Mexico City 2010

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Our wedding anniversary is on February 9, just five days before Valentines Day.  This year, my travel and trial schedule has been brutal, but we settled one big case in January and Patty and I decided we needed a quick get-away to somewhere close but interesting.

Friday, February 12, 2010

We got up obscenely early and caught an early US Airways flight out of LAX, connected in Phoenix and flew south, getting into Mexico City about 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon.  After gathering our bags, we caught an airport taxi to our hotel, the Hilton Mexico City Reforma.   This was a package deal through Expedia, including airfare and the hotel for about $750 total.  We buy these cheap deals and a lot of the airlines now will not let you book seats in advance; the game then is to get to the airport early and try to get an unreserved bulkhead or exit row seat at the gate.  We did OK on this game on this trip and got good seats on all legs.  You are never quite sure though, and may get stuck in the middle of a row of three.

We got to Mexico City about 3:00 p.m. and got an airport "radio" taxi.  There is a distinction in Mexico City between the street taxis, which are plentiful, unmetered and cheap, and the "radio" taxi's which are regulated, have radios and meters.  Visitors are advised to only use the radio taxis, which can be called by any hotel or restaurant, as they are deemed safer.  We always followed that advise.

Our hotel was the Hilton hotel downtown, right across the street from the Alameda park and just off the pedestrian street that led to the Zocolo, or central square of Mexico City.  It turned out to a beautiful hotel with a great location.  It was as nice as any Hilton anywhere, with a big comfortable room with lots of space, marble bathroom and flat screen TV, etc.  We were on the 18th floor and had a great view off to the east.

Hilton RoomHilton Mexico City Reforma









After checking in, we unpacked and took a walk out by the park.  The park is full of vendors of every kind, along with lots of monuments. 


Park Vendors Monument








At the east end of the park is the "Palacio de Bellas Artes" or Palace of Fine Arts, a theater and museum started in 1910 and completed in 1934.  It is a beautiful building in great condition.

  Horse Guard Palace of Fine Arts








From the east end of the Alameda Park, past the Palacia de Bellas Artes, a pedestrian street runs six blocks or so to the middle of the Zocalo, or main town square.  The street was busy with a late afternoon crowd, lots of tourists and locals, walking past the shops and restaurants.

Pedestrian Street  Start of Pedestrian Street to Zocolo

The Zocalo itself was in the midst of some sort of set up for a concert or rally; we never really found out what was going on, but the center courtyard was covered in construction of stages and sound systems.  The location of the Zocalo is the historic center of Mexico City and was the plaza in front of the main temple in Aztec times.  The Spanish, as was their custom in all

of the Americas, destroyed the Aztec temple and built a Catholic Cathedral as the centerpiece of their cultural imperialism. Recent excavation on the side of the Cathedral has unearthed a treasure trove of Aztec artifact that the Spanish failed to destroy, but just buried.  One of the great cultural crimes of history was the availability of hundreds of years of written history, written in pictographs on reed paper, which the Spanish collected and burned.  Those would be an amazing source of information on a lost culture but the Spanish intentionally destroyed them as part of their cultural annialiation.

Zocolo Cathedral  Construction on the Zocolo

David had told us about a terrace cafe overlooking the Zocalo and suggested their Sunday brunch.  We walked around the square looking for the Holiday Inn, and just about gave up when we spotted the entrance down a side street.  We went in and took the elevator to the 6th floor cafe.  It did indeed have a terrace overlooking the square.  Since we were pretty early for Sunday Brunch, but in need of dinner, we went in.

View from Holiday Inn Terrace  Mariachis at Holiday Inn

A family was having a birthday dinner at the next table so we got to enjoy the Mariachis entertaining them.   We had a nice dinner and watched the workmen climb down the scaffolding from where they are working to restore the dome on the west tower of the Cathedral.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

 We had a good night's sleep and got up ready to see some of the sites.  We decided our first adventure would be to go out to the ruins of Teotihuacan, an large ruin in a valley about 40 km to the northwest of Mexico City.  We inquired at the hotel concierge and they told us we had two choices; one, to hire a car and driver, at about $160 for the day or to take the subway to the bus station and then a bus out there for about $6.  We chose the subway and bus.  A subway station was about a half block from the hotel, and it was easy to go down and buy a fare to take us to "Autobus Norte" or the northern bus station.  We had to change trains, but they were clearly marked and the maps were good.

Subway Station  Interior of Bus

Latin American bus stations are large, noisy places, more like airports that bus stations we are used to.  There are many bus companies, some that specialize in certain routes, and others that offer many routes.  The busses tend to be very nice, with comfortable seats, movies screens and lots of amenities.  People ride the buses long distances and they are set up for that.  Some buses even have internet connections so that people can use their computers on the trip and stay connected wirelessly.

We found the booth of a bus line that would take us out to Teotihuacan and bought our tickets.  It was leaving in about 15 minutes, so we found our "gate" or bus stall and got on.  Our bus was not one of the nicer ones, because it ran fairly local routes and was cheaper but less lavish than many of the others.  Everyone has reserved seats, so you have to find your seat and get in it.  We had a combination of locals going the same way, with about 1/3 tourists who were heading out to Teotihuacan.  Most of the tourists were the younger type, but there were several older couples as well, mostly European.  No other "Norte Americanos."

The bus dropped us off at the lower gate of the ruin and we bought our tickets and went inside.  Teotihuacan is the old city center of what was a very large city that spread out over the valley.  The excavated ruin is the ceremonial, religious and civic center of the city and runs about a mile long, with most of the buildings along the main street or axis.  Two very large pyramids are at the north and east ends of the complex, but with smaller, but important temples along the way.

Teotihuacan Main Street  Patty and Frank at Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan greatly predates the Aztec civilization found in Mexico by the Spanish when they arrived.  The city dates from 200 BCE to about 800 AD.  The excavations have found still intact murals on the walls and dramatic stone carvings.  Estimates are that the city held about 200,000 inhabitants making it one of the world's largest cities at that point in history.

Stone Heads at Teotihuacan  Mural at Teotihuacan

The most dramatic features of the ruined city are the two large pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun which sits off of the "Avenue of the Dead," or main avenue of the city, and the Pyramid of the Moon, which sits at the northern end of the Avenue.  The Pyramid of the Sun is about 600 feet high and you can climb all the way to the top on the narrow steep stairs. 

Pyramid of the Sun  Pyramid of the Moon

We got into a conversation with one of the vendors at the bottom of the Pyramid of the Moon and he told us grizzly stories about people who had lost their balance on the stairs and ended up dead on the Avenue of the Dead.  The best was probably about the guy with the baby in the backpack that overbalanced at the top. . . .

For a good overview of Teotihuacan, see

With some effort, we found the place to catch the bus back to Mexico City, which took us to the Norte Bus Station, from where we walked across the plaza to the subway, and took it back to the hotel.

Norte Bus Station  Leaving Norte Bus Station

Overall, using public transportation in Mexico City was as easy as it would be in London, Paris, Chicago or New York.  We always felt safe and even with minimal Spanish we were able to navigate our way around.  When we got to the subway station in the morning, no one was at the ticket booth, so a guard just opened the gate and let the passengers in line at the pay station in without buying a ticket; a pragmatic solution to the problem.  On the way back, the booth was open so we bought our tickets.

When we got back, we had dinner at the Mexican equivalent to Denny's, Sanborns.  The food was good and inexpensive.  The cafe was clean, well lit and the service prompt and courteous.  The chain has an interesting history.  It was founded in 1903 by California immigrants Walter and Frank Sanborn who opened a lunch counter in Mexico City.  In 1946 the Sanborns sold to a fellow American pharmacist, Charles Walgreen.  Walgreens sold its interest to a group controlled by Carlos Slim (a Mexican, and thanks to a mobile telephone near monopoly, probably the richest person in the world).  There are presently about 125 Sanborns, combination pharmacies and restaurants.

After dinner, we wandered around the neighborhood and were talked into trying cactus tacos at a street vendor.  Actually quite good, kind of like a mild pepper wrapped in a tortilla.  We found the people friendly and welcoming to travelers.  There was always someone who spoke English, and thanks to the vibrant movement of people across the  border, usually someone who had lived in California for a period of time.


Sunday, February 14, 2010:

 Since the museum we wanted to see was closed on Monday, Sunday became the day to visit the museum.  The day dawned beautiful and clear.  Mexico City has a bad reputation for air pollution, and it can be murky.  However Sunday was a beautiful day and the volcano, Popocatepetl, about 70 km southeast of Mexico City was showing her 18,000 foot glory.

Sunrise on Sunday Morning  Popocatepetl Volcano

After checking with the concierge, we took the city bus to the Chapultepec Park were the Museo Nacional de Antropologia is located.  Chapultepec Park is a very large (several square miles) park that was once the preserve of the Mexican rulers in the 19th Century, but after revolutions toppled those monarchs, was turned into public space that now houses several museums as well as amusement parks, lakes, playing fields and large grass and wooded areas for picnicking and strolling.  See

Museo Nacional de Antropologia  Fountain in Antropologia Museum

The museum is very well done and rivals any museum anywhere in the world for layout, user friendliness and stunning content.  It wraps around a central courtyard, and has sections that highlight the various civilizations that have existed in the various parts of Mexico over the country's history, which include not only better know Aztec and Mayan civilizations, but lesser known areas and civilizations.  Each exhibit hall is two stories tall and many include outdoor gardens on the other side from the courtyard.  Audio guides are available in a lot of different languages.

Panther in Museo  Frank in Museo

Stone of the Sun  Wheel found near Zocalo

The "Stone of the Sun," also know as the Aztek calendar, was an amazing piece.  The carved stone wheel in the next picture was fairly recently unearthed from the excavation near the Zocalo. 

Mexican Codex  Aztek Headress

The museum has a few of the surviving Codex documents.  These are beautiful and lushly illustrated in color.  Seeing them reinforces the great crime that the Spanish committed in burning thousands of these.  The Aztek headdress is a reproduction, but from the original that ended up in an Austrian museum.  It is nice to see some of the actual stuff was preserved, even if it ended up on the wrong continent.

Oaxaca Sign  Mixtecan Artifacts

Since Patty was born in Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, it was especially fun to tour the Mixteca section of the museum and see the traditional Mixtecan clothing and pottery.  Patty's parents were in Oaxaca studying the Mixtecan Indians when she was born and have a lot of museum quality pieces of pottery, artifacts and clothing that were represented in that section of the museum, so a lot of the stuff was very familiar.

We got museum fatigue without seeing everything there is to see, but there is only so much that I can appreciate in one visit.  After a few hours, we went out into the park to get a late lunch and to see some of the Chapultepec Park.

Park Food Vendors  Dancers in Park

Flyers in Park  Lake in Chapultepec Park

The food was plentiful, good and cheap.  There were Indian Dancers and a Mexico specialty, pole flyers.  Four men start at the top of a pole, with a four ropes wound around a spool at the top.  They launch themselves out, and as the rope unwinds from the spool, they spin out, playing flutes as they descend.  It is really a beautiful as well as death defying.  All for tips.

After a while in the park, we caught a tourist tour bus for the trip back to the hotel.  The route wound around the park, through several neighborhoods and one stop was at the Alameda Park, right across from the hotel.  Not as cheap as the city bus, but a good overview of some parts of the city we had not seen.

While Mexico City certainly has its squalid slums, it also has some beautiful neighborhoods with Starbucks and BMW dealerships.

Apartment Neighborhood  Neighborhood House

Monument  Mall

After our tour, we went back to the hotel and got rested and cleaned up for dinner.  I had looked on TripAdvisor and had made reservations for the Valentines Day dinner at Jaso, the number one rated restaurant in Mexico City.

Jaso Glasses  Jaso Menu

Jaso Frank and Patty Jaso Wine

Jaso Salmon  Jaso Dessert

Jaso is an upscale restaurant started by three New Yorkers, one of whom is a Mexico City native.  The owner/chefs are all experienced in high end restaurant operations and the multi-course prix fixe menu set for Valentines day was exquisite and a truly high end dining experience.  While it was expensive by Mexico City standards ($170), the same experience in New York or Los Angeles would have cost three or four times as much.  I would highly recommend it.

We used the "radio taxi" to and from the restaurant and found the drivers responsive, courteous and helpful.  One was even driving a Prius.


Monday, February 15, 2010:

With an afternoon flight home looming, we had a long breakfast (great buffet; included with the room at the Hilton) and walked to some of the craft markets within walking distance to the hotel. 

Beads in Market  Market Pottery

Market Vegatables  Market Vegatables

We had a good time and bought some gifts and some Oaxacan pottery.  We took a taxi to the airport and got our flight home.  Overall, we had a great trip and really enjoyed ourselves.