Visiting Mexico City: Part Three wraps up my experiences and recommendations based on my recent trip to the capital city and all of my previous jaunts to this exciting megalopolis.
This time I’ll take you south of the city to Xochimilco, Coyoacan and San Angel and then we’ll visit the Shrine to the Virgin Guadalupe and the pyramids.
The southern part of Mexico City is so wonderful I think you need at least two or three days to do it justice. It is the perfect spot to spend a weekend. The Saturday market in San Angel and Sundays strolling in the parks of Coyoacan are two wonderful ways to either begin or end a visit to this giant city. Before these areas were incorporated into what was called the Federal District and is now legally the 32nd state, or CDMX, they were areas where the wealthy would escape from the dirt and dust of the metropolis to spend a cool weekend with family and friends. Many had weekend or summer homes.
Further south you will find the Chinampas of Xochimilco, the Venice of Mexico, where “trajineros” (gondoliers) will guide your through the maze of canals and floating gardens in colorful flat-bottomed wooden boats (las trajineras). Make it a romantic tour for two or fill up the boat with a party for family and friends. Food, beer and mariachis float by and with a simple shout will come to your boat. You can even shop for local souvenirs that are sold from boats that follow the gondolas. Saturdays and Sundays can be packed so be aware. We went on a Friday, which was perfect. By the time we were disembarking, the boats were being filled with students “yendose de pinta” or playing hooky. Friday afternoon is the traditional time for students to visit Xochimilco from all over the city, and the trajineras are soon overflowing with young people dancing, drinking and laughing.
After disembarking, wander over to the municipal market of Xochimilco and taste some of the local goodies they have to offer. Huauzontle is an herb that is indigenous to the area and prepared in a rich tomato sauce. You can also find moles and pipians of all different flavors, tamales, tortillas and other things that may ruin your diet but will tickle your taste buds!
The museums in the south part of the city are marvelous. One of my favorites – and a stone’s throw from Xochimilco – is the Dolores Olmedo Museum. The museum is housed in a 17th century hacienda that Dolores Olmedo acquired in 1962 to house the extensive collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo works that she had collected. You can wander the grounds of the museum where you will see descendants of Diego and Frida’s xoloitzcuintle dogs roaming around. Also, the Anahuacalli Museum that Diego built just before his death is an amazing work of architectural genius and houses his vast collection of pre-Hispanic pieces.
On Saturdays, San Angel is the place to be – the art bazaar and exhibition of crafts and other traditional items should not be missed. Meander through the cobblestone streets, visit with the artists and have a coffee or a tequila in one of the numerous cafes. One of my favorite places is a French restaurant called Cluny, famous for their crepes and selection of wines by the glass.
Moving north from San Angel we find ourselves in beautiful Coyoacan, the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera during the last part of their lives. You can stop by the super popular Frida Kahlo’s Blue House Museum, but the road less travelled is a few blocks away at Leon Trotsky’s home. The Leon Trotsky Museum is located in the house where Trotsky and his wife Natalia lived when he was assassinated. They had been kicked out of Frida and Diego Rivera’s home after Rivera and Trotsky fought. The house looks as it did when they lived there and you can even see the bullet holes in the wall evidencing a thwarted attempt on Trotsky’s life by Mexican artist and pro-Stalinist David Alfaro Siqueiros back in 1940. I took a book and spent an afternoon sitting in the gardens imagining how Mr. Trotsky must have felt as his enemies closed in.
Time for food and drink! Coyoacan is host to some of Mexico City’s best restaurants, most of them can be found around the Plaza Principal in the center of town. My favorite people-watching day is Sunday when the plaza is jam-packed with families, singers, dancers and even clowns. The presence of clowns usually sends me over to the cantina. My favorite is the Cantina Coyoacana with great food, drinks and strolling mariachis available for hire.
Heading north of the city, I usually recommend to those who have never seen the pyramids to take an entire day to do so. It can be crowded and it can be hot so cloudy days are actually good days to walk around the ruins. Another alternative that is new (I have not tried it but it sounds really cool!) is an early morning hot-air balloon tour where you fly over the pyramids and drink champagne. You actually arrive before the site opens to the public so you can see the sights before the hordes arrive. I personally think a guide is a good idea. Your hotel should have a list of good ones that can be hired for the day or a half a day.
If you are going to be out in that direction (north to northeast of the center of the city), you might want to visit the Basilica and Shrine to the Virgin Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. You can stop by on your way back after the pyramids, but expect to stand in line with the thousands of pilgrims that visit this holy site each year. The first twelve days of December are the days during which the annual pilgrimages are made to the virgin, culminating on the 12th of December, the feast day of Guadalupe. The best description I have found from someone who survived a December 12th in Tepeyac is in Daniel Hernandez’ wonderful book: “Down and Delirious in Mexico City; the Aztec Metropolis in the 21st Century.”
Speaking of reading material, I find that reading about a city before I visit can give me the insight I may not have had if I fly blind. I have re-read the aforementioned book by Daniel Hernandez a few times and together with John Ross’ “El Monstruo; Dread and Redemption in Mexico City”, will help make any traveler ready to conquer this sprawling metropolis. Other recommendations: Anything by Francisco Goldman or David Lida and, if you are Spanish-speaking, the humor of Guadalupe Loaeza is marvelous!