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by Lee Foster

The attractions of Mexico City, for a traveler, flourish and continue to improve, despite occasional setbacks, such as the rare earthquake of 1985 or the endemic urban winter polution of the late 1990s.

Be sure to see the Archaeology Museum and the major Aztec archaeological excavations, the Templo Mayor, near the Cathedral, unearthed in 1978. Then explore the side streets in the shopping area west of the zocalo (the city square) and in the fashionable Zona Rosa district.

The earthquake destroyed many modern buildings, but none of the historic structures of interest to travelers. Perhaps 20,000 people perished in the tragedy. The taxi drive in from the airport takes you through the Colonia Morelos area where many buildings collapsed. Buildings fell in Colonia Morelos, Colonia Roma, and along Juarez because they were built on unstable ground on this huge lakebed. Many of the modern structures were also poorly constructed.

The only damaged area of the city directly affecting travelers was along Juarez, where several modern hotels were destroyed. Most were later knocked down. If you ever saw Diego Rivera’s great mural, “Dream of an Afternoon in the Alameda Park,” in the Del Prado Hotel, you will be saddened to know that the Del Prado was badly damaged and was demolished. The mural, fortunately, was salvaged, removed, and reinstalled nearby in Solidarity Park.

Mexico City’s three main offerings of interest to the traveler are the diverse zocalo, the stunning Anthropological Museum in Chapultepec Park, and the fashionable Zona Rosa.

THE ZOCALO

Start in the zocalo at the Templo Mayor excavations, east of the Cathedral. Near the entrance you’ll find a typical stroke of Mexican design genius–a fountain whose placid, jade-blue interior is a scale model of Tenochtitlan, the beautiful city the Aztecs built on the lake that is now Mexico City. As you walk amidst the excavations, some discoveries will startle you, such as the pointed-head statuary uncovered, adding to the stone carvings of serpents and frogs previously known. The stone carvings, paintings, and masonry are exceptional at Templo Mayor, where you can wonder what life was like here. Bernal Diaz and other observers in the 16th century felt that Tenochtitlan surpassed in artistic beauty and cultural richness anything that Europe offered.

Mexico: Mexico City, Palace of Fine Arts
Mexico: Mexico City, Palace of Fine Arts

After the Templo Mayor, visit the great Cathedral, started in the 16th century, facing the north side of the square. If eclecticism rather than purity of architectural concept is a virtue in cathedral construction, this metropolitan Cathedral is a masterpiece. Then peruse the National Palace, facing the zocalo from the east. The major cultural treats here are Diego Rivera’s murals, which interpret the flow of Mexican history. Adjacent, in the Supreme Court Building, Clement Orozco’s murals cry out for justice in a land of many people and modest resources.

For a bird’s eye view of the zocalo activity, from the west side, climb to the roof restaurant of the Majestic Hotel, where you can enjoy a Mexican beer or a meal. Political demonstrations and mariachi music frequently rage below you.

Then stroll the shopping area west of the zocalo. Side streets thrive with life because autos are banned. The National Pawn Shop is a fascinating cluster of shops selling pawned, but not redeemed, jewelry, watches, cameras, and other goods, with each category of merchandise in a separate store. West of the zocalo, visit the Iturbide Palace, on Madero, once the fanciest private courtyard house in Mexico City, now a bank lobby. The House of Tiles is an architectural adornment along Madero Street housing the venerable Sanborn’s restaurant. Alameda Park is an urban respite of manicured greenery, fountains, inviting park benches, and intertwined lovers.

THE ANTHROPOLOGY MUSEUM

Only a short taxi drive away is Chapultepec Park, with its world-class Anthropology Museum. Superlatives are inadequate to describe fully the riches of this museum, which are laid out by geographic region. The diversity of the Mexican cultures, beyond Maya and Aztec, from the Casa Grande near Chihuahua to Monte Alban near Oaxaca, plus the extended time span of 3,000 years of culture, from 1,500 B.C. to 1,500 A.D., is the subject. Artifacts, including stone carvings, jade, gold, silver, turquoise, and obsidian, show the thick texture of these cultures, built essentially on the new world grass, corn. A visitor leaves the museum with the conviction that technologies may advance, but skills of art and artisanry simply rise and fall as the human river surges forward, with no society able to claim a monopoly on insight.

One thrill, after visiting the museum, is recognizing the faces of people paralleling the features on ancient carvings.

THE ZONA ROSA

The appealing hotel, restaurant, art gallery, and nightlife area of Mexico City is the so-called Zona Rosa, the Pink Zone, which has flourished since Europeans, in the 19th century, built their homes here, naming the streets after European areas, such as London, Genoa, and Hamburg. Zona Rosa is a compact triangle bounded by Reforma, Insurgentes, and Florencia.

The Krystal Rosa Hotel typifies the style of the Zona Rosa, with its trendy mirrored lobby and piano bar lounge, a popular meeting place. Adjacent Cafe Martinique offers good opportunities to indulge in the new-world Mexican cuisine, based on corn, beans, tomatoes, and peppers, plus the sea bounty, to which are added European contributions of chicken and beef.

Spend an afternoon and then an evening strolling the Zona Rosa to get the full flavor of the art galleries (especially on Hamburgo), the outdoor restaurants and cafes (especially on Copenhagen), and the clothing, silver, and leather boutiques. The closing off of streets to cars has brought a resurgence of pedestrians, street artists, and a promenade atmosphere.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, until midnight, the tree-lined streets of the Zona Rosa flourish with a boulevardier, continental ambiance. The patrons, besides travelers, are that special spectrum of the Mexican populace that has money, education, and an international perspective. This spectrum has always been as authentic an element of the Mexican mix as are the distressed poor.

Though the skies of the city can be extraordinarily clear, modern Mexico City sometimes experiences major air pollution problems, caused mainly by bumper-to-bumper traffic. The fall or rise in oil prices sharply affects the revenues that make food, clothing, and shelter available to Mexico City’s and the country’s multiplying masses.

Mexico City enjoys some of the richest cultural heritage in the Americas, as seen in its Anthropology Museum alone, reason enough to visit this capital.

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MEXICO CITY: IF YOU GO

For further information on Mexico, contact the Mexican Tourism Board at 800/44-Mexico. They can send a packet of information on the country. The Mexican tourism web site at http://mexico-travel.com is also useful, providing a gateway to many regional tourism web sites. Be sure to bring proof of citizenship to Mexico. A passport is best, but a certified birth certificate will do.

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