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.

“Why do we see hardly any American tourists here in Mexico City?” our guide at the National Palace wondered.

The same question struck us, as we shared tourist destinations with Germans and Italians but few of our fellow countrymen. Perhaps most opt for the beach, but those who come to this city in the heart of Mexico will be rewarded with a rich history, urban hipness and fine food rivaling any metropolis in the Western Hemisphere.

Aztec past

Mexico City’s Aztec past is never very far from the surface. In fact, the city is slowly sinking in the soggy soil left by ancient lakes that the Aztecs lived along. One landmark on the plaza — the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, built in stages over centuries — needed new concrete footings in the 1990s to stop it from tilting.

We strolled inside the cool cathedral during mass as wrinkled, gray-haired women stooped to light votive candles and children sat attentively in pews near bloody crucifixion statues so common in Latin America.

But a reminder of Mexico’s pre-Christian roots greeted us as soon as we walked outside the church, where men dressed in Aztec costumes danced on the sidewalk and immersed themselves in burning incense.

We walked a block from the plaza and came upon the most stunning architecture of the Aztec civilization, the ruins of Templo Mayor. The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés buried the temple and other Aztec religious relics in 1521 after capturing Montezuma II. The Spaniard erected a Catholic cross in their place.

The temple remnants were mostly hidden until electric-company workers unearthed a giant pre-Hispanic monolith in the late 1970s. We strolled along catwalks that were erected so visitors could see the UNESCO World Heritage site without disturbing the still-in-progress recovery work. It felt more than a little eerie to see stone serpent heads, carved toads and other relics emerging from the carefully removed earth and to think that they were just the way the Aztecs left them so long ago. Our guide used the ruins to describe a lost civilization that remains a proud part of the Mexican identity.

The new invaders

Cortés used military power to conquer the Aztecs, but a new breed of invader seems to have transformed the Zona Rosa neighborhood without opposition. Many of the artists’ hangouts and trendy restaurants that lent the neighborhood a Bohemian reputation during the mid-20th century have given way to American fast-food chains and noisy bars. Here is the place where tourists looking for cheap margaritas and taco-type beach fare could be content.

Still, some of the old character endures in the tree-shaded, cosmopolitan side streets where we found outstanding meals.

At Tezka, an elegant restaurant founded 20 years ago in the Hotel Royal Zona Rosa by a Spanish chef, we relished squash blossom soup with corn wonton ravioli stuffed with pheasant. The grilled Dorado with sautéed artichokes and crispy sauce must have come straight from some Aztec heaven.

Throughout Mexico City we found menus with creative offerings. Traditional moles had more depth and spice than the typical versions served in the United States. There were plenty of fish chowders and chalupas, the small tortillas featuring various toppings. One delight was flash-fried parsley dressed with lime juice and salt. On the streets, we could take our corn by the cob, roasted, or else by the kernel, boiled and served in cups with half a lime.

Sun god and jaguars

Our main reason for going through Zona Rosa wasn’t the food, though. It was the nearby National Museum of Anthropology. We had toured ruins of the Maya — an older civilization than the Aztecs — during many previous trips to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. What we hadn’t realized until we saw this splendid collection was that we understood only a small part of pre-Hispanic America. This was the place to fill in the missing parts.

A highlight of the museum was a calendar that the Aztecs carved in a massive stone, some 12 feet across. This Cuauhxicalli Eagle Bowl had been lost for hundreds of years until it was unearthed in 1790 during renovations of the city’s central square. The remarkable piece tells much more than the Aztec understanding of time; it also is a terrible and beautiful portrayal of an ancient cosmology in which the Sun god clutches human hearts, jaguars devour humans and serpents face off.

Never before had we seen the originals of the Eagle Bowl and the other treasures, but we realized standing before them that their images were familiar to us nonetheless from photos and imitations we had seen over the years. This is not the heritage of Mexico alone, but part of the deep history that is shared across the Americas.

 

Sharon Schmickle is a former reporter for the Star Tribune. She lives in Minneapolis.