A Sunday to Remember in Mexico City

Jacaranda trees in bloom

A Sunday in Mexico City! What shall we do? How about a boat ride? Lunch in the park? Maybe a show with traditional dancers and mariachi bands? Oh well, let’s do it all!

First stop: Xochimilco, known as the floating gardens of Mexico. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When Cortes drained the lakes of Mexico City, he left one standing. This lake contains a large water transport system of canals that were built by the Aztecs. We had just arrived when there was a treat in store for us: a performance of the “Voladores de Papantla”, the famous flying men of Papantla. Our guide, Juan, comes from the same area in Mexico and his enthusiasm for the performance spilled over.

This is an ancient dance which is still practiced in Papantla area today. It is a tradition thought to have originated with a plea to the gods to end drought. The voladores in their home would be using a tree that had been totally cleared of branches. Here, it is a pole. First they dance around the tree (pole), one man playing a flute with a little drum attached to it.

They shimmy up the pole and spend quite a bit of time spinning in a tiny platform at the top, arranging their ropes. Then – down they come, going around as they go! The flute player never stops playing!

It was time for our boat ride on the canal. There are so many boats, each one brightly painted and slightly different from the others.

What a beautiful day for a little cruise.

For the most part, our ride was not as tranquil as this picture would make it seem. There was a lot happening! Vendors are ubiquitous in Mexico, and here they are in boats to sell their wares.

This vendor is selling corn on the cob. It seems to be a favorite treat because I saw them sold in many places in Mexico. I suppose they are sprinkled with chile powder, as everything else seems to be. There are also vendors selling other snacks plus drinks and trinkets. These vendors show how all the boats are transported down the canals: with a man in the front with a pole, Venetian gondolier-style.

But the absolute best is the floating mariachi bands. This band pulled up beside us, and we all decided to chip in for a little entertainment. Floating down the canal with mariachi music makes for a perfect ride. From the back of the boat in the bright sunshine, I didn’t get a great picture, but here it is.

Aside from all of that, there was much to look at on the shore as we went by. There are many greenhouses here with beautiful flowers.

Shops, homes, and beautiful old trees and other vegetation line the banks. The water is clear, and there are about 115 miles of canals winding all around.

Juan told us that on a typical Sunday, families in Mexico eat breakfast together. There may be a soccer game that one of their kids are playing in. Then there may be an outing with extended family, including grandparents, which could include a gathering of family at someone’s home or dinner at a restaurant. In between, they attend Mass. It used to be said that just about all of Mexico was of the Catholic faith. Of course, that is changing now, but it is still a very strong thread in the fabric of life for the Mexican people. There are some Masses on Saturday, but on Sunday there is one every hour. It’s forty-five minutes long, and then worshippers need to vamoose for the next one.

With all that in mind, we had arrived at Xochimilco early and had a fairly quiet and pleasant boat ride. It was getting very busy when we left, though. There are about 2,500 boats in total that could be used on the busiest of days. I don’t know how they would all fit in the canals!

The day was moving on as we arrived in the suburb of Coyoacán, and by now everyone was out to enjoy this beautiful day. Masses were in full swing at the cathedral. Parroquia San Juan Bautista, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is one of the oldest churches in Mexico City, completed in 1552. As in Mexico City, it is built on the rubble of an Aztec building. The lighter colored building on the right is the convent. We walked through the arches and came to a beautiful inner courtyard with an orange tree.

I have been to a handful of small towns in Mexico and Guatemala, and they all have the same layout: the main cathedral fronts a very nice public park. The park is a gathering place for the town at all times, but especially on Sunday. This is certainly true for the park in Coyoacán. We had our time here to ourselves, and headed straight to one of the restaurants lining the park for a late lunch.

I had lamb chops and Cal had steak. It was one of our best meals of the trip.

The people on the bench to the right of this picture were interesting because, confirming what Juan had told us, they were an intergenerational group. We saw this throughout our visit here. Every time the bench emptied, it refilled again with another little family, usually enjoying their ice cream. After the blanket vendor that you see near them got off the phone, he realized I was looking at him and thought I was interested in his blankets. He kept opening them for me to see but he was wasting his effort; I had already bought one from another vendor!

Like its church, the suburb of Coyoacán has colonial architecture and quaint cobbled streets. It was once the home of Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and Diego Rivera. There wasn’t time to do much beyond explore the park area for us, but there a lot going on to see.

The name of the town, Coyoacán, is derived from the native Nahuatl word for “place of coyotes”. Coyotes once roamed through the forests and lakes here in those days. The beautiful fountain in the park pays homage to this name.

Near the fountain, a woman was dressed as a statue from Roman times for pictures and a few coins. She looked remarkably like one of my nieces so of course I took her photo.

There were so many people everywhere, but it did not have the feel of being overcrowded. Good luck finding a place to sit, though.

For two years while Mexico City was being built, Coyoacán was the first capital of New Spain. There were haciendas and forests between it and what is now the downtown area. Of course now the forests have been replaced by city streets. This building is named the Palace of Cortes, but it is actually the Coyoacán municipal building, constructed two hundred years after Cortes lived here.

Not far from the municipal building and the cathedral, native groups were having a large all-day “gathering”. One group would finish and another would take its place. Juan stressed to us that this is not put on for the tourists but, rather, it is connection to their roots. I’m not sure if their being bumped right against the cathedral walls, and holding the gathering on a Sunday, was intentional or not. After the Masses finished for the day, we walked into the cathedral and could hear the booming of the drums quite clearly.

There was a large, covered 2-story artisan market just across the street from the park.

One more treat was in store for us on this day. We barely had an hour back at the hotel before we had to leave again for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, held in the beautiful Palace of Arts.

This dance ensemble has been in existence for about sixty years, highlighting the traditional music and dance of different regions throughout Mexico. There were a couple of numbers that reflected their indigenous roots as well. Sometimes there were only two people on stage and sometimes as many as thirty. There was plenty of mariachi with different instruments, swishing of beautiful skirts, hats thrown up in the air, and foot stomping. It was an enjoyable and memorable evening.

Mexico City had the feel of any number of European cities that we had been to. Of course, it has its own history, architecture, and culture. On the weekend nights the area around our hotel was a hotspot for restaurants, bars, and just being out. One of the main streets was totally blocked to traffic, making way for cyclists and pedestrians. That is the way to enjoy a beautiful evening!

The Angel of Independence, the monument to Mexican independence from Spain, looks like this by day:

At night, it is lit, and here you can see the former traffic lanes open for pedestrian traffic. The mood is very celebratory, since it’s the weekend. We felt comfortable moving with the crowd as we looked for an ATM and a restaurant for dinner.

Our few days in Mexico City were a kaleidoscope of sights and experiences. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, but of course there is so much to do and see that I could have a full list for another visit.

Next time – Butterflies at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary


Destination Mexico City

My husband, Cal, appeared in our RV with a brochure for a tour to Mexico that he had picked up on what he had thought was just a free coffee and donuts get-together. The tour was to visit Mexico City, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary of El Rosario, and the town of San Miguel de Allende. All three are places I’ve always thought would be wonderful to visit but I never really had an idea how I would get there. It was like holding a dream in my hands. The whole itinerary for the week’s tour looked interesting. A quick consult with our finances, a couple of reassuring calls to the travel agency, and within a week the trip was booked. That definitely increased the cost of the donut!

“You’re gonna get shot!” “Oh my…please be careful!” were some of the comments I received when telling family of our plans.

I wouldn’t undertake a visit to Mexico without vetting the company and plans carefully. Viva Tours has been in business for 35 years, taking the snowbirds of the Rio Grande Valley down to Mexico on many different excursions. Our guide, Juan, has led this tour for 16 of those years. He is an archaeologist from southern Mexico who comes up on a reverse snowbird migration to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas every year for three months to be a tour guide for Viva and its owner, Tomas. Juan is experienced, knowledgeable, and personable and we felt that we were in excellent hands throughout the week-long trip.

We met Tomas and some of our fellow tourists at the eye-rubbing hour of 3:30 AM for a van ride to find Juan and the rest of the group in McAllen. There was a transfer to a bus, a quick stop at the border to put our luggage through Mexican security, and a drop-off at the Reynosa Airport. A two hour flight and then…we were in Mexico City.

Our stop that afternoon included one of the things I had come to see and a highlight of the trip for me. The ancient city of of Teotihuacan includes two pyramids: the Pyramid to the Sun and the Pyramid to the Moon. We saw the latter mostly off in the distance from our bus window. We visited the Pyramid of the Sun and its museum.

This pyramid is the third largest in the world. At the top is a huge pedestal where human sacrifices were made. It is located on a central road of Teotihuacan called “Avenue of the Dead” because it is believed to have been paved with tombs. In the museum I was able to get a clearer picture of the ancient city:

The Pyramid of the Sun is in the foreground. The buildings that you see were ceremonial and the people lived in the outlying areas.

The city predates the Aztecs. In its heyday, around year 1 to 500 CE, it was the largest city in the Americas and the sixth largest in the world. It had an estimated population of around 125,000. Teotihuacan was built to be a religious center but became a living city. The pyramid itself dates to around 250 BCE. When the Aztecs saw these ruins, they claimed ancestry with the residents and adopted it as their own.

Although the pyramid was originally thought to be dedicated to the Sun god, hence its name, current thinking is that the god actually worshipped in this pyramid was a water deity named Tlaloc. There was a ten foot moat around the pyramid, and child burials were found in the corners. These are characteristic of water god offerings.

A close up of the pyramid and its surrounding ruins revealed some of the construction techniques. At one time it was possible for visitors to climb it, but now that has been deemed too dangerous.

The museum had some interesting artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs, including many skeletons.

A couple of days later we visited the heart of Mexico City. Moving forward a few centuries, the Aztecs had a great temple here. It was their capital city, as Mexico City is now, and was called Tenochtitlan. They started construction in 1325, rebuilt it six times, and the Spaniards destroyed it in 1521. To add insult to injury, the Spaniards built Mexico City right on top of the rubble of Tenochtitlan. The ancient temple is now being excavated.

You may remember the conqueror of Mexico City from your history books – it was Hernan Cortes and the Aztec leader was Montezuma II. The Aztec’s city was built on an island in a lake, with a system of canals. Originally there were five lakes in Mexico City. Cortes drained all but one, to the present-day detriment of the city. Built on the old lake bed, it is sinking at a rate of about three feet per year.

After an extensive history lesson from Juan, and viewing the Aztec ruins, we took a short walk through the city that Cortes built. The President of Mexico currently lives in the Royal Palace.

Across from it sits the Metropolitan Cathedral, which one of the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas. Unfortunately here the sinking I mentioned earlier is happening unevenly, but efforts to keep the foundation level are ongoing.

The organ inside is impressive with its flyaway pipes. There is also a black crucifix here. Poison was put on Jesus’s feet and the whole crucifix turned black. You can find the complete story on Google if you are interested.

Plaza Mayor, where both the palace and the cathedral sit, is grand and impressive.

There is a pretty cactus garden to the side of the cathedral, along with old-style phone booths:

You could receive a cleansing on the street if you needed it. And then you could call someone from the phone booth and tell them how good it was.

A song from a mariachi band, anyone?

On our last morning in Mexico City before departing for other sites, we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. It is the second most visited basilica in the world after St. Peter’s Vatican, with twenty million visitors annually.

The image of the virgin Mary superimposed on Juan Diego’s robe, the person who witnessed her appearance in 1531

What I’ve covered here is just the tip of the iceberg for everything we saw and absorbed while in Mexico City. Some of the places we visited may not even make it into the blogs. I’m trying to condense it but I am finding that not to be an easy task! Hopefully I can at least give you a flavor for this great city and its environs.

Next time – a boat ride in Xochimilco and Sunday in the park in a Mexico City suburb. Still to come–butterflies, and San Miguel de Allende