Welp, guess I’m finally getting around to writing up my trip to Mexico City (it’s only been 18 days since I’ve been back, but I’ve been crazy busy trying to get the magazine issue out and had no spoons left by the end of the day). The week in Mexico was packed morning to night, from my personal touring around the city to my day job and conference work, so that by the end of the trip my ass was pretty much kicked with exhaustion. But it was awesome all around.
Normally, when I travel, I like to get out the guide book and plan my days. But for this trip, I just wanted to relax and not have to think too hard about how I was getting from one museum to another, so I went looking for a company that conducts tours of the city and found Journeys Beyond the Surface.
Journeys Beyond was amazing and went above and beyond the call of duty. In addition to putting together two tours, both tailored to my personal interests, Mojdeh (the company owner) also helped me figure out things to do in my spare time and let me know how to get around safely. By the time I arrived in Mexico, we had exchanged at least a dozen emails back and forth and I felt I made a friend.
Both of the guides who took me on the tours were wonderful. Though they both had different personalities, they were very knowledgeable and passionate about Mexico and its history — this knowledge and passion showed.
Touring the Basilica de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe and Teotihuacan
This day long tour was hosted by my guide David, who kept me entertained the entire day. Not only did he provide a wealth of information about the sites we visited — he was very passionate about the history and culture — but we also talked about music and culture and various curse words in both English and Spanish. One of the other things he did that I loved was that he brought supplementary materials (an illustrated history book and his I-pad) to help explain and elaborate on the history.
On our way out of town (David drove), we stopped at the Basilica de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe, which is where the following of Our Lady Guadalupe began. The story goes that an indigenous peasant, named Juan Diego, was walking through the hills and the Lady Guadalupe appeared to him in a glowing light, speaking his language Nahuatl and with dark hair and features. She told him she wanted a church built in her honor on that little hill. So, Juan Diego went and told a local priest, who did not believe him.
When Juan Diego went back to the hill to explain to the Lady, she told him to gather Castilian roses (an impossible feat since it was the middle of winter) and pointed to a nearby bush where they were miraculously blooming. Juan Diego gathered the flowers in his cloak and carried them down the hill to the priest. When he opened the cloak, not only did several flowers fall to the ground but an image of Lady Guadalupe appeared upon the cloth — that cloak with her image hangs in the Basilica today.
The Lady Guadalupe has special significance in part because the indigenous people were able to relate to her due to her dark hair and features and how the story and symbolism aligns with the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, and sometimes she is also called by that name. (There’s a book called The Aztec Virgin: The Secret Mystical Tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe by John Mini that apparently explains in detail these cultural and symbolic connections and I’m looking forward to reading it.)
Apparently, every December thousands of people come to this church and flood the courtyard in honor the Virgin Guadalupe. People from all over the Americas worship her and come to this church, many of whom who are not even Catholic. One of the guides told me that more people visit the Basilica of Our Lady Gudalupe than travel to Mecca.
It was very cool to visit the church again — which like many old buildings in Mexico is sinking* — and to be able to see the cloak with her image. It’s in the back of the newly constructed church and you go behind and stand on conveyor belts to see it, but its amazing to know that the original is there. (When I traveled Mexico with my university class, we couldn’t find the cloak and so missed seeing it. So, this was a wonderful completion.)
*Yeah, see Mexico City was built on the five lakes, which were filled in, and the colonial buildings made of marble are incredibly heavy. So many of them are sinking, some have since as much as 6 meters since the ’70s. For example, the main cathedral in the Zócalo (the last picture in this post) has windows in the ground in front of the building to show where the original walkways used to be (about 6 meters down). And some of them are tilted, because one side of the building is on solid rock and the other isn’t.
From the Basilica we traveled out of town to Teotihuacan, which was once massive city covering the entire valley and the location of the famous Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. (Though my guide pointed out that these names are misleading, as they imply that the people who built them worshiped the sun and the moon, which was found to not be true. It’s been learned that worship was of the god of rain and the goddess of the rivers and lakes.)
It’s important to note that the Aztecs were not a part of building these pyramids or the city. The Aztecs came hundreds of years after this city had collapsed and were so impressed by the city that they mimicked the culture and the construction when they built their own impressive city on the five lakes, where Mexico City now stands. And it was the Aztecs who named the location Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan was not homogeneous, as it housed at least four main ethnic groups, each of whom spoke their own language. The city was a site for people in the North, South, and surrounding areas to come and trade, making it a hub of many cultures and peoples.
Above is the temple of Quetzalcoatl and another god (whose name I don’t remember). These images are so well preserved, because at some point the people of Teotihuacan built over the old temple, erasing the images on the outside, but preserving those within.
The tour of the pyramids was fantastic. I saw how some of the mural paints were made (with ant eggs on the back of a cactus leaf, which turn red when crushed and the cactus juice acting as a sealant). I climbed the pyramid of the sun (the larger of the two and quite a hike with an awesome view). And I saw the pre-Hispanic murals, which many visitors don’t see, because they don’t realize that they are there. Actually, the only downside to the day was that I left my sunscreen at home, which left me terribly, terribly sunburned.
Touring El Centro Historico
The second tour I took was a half day walking tour around the Centro Historico, where we visited the Alameda Central Park, the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the central post office, the blue tile house (built by the richest man, who wanted to show off his wealth, so covered his house in Chinese blue tiles, which is the equivalent of covering your house in gold today), and other local buildings and then we walked down to the Zócalo (where tents were setup for a teachers’ strike).
Alvaro, my second guide, was a bit more subdued, but incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about Mexico and its history. He was also not afraid to criticize aspects of Mexico, such as racism or political problems, while also telling me how much he loves his country. His passion was infectious and as he described the meaning behind the Diego Rivera murals we saw, the art and the history of Mexico came alive for me in a way it hadn’t before. Listening to him, I was drawn in I began to feel the pressure of tears behind my eyes. What an amazing morning.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes, which houses a museum of murals by Mexican artists.
Portion of the Diego Rivera mural (inside the Museo Mural Diego Rivera), depicting the entire history of Mexico within the Parque Alameda Central. At center is Diego as a child with Frida Kahlo as his mother.
The cathedral in the Zócalo.
Whirlwind Museum Visits
In the limited free time, I also took the opportunity to do lightning fast visits of the Museo Nacional de Arte and the Museo Soumaya. Both were great, though I sort of powered through them in the hour or two of time I had available — not normally how I do museums, which involves taking my time and stopping for several minutes to absorb and enjoy a favorite piece of art.
The Museo Nacional de Arte is the national museum of art and features colonial art up through Vanguardia artists, such as Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. It was a good collection in a gorgeous building. The interior courtyard was hosting some sort of summer camp, so kids were running around joyfully participating in creative projects and making a lot of noise, which was fun to see.
The Museo Soumaya is amazing for its architecture alone, which is a modern, curved facade made of aluminum hexagons. It was built by Carlos Slim (one of the wealthiest men in the world), who decided to put his private art collection on free display to the public. It houses a litany of artists from many areas and regions, including Salvador Dalí, Leonardo da Vinci, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, as well as Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo.
The trip was a great success, both professionally and personally. I adore Mexico and Mexico City and I hope I can return soon and drag some family and friends along for the ride.
Also, more photos on my Mexico City flickr set, for those who want to take a look.