It may be smog-choked, even crime ridden in parts, but the lure of Mexico City is irresistible. The most populated metropolis in the world boasts colonial mansions and excavated pyramids alongside fabulous museums and galleries, all shadowed by the concrete and glass of encroaching NAFTA development. Above all, the city is alive – exciting, sometimes frightening, always bewildering, but boldly alive. You cannot avoid it, and if you genuinely want to know anything of Mexico you shouldn’t even try – even if the attraction does sometimes seem to be the same ghoulish fascination that draws onlookers to rubber-neck a car crash.
Though the 10% rule of thumb would peg this city as having 2 1/2 million friends of Dorothy romaing its congested streets, that is simply not the case. Mexico, like Ireland, wears its provinical Catholicism on its sleeve: any deviation is firmly rooted in centuries of shame. The queer scene may slowly beginning to make itself visible, but it has been a long road. It doesn’t approach the carnival-like atmosphere found along the Pacific coast citites that have become a gay tourist mecca, the paucity of rainbow flags will attest to that. You’d be wise not to walk hand in hand down the street with your lover; though the backrooms are nightly filled to capacity with eager flesh — such is the paradox of Mexico City.
Designed to rival the grand thoroughfares of Europe, the Paseo do la Reforma is the most impressive street in Mexico. It doubled as a ceremonial parade from the palace of Chapultepec to the city’s Zocalo, or central square. It remains the smart thoroughfare: ten lanes of traffic, lines of tress and imposing statues at every intersection.
It’s a teeming procession that’s made worse by an onslaught of pedestrian crush and traffic fumes – and don’t forget the altitude. You’ll be well served by hopping one of the frequent buses, which allow you to jump on and off at will. The roundabouts at each major intersection feature distinctive statues that provide easy landmarks: Christopher Columbus at the Glorieta Colon – Plaza d Republica is just to the north; Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc comes next at the crossing of Insurgentes – a bottleneck for some of the worst city traffic; El Angel, appropriately golden, atop a 50m column is the third to look out for – the place to get off the bus for the aptly named, Zona Rosa, or Pink Area , Mexico City’s version of Greenwich Village-cum-Castro.
You’ll know you’re there by the street names: Hamburgo, Londres, Liverpool, Roma. Packed into a tiny area are hundreds of bars, hotels, restaurants and above all else, shops. Teeming with the city’s highest concentration of beggars, queens and tourists, the Zona has multi-lingual policemen who wander around specifically to help tourists (little flag emblems on their lapels denote languages spoken). More impressive, however, are the scores of unofficial guides whose only apparent task is to get you into their stores. While you will want to cruise the constant activity, the street entertainers and the incredible diversity of shops and places to eat and drink – you’ll notice that this is no longer where the premier hotels and shops are located, though the prices in the Zona belie that fact.
On the fringe, there’s the Museo de Cera (Londres 6; 525-546-7670). A thoroughly tacky wax museum with a chamber of horrors that includes Aztec human sacrifice. Also here is the Museo de lo Increible (Same address) which displays such kitsch marvels as flea costumes and hair sculpture. On the other side of Reforma is a much quieter, upscale residential area. The streets are appropriately named for rivers; hence the cruisy stream of boys with wedding bands (this is a Catholic country after all) who seem to be looking for more than just a stroll round the neighborhood
Just beyond the area of the Zona, lies Chapultepec Park and a pair of the most spectacular museums in the world. The recently refurbished Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Gandhi, just off Reforma; 525-553-6386; free)is possibly the eighth wonder of the world, packing a civilization’s entire pre-modern archeological history into one coherent building. Virtually next door, the Museo de Arte Moderno (Gandhi, just off Reforma; 525-553-6211; free) offers an equally impressive history of the period that followed.
The vast, paved Zocalo or Plaza de la Constitucion rivals Moscow’s Red Square. It is the city’s political and religious center as well as its historic downtown and well worth a day of exploration. It is dominated by the great Baroque Cathedral, dating back to 1573 (M – Sat 11 am – 5 PM; free). The Palacio Nacional, (daily 9 am – 5 pm; free) takes up an entire side of the square, housing the President and standing on the former site of Montezuma’s Palace.
Constantly buzzing with activity, for most of the year the Plaza is spectacularly illuminated in the evenings. Among the constants, a troop of ceremonial guards marches out from the Palace to strike the giant national flag from its grandiose pole in the center. The bar of the nearby Hotel Majestic provides a romantic vantage point for the pomp.
Behind the Palcio Nacional is the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (C Moneda 13; T – Sun, 9:30 am- 6 pm; free) a collection devoted to the archaeology of other countries. Originally the official mint, it has been immaculately restored and is more interesting than you might think.
For all its grandeur, the Zocalo offers a dose of reality as well. Lines of day laborers queue around the cathedral looking for work, each holding a sign bearing his trade and a few rusted tools at his side.
The area also holds other periods of the country’s history. This was the heart of Aztec Tenochtitlan, and in the recently excavated Templo Mayor you can see remarkable remains from the temples on this site. (T – Sun 9 am – 5 pm) It’s all highly confusing, since a new temple was built over the old at the end of each 52-year cycle. The result is a whole series of temples stacked inside each other. To make sense of it all, grab a diagram from the ticket office and look at the models in the museum.