Ponchos, pyramids, pilgrims, pesos, peppers and pump action shotguns – a weekend in Mexico City

4 March, 2008

Firstly I would like to point out that Latin America is a lot bigger than I ever realised. On Friday after Cath finished work we headed out to the main international airport in SP (a journey of just 3.5 hours in Friday night traffic) and then caught our flight to Mexico City, now please feel free to guess how long that flight took – direct…..

I will give you a moment longer to take your guess.

Then answer, nine long hours….

Its a bloody big place, maybe you all paid more attention at school than me and already knew that, but to me it was a bit of a surprise.

And now for my next surprise, I actually miss flying economy class with Virgin, Qantas, British Airways or Air New Zealand. I really think they need another class below economy to describe flying internationally in Latin America. Since we have been here we have flown on GOL, Aeromexico and Avianaca and they are all generally pretty crap, the interiors of the planes are straight from the 1980’s when you just had one big tv screen at the front of the plane and three radio stations, the food is uniformly terrible, not just normal airline bad, but really really terrible and the airplanes are cold, damn cold, the kind of cold that my watch indicated was 8 degrees in the cabin on the flight up to Mexico city, of course experienced travellers just bring heavy jackets to keep warm on the plane, but on our first flight I forgot mine and froze! So that’s enough whinging for today, back to our adventures.

So Mexico city is the biggest city in the world – actually this is a hard one to define, depending on which website you check on, you could find the answer is Mumbai, Tokyo, New York, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, or Mount Isa in country QLD is the world’s largest cities, but we are sticking with the opinion of Juan our taxi driver, if he says it’s the biggest city, then we believe him!

Mexico city is also up high at 2,239m (7,347 ft.) it’s another city where you have to cope with a little bit of altitude sickness when you first arrive, but now as we are experienced high altitude tourists, we just drunk even more coffee to keep us going! So Mexico city is big and high, it’s also pretty dirty, even the official guide book says: “Mexico city is one of the five biggest cities in the world and definitely one of the most polluted” normal symptoms of wandering around in the “air” include stinging eyes, running nose and headaches from the air borne pollutants.

We stayed in a nice little hotel close to the old city centre and headed straight out to see the sights. Now Mexico City was already the biggest city in the country when the Spanish liberators arrived, so the city is built on the ruins of the previous city, so it’s loaded with archaeology and history – a perfect city for wandering around in, obviously keeping in mind the ever present risk of pickpockets, kidnapping and muggings that the city is known for!

So we headed into Zocalo the main square, apparently the second largest town square in the world after Moscow, but I am not quite convinced on that, it didn’t look that big!

Mexico City Cathedral
The main cathedral in Zocalo

We headed straight for the national parliament to see the amazing murals of Diego Rivera’ all over the internal walls of the parliament depicting the history of Mexico, they are one of the most amazing pieces of art I have ever seen, their size and detail means that you can stare at one of the many panels for an hour and still find amazing details that you had previously missed.

Murals by Diago Rivera

One of Diego Rivera’s murals

Diago Rivera mural close up

A close up of a very nice severed arm

In 1345 the god of war told the reigning priest king that the city of Mexico should be built wherever he saw an eagle perched atop a cactus devouring a snake, unfortunately the spot the King saw this happening was a swampy lake filled valley that no one in their right mind would build the worlds largest city on… But they did, so the centre of town is sinking at 3mm a year meaning that all of the buildings are in a constant state of repair and rescue.

Miracle church Mexico City

Leaning church – the locals say it’s a miracle, I say perhaps it’s just dodgy engineering

After a couple of hours of wandering around soaking in the air, we headed for our first Mexican meal, now Mexican restaurants in our side of the world don’t have the best reputation, generally they are known for producing cheap stodge. So I approached our first Mexican feed with some trepidation. I am happy to announce the food was sensational – a meal of corn chips, guacamole, pickled grilled cactus, the finest bbq’ed baby onions in balsamic vinegar, grilled meat, gooey cheese, , mega hot chilli peppers, fajitas washed down with a cinnamon milkshakes was just amazing, and at about 40 pesos or US$4 per person – it’s a bargain in anyone’s language.

On Sunday we jumped on a bus and headed out to the north of town passing the giant shanty towns or “Lost Cities” as they are known in Mexico to see the Teotihuacan pyramids

Lost Cities of Mexico City

The real lost cities of Mexico – think 3,000,000 people living on the edge of the city in towns with no water or electricity.

Now any young boy who grew up reading “lost civilisations” and “the world’s greatest mysteries” knows that the Mexican Pyramids are one of the wonders of the world, and I have to say they were even better than I had hoped, the world Teotihuacan roughly translates to the place where gods are made, and The Sun and Moon pyramids and associated buildings are pretty breathtaking – and not just cos of the effort of trying to climb the 58 metres of steps in the full mid day sun at this altitude.

Greg and Cath at Teotihuacan pyramids

Greg and Cath on the Avenue of the dead with the Sun Pyramid behind us

Greg at Teotihuacan pyramids

Greg with the Moon pyramid and the avenue of the dead behind him

Cath at Teotihuacan pyramids

Cath heading down the very steep steps from the Sun Pyramid

The Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan

Trinket sellers mingle with tourists at the base of the Moon Pyramid

After another great Mexican lunch and a Corona or two, we headed to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, this is the most important Catholic site in the Americas and is where a local Indian bloke named Juan Diego was visited by the virgin Mary whilst walking up a hill, now Juan of course somewhat excited rand and told the Bishop who promptly told him that he didn’t believe a word of it and he should come back when he had some proof… So Juan climbed back up the hill, found Mary and told her that he needed some proof, so the virgin Mary kindly gave him a bunch of roses to take back to the Bishop, Juan held the roses (which didn’t at that time grow in Mexico) in his poncho and headed straight back to the Bishop. When he unfurled his cloak to show the bishop the roses he discovered that Mary had put an amazing “picture” of herself on the poncho. The poncho is still in perfect condition 500 years later and the colours haven’t faded one bit – which is probably because they are made of no recognizable man made or natural pigments that can be identified…… Amazing stuff heh? So the site where Juan met the Mary is now a massive church – capable of holding some staggering number of people – where they hold 21 church services a day, and upto 200,000 pilgrims descend there every 12 of December – now an unofficial national holiday in Mexico!

So that’s been our tourist adventures this weekend, now a little bit more about staying in Mexico City, as Cath is working we have moved from the old sinking centre of town to the new commercial centre of the city, built and you couldn’t make this stuff up…… on the old city dump. So now we are in a brand sparkling new mega commercial district, some 20km from the city centre, its feels just like London’s docklands but with more blokes with guns wandering around. Mexico has a very nice arrangement where instead of just hiring a security guard, you can actually hire a fully functioning policeman to protect your shop or business, Caths work has had the same policemen “guarding” their offices for 24 years – that’s my kind of police work!

Now lots of people in Latin America carry guns, police officers, army dudes, customs officials, security guards, taxi drivers you name it, so we are getting used to seeing people wandering around with hand guns and small machine guns, but here in Mexico they must have figured that if you are going to carry a gun, it might as well be a big one, the policeman guarding the office building across the road from our hotel has a full size M16 strapped to his back and the guard “protecting” the local pharmacy wanders around the shop with a massive double barrel pump action shot gun over his shoulder – I bet they don’t have much of a problem with shop lifting here!

So that’s about it from Mexico City an awesome city of history and wicked Mexican food, we are off tomorrow to Lima – six hours in another flying freezer ahead of us!