Sunshine and sophistication in Mexico City

  • Article by: SHARON SCHMICKLE and PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2014 - 4:09 PM

Mexico City offers an urbane alternative to beach resorts for tourists seeking fine cuisine, culture and history.

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A man carries a skeleton sculpture in Mexico City’s Zócalo in preparation for the Day of the Dead celebration.

Photo: EDUARDO VERDUGO • Associated Press,

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Complaining wasn’t a fair option when our taxi driver dropped us on a street corner, pointed toward our hotel some three blocks away and insisted that we walk the rest of the way.

We had asked for this. After more than 20 trips to the Mexico that attracts so many Minnesotans — the land defined by white sand beaches, palm trees and lazy afternoons — we wanted to see a Mexico defined by vibrant cities, deep history and hip urban street action. Vibrancy? That driver had dropped us in the thick of it when he said it was impossible to drive all the way to our hotel in the historic heart of Mexico City. We had deliberately chosen a hotel on the grand Plaza de la Constitución even though travel sites warned that it would be mobbed for occasions ranging from major festivals to labor strikes.

Mobbed it was on Halloween weekend for the prolonged Day of the Dead celebrations. Clutching suitcases, we plunged into human gridlock, fighting masked revelers for every inch of space we slowly gained toward the hotel.

We had no complaints when we finally stepped into the ornate lobby of the Gran Hotel Cuidad de Mexico. The hotel — with Art Nouveau décor featuring a Tiffany stained-glass ceiling, elaborate ironwork railings and a Louis XV-style chandelier — was a perfect introduction to the aging elegance of old Mexico City.

We dropped our bags in our room and raced upstairs to the rooftop bar and restaurant. Peering over the railing, we got our first good look at Plaza de la Constitución, known to locals as the Zócalo.

Take almost any other public plaza in Latin American and multiply by several factors to visualize this paved expanse. Spreading over more than 14 acres, it is billed as one of the largest public squares in the world.

History books say that the Spaniards laid it out after they demolished the Aztec capital. They likely didn’t envision the modern Metro stop marking one area.

The buildings outlining the plaza — including a mighty cathedral and a massive palace — speak of Europe’s great cities. Even when this was called New Spain, though, it also was the New World with its own character. Now centuries of weathering and renovation have made this place pure Mexico.

No complaints, for sure.

History told in murals

The next morning we set out to do what we often do in cities: wander.

We had checked in advance about the air quality, knowing that pollution in this city of nearly 9 million was so severe during the 1980s that children were kept indoors. Though not perfect, the air is much cleaner now thanks in part to efforts by the government to restrict driving. The weather, on the other hand, was ideal: Higher than Denver, Mexico City is mostly sunny with temperatures in the 70s and 80s.

Our wandering took us to a monster of a building, so big it filled one full side of the massive plaza. Police in riot gear guarded the entrance.

We stepped inside and only then realized we’d happened into the National Palace, the seat of the federal government that houses, among other treasures, works of muralist Diego Rivera. On the walls of a sweeping staircase, Rivera created a provocative portrayal of Mexico’s history.

While modern travel ads show Mexico as an often hedonistic Caribbean resort, Rivera’s politically charged murals from the early 20th century strike populist themes at the root of a nation shaped by revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata. A lecherous priest and a corpulent monk illustrate the rebels’ anticlerical bent, which never quite triumphed in the devoutly Catholic country.

Another image, U.S. industrialists poring over stock market ticker tape, illustrates the equally complicated relationship between the United States and Mexico, which once was a haven for Communists like Russia’s Leon Trotsky and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

The anti-capitalist theme might seem out of place in modern Mexico’s economy — as its sunny beaches and enterprise zones attract U.S. tourists and manufacturers alike. But Mexico’s proximity to a bigger, more prosperous neighbor creates opportunities for drug trafficking and illegal immigration, an uneasy relationship reflected in a comment attributed to Porfirio Diaz, president in the late 19th and early 20th century: “Poor Mexico. So far from God, and so close to the United States.”

The latest travel warnings issued by the U.S. State Department urge Americans to stay away from several Mexican states, largely along the U.S. border and the West Coast. But there is no advisory in effect for Mexico City.

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