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The Other Mexico: 48 hours in Mexico City
The statistics on Mexico City are impressive. Reportedly the fifth largest urban agglomeration in the world, the Distrito Federal (Federal District) or simply D.F. is an alpha global city home to nearly 20 million souls. It is the eighth richest city in the world, accounting for nearly 35% of Mexico's gross domestic product (GDP).
Mexico City is also steeped in history. Founded by the Aztecs in 1325 as the floating island metropolis of Tenochtitlan, it was razed by the Spanish in 1521 and rebuilt as a major New World administrative center. In 1824, independence from Spain led to the official designation of the modern Federal District.
Yet despite this rich pedigree, a surprising number of foreigners imagine Mexico City to be nothing more than a narco-fueled criminal cesspool. And on that note, allow me to do a bit of much-need PR work by kicking off '48 hours in Mexico City.'
Gallery: Mexico City
1) Visit the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. A quick, one-hour bus ride north of the city will bring you to a spectacular archaeological site that most people have never even heard of. Home to the 3rd largest pyramid in the world - the Pyramid of the Sun - Teotihuacan was first constructed in 100 BCE, and was the largest city (pop. 250,000+) in the pre-Colombian Americas until its downfall in the 8th century CE.
The origins of Teotihuacan are shrouded in mystery. Archaeological debate points to Olmec, Toltec, Zapotec and even Mayan influences. The subsequent Aztecs were mesmerized by the city, and often underwent pilgrimages along its perfectly laid-out Avenue of the Dead. Teotihuacan's signature-style of talud-tablero or inward-sloping steps connected by rectangular reliefs influenced the later construction of Tenochtitlan.
2) Get a first-hand anthropological education. If Teotihuacan ignites your curiosity for ancient cultures, then pay a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA). Often regarded as one of the world's best anthropology museums, the MNA showcases the stunning pre-Colombian heritage of Mexico and Central America. It is also located at the center of one of Mexico City's largest expanses of green space.
First opened in 1964, the MNA is a modernist structure of more than twenty galleries that wrap around lush gardens. Some of the more famous exhibits include Aztec sun stones, Olmec giant heads, Mayan carved panels and a rather eerie amount of exhumed skeletons, jewel-adorned skulls and hand-carved accessories made from various human bones.
3) Eat your fill of street tacos. Alright, let's not side-step the issue. Mexico doesn't exactly top the food-safety list, and the infamous Montezuma's Revenge (read as: travelers' diarrhea) is not to be taken lightly. You're going to want to stick to bottled water, and avoid raw vegetables and fruit you can't peel.
But don't deny yourself the pleasures of street tacos! Hand-pressed corn tortillas are fried in alleyways and on corners, and topped with everything from roasted pork and barbequed chicken to refried beans and fresh habanero peppers. Keep an eye out for exotics such as orange squash flowers and boiled cactus leaves.
4) Wander the colonial streets of the Centro Histórico. Mexico City is centered on one of the world's largest city squares, namely the Zocalo. The surrounding 34-block area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprises the historical center. Gridded by the Spanish conquistadores, the Centro Histórico was literally built from the stones of Tenochtitlan.
Arguably one of the safest areas of Mexico City, the Centro Histórico bustles with frenetic energy both day and night. Here you can sip a cinnamon-infused cup of hot chocolate at an alfresco cafe while watching shoppers pass. Or, pair a martini glass full of ceviche with a cold cerveza while listening to chill-out music at a late-night lounge.
5) Immerse yourself in the lives of Diego & Frida. Artists aren't particularly known for leading stable lives, but unfiltered creativity does stem from hard times. The passionate yet tortured lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo sprung to international attention following the 2002 biopic Frida starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina.
Want to see the murals of Mexican history that cemented the career of a young Diego Rivera? Visit the interior stairwells of the national palace that lines the Zocalo. Want to see the split abode that housed the tempestuous newlyweds? Visit the Museo Casa Estudio in the neighborhood of San Ángel. And of course, don't miss the Blue House in Coyoacán where Frida lived as a child and later as an old woman.
Still think Mexico City is a black spot on the travel itinerary? Think again as one of the greatest cities in Latin America is relatively safe, extremely affordable and surprisingly tourist friendly. With that said, consider steering clear of the overhyped coastlines, and taking the time to discover what lies in the *other* Mexico.