We spent two separate days in the intense downtown and enjoyed both immensely. There is so much happening, seemingly at all times, it can be overwhelming…but the historical sights, the fascinating architecture, the markets all add up to a vibrant scene.
From Roma Norte it was about 20 minutes to downtown via Uber, though on Saturday the driver noted the many closed off streets made getting us to our museum of the day somewhat complicated.
The zocalo is immense. On one side is the cathedral, two sides are government buildings, and the fourth is shops at street level (mostly jewelry) and restaurants on the second level, meaning there are hawkers every few feet encouraging you to come and eat something. Once off the zocalo there is a mix of every kind of retail, many many restaurants at street level, and every few blocks or so a string of food stalls on the sidewalks. Is it my fault I spend all my time in Mexico hungry? The smells of corn tortillas and grilling meat and vegetables are so enticing. Mostly we recognized the food but every now and then I had to ask “what is that?” And I would have tried them all—if my stomach could have fit everything.
This was on our list but when we asked a driver “what is the one thing we should not miss while here” the answer was Templo Mayor. Yes!
The history of how this site was rediscovered is fascinating. I won’t go into it here, see the link, but let’s just say some developers were probably mighty pissed that their plans were foiled by a major discovery in 1978 (the round “tablet” below–it was a world-renowned find). And it is such a large excavation, right smack in the middle of the downtown, that it must have cost the city and country a lot of money in foregone taxes, not to mention the expense of the dig itself.
There is the site itself and the attached museum, both worth the time. We spent several hours and were fascinated and dazzled. The juxtaposition of the site and the adjacent cathedral is also pretty cool, as you view ancient and contemporary religions right up against each other.
Tacos de canasta
I must share our lunch experience. I very quickly glanced at yelp and saw a highly rated taco place and without reading anything we headed over-it is just a half block off the zocalo. The name is Tacos de Canasta los Especiales, and there was a large queue which David joined while I slid past the line to the inside to try and figure out the deal. In the back was a large multi-part room, lined with narrow stainless steel counters and every 5 feet or so enormous bins of chopped lettuce, pickled jalapeños and carrots, and seemingly gallons of a guacamole salsa. Every few feet the counters had stacks of napkins–this is an ‘eat with your hands’ place. I went back to David, shrugged my shoulders and in a minute we were at the first “station”. I asked “que es el sistema?” and he replied we paid for how many tacos we wanted, he then handed us a token with the number of tacos, we handed the token to the next guy who gave us two paper plates each with two tacos that he had scooped out of the basket in front of him, and we headed back to a counter to eat. We don’t remember what it cost but according to Yelp it’s 40 pesos for 5 tacos plus a drink. Suffice to say it was embarrassingly cheap, and they were delicious and the entire scene great fun. HINT: Carry some silverware with you–I have some snap together knife/fork/spoon “kits” in a little box that I bought at Cole Hardware in downtown SF. They sure came in handy here, as I didn’t want to leave a bit of the crunchy lettuce and jalapeños.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
We decided to wander and ended up walking over to the Palacio de Bellas Artes where we enjoyed the beautiful architecture, murals, and a very fun temporary exhibit titled “Redes de Vanguardia” (networks of the vanguard) about Amauta, a Peruvian arts and politics journal from the 1926-1930 that for the first time brought indigenes art and culture to the fore. Seems so obvious now, but recognizing indigenes contributions was a breakthrough at the time.
Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico
This is one of those places that is terribly under-represented in the guide books. We went there our last full day in the city, and it was a wow. The building, just a few blocks off the zocalo, is lovely, the displays about the challenges of large urban centers is a multi-media wonder, and the information about the city itself—its history from pre-Hispanic to modern times is rich and entertaining. However, some Spanish is recommended as much of the information is not translated (though much is). There is an entire room devoted to explaining the many different jobs that keep the city running, from teachers to street food vendors to dog walkers to construction workers. Each wall is covered with photos and descriptions, and there are also five or six videos that profile work and workers…it was incredibly illuminating and it brings the people of the city alive.
On the second floor are a series of art exhibits, including one that had just opened—we were so lucky!—that comprised four large rooms filled with mostly very large contemporary paintings of Ciudad de Mexico. We loved it.
Downtown on a holiday weekend
That last day, a Saturday, the zocalo was filled with tents. We asked our Uber driver what was going on and he said it was just “normal.” As we walked around we figured out it was a celebration/observation of life with a physical disability. For example, there was a footrace with paired runners, tied together at the wrist with one runner blindfolded. There were wheelchair races and apparently a race on crutches, as there were many pairs of crutches lined up against the fence. A short zipline was managed by members of the military helping kids go back and forth. We didn’t enter but it looked like a lot of fun, like a different kind of carnival. “Normal.”
Naturally for Mexico, around the fair were artisan street vendors selling anything and everything. Something we had not seen before were maybe five or six spots where indigenes shamans (?) offering purification. Individuals stood with their arms out, eyes closed, as they were fanned with burning bundles of dried something that might have been sage, serenaded by conch wails, and otherwise rid of bad spirits. Intriguing, but I wasn’t brave enough to do it. Small children ran everywhere, and I had to photograph a group of 4-6 year olds sitting on the pavement trading Barbie and other doll clothes so intensely they were oblivious to anything happening around them.
From here we walked to La Ciudadela, an artisanal market. The market was really great and well worth a stop even though we had been shopping at markets for two weeks. The walk could have been a 15 minute affair but the crowded streets and vendors were too interesting to rush by and we spent about 40 minutes dawdling. I was hungry (surprising?) so kept stopping to ask street vendors “what is this?” I am still regretting not trying a “pata” taco–the customer who told me this mysterious ingredient’s name put her fingers to her lips, Italian style, gave a kiss and said “Muy rica!” A few blocks later, though, we came upon “Tacos de Tripa.” The cook pulled pieces of tripe out of a boiling caldron, chopped them into tiny pieces, tossed them on the steel grill where they became crispy, separated them into little piles each of which he covered with a tortilla, deftly flipped each over, crisping up the tortilla as well. I love tripe and was delighted to stop and order one, yes please to onions and cilantro, while a couple eating next to me asked “What is the word for ‘tripa’ in English?” (In Spanish of course.) And then they wanted to know the English word for caliente, hot, which I explained was the same as the word for picante (spicy). We agreed that ‘tripa’ (tree-pa) is a much prettier word than ‘tripe.’ Oh yes, the taco was delicious.