Zocalo, Plaza de la constitucion - Mexico City, Mexico

Reflections on Mexico City

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Travel can be the wonderful antidote to misconceptions!

Once upon a time, I expected Mexico City to be a big, ugly, poor, and potentially dangerous city. What I discovered was that, like any large city — Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Boston, Portland, or San Francisco — it has some of those elements. But it is also historic, cultured, and inspiring. As an avid traveler, and despite high expectations, I am always amazed by how diverse, fascinating, and colorful Mexico is. Just imagine a typical student arriving on one of our interactive educational trips for a first voyage outside the United States!

A friend, when asked about whether one should include Mexico City on a trip to the country, responded, “Would you go to France and not go to Paris?” Like Paris, Mexico City resonates long after you depart.

There were many things in Mexico City that surprised me. I knew the Lonely Planet guides considered the Museum of Anthropology to be among the best in the world. But, not a fan of every museum I visit, I did not expect to be riveted for hours. Before you enter, there are typically Skydancers putting on a show for tips, spinning their way upside down from the top of a frighteningly tall pole. A huge crowd gathers each time this group reenacts the ritual from Veracruz. On entering the museum, there is the structure itself, with a courtyard and beautiful marsh topped by a large and heavy roof balanced at the top of a single sculptured pole at the center. The world-famous design is not only stunning and clever, but absolutely ingenious to somehow balance during construction. Inside, the museum turns out to be an indoor and outdoor display of many things Mexican, with the Mayans, Aztecs, and Olmecs featured prominently throughout. Visitors weave indoors and out, with Mayan and Aztec ruins in the lush gardens. There is also a large and amazing section on the anthropological history of humanity. If you stopped there, it would be one of my favorite museums — yet there is the second floor, with exhibits featuring the varied cultures and histories of Mexico’s regions.

Another thing that surprised me about my visit to Mexico was how safe I felt. On a recent weekend voyage, we went out to find food in the evening, past outdoor cafes and beautiful restaurants in an area I wasn’t familiar with. Then the streetlights went out. It was some sort of not-so-common outage of the entire zone we were passing through. Within a few minutes I realized we could continue on with less tension than in many of those U.S. cities I mentioned before. Families with small children were out and about. At the magic fountains by the Monumento a la Revolution, they ran in and out of the spraying and oscillating water, colored by underground lights that dance along with the water, laughing and enjoying themselves — well after 10 at night! Did they look frightened? Soaked, perhaps, but not a bit frightened! Great food, the wonderful late night walk, and views of Ciudad Mexico charmed me even more. Passing a large statue of the David (yes, like the one in Florence) in a lush square only added to that impression.

What else might surprise you about Mexico? How about the fact it has the largest pyramids in the world, Aztec, at Teotihuacon! Many people know of them, though, to me, the miracle is in the details. Fewer people know of Xochimilco, the area of what is left of the old Aztec canals. Once about 400-plus miles long, now there are about 40 miles that can be traversed by boat, with the main area being where locals celebrate quinceaneras and graduations and tourists like me come to gawk at the hand-painted skiffs. Once on the water, a smaller boat with a Mariachi band may pull up to offer its musical services, or what I call the 7-Eleven boat — full of snacks and drinks and assorted supplies all spread out for the passing eye — or a flower stand boat, beautiful even if you purchase nothing.

I could go on and on, but I will end with one last surprise rather dear to my heart. My first visit with a student group included a bus tour that passed through Chapultepec Park. This huge park, which dwarfs even New York City’s Central Park, includes the aforementioned Museum of Anthropology, the zoo, lakes with pedal boats, and stands with Mexican wrestling masks, toys, and festive balloons. But, as we passed through, I saw something I knew I would have to come back to — a running area. I have been a runner since my middle school days. I’ve trained for and run 12 marathons, run in cities and lands all over the world, but have never seen anything like this spot. It took some work to find it on a map, its name, and the way to get back to it. But imagine this: A section of the park allotted for runners, fenced in, with a manicured cinder trail that runs over 3,000 meters (about two miles) with every 100 meters marked off. It features an inner and outer loop, hills, curves, straightaways, and a large electronic clock at the start/finish. It also has outdoor exercise equipment, including weights, pull up bars, and much more, plus a public bathroom, a bulletin board, and just outside the gates, there are often impromptu running shops set up in tents in the back of pickup trucks, and even a nearby juice bar. I thought I had seen everything, but despite the altitude, I make it here on each of my far-too-infrequent visits to the capital city.

But that’s not all. There are at least two others. On my last trip, we arrived before dawn at another park, Los Viveros in the Coyacan neighborhood, a don’t-miss section of the city if you have enough time. The loop here is 2,000 meters, and, again, each 100 meters is marked with a small sign. As this is more of a local park, by 6:30 a.m., there were already a few hundred people jogging in the pale darkness. By the time the sun was making its appearance, there were at least a thousand! It felt like the opening mile of a large city marathon — friends meeting and jogging, walkers, solo runners, faster and slower, sweatsuits and shorts, all dancing around the trail in the dawning morn.

From my travel needs at the most cultured levels to my most basic, including safety, Mexico City excels and surprises! A last surprise after such a wonderful visit was that so few student travel groups are going these days. I saw many visitors from Europe in my 2012 trips to the Yucatan and Mexico City, but did not pass a single student group. I hope that misconceptions have not won out, as Mexico City is an explorers’ paradise.

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