
Exploring the Museo de Templo Mayor the next morning was a highlight, Here, excavations right in the middle of the busiest part of Mexico City was revealing an amazing complex of Aztec temples and structures that the Spanish colonials had happily built on top of, and then promptly forgot that it was there. How does a civilization that had writing and literature “forget” something like this? This is surely a research topic for some hard-working sociology student somewhere.
The Sun and Moon Pyramids at Teotihuacan
A strategically astute move by our tour guide brought us to the Sun and the Moon pyramids at Teotihuacan early, before the scene is inundated by tour buses and big crowds. We loved the challenge of the climb on the narrow and steep steps and the view at the top was even better than we had imagined. After the climb, we spent some time with the street hawkers who were selling statues of the Sun and the Moon Aztec gods, all made from beautiful black volcanic obsidian which made an irresistible purchase.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
To be honest we visited the National Anthropology Museum after the Pyramids and we started dragged our feet a bit after a few rooms. The very large fountain in the inner courtyard resembled a very big psychedelic mushroom and made for a hypnotizing view as we rested our tired feet on the benches.\, After visiting three very large rooms, we decided to skip the rest of the museum and go to a coffee shop to people watch.
Fortunately, someone we met mentioned Mercado Sabado, so we took Uber there on our only Saturday in town and we were really glad we took a chance. It is basically a house that is thrown open on Saturdays and each room around the courtyard is filled with art, pottery, and hand-made jewelry from all over Mexico. We bought a marvelous Mayolica candle holder and plate from one shop and a traditional water jug from another potter. The house itself sits in a plaza occupied every square meter by artists displaying their paintings. Exploring this and surrounding plazas provided hours of fun. These artists come from all corners of Mexico, some weekly, some monthly, all hoping to sell a few pieces. We could not resist buying a small painting of a lilac iris that we could bring back as a carry-on. At another open-air market I bargained for and bought rocks and minerals, a “moon stone”, some lapis from Chile and malachite from Mexico.
Palacio de Bella Artes and Soumaya Museum
We visited the Palacio de Bella Artes to see the Diego Rivera murals displayed there on the top floor and were pleasantly surprised by a special Kandinsky exhibit which we thoroughly enjoyed. The most unusual thing about the museums in Mexico City was that we went in with an expectation that was almost always exceeded, like the Kandinsky at Bella Artes. In a similar vein, when we visited the Soumaya Museum which was located at a short walk from our apartment, I immediately fell in love with the very long, double-sided mosaic of a Riviera mural at the entrance. And as it turns out Soumaya also houses a very extensive collection of Khalil Gibran’s painting, letters and other memorabilia—who knew. We spent a pleasant hour reading his letters to his beloved and reading his phrases to each other in a whisper so as not to disturb the other visitors on that floor.
Mexico City and its People
Typically, residents of large cities tend to crabbiness, especially with tourists who must be tolerated not indulged. I have never been in a city the size of Mexico City where people are truly kind to each other, never mind the visitors. Our Uber driver once put his car right into the middle of oncoming traffic. We drew in a sharp breath not because we were in danger, but because we expected angry honks and yelling taxi drivers which would be the norm in any other large metropolis. We were instead greeted by silence as drivers waited patiently for our car to get to the other side before they moved on.
Was this unusual we asked ourselves? Were those particular twenty cars driven by a handpicked set of patient and kind people out of the 21 million? It was possible, even if not probable. We continued to see examples of people being extremely patient with each other. Most Uber drivers drove well and did nothing reckless, but once our guy made a sharp right turn in front of a bicyclist. We had a full view of the bicyclist’s face the whole time and his expression never changed to anger, in fact he seemed somewhat amused at our driver’s driving skill, came to a sudden stop, and waved us on.
My treasured human contact happened at the Zocola plaza. Tired after walking through the Templo Mayor excavations and the museum. I plopped down on a bench next to a young woman talking animatedly on the phone in Spanish. It was a good spot to watch the feathered Aztec dancers, smell the frankincense which reminded me of Indian religious ceremonies, and watch the cleansing ritual on the waiting faithful. When my bench companion had finished her phone conversation, she turned to me and said something in rapid Spanish. I smiled and responded with “Yo no hablo espanol, hablo ingles”. She smiled right back and launched off in near perfect English to say that she worked in the gastronomy museum right across the square there, she was on her lunch break, and that I should definitely drop into said museum. Melissa, was her name and she was studying at the university to become a museum curator. And what wonderful opportunities she has in this city when she graduates, I thought to myself. She only had two more levels of English to finish, and my regret is that I did not go this gastronomy museum. I must return to Mexico City to visit the gastronomy museum and meet Melissa before she graduates and moves on to a bigger and better museum curatorship job. I would never be able to find her in this city of a thousand museums.
An abundant list for next time
My priorities for the next visit to Mexico City will include the Frida Kahlo museum where we could not get tickets this time within a week’s timeframe, the Gastronomy museum, the National Palace, the Art Deco architecture walk, the Basilica, the floating flower market, the Diego Riviera display at the Education Secretary’s building, the street art in Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, and the list goes on, interspersed at appropriate intervals by delicious food. And I must return to some of the places I loved so much on this first trip, so perhaps it’s a month in Mexico City next time around.