A word of warning: When you arrive in this vibrant, frenetic and somewhat frightening place, any sinking feeling you may have has nothing to do with the singularly unhelpful airport staff – it’s a real thing. As is happening in Venice, Bangkok, Houston and Shanghai, some of Mexico City’s magnificent buildings, broad avenues, countless statues and seemingly rolling hills of “favela”-type ramshackle housing are actually sinking.
There is no better illustration of this than the iconic Angel of Independence monument which, after collapsing during construction in 1906, was re-built with extra-deep and super-solid foundations. This means that as buildings sink around it, El Ángel stands firm, although you need to climb 23 steps to reach the column today, as opposed to just nine in 1910. While the city is shoring itself up, the problem is complicated by the over 20-million people who draw most of their water from underground aquifers. As these are depleted, Mexico City is subsiding.
One may ask: Why not create a Canberra-type planned capital on a more stable site? “Not gonna happen,” says my travelling companion, a Mexico native. She recounts how, during the long migration to find a new home, the Aztecs finally settled in the place where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake. Their god, Huitzilopochtli, had spoken. Lake or no lake, this was home, so they set about reclaiming land. The conquering Spanish continued the practice. You can still glimpse that ancient water world with a visit to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco (pronounced SO-gin-EEL-co), where you can enjoy a gentle ride on the canals in one of the brightly-painted traditional trajinera boats.
My guide, Ernesto Ehecatle Andrade, seemed unperturbed by the visibly tilted National Institute of Fine Arts or the warped floors at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “It is sinking the same across the city,” he shrugged. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that European Space Agency data indicates that some areas are sinking faster than others (at more than an inch a month).
“Sí,” I mumbled, making a mental note to never invest in property in Mexico City. Not that big names like Daimler Group, BP, Coca-Cola and home-grown Telmex (Mexico’s dominant telecoms company) seem worried, and nor do global hotel chains like the Four Seasons, Marriott, Hilton and Radisson. High-rise offices and apartment blocks are springing up everywhere.
This seems to epitomise the Mexican spirit: a hybrid of unrushed mañana mañana thinking mixed with a profound desire to be taken seriously on the world stage. No doubt some smart aleck will eventually come up with an engineering solution, and there’s also the legacy of the Aztecs to draw on. Archaeological digs suggest that the Aztecs were continually building on their sinking cities. Maybe they hold the answer, I surmise, which is why my first port of call is a visit to the pyramids of Teotihuacán (pronounced TE-uh-TEE-wah-khan), about 50km outside the city.
Day 1: A proud history
Given the fuss over the Giza pyramid complex in Egypt and Machu Picchu in Peru, you’d think there’d be a little more global buzz about Teotihuacán, but I only became aware of this ancient Mesoamerican site when researching the city. Experts believe Teotihuacán – now a Unesco World Heritage Site – was home to between 125 000 and 200 000 people in its heyday, some 900 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus on these shores in 1491. By all accounts, the city was massive by European standards of the day and left the Spanish conquistadors gobsmacked by its wealth and sophistication.
The drive to Teotihuacán is beautiful when you get through the urban sprawl and, once in the complex, you can climb the 243 steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, wander through the broad Avenue of the Dead, and visit the well-kept Manuel Gamio Museum, which is packed with fascinating exhibits.
What the experts don’t (and can’t) explain is who built Teotihuacán. While associated with the Aztecs, this impressive site was discovered – abandoned – by the Aztecs. Some scholars believe the Totonac Indians built the city, but others debunk this theory. But with only about 5% of the site scientifically excavated so far (according to Arizona State University archaeologist George Cowgill in a National Geographic interview), there may well be answers under the dirt and stone.
Day 2: All things Frida
One of Mexico’s most recognisable personalities is the controversial and tortured artist and writer Frida Kahlo, the other half of famous painter Diego Rivera. Rivera’s work is celebrated at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, with the star attraction being a mural that was saved after the devastating 8,0 1985 earthquake which claimed 5 000 lives. But it is Rivera’s petite, free-spirited wife, and her story of tragedy, physical pain, betrayal and intensity, who resonates with today’s crowds.
The Museo Dolores Olmedo, set in a magnificent 16th-century building and boasting glorious gardens and resident peacocks, houses the extensive art collection of wealthy Rivera patron Olmedo. There are 137 Rivera originals and 25 from Kahlo, more than at the Museo Frida Kahlo, situated in the couple’s former home, Casa Azul (the Blue House), which offers an aching insight into the couple’s emotional and often mutually hurtful, adulterous relationship. A visit to Casa Azul for MXN130 per person is heartily recommended. The museum opens at 10am, but expect to wait for upwards of an hour to gain entry, even if you book online.
As you wait patiently in line, it’s hard not to chuckle at what the non-conformist Kahlo (whose ashes rest, somewhat creepily, in a frog-like urn in her former bedroom) would make of it all. She would surely have flounced to the front. Yes, you think as you stand, that’s what she would have done. And you stand.
Day 3: Bussing about
After painting in miniature so far, day three became about broad brush strokes. The first stop in a packed itinerary was Templo Mayor, located just behind the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral (the oldest in Latin America) and near the National Museum of Art and the National Palace, the seat of Mexico’s federal executive. Walking the ruins and access to the accompanying museum, costs MXN70 and is worth every penny.
With a tour bus stop just half a block away from Templo Mayor, getting around the city is enjoyable and easy. Our Turibus service offered four circuits (MXN165 per person) of which we enjoyed two: the historical city centre route and the more modern Chapultepec route, which takes you into Polanco – the fashionable heart of Mexico City.
While the latter featured an amusing number of stops at massive American-style shopping malls, the historic route was perfect for nipping into some of the more traditional sightseeing destinations. Perched high above the traffic, we took in the city as a whole, viewing statues including that of Columbus and Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc (who was tortured and killed by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1522) and getting up to date with modern-day Mexico at the impressive National Auditorium which has hosted big names like Madonna, Metallica and Placido Domingo.
We stopped to enjoy the Monument to the Revolution, which was planned back in 1897 as a grand legislative palace to rival the White House in Washington DC. Construction was started in 1910, a year before the 1911 revolution, and remained half-finished until 1938, having been adapted to its current design and function as a memorial and museum.
The real winner of the day was, hands down, the Anthropology Museum which, for an MXN70 entry fee, will take you through indigenous American history from the Maya to the Inca with an understandable bias towards the Aztecs. The relics are beautifully maintained and deeply impressive – a wonderful tribute.
Wrapping up the Anthropology Museum by way of the huge Aztec Stone of the Sun (mistakenly believed to be a calendar, but actually a sacrificial altar), just one more vital task remained: tacos, tostadas and quesadillas. But with intoxicating smells coming from almost every quarter, you’d be hard pressed not to punctuate each stop with a nibble. Oddly, that seemed to quell any residual sinking feelings.