Mexico City: Embracing the monster

By Amy Rosenfeld

Amy Rosenfeld finds herself entranced by the vibrant chaos of one of the world's most-populated cities.

The canals at Xochimilco in Mexico City are filled with colourful gondolas carrying picnicking groups and mariachi bands. Photo / Amy Rosenfeld
The canals at Xochimilco in Mexico City are filled with colourful gondolas carrying picnicking groups and mariachi bands. Photo / Amy Rosenfeld

"It's monstrous. Dangerous. Polluted. They drive like maniacs and talk like gangsters. It'll chew you up and spit you back out on your ass."

This was the all-too-helpful advice I received from a fellow traveller when I mentioned I was on my way to Mexico City for two months.

Admittedly, I never have been one for cities. But being wedged into an overnight bus, with all of my worldly possessions stowed in its undercarriage, making my way towards one of the world's largest cities - a city where more people use the metro every day than the entire population of New Zealand - is probably not the best time to be reminded of this.

Gently easing myself out from behind the seat which had been reclined onto my lap for the past eight hours, and returning to my backpack the three jackets that had served as protection against the fierce air conditioning, I took my first steps into the city of 21 million.

Warnings of muggings, kidnappings and all kinds of treachery ringing in my ears, I coughed up for a registered taxi from the terminal to the town centre, and was thrown unceremoniously into the back of a little yellow cab.

As we weaved between non-existent lanes and honked through red lights, the driver chatted to me in thick, musical Spanish sprinkled liberally with unintelligible slang. I started to think that warning might just be right.

"This is the historic centre."

I managed to extract some meaning from the driver's freestyling.

"The city stretches for hours from here in every direction."

The unshakable image of the colossal city as a smoky black tarantula came to mind. Twisted legs striped with rivers and highways spanning miles of ground. And here we were driving straight towards its fangs, a thousand eyes glinting as sun rays hit the skyscraper windows.

But as the metallic towers gave way to colonial constructions, the paved streets filled with performers of a thousand talents and the view didn't quiet scream 'monster'.

Neither did Jaime, the white-bearded, cane-toting man who became my companion as, after checking into my hostel, I gave in to my urge to take a sunset stroll and get my bearings.

"This is Tenochtitlan," wheezes Jaime, gesturing over a low fence at Templo Mayor, a mass of grey, crumbling stone. "Or what's left of it."

"All of this," he waves a hand around as we walk, encompassing Mexico City's main square, presidential palace and cathedral in one sweep, "was built on this."

We stop in front of a scale model of a pre-colonial city, carved into a stone monument in front of Templo Mayor.

"We're here."

Jaime points at a spot right in the centre, among a mass of elaborate temples, surrounded by water.

"They drained the lake to build the city. But little by little, the lake is taking its revenge."

I take a closer look around, and notice for the first time that all the buildings lean in different directions. Every one is sinking, Jaime tells me, some as much as 5cm per year.

The fanged face of my smoky tarantula broke into a crooked grin. Maybe this monster was a little friendly after all.

The following months pass in a similar style.

On many occasions I'm stopped by friendly locals, freely offering directions, suggestions, or even accompanying me to famous sites, all genuinely interested in where I'm from and why I would want to visit a city the rest of the world seems afraid of.

But what was once thought of as one of the most dangerous parts of a dangerous country, has almost done a full u-turn.

Since the beginning of the millennium, Carlos Slim, Mexico's $60 billion dollar man, has been pumping dollars into sprucing up the historic centre of Mexico City - his birthplace - and it's now cleaner and safer than ever. Employing a bit of common sense, I never once felt unsafe there.

And with the whole city as my tour guide, one of the oldest cities on the continent really comes to life.

By day, museums encompassing fine arts to anthropology, to tequila and ancient torture methods keep me busy, as do trips to Xochimilco, the canals which are the final remnants of the once huge lake - now filled with colourful gondolas carrying picnicking groups and mariachi bands.

Visits to Teotihuacan, the ancient pyramids, and the beautiful Chipultapec Forest - the largest urban green space in Latin America, complete with lake and castle, are some of the most memorable days.

By night, the Zona Rosa packs full of tourists and locals alike, most flocking to the infamous Pata Negra for salsa dancing and live music.

And for a real local party, there is Garibaldi Plaza, where mariachi bands serenade masses of tequila-wielding dancers, or the many packed pulquerias, where revellers of all ages indulge in pulque, a sour, milky, once-sacred alcoholic drink made from fermented cactus.

Perhaps it is monstrous, perhaps it is polluted, but after two months, I walked away from Mexico City with the impression of a population that loves this monster, and will do anything to make sure you love it just as much.

And I think they might just have succeeded.

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