I felt I had clocked more miles than vehicles headed for the scrapyard. But despite the long and sleepless flights from Singapore to Mexico City, my eyes were wide open. Insomniac? No. My taxi driver from the airport had clear pretensions to be Mexico’s first F1 winner since Pedro Rodriguez in 1970. It was hardly surprising then, that a shower and cuppa tea later, I was out and about in Mexico City’s historic quarter.
When the Spanish conquistadores arrived over 5 centuries ago, they had 2 things on their mind: Gold and God. So understandably they spared no expense or effort in building the grand Cathedral Metropolitana.
It was clearly designed to inspire awe and reverence in equal measure amongst the conquered Aztecs. The striking stone reliefs outside are almost as impressive as the glittering, ultra-baroque style altars inside. Rich gilt carvings depict angels, saints and cherubim in dramatic poses. One of my lasting memories of the church, though, is the majestic row of candlestick holders. The statues holding aloft the giant candles look like medieval jedi knights, brandishing candle sabres, as they perform their sentinel watch.
While modern Mexico City’s heart may be Spanish, the soul is Aztec. And so, just a short walk brings you to the Templo Mayor. The major ceremonial site of the Aztec empire is said to have been built at the exact spot where the wandering Aztecs found the prophesied sign of an eagle eating a snake while seated on a cactus. (This is now Mexico’s national emblem.)
The colonising Spanish, who used almost two-thirds of the temple’s stones to construct their own churches and palaces, destroyed much of the site. But you can still see giant heads of feathered serpents, which signalled divine power to the ancient Aztecs. A look inside the on-site museum reveals many other excavated wonders, like the Aztec God of Death and an Eagle Warrior.
If all this sightseeing makes you hungry, fear not. Roadside stalls, restaurants and eateries are as plentiful as Lucha Libre posters and vendors selling boxing gloves. Tacos? Ole. Burritos? Why not? Chimichangas? Of course, of course, of course. For the more adventurous, walking vendors with trays on their heads, sell a kind of horrid looking jelly with some fruits on the top.
Take a stroll from here towards Alameda Park and you will see that in Mexico City, the past is always within kissing distance of the present. Where kings once sat, your average Joaquin now sits imperiously to get his shoes shined; sombrero-wearing cops sit astride horses instead of modern cars; and graffiti sits cheekily under the vintage visages on a classic building, setting the tone for a music shop.
Alameda Park too has a past far darker than its leafy, floral present state. It was a site for the burning of heretics. But today dog owners, young couples and families pleasantly kill time, sometimes to the toe-tapping tunes of pop-up concerts. While I was there, a bus with an open-top pulled up and a band started playing. A sign that the city sways to a lively Latin beat.
A little distance away, El Caballito plays a pivotal role in a magic moment. The statue of the Spanish king, Charles IV, riding a horse sits amidst some heavy traffic. He looks ahead with an arm outstretched, seeming to point out the unremarkable jam of honking cars. Nearby, a saxophonist began to play. At the same time, a vendor blew soap bubbles from a toy for children. The image of a sombre emperor bathed in soap bubbles while the air was filled with a soulful saxophone melody, will remain etched in my memory for a long time.
As the sun began to set, my addled mind had just one thought: Sleep. I headed back to the hotel feeling that my dreams tonight would be good. After all, tomorrow I was headed to a place where a peasant had a divine vision of the Virgin Mary herself.