Mexico City: Highlights for Families

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2010-02-21 to 2010-02-27
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I was thirteen the first time I set foot in Mexico City. In my memory the city smells like fresh popcorn, tastes like cotton candy and is irrevocably tied to memories of long afternoons spent rowing in the pond in Chapultapec Park and watching the Voladores twist slowly down from the edge of the sky in ancient rituals to ancient gods. Guidebooks might call it dirty, loud, polluted and dangerous, but I call it my favourite city in the world. 

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Zocalo, Mexico CityIf you can peel back the layers of grime on the street and rub the stinging smog from your eyes you’ll discover a vibrant world of art and architecture, history and modern convenience, and a veritable rainbow of flavours, colours and sounds. It is one of those places that I keep going back to, and we keep taking our kids back to, because there is always more to explore, more to learn, and new layers of Mexico, old and new, to experience.

Getting to Mexico City is ridiculously easy (and fairly inexpensive) by plane if you are based in North America. We've flown in and done the quick "one week tour." But it's also a beautiful place to drive to. You'll gain a sense of the power of the location chosen for the original city and you'll appreciate the scope of the city better on wheels than you will if you just drop in from above, "do the city" and hop back out.

If you are driving, pay close attention to the "Hoy No Circulo" rules. They are posted on the wall of every Pemex gas station and will make it clear which days you are allowed to drive into the city. This is determined by the letter and number combination on your license plate. Violating these rules results in a hefty fine. 

The guidebooks are packed with possibilities of what you could do and what you should do. It's tempting to race from place to place and see it all, but Mexico City is so enormous, that it would take a lifetime to see it all. Instead, why not slow down, focus your efforts, and "really see" a few things in depth. 

Over the last twenty years, these are the things that have risen to the top, in my estimation, as the "not to be missed" moments in Mexico City. Don't rush. Take your time.

Begin on the Zocalo...

The zocalo refers to the city square in any village in Mexico. The one in the capital city is a destination in and of itself. It’s the place where people, young and old, promenade of an evening. Street performers work for small change. Hawkers sell everything from donuts, to children’s toys. But a bag of hot, fresh potatoe chips doused with chile and lime and come with me, there are things to see.

Palacio Gobierno, CourtyardPalacio Gobierno

The government house on the main square is well worth a visit, and it’s free! You might need to leave your passport or driver’s license as collateral at the door, but then wander up the staircase on the central courtyard and spend a long hour examining the murals that line the walls of the second story. They were painted by Diego Rivera and they depict the epic sweep of Mexican history, from before the conquistadors arrived until after the Mexican Revolution. Look hard, see if you can find my favourite figure: a baby, strapped onto a Mayan mama’s back, with blue, blue eyes. The first of the mestizo. This is a great place to get a pictoral overview of the history of Mexico, and a wonderful place to spend some time talking with your kids about the stories and the images that Diego Rivera paints with such eloquenc.

The Cathedral

You’ll need to wear long pants, or a skirt that passes your knees, and cover your shoulders, but head into the big cathedral and sit a while in the smoky darkness. This place, to me, represents the dichotomies of Mexico. Watch carefully and you’ll see tiny women, barefoot and dropping small change into the alter boxes. Such a contrast to the gold gilt room and the grandeur of the European influence, both culturally and religiously speaking. There is still a sharp gap between rich and poor, those with European blood and background over those with primarily indigenous heritage. The cathedral is a place where the histories have been interwoven for centuries, and still are today. Take a look at the schedule of masses. If you can manage to attend one, it's a beautiful and surreal experience, even for the non-religious.

The Ruins

Behind the cathedral you’ll find the partially excavated ruins of the heart of Montezuma’s legendary city of Tenochtitlan that stood when the conquistadors arrived. When I was a little girl they were just beginning the excavations and I remember my Dad standing there with us and telling us the story, as recorded by Bernal Dias, of the inauguration of  those temples in the old Aztec city. According to the histories there were ten thousand human sacrifices made, the streets were running with blood and the stench was so bad that the city was closed for a few days while they removed the bodies. Can you imagine? If you’re lucky there will be some modern day “Aztecs” performing rituals in the square in front of the ruins. 

**note** it is entirely possible that you'll be approached on the zocalo by a young person asking if they can practice their English with you and spend the day as your "tour guide." These young people are almost always on the "up and up." Ask to see a student ID card.  Talk for a few minutes and see if you think they'll be a good fit... and then be brave and take a chance! We've had some wonderful days with our own personal tour guides, and learned a lot more about the city and culture and have exchanged language lessons in the meantime! Don't be afraid to say yes! We've often offered to tip at the end of a day, but we've always been told, "No, that is not allowed, we only practice our English!)

The Subway...

Does this seem like a funny thing to have on a "must see" list? Mexico City has a fantastic subway system. It’s surprisingly clean and efficient. Don’t be afraid to use it! You’ll even find ruins that have been excavated and are exposed in the underground station! Especially in the daytime, there’s no worry other than the usual pickpockets you’d find in any American city. Hop on at the station nearest the Zocalo and head out to the station marked with a green grasshopper, that’s Chapultapec Park! Every station has a graphic representation in addition to a Spanish name, making it very easy for the illiterate...  locals or travelers!

Chapultapec Park

From the Hero’s Monument through the shaded walkways lined with market stalls, to the rowboats for hire on the pond, and the castle on the cliff above, Chapultapec Park is a magical place. I’ve spent hours and days here doing nothing but watching the world go by. It’s a fantastic place to encounter the “real” Mexico City, as you watch families, business people on a long lunch, street performers and musicians make the place come alive. Be sure you rent a  row boat and paddle around the lake, feeding the birds. You can walk from the train station through the park to the Anthropology Museum, but don’t rush. Take your time. Have some cotton candy. Listen to the comedy show by the lago and relax. If you have kids who are tired of pounding the pavement in the city, this park is your secret weapon for kid sized fun and lots of exercise!

 

Anthropology Museum

Montezuma's headdress

This is, hands down, the best museum in the entire country, plan to spend a whole day here. Within it’s halls you’ll wander from pre-historic Mexico, through the heyday of the ancient civilizations, to the fall of the Aztecs, the victory of the conquistadors, the colonial period and the revolutions. The artifacts are fantastic. Everything is nicely labeled in English as well as Spanish and you’ll easily spend an entire day here if you have it. My kids favourites include the archeological dig exhibits, the replica of Montezuma's elaborately feathered hat, and the enormous Aztec sun stone... we have a range of photos over 20 years of our family posed in front of it! Don’t miss the voladores who perform in front of the museum for donations every hour or so. They’re men who climb a tall pole and then spin down, upside down, on ropes in a reenactment of a ritual to the gods that comes from the region of Mexico around Papantla. They are spectacular to watch.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

The Ballet Folklorico is iconic in Mexico. It's a two hour stage production of cultural dances and music representing each state within Mexico. It is worth the splurge to attend. The glass curtain in front of the stage at the Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of a kind in the world. The show is fantastic and if your kids are too little for a nighttime performance, there are family accessible matinees that will also save you a few bucks a couple of times per week. This is the one thing I would recommend you book in advance. When we arrive in the city, we always go straight to the Palacio Bellas Artes and book our tickets for later in the week, then organize our other outings around those tickets. It really is "that good." If you are not able to visit every state in Mexico in person, this show will give you a beautiful overview of the diversity and history of the country and its people.

Teotihuacan

To do this mind boggling city justice, you need to plan an entire day. Do yourself a big favor and try NOT to go with one of the organized trips out of the city. Invariably, they leave late, spend half of your alotted time visiting "cultural sites," not so cleverly disguised as tourist traps, and the time you will have in the ruins is quite limited by the return bus. You can catch a city bus out to the ruins, or, you can hire a private driver (or rent a car and drive yourself) for about what you'd shell out for the packaged trip. If you can manage a small group, negotiating this at a great price will get easier!

This place is truly a marvel. It’s laid out as a scale model of the solar system, as far as it was known by the Aztecs at the time. They had the sun at the center and they’d properly placed several of the planets. All this while the Europeans still thought the earth might be flat and at the center of it all. The pyramid of the Sun is the second highest pyramid in the world and the tallest that you can climb. Take your time, and hope for a cool day. You’ll feel the altitude if you haven’t already! Take the time to walk down to the temple of Queztalcoatl. It’s well worth the walk and the paintings are fantastic. Hard to imagine all of the centuries that have passed and still there are voices calling out from history to tell us their stories. This is one of the best ruin sites on the continent, and I’ve been to most of them!

Mercados

No trip to Mexico would be complete without ample time in the mercados. Don't try to rush through in half an hour, and don't try to spend a whole day shopping either, your head will spin. Instead, spend an hour or two a day in various markets in different parts of the city and get a feel for what it would be like to have them be your primary mode of shopping! Visit the artisan market downtown, but expect to pay more for your souvenirs there than you might elsewhere. Eat in at least one food market. Don't miss the floating market, on a Friday night if you can swing it! Don't be afraid to detour through any local homegoods and animal market that you might find popping up on the fringes on any given day! The best selection in the markets is in the mornings, the best prices can be had within half an hour of closing. Make sure you visit at both ends of the day! Watch your pockets, keep your money in several places.

Just writing this makes me homesick for Mexico. I hope with my whole heart that you enjoy the city. Make sure you have churros on the street for me and stop into a bakery and get one of the flaky butterfly shaped cookies in my honor. Have tacos al pastor for lunch and eat them sitting on the sidewalk with the day laborers, just make sure you pick off the lettuce!

Gallery: 
With Voladores
Palacio Gobierno, Courtyard
Ballet Folklorico
Teotihuacan, 2010
Diego Rivera Murals
Diego Rivera Murals
Diego Rivera Murals
With our language student tour guide, Miguel
Zocalo, Mexico City
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Montezuma's headdress
2004- Sun stone
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Article Type: 
General Destination Info

Comments

Excellent article, very detailed. It would help fellow travellers if you could mark all the landmarks on the map.

By branko
edventuremama's picture

Thanks Branko,

I'm having trouble getting the tagging on the map to work. I can get two points added but none beyond that. I don't know what I'm doing wrong! Do you have tips for me?

By edventuremama

You should add one by one, and save in-between.
This is know problem with the map.

By branko

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