After a sound sleep on the flight, we arrived in Mexico City at our scheduled arrival time of 0600 and were met by our tour guide, the delightful Mirta, who escorted us to our home for the next two nights, the Sheraton Maria Isabel hotel, situated in the heart of the city, immediately adjacent to the famous Angel of Independence monument, essentially Mexico’s equivalent of Nelson’s column. The column forms a centrepiece to a vast roundabout, encompassed by palms as tall as the 14 storey hotel itself. The immediate feeling was one of immensity; even though the city was just waking up, as were we, it had a gentle buzz to it. As early morning light cast hypnotic shadows through the dense foliage and settled in mottled patterns on glass and concrete of the urban landscape, I was immediately taken in.
Our hosts greeted us as we sat down to breakfast, and although we had been on Mexican soil for just a couple of hours, it was already time for some culinary exploration. The breakfast options included English, American, continental and Mexican, so naturally I went for Mexican.
In the centre is cactus, which I really enjoyed. When asked to describe it, the best explanation I could give was a sort of dense, bitter-sweet courgette (zuchini). At 1 o’clock is mole, at 6 a spiced maize cake steamed in banana leaf, at 9 a Mexican cheese and 11 is some sort of pounded pork pattie. A recurring theme on this trip was that I ate a lot of food I couldn’t identify, and when I asked for help in identifying it, the response was a little vague. However it didn’t stop me eating my way through mountains of the good stuff, and of course taking pictures of it.
Culture beckoned, so we drove over to the Basilica de Guadalupe. This is Catholicism’s answer to Mecca, with as many as 6.1 million people having made the pilgrimage here in 2009. The Basilica was designed by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, a notable Mexican architect.
There was a hushed reverie in spite of the vast crowds, all assembled to pray and find forgiveness. It’s an amazing building and like a lot of the structures in Mexico City, it is huge, with a capacity of 50,000 people, and I’d say it’s a safe bet they will have exceeded that capacity at times. The Basilica is a circular structure and whilst natural daylight streams through the glass segments in the centre of the roof, the lighting structure that hangs over the pulpit and front section of the nave is quite a spectacle.
Next stop Teotihuacan, but first a ramble outside the Basilica, where we stopped to look at the statue of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary who allegedly appeared to Juan Diego in 1551. I found myself watching people almost more than watching what they were watching. There is something quite captivating about seeing other people being captivated.
Arriving at Teotihuacan was one of those breathtaking moments you experience when travelling, that are often more crucial and accentuated by the element of surprise. Nothing quite prepares you for the scale of this ancient site and the monuments that have been painstakingly recreated over the last half century or so. Again, the scale is staggering, especially considering how long ago the site was originally built. Standing on top of one of the pyramids, surveying the surrounding landscape, we paused to imagine what it must have been like around AD 450 when the city was at its peak in terms of population and activity, with human sacrifices a regular occurrence. It was an eerie and invigorating sensation conjuring up the atmosphere of intensity, imagining the hoards as they bayed for blood and the ritual sacrifice was made.
Our lunch destination was chosen by our guide and seemed very touristic to me. It was basically a large refectory with a wide range of pre-cooked dishes kept warm in canteen servers. The food wasn’t bad in all, and there was certainly plenty of it. The highlight for me was eating a dish made with pork and worms, or grubs. I was a little scared of eating this at first, but felt it was my duty to experience something adventurous and that forms a part of the local cuisine, so I took one for the team. Let’s just say, it wasn’t an experience I’d rush back to repeat, but I’m glad I tried it, and although the grubs themselves were a little bitter and overpowering, the dish itself was flavoured well by their presence. I don’t know the name of the restaurant; but we shouldn’t worry too much about that.
On the way back to the hotel we gazed out at the vast sprawling district of favela-style houses (they’re not called favelas in Mexico, only in Brazil) and discussed among ourselves, the notion of painting each house a different primary colour, as the cement they’re made from is uniformly bland and bare. It was agreed that we ought to lobby a collective of brands with synergies based on bright and vivid colours, such as Converse, Dulux and Sony to donate the paint, and the entire process be filmed and distributed globally as an example of brands serving communities. You read it here first folks.
Food wise, the highlight of the day was this pork pibil dish ordered in an unassuming little restaurant near our hotel for the evening meal. Pibil is a dish of slow roasted pork with orange and achiote, which we had brought to our table in a terracotta brazier. My travel companion JP and I sat there taking forkful after forkful and piling it onto warm flour tortillas. This was proper comfort food and the ideal antidote to a long day of walking and sightseeing.
Next up: we visit Aeromexico’s new aircraft hangar and preview their fleet of new deluxe 787-8 planes, also Azul Historico for marketplace shopping and the museum of modern anthropology.