This piece was written by Red Room contributor Jim Johnston.
Although Mexico City
gets a lot of notice these days for its trendy bars, hip hotels and chic art galleries, what makes this city really cool has been around for almost 700 years: The city was founded by the Aztecs in 1325, and although the Spanish conquistadores tried hard to erase the pagan past, the Aztec influence is alive and well.
The phone book lists nearly 800 Moctezumas, and you'll see those tongue-twisting Nahuatl names everywhere: Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl, Nezahualcoyotl, Chapultepec. The basilica of La Vírgen de Guadalupe is built over an altar where Aztecs prayed to their mother goddess Tonantzín.. Fragments of the past turn up at building sites throughout town--even the metro has its own Aztec ruin, the temple of Ehecatl, god of wind, at the Pino Suarez station.
The best place to begin exploring Mexico City's Aztec past is at the Zócalo, the vast open plaza which was once the ceremonial center of Aztec life. Ruins of the Templo Mayor, the main site of Aztec worship and sacrifice, were unearthed at the Zócalo in 1978 while electric cables were being installed. You can stroll through the ruins and visit the small museum here.
The Palacio Nacional, seat of national government, spans the entire east side of the Zócalo. Inside are murals glorifying Mexico's Aztec past, painted between 1929 and 1945 by Diego Rivera. These seductively colored paintings depict daily life of the Aztecs before the conquest. One shows an Aztec market in full swing with the city of Tenotichtlán in the background. Fruits, vegetables and flowers are being sold, as well as woven straw mats, hand-made pottery, medicinal folk herbs, and of course, tortillas. It all looks much like any Mexican market today, except perhaps for the human arm one butcher offers for sale. To see a modern-day market not far removed from Rivera's images, go to the Mercado Jamaica, one of the most colorful traditional markets in the city. It also houses the city's dazzling wholesale flower market, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
[Photo credit: Flickr, Ireed76