The title “Third Largest City* in the World” never moved beyond the abstract until I found myself circling over the Valley of Mexico on the descent into the Mexican capital back in 2004, when I actually had hair and the associated hairline (and before I caught a whiff of that very special mega-city further south). Golden brown fields gave way to barren mountain peaks that seemed to reach for the underside of the jet. Those gave way to the sprawling mass of Mexico City, nestled on the floor of the ancient Lake Tenochtitlán, and smothered by a cloud of smoke and exhaust trapped by the ring of mountains. It was like flying over the über-expanse of Los Angeles, but three times bigger. Mexico City is big, huge, gargantuan, as in big-ass biscuit big.
On my final approach to Benito Juárez International Airport, I caught glimpses of expressways, tree-lined streets, apartment towers, and skyscrapers which lent a surprising sense of modernity to a place Americans in their cultural isolation typically have no thoughts about whatsoever. Just before I landed over the densely-packed shotgun shacks the surround the airport—the “real” Mexico—I spotted signs that the country is indeed tied economically to the US: Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and the ubiquitous Golden Arches. Don’t think you can get away that easily.
Once I arrived, I hopped on the retro Mexico City Metro, designed in the 1960s and apparently not refurbished since, so it’s become stylish again. During rush hour, the trains were packed, the A/C was often broken, and peddlers pushed through the cars loudly offering everything from pens and notebooks to bootleg CDs and DVDs for 10 pesos each. Yes, they were selling Barbershop 2 in the Mexico City subway the week it had been released in US theaters.
With a population of 8.6 million in the Distrito Federal, and another 23 million in the metro area*, I found the streets of Mexico City to be surprisingly clean. The air was dirty, though having already traveled to other Latin American cities, I had previously been introduced to swallowing black clouds of exhaust while walking down the street. Also, being 7,300 feet in altitude, the air is much thinner than that of the low-lying East Coast. So, climbing the stairs from the Metro, doing any cardio in the gym, and getting my merengue on in the club became a spectacle of gasping for air and having to sit down for a hot second before I had a heart attack. The girl in the gym said it takes about four days for coastal folk to become accustomed to the mountain air.
During my five days in town, I hit the Frida Kahlo house in Coyoacán, a poignant arrangement of the artist’s life and work, with colorful statuary and paintings on display no where else in the world. The humungous Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) has the world’s largest collection of indigenous artifacts from Central and South America. There is a great crafts market in the Cuidadela, where I got all kinds of Mexican knick-knacks that my pops put in storage the day after I presented them to my parents. One afternoon, I rode out to the 2000-plus-year-old pyramids at Teotihuacán, built by folks that predated both the Toltecs and the Aztecs.
I wrapped up my days of exploring with a $3 all-you-can-eat buffet around the corner from my hotel, where I met three African dudes on vacation. They were originally from Cameroon, but lived in France, where they sold gold jewelry at a flea market in Marseilles. They were traipsing around Mexico for three months. Play on, players. Then, my last night, I was adopted by a group of youngins who liked hip-hop and took me out for a night of, hell, everything: reggae, house, hip-hop, salsa, norteño, mariachi, swing…they could dance it all; I was very impressed.
Mexico City, you are indeed the cradle of a great civilization!
Check my photos, check Frida and Amores Perros, check these interesting websites (AfroMexico and Africa’s Legacy), and check the US State Department travel warnings for a heads-up before heading south of the border (along which most of the trouble is, not in Mexico City).