Even with 21 million people and the behemoth amount of modern infrastructure necessary to accommodate them, Mexico City still tries steadfastly to cling to its pre-colonial past. To the credit of the city and the nation Mexico also integrates its indigenous cultures into its way of life far more successfully than its North American brethren, the United States and Canada, where native populations have gained more attention in recent years but too often remain an afterthought when it comes to programming and tourism marketing. In Mexico City, the culture of the indigenous people — the Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs, and Totonacs, among others — is a primary reasons for visiting. Enough of their architecture, traditional recipes and clothing, and religious beliefs survived colonial oppression that they are not only relevant, they are drivers of distinction in a travel marketplace that is cluttered with desperate attempts to “be local” and to manufacture “authentic” things to do.
In Mexico’s capital, experiences and attractions cater to the city’s historic and cultural beginnings, including in districts where a visitor can be immersed in its heritage. So much so, you can glimpse the landscape as it was when the city was founded in 1521. Xochimilco is home to colorful trajineras that line up to ferry passengers on a cruise of the lake where Mexico City originated. The trajineras, rafts with a covered roof, are steered by gondoliers, inspiring enthusiasts to nickname Xochimilco the Venice of Mexico. In a city that is absolutely teeming with roads and buildings and people in a hurry, Xochimilco is a respite from urbanity. The speed of the ride is languid, a pace that immediately relaxes you and gets you in the mood for a journey that is sure to chill you out, even in the Central American heat.
Each trajinera can accommodate about 20 passengers, who carry on board their own food and drink for the ride. The boats all look similar — with hulls painted blue and trims of yellow, red, and orange — and each one has a female name. As the gondoliers ply the waters, they steer past other trajineras as well as smaller boats where people sell roasted corn and wreaths of roses and carnations, fitting since Xochimilco means “place of flowers.” On Friday and Saturday nights, the scene can become rambunctious when the boats fill with party-goers who can hop from boat to boat. Although Xochimilco is part of Mexico City it is 15 miles (25 kilometres) south of the city’s center, a distance that hints at the size of the capital.
Closer to town is Coyoacán, an artistic district that is home to Frida Kahlo’s place of residence (and rest) and attractions related to the onset of colonialism in Mexico City, including the house of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror responsible for overthrowing the Aztec empire and altering civilization in this part of the world. With Cortes came disease, Catholicism, animals (cows, horses, and pigs), and rodents (rats) that were foreign to the Aztecs. You can learn about the invasions of Mexico by the Spanish, Americans, and French armies at the National Museum of Interventions, which is in a former Franciscan convent built atop an Aztec temple. As you will see, the Cinco de Mayo holiday marks the Mexican army’s defeat of invaders from France in 1862 and the United States flag flew in Mexico City’s main square for nine months in 1847-48 before the capital was returned following the end of the Mexican-American war.
At the Blue House, the name of Kahlo’s family home, the dramatic and heartbreaking existence of one of the world’s most influential female artists is revealed. Kahlo was a polio survivor who channeled her pain and medical ailments into her work. Critics called her paintings surreal; Kahlo contended they were her reality. Some of them depict a woman in anguish on a hospital bed surrounded by floating babies, a representation of the multiple miscarriages and medically recommended abortions Kahlo endured as she and her husband, artist Diego Rivera, tried and repeatedly failed to have a child. Others are provocative statements of the political environment of the mid-20th century, including works that announce her affinity for the Soviet Union’s communist rulers (Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Coyoacán in 1940 during a stay that included many visits to the Blue House to engage with Kahlo and Rivera).
Among the most striking artifacts in the converted museum is Kahlo’s hospital gown that she wore while rehabilitating from injuries suffered after a trolley car hit her in 1951. The gown is covered in paint splotches, capturing in one image her devotion to her art and her brutally difficult physical challenges. She died in 1954 at age 47 and her ashes are in her bedroom on a table in the second floor of the Blue House.
Although Kahlo’s art and legacy are the main draws to Coyoacán, the area has several other highlights. The House of Cortes is now an administration office and is only worth visiting for a look at an astonishing mural depicting an enraged Cuauhtémoc, the 11th and last Aztec emperor, pointing a spear at the chin of Cortes who is arriving to Mexico City with Catholic priests and soldiers, who brought guns, monotheism, and disease. The animals they shipped changed the agriculture and the food of the country. Indigenous flavors from beans, maize, and root vegetables were blended with meat and cheese from the imported pigs, cows, and chickens. That mixture of European and indigenous tastes has over time created one of the most distinct and celebrated cuisines of the world.
Diners can taste those flavors at Los Danzantes. The restaurant is located in the district’s main square, noted for a fountain featuring a sculpture of a pair of barking coyotes, heralding the meaning of Coyoacán’s name. An attractive restaurant, Los Danzantes faces the square and has a ground-floor patio for al fresco dining and an upper-dining room where guests may have a view of Coyoacán’s streets and neighborhood cathedral. The food exemplifies the diversity of Mexican flavors. One appetizer features seven different kinds of mole — the thick sauce traditionally made with fruit, nuts, and spices that is a staple of many Mexican dishes. Among the other intriguing menu offerings are: tlayuda oaxaqueña, often referred to as Mexican pizza, that is topped with sheep cheese and chapulines (grasshoppers); bone marrow served with cow’s brains sauteed in macadamia-nut butter and avocado mayonnaise; and a pair of duck enchiladas served swimming in two distinctly colored mole sauces.
Once sated, return to the heart of Mexico City for more cultural exploration at the National Museum of Anthropology, a marvelous facility with a collection of astounding artifacts, including Mayan pyramids, Aztec ceremonial earthware, a stunning waterfall monument, and carefully crafted exhibits that put Mesoamerican civilization — past and present — into a global context.
The richness of Mexico City’s cultural attractions and its dogged preservation of its indigenous heritage manage to do what might seem impossible for a metropolis of this size: Put into focus for a visitor the distinctiveness that separates it from every other major world capital. Amid the towers and cars and miles of asphalt that are emblematic of 21st-century urban life, is a wealth of history and curious stuff that is bound to catch your eye and make you ask, “What’s that?” Thus, as you uncover Mexico City’s past for yourself, you’ll connect with its present marvels too.
MORE ABOUT VISITING MEXICO CITY
Getting Around: Mexico City’s public transit system, which has a mind-boggling 195 underground stations, is among the most affordable in the western hemisphere. A single ride on the subway costs just 5 Mexican pesos (about 25 cents) and multiple-ride cards are available for purchase at terminals inside each station.