Well, we flew in on a redeye from LA, having spent three days in the Californian desert, and were met by our friend Luis’s dad, Luis, at Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México (the city goes by the abbreviation of CDMX nowadays more than the older ‘DF’, which stands for Distrito Federal. And yes, it’s usually in pink). In the dawning light Luis Sr. drove us a short distance to an unoccupied casa he owned near Velódromo metro station, the casa Luis Jr. had always said we could use any time we wanted to, and that Sr. had prepared for our arrival after we’d told Jr. we wanted to use it for the parts of our seven-week trip when we’d be based here in the capital. Luis Sr. settled us in, took us to a nearby market to buy queso oaxaceño and jabón (cheese from Oaxaca and ham), and showed us to the best local panedería, where we got cuernitos* and café de olla to keep our fatigue at bay.
Mexico, both city and country, are centred, mythically, on the very island, the very cactus in fact, in the lake – Texcoco – that once covered this area, on which the Aztecs (or more properly, ‘the Mexica’, pronounced meh-SHEE-ka) saw an eagle preying on a snake. Primed as they were to see omens where lesser mortals might not even have noticed this one event among the innumerable natural quotidian dramas unfolding around them, they took this to be the sign they had been looking for, and decided that the cactus was the centre of the universe. Well, why not? Despite what the ancient Greeks thought, thanks to advances in cosmology and astronomy over the last century we now know that the centre of the universe didn’t, and still doesn’t, lie about sixty kilometres north-west of Athens, and isn’t called Delphi. So the location of the cactus is where the Mexica built Mexico City, or at least Tenochtitlán, the precursor to the massive city that their fledgling settlement grew into. What remains of the centre of it is the Templo Mayor, right in the heart of the Mexico City’s Centro Historico. So that’s where we headed on our first full day in CDMX.
Sadly, unlike the more famous ruins dotting the Yucatán area and elsewhere, the structures here have mostly been flattened, so good a job did the conquistadors do of obliterating whatever existed before they arrived. In fact, this temple, right in the heart of the megapolis, wasn’t discovered until 1978 when work was being done in the area and obradores stumbled upon the flattened remains of what once was a 40-metre high double pyramid, one whose steep steps were frequently slick with the blood of human sacrifices, sometimes Spanish. Visiting the site today, you get to look out over an imaginary scenario, with all the props that remain safely tucked up in the museum behind you. We’ll see the real thing – standing pyramids, that is – when we visit Teotihuacán in the next few days.
To make sense of Mexico’s various civilisations, we needed a museum. Luckily, as far as museums go, CDMX has some of the best in the world. In the Museo Nacional de Antropología, La Piedra del Sol is the star of the Aztec room, the centre around which everything else rotates. But its function, as generally understood, is less than clear. Speak to Mexicans about this most iconic of Aztecan artefacts and they’ll say “Pues, es un calendario.” That’s because it’s also known as the Calendar Stone, containing as it does concentric circles surrounding the sun, and slots for the 20 days in their month, and the 52 years in their century. But in the display stand in the museum itself, it states that the modern reading sees it more as a sacrificial altar, a much more concrete and threatening interpretation than the appealing abstraction of a calendar. Ni modo, it’s an imposing and beautiful object whatever its original purpose.
We had a few more days in the city before we headed north on a break-within-a-break, to Querétaro and a few central highlands towns like San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato that we wanted to visit. I was beginning to love being in CDMX – at least the centre of it. But it’s too big – es demasiado grande. We could do with a break after only a few days.
* You are not going to get a Mexican to say croissant.