In 1974 I made my first trip to Mexico. I took out my first bank loan, booked two weekends off work and headed south. My first stop was Mexico City, the largest city in the world at that time, now the third largest. I stayed in a posh neighborhood close to Chupultapec Park and the Museum of Anthropology, (a favorite course at the time) I visited, taking copious notes and photos before taking the train to Oaxaca where I was lucky to visit the ruins of Monte Alban, Mitla and Yogul. I bought woven baskets, a huipel, a special blanket and other hand made items from the native market in Oaxaca. For years these treasures were part of my home decor but over time they slowly evaporated and gave way to other tastes.
As an innocent abroad, the train ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca is forever etched in my memory. My traveling companion and I had been advised to purchase 1st class tickets but when we found our way to the train station, and eventually the train, we were unable to identify a car, both by look or by lettering that was 1st class. We ended up in a 2nd class coach and only through firm assertiveness of the part of two older women were we able to claim our seats. The train took all day, all night and most of the next day, stopping and starting for interminable amounts of time in the middle of nowhere. I remember the aisles packed with standees, a squat toilet with no light in the back of the car, vendors boarding the train selling food and feeling protected from a drunk man by the Tia’s who sat across from us.
Returning to Mexico City by plane from Oaxaca, a friend that I had made on my way through had a party for me, roses and wine and took me out to dinner at the top of the Latin America building, then the tallest building in the latin america. Today Mexico City is very different and the Latino Americano building looks old and dowdy, dwarfed by modern skyscrapers. The old quarter and the Zocalo with the cathedral and government buildings are largely the same, but of course the restaurants have moved in and the square is more likely to be used for entertainment than military purposes. The train is long gone and freeways and expressways slice through the city. Mexico city has taken on a decidedly European flair and the barrios have that village within a village feeling of Barcelona or even New York. We stayed very close to the Plaza de la Revolucion in the Hotel Corinto. Small rooms but a roof top pool and a pricetag of $38.00 CD which you would not find in either of the aforementioned places, making Mexico City a bargain.
We quickly oriented ourselves and Tom, the food sniffer, found several good restaurants and cafes where we could loiter over coffee and watch the events of the neighborhood unfold. Across from our favorite restaurant we watched when a bus load recruits from the country arrived and joined the camp of Indigenous protestors who have a permanent demonstration in the park, ironically in the shadow of the monument to the Revolution that freed Mexico from Spain. We were only a few blocks from the Mexican Senate as well which explained the heavy police presence in the neighborhood.
Two days was only enough to know that a return visit is in the cards. I think two weeks and one could feel that they were seeing everything there is to see at a leisurely pace. A city of 13 million people can’t be all good but it is certainly less dangerous for travellers than it has been in the past. There are signs that prosperity has come to the city with the glistening office towers, the development of the barrios and the flourishing businesses. A unique feature of commerce in Mexico City is that stores are grouped together by type so you will find streets of household goods, streets of electronics etc.. Apparently this is modelled after Mayan cities from ancient times.