I’m going to devote the next week or two to accounts of my early January trip from Mexico City to the Yucatán. As Miss Manners reminds us, the casual visitor may not be interested in learning about someone else’s vacation, and that’s quite all right; come back for another look in March. I have my own misgivings that travel writing is a genre without excessive potential in today’s world. Millions of people live in the places I visited: Shouldn’t they be the ones to provide neighborhood descriptions, restaurant reviews, historical perspectives, complaints about transit hubs where there is nothing to do, meditations on the tragedies of a nation’s past and its hopes for the future, train schedules, conversations with the mayor, floor plans of the cathedrals and walking tours of the ruins, tips on the best museums? Perhaps, but locals often don’t visit their own museums. So I can promise a thorough museum guide to central Mexico, as well as a few well-researched observations on its bus system. There is not much else I can promise.
My guidebook says you should not visit Mexico City until you are ready. You should "acclimatize to the country first," it says; "if at all possible, try not to spend too long here when you first arrive." That is nonsense. I could spend months on end in Mexico City, all the while feeling delightfully overwhelmed. I think the American imagination, if there is one, pictures it as a bustling yet colorless political headquarters choking under expressways, pollution and ill-advised housing developments. All of these things are there, but also (to choose just one example) there is freshly squeezed orange juice available on any street corner. It is just as large, diverse and interesting as London or New York.
Every tour of Mexico City begins in the Zócalo, the historical and political center of things. Like many public spaces, it looks notably empty when there aren’t hundreds of thousands gathered to celebrate or air their grievances, or both. The day I visited there were no protests and few people, only a magisterial expanse of concrete. Apparently, it is the second largest public square in the world. The one in Moscow is probably more imposing, but even here you might notice a red flag or two.
The colonial blocks across from the cathedral are where the city first comes to life. It is full of crowds, but not oppressively so; there is never a feeling that you lack room to breathe. The streets, hundreds of years old and still evoking the distant idea of a frontier, radiate in and out of small neighborhoods which self-contained, might have looked no different from sleepy village squares were it not for the ceaseless ebb and flow of wanderers and loiterers.
Mexico City was built on top of Aztec ruins. This would be an unremarkable fact, except that most North Americans imagine their native peoples as free spirits leaving almost no trace of the years they spent on earth. I found it titillating, I’m embarrassed to say, to look at a map of the subway here and find ancient towns or cities: Tlatelolco, Coyoacán, Iztapalapa, Tacuba, Xochimilco. Here there was civilization without any ambiguity in the term, and the evidence is right before your eyes.
Or it can be, if you know what you’re looking for. Cortés first entered with much pomp and ceremony on a causeway over a lake, which used to surround the whole city even though no trace of it now exists. According to indigenous accounts, omens and wonders appeared prior to his arrival. One was a flaming ear of corn in the sky. Another was a weeping woman who returned to the streets each night. Another time a crane appeared carrying a mirror, and upon gazing into it one saw bearded people riding the backs of animals that looked like deer. A further omen was the arrival of men with two heads.
A few blocks away from the cathedral are the ruins of the ceremonial buildings, or the Templo Mayor. In the place of pyramids there is now a pile of stone. What can you say about stone? More illuminating for me was the museum, a place of shimmering glass walls bearing testimonials from the natives and conquistadors, and stairways that wind up to balconies looking over a map of the former city. There is also plenty of information about human sacrifice, a custom that still leads sage observers to deem this civilization beneath the notice of cultivated men; but while they could not hope to equal the Spaniards, the Romans, the Assyrians, the Chinese, the Spartans, the Maoists, the Soviets, the Belgians or the British in morality or rationality, the least these people deserve is for us to learn who they were and how they lived.