My first impression of Mexico City was 100% pure backpacker material.
I’d just spent a few days in Lima, lying by the beach and recharging my normal-human batteries with fancy restaurants and big supermarkets. Then I got to Mexico City and decided to walk from the airport to the nearest underground station. Cue a confusing walk that led me down a hugely busy street, full of the sounds of cars and people chatting away, assembling around little food stands, balancing on small plastic stools as they ate from plates charged with tacos.
Smells, colours, noise, the tiredness of a flight and the confusion of a new city… Boom. Back into the thick of it.
That bold feeling of a city really, brightly alive followed me through my two weeks in Mexico. Everywhere I went, even in smaller towns, there was a sort of street culture – people walking, talking, selling. Most of all, people eating. There’s no doubt eating food on the street is a huge part of Mexican culture and oh boy, you have not tasted tacos until you’ve had them in Mexico City.
And so my trip started in the capital, alternating between taking in a silly amount of al pastor tacos, and the city’s rich history. First, because that’s where the country itself finds its beginnings. It is said that the Aztecs were told by their main god that their new city would be founded where they would find an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. And so they created Tenochtitlan, which would later become Mexico City – named after the Mexicas, the Aztec people that founded the nation and its capital.
The 16th century saw the beginning of the Spanish rule in Mexico, following Cortés’ conquest of the country, and much of the splendour of the capital lies in the buildings built in that time by the Spaniards. I got to see the cathedral, the Palacio Nacional, the Museo del Arte, as well as some of the many palaces; huge, impressive buildings that show the importance of Mexico City in the world then and now.
Inside the Post Office
I went next to Puebla, where I also felt that colonial influence, but sprinkled with more colours, and signs of slower life – its El Parian art market, especially, made that link for me. A space of trade growing thanks to tourism, but created and decorated with traditional patterns and colours; and the huge cross in the middle, to remind of the importance of religion in the country.
Streets of Oaxaca
Museo de las Culturas, Oaxaca
Oaxaca, where I went next, felt very different. Its cobbled streets and coloured facades felt more like the ‘traditional’ image of Mexico I’d had in mind – and still with the huge markets and street food stalls. But it also showed us the other side of Mexico that we see less. The troubles. In the state of Oaxaca, teachers’ unions have been fighting educational reforms from the government for a decade, leading to often bloody clashes. The unions argue the reforms would be detrimental to Mexico’s cultural diversity, and endanger indigenous practices – in a state where almost half of the population is of indigenous origin. And even though riots didn’t happen while I was there, they were made to be remembered… Tourism was less welcome there.
‘Tourist, go home – there’s a social war going on here’. One of many graffiti of the sort in Oaxaca
Meanwhile, at Playa del Carmen, tourism was more than welcome. It was needed. The whole city just runs on it; it feels like it exists just for it. Hotel after hotel, bar after bar after restaurant, and if you’re lucky like me and visit just at the right time, crowds of drunken spring breakers exorcising their drunken mistakes by burning up on the beach. Playa del Carmen, as you can tell, did not impress me. As proof, this is the only photo I have from it… from a night in a club in town:
But it’d be naive to overlook the importance of tourism for the Mexican economy, so I think it helped give me a near whole experience of Mexican urban life.
Now, in the next post… We’ll check out Mexican history by way of its ruins!