Text and photos by Bettina V. Roc, Associate Editor
Try telling a friend you’re traveling to Mexico and the first thing you will likely be asked is “Why?”
The question is unsurprising — and is valid, even — what with drug cartels, murders, and robberies dominating headlines about the second-largest Latin American country. And then you have US President Donald J. Trump who has remained adamant about building a wall to block the country off.
News of crimes notwithstanding, Mexico remains a magnet for tourists, with arrivals totaling 32.09 million in 2015, up from the previous year’s 29.35 million, latest data from the World Bank show. Tourism receipts reached $18.73 billion in 2015, also higher from the $16.61 billion logged in 2014. Located in the southwestern part of North America near the Pacific Ocean, common tourist spots in Mexico are its world-famous beaches in Cancun, Acapulco, and Cabo San Lucas.
But Mexico is not just the land of tequila, maracas, sombreros, tacos, burritos or whatnot. A product of years of Spanish colonization and political struggle, the country is eclectic, with historic and modern tastes coexisting almost seamlessly at present day. This mirrors the mix of wealth and poverty in the 120-million strong nation, where the wide socioeconomic gap is evident in the underdevelopment of rural areas, with shantytowns commonplace around the country’s cities or large states.
Those looking for a taste of Mexico’s rich history and culture should look no further than its capital, Mexico City or Ciudad de Mexico to locals, aptly abbreviated as CDMX. One of the oldest cities in the Americas, its history goes as far back to around 100 AD, when indigenous tribes began to occupy the area where present-day Mexico City is located.
The capital finds its roots in the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacán, which was founded and built between the 1st and 7th centuries AD by the Mexicas, who would later be known as the Aztecs. Now a tourist attraction and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site, Teotihuacán is located northeast of Mexico City — specifically, in San Juan Teotihuacán municipality in the State of México — and is around an hour’s drive from the capital on a good day.
AVENUE OF THE DEAD
Teotihuacán, an Aztec word meaning “the place where the gods were created” or “place of the gods,” was an early Mesoamerican civilization believed to have had its own political, economic and religious structures, even while rooted deeply in folklore. Structures in what’s left of the ancient city — or, more accurately, its reconstruction — show an urban plan that mixes natural elements with civil and religious architecture.
The main artery of the ancient city is called Avenue of the Dead, which expands into a web of smaller roads, once host to apartment-type structures that, according to site guides, were residential, commercial and religious in nature. Today, the Avenue of the Dead is where vendors peddling souvenirs await tourists. The keepsakes range from Aztec calendars, jewelry, figurines and tools made of obsidian (said to be the main export of the city), and animal-shaped whistles. A fair warning for the faint-hearted: when exploring the ancient city, loud shrieking sounds coming from jaguar whistles are commonplace. The jaguar is a prized animal in Mexico, with the powerful cat believed to be a helper to the gods.
Among the largest structures in the complex are the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, located on the east and north sides of the Avenue of the Dead. Both structures are step pyramids and feature several platforms said to have been the venue for ancient religious rituals. Now, however, the platforms offer visitors a resting place after climbing stretches of the pyramids, with both open to tourists wishing to scale them. The smaller Pyramid of the Moon is around 150 feet high and offers a view of the entire Teotihuacan complex. Meanwhile, the Pyramid of the Sun stands over 200 feet tall and has the distinction of being the largest structure in the ancient city. (Tip: There is Wi-Fi access atop this pyramid for that “summit” selfie.)
A SHRINE FOR THE VIRGIN
A common detour for tourists visiting Teotihuacán is the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is also located at the north of Mexico City. It is no secret that Mexico also saw years of Spanish colonization, which started following the collapse of Teotihuacan. Like their influence on the Philippines, the Spaniards brought Christianity to Mexico. About 80% of the country’s population is Roman Catholic, as evidenced by the sheer number of churches littering the country. Even the most devout locals sometimes cannot remember the names of these houses of prayer, just because there are too many.
But the Guadalupe shrine is impossible to forget or miss. The large Plaza de las Americas greets visitors at the famous pilgrimage site, which houses, among others, the two basilicas honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. The yellow-domed old basilica was built in the 16th century by a bishop following supposed apparitions of the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill to a native Mexican peasant named Juan Diego. According to the story, the blessed Virgin asked Juan Diego to tell the bishop to build a temple in her honor on the hill. After the bishop asked for proof of the apparition, the Virgin Mary told Juan Diego to pick flowers and carry them in his cloak to show the religious leader. Juan Diego promptly went back to the bishop and opened his cloak, and the flowers fell, revealing an image of the Virgin imprinted on the cloth. Replicas of this image are displayed in the two basilicas.
With the Virgin being declared the patron of Mexico in the 1700s and, in the 1900s, of the entire Latin America, the icon’s following increased, which prompted the construction of another basilica to accommodate more visitors. The new basilica, built between 1974 and 1976 and designed by Pedro Ramirez Vasquez (who also designed the National Museum of Anthropology, the largest museum in Mexico), features a round, tent-like, open-plan structure that allows the faithful to catch a glimpse of the altar from any point in the church. The new basilica also houses the original image of the Virgin of Guadalupe behind the main altar, with moving walkways allowing visitors a close look at the relic while keeping it safely out of reach.
Locals say over 10 million visit the shrine annually, with crowds usually the thickest on the days leading to Dec. 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. But the volume of visitors on regular days is also fairly thick, ranging from tourists looking to cross the now historical site off their travel bucket list to pilgrims from all over the world, who join the local crowd of the faithful in praying to the Virgin, who has been credited for all sorts of miracles. With the shrine located in a busy neighborhood surrounded by various shops and markets (think Quiapo, but a more organized version), tourists are advised to keep their belongings close, and, if possible, to not bring out gadgets, as to not attract the attention of petty thieves.
EAGLE, SNAKE, CACTUS
The Spanish influence remains inescapable in the city proper, especially in the four-hectare Historic Center, which converges at the Zócalo — meaning “base” — formally called Plaza de la Constitución. The square was the center of Tenochtitlán, Mexico City’s precursor, built following the fall of Teotihuacán based on a prophecy. According to the country’s history, the nomadic Aztecs, in search of a place to settle, believed their god would lead them to their promised land via a sign: an eagle holding a snake in its beak perched atop a cactus, which is the image featured on the Mexican flag. This sign appeared on an island in Lake Texcoco, which led to the establishment of Tenochtitlán, the ancient city erased as the Spaniards conquered the country and built what they called the New Spain, which would eventually be the nation’s capital.
What is now a hub hosting major events in the country, such as the country’s Independence Day every Sept. 15th, the Mexican flag flies at Zocalo’s center and is flanked by important structures such as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City, the National Palace (or the presidential palace), the Historic City Hall and the Government Building. Here, Baroque and Neoclassical style structures dominate the façade of what would probably be recognizable to James Bond enthusiasts as the backdrop of the opening sequence of Specter (2015), where Daniel Craig walks through a Day of the Dead parade.
The Historic Center, meanwhile, is made up of a curated street network is lined with hotels, shops of local and foreign brands, restaurants, bars, and other fare housed in Spanish-style structures. Here, it is not uncommon to encounter uneven flooring, which locals say is a consequence of living in a city built on top of a lake — aside from being prone to floods, structures also sink slowly due to the soft soil they stand on.
Walking through Madero, the main road used by tourists and locals alike to reach the central plaza, street performers — ranging from traceurs (or Parkour practitioners), to string quartets, Mariachi bands, and even those dressed as fictional characters like Stormtroopers or Captain America — litter the scene along with store owners or staff promoting their offerings. Turning corners in the network will lead you to other historic structures such as the Palace of Fine Arts, the city’s post office adorned with golden gargoyles, Banco de Mexico or the country’s central bank, and some of Mexico City’s 200 or so museums.
CRASH COURSE IN HISTORY
One cannot leave Mexico without visiting Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, now the National Museum of History, which housed sovereigns at the height of the Spanish colonization in the 1700s as well as the rise of the Second Mexican Empire in the 1800s. It is located on top of a hill in Chapultepec Park in CDMX, making it one of the highest points in the city (2,325 meters above sea level), giving tourists a view of most of the capital. Royal and historical artifacts are displayed in rooms around the castle, with some spots converted into exhibition areas for modern art. There is also a section of former quarters of the royalty who once lived in the castle, complete with an observatory towering above the structure (where one royal is believed to have watched her husband go through the city whenever the latter leaves the castle), a courtyard and small, manicured patios. Chapultepec Park, where the castle is located, is a large pocket of greenery and is one of many of such throughout the city that was once a densely polluted metropolis. Even its large roads are lined with trees and flowers, part of a greening effort by the government.
Another must-visit museum is the La Casa Azul or the Blue House, or what is widely known as the Frida Kahlo Museum, in Coyoacán, a colorful borough in central Mexico City. The house in Coyoacán is where Frida Kahlo spent most of her life, and her husband Diego Rivera donated this to the state. The couple’s work is on display in the museum, as well as photographs and personal items. The markets in Coyoacán also show the rich artistic roots of the country. Aside from the top-of-mind Mexican souvenirs such as ponchos, sombreros, and maracas, colorful hand-painted ceramics and wooden animal figures are also fixtures here as well as in other street markets throughout Mexico City, along with various incarnations of a woman skeleton that locals call La Catrina wearing traditional garb. If you don’t have the time to watch a lucha libre or Mexican wrestling match live, you can, at the very least, also find some of the colorful masks used by its often-flamboyant characters in Mexico City’s markets.
Exploring Mexico City feels like a crash course in the Latin American country’s history, with every corner of the busy capital teeming with stories and meaning as dense and diverse as its inhabitants (Greater Mexico City’s population is estimated at around 20 million currently, making it the second most populous metropolitan area in the West, just behind New York). A visiting Filipino will find that aside from many lexical similarities, Mexico and the Philippines also have a lot of shared experiences — from the most grim such as a history of colonization and dictatorship, corruption, poverty and crime, to religious beliefs, and even the weather, the perennial traffic jams, a culture of extended celebrations and spectator sports, and a love for food, drinks and social gatherings, among others. Much like Manila, Mexico can be an acquired taste, but is an experience worth taking if you have the chance.
BusinessWorld visited Mexico upon the invitation of Coca-Cola FEMSA Philippines, Inc. and its parent Coca-Cola FEMSA, S.A.B. de C.V. headquartered in the Latin American country.