Mexico City impressed me when I first went there, around the end of 1978. It was the first non-European capital I’d ever visited, and it felt exotic. It was the Third World, as we called developing nations back then. On our taxi ride from the airport to our Zona Rosa hotel, I remember eyeing shanties; smelling burning garbage. That visit also exposed me to world-class marvels: the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the city’s huge central plaza, its marvelous anthropology museum, Chapultepec Park. We hung out mostly in the chic neighborhoods, and I recall concluding that the city seemed a wild mixture of Paris and Tijuana.
I liked it a lot, and Steve and I returned several times over the next few years, but the worst things about Mexico City — its choking air pollution and awful traffic — loomed larger and larger over time. Returning from Oaxaca in 1984, we passed through briefly but then didn’t go back for almost 35 years.
Seeing Mexico City again over the last two days made me feel like I had napped and awakened in a world that was familiar but also different in startling ways. Driving from the airport into town I noticed nothing like those old-school Latin American slums. (They must still exist, but in less obvious areas.) We smelled no burning garbage. When we rode the metro, the cars were packed and humid but cleaner and less odiferous than some crowded American subways I’ve endured.
Even the name has changed. Traditionally known as the Distrito Federal (Federal District) or simply DF, the city three years ago became more jurisdictionally independent, at the same time getting rechristened as La Ciudad de Mexico. CDMX (part acronym, part brand?) is now emblazoned on everything from buses to garbage cans (three classes for trash, organic, and recyclables). The moniker made me think of a computer operating system; made the urban center it represents seem somehow jazzier. Indeed everyone has cell phones; Bird scooters and Uber drivers are ubiquitous. Over and over I was struck by how comfortable I was; how much Mexico City now feels like home, if more brightly painted and stylish than San Diego.
Because of our previous visits here, we had told ourselves we need not be frenetic about sightseeing, but in the end we couldn’t resist slipping into our old hyperactive ways. We covered almost 9 miles on foot Friday; more than 10 yesterday. We walked from our Airbnb apartment in the elegant old Condesa neighborhood to visit a new museum downtown dedicated to pulque (the mildly alcoholic ancient Mexican drink of the masses that has gotten trendy in recent years.) The museum proved underwhelming, but admission included tastes, so I can now report that both peanut- and red-wine-flavored pulque are delicious.
We spent time in two different art museums, one filled with the staggeringly huge collection of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
Adjoining the Slim’s Museo Soumaya, the newish Museo Jumex, dedicated to contemporary art, was hosting a brainy exhibition focusing on the work of artists Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons. Besides us, it drew a throng of Mexicans of all ages.
Koons’ gigantic Play-doh pile (made of interlocking aluminum pieces rather than actual Play-doh) amazed me with its beauty and complex craftsmanship.
During our two days, we ate several meals at red-hot restaurants where we only lucked into tables because we arrived so much earlier than the locals.
What excited us more than anything was our experience in the city’s historic center. We decided to run down there on the spur of the moment, catching a metro from the Chapultepec station (5 minutes from our apartment) to the Zócalo. When I’d first seen it more than 40 years ago, that plaza blew my mind with its vastness. On Saturday afternoon, it seemed to have shrunk (probably in comparison with some of the other vast plazas I’ve tramped through over the years). Mexico City’s zocalo once was the site of a great pyramid in the heart of the Aztecs’ capital, Teotihuacan. But the Spanish conquistadors had torn the pyramid down and used the stones to create the plaza and cathedral and the other grand buildings that still surround it today.
The Spaniards’ willingness, even insouciance, about obliterating every trace of another civilization horrified Steve and me on our first visit. Back then we were intrigued by news of a recent discovery by some electricians working on metro construction. They had found a huge disk honoring the Aztec moon goddess that suggested part of the original temple might still exist, buried under the city that developed over it. Work on investigatory excavation had started, but it looked pretty puny. Still, it held promise.
My biggest Rip Van Winkle moment was seeing what has happened since. The Templo Mayor complex, as it’s now known, today covers a huge area behind the Cathedral.The biggest outer pyramid, which honored the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc, is gone. But you can clearly see the remains of what it once sheltered: about a dozen levels of construction dating from 1375 to 1519. You can stare at the double staircase where the bodies of human sacrificial victims were thrown down the steps after their hearts were ripped out. An impressive museum fills in a lot of the details, gory and otherwise. The power and scale of what once filled this space are unmistakable. It made me happy to see two of the main cultures that shaped this country co-existing more equitably.
I should add a brief mention of the biggest disappointment of this visit. According to our iPhone weather apps, the air quality was still “Unhealthy” (in the 150-200 range — compared to the 20-50 that’s more the norm in San Diego). It wasn’t as stratospherically bad as the air in India last fall. It didn’t seem as bad as the air I remember from my early forays here, but that’s probably because summer is the rainy season, which washes out some of the pollution (and we used to visit in the wintertime). I wish I could return in another 35 years. Even sooner. It seems possible more good changes may be evident.
But I’m posting this now from our Airbnb in Santiago, where we arrived last night. We’ll have about 6 days in Chile, and throughout that time we’ll be filling a blank slate.