Saturday, June 09, 2007

Mexico Day 1: Mexico City

Today is actually our fourth day in Mexico but this is the first day where things calmed down and moved slow enough for me to get a chance to sort through some photos and write down a few thoughts regarding the trip so far.

On Friday we left Tampa for Mexico and arrived in Mexico City around 11:30am (the entire country is on the U.S. version of central time) - plenty of time for a full day. And believe me, I've spent a couple of nights trying to find the time to post about this first day, attesting to just how busy things were during that time.

Anyway, here are some of the better photos from the trip thus far with a little bit of narration. Of course, if you are really bored, you can find all the pictures (including photos of me sitting, me driving, me moving luggage know the really exciting stuff) over at my picasa web album. 4 days down, 28 more to go!

1. Flew from Tampa to Houston and then on to Mexico City

(for more exciting photos like this, head to the photo album, otherwise stick with the blog!)

2. After changing some money in the airport with a really crappy exchange rate, we left the gate for the main terminal, breezed through customs without anything more than a "buenos dias" and then, upon reaching the ground transportation area, we were welcomed by the familiar pressure of Mexican salesmen greeting us with shouts of taxi! taxi! as we walked to ground coming to us to sell us taxi tickets.

We settled on one (who was likely just the most aggressive), bought our taxi ticket and we were off to Hotel Catedral which is located in the historic district in the central area of town just blocks from the capital building and other government offices.

Basically this is the equivalent of staying two or three blocks from the White House, only a lot more public activity takes place in the large square in front of the senate and capital building then would ever be seen in the U.S. (everything from street vendors, entertainers to naked bicycling protesters -- more on that later).

Anyway, we managed to live through the cab ride which is always surprising in Mexico given that there do not seem to be any traffic laws or any traffic signs. The street lights or more like street suggestions than anything else. Plus, no one wears seatbelts and the taxis are rarely equipped with seatbelts.

It's funny -- everyone tells you to be careful when you visit Mexico City but they always emphasize the wrong thing and overlook the true one great danger here - the absolute possibility of being ! Anyway, I appreciate the taxi ride from the airport into the historic district because there are some truly awesome looking parts of this city and the ride is like a quick overview of the various neighborhoods. And this only emphasizes what I always tell people - that Mexico City feels very European in character. Of course, most people don't buy this or grasp this concept if they haven't been to Mexico or other Latin American places with heavy colonial influence like Argentina.

Anyway, here's a few pictures that hopefully capture a bit of the chaos and lack of control you feel as a passenger in a Mexican Taxi. And, yes, that is indeed a fire eater standing in traffic.

3. Not only does Mexico City feel very European, it also feels a little early 1980s - or hell, even a little 1950s. Things are a bit more formal here than in the U.S and there are people around who try and help you do everything - carry your bags, pour soda in your glass, straighten your napkin, etc.

I was reminded of this when we got to our Hotel. The price of the place would be a budget motel by U.S. standards ($550 pesos total per night which is less than $55 USD) but everything at this place is a touch more elegant - bellboys, restaurants, a travel agency - everything you would expect in a downtown Hyatt or something - plus the room would have easily been $200 in Manhattan given it's size and location. Not too mention, the 7th floor rooftop terrace overlooking a busy market street and the Zocalo. We had lunch in the hotel for less than $15
- the point I'm trying to make is that Mexico is a cheap place for us to visit - you get more bang for your buck here than in other big cities with just as much to do, if not more.

I'm not saying you can't make Mexico expensive if you want to - you can - there are plenty of pricey places (usually with American sounding names - like "ocean drive" or some other nonsense written in English). If you do your homework though, this can be a very cheap place to visit. However, I kinda hope people keep their biased impressions of the city and this country - it makes it easier for me and more appealing for me to keep visiting in the future!

This first picture shows our hotel in the distance and the other photos were taken from the patio at the hotel on the 7th floor.

3. Off to see the capital

a. One of the most amazing things about Mexico is it's large collection of well preserved archaeological sites. Some sites - like Teotihicuan and Chichen Itza - are certainly more preserved than others. However, some of the sites, like Templo Mayor make up for their lack of quality preservation with the location and uniqueness of the site and historical context. The entire site is located directly in the middle one of the busiest parts of the city - just sitting their off the Zocalo. This place has been inhabited continuously as a large city since 1500 B.C. And, once the Spanish arrived and conquered, new areas were simply built around and over the old pieces - often integrating the structures and architecture into the Spanish traditional 16th and 17th century buildings. Amazing.

b. It rained both afternoons we were in Mexico City at the exact same time of the day. Luckily we had just walked into the 3 story, very well done, Museo del Templo Mayor when the rain started pouring. After waiting out the storm with groups of school kids on field trips, we wandered back out onto the streets of the Zocalo in the late afternoon that presented us with temperatures clearly 5-10 degrees cooler then before the rain (probably mid to upper 60s).

c. One of the best parts about the national buildings surrounding the Zocalo is the large collection of gigantic Diego Rivera murals adorning the walls. Unfortunately, the camera battery died before I was able to see all of the paintings - but I did get one quick photo of the major mural in the first staircase.

4. After a rest at the hotel, back out in the rain to Cafe de Tocuba for dinner. This is the same place I ate at 8 years ago and it really hasn't changed much. As a matter of fact, I doubt it's really changed in the past 80 years (other than the computer terminals for orders and credit cards that are inconspicuously hidden around the place).

5. Mexicans are crazy about wrestling and wrestling is crazy in Mexico (Lucha Libre) - so of course I had to go. The matches take place every Friday night and are held in the Mexico Arena. We took a cab there after dinner at around 9pm.

Mexico City is a late town and while the matches started up at 8:30, there was still more than enough wrestling left when we arrived. From the second we stepped out of the taxi (a $5 dollar ride across town by the way - easily 30 or 40 bucks in Tampa), we knew why this event had oddly appealed to us -- the streets were alive with vendors hawking masks, costumes, and toys and everything else related to lucha libre.

Of course, we were swarmed by ticket hawkers. Luckily, I managed to get the ticket price down to only 40% of the original asking price (he wanted $250 pesos per ticket, I got him down to $200 pesos for BOTH tickets --- about $20 USD). Mainly because this really was all the cash I had with me at that point (ATMs - cajeros - are few and far between).

Standing on the street, our feet shook from the roars of the 8,000-10,000 person crowd inside. After getting our tickets (boletas) we were escorted into the main arena and were immediately in awe of the scene that unfolded and the close proximity of our seats to the ring.

The most amazing part was that while the wrestlers are absolutely great athletes (doing backflips from high up, taking the brunt of 300 pound men landing on them, doing really silly looking games of what appeared to be leap frog), the wrestling was even more fake looking than it appears on TV and - even more to the point - it was amazing how emotional the fans were about an event so scripted.

This sport is only second to soccer in this country and the people love their favorites. Luckily I was able to get off a few quick pictures before the security guard came over to stop me from taking pictures. Of course, being the only two gringos in the place, we were easily able to put the camera away with a "lo siento" and all was well. I just have absolutely no idea what the rules were or how the winners were determined in the 3 matches that I did see. MISTICO! MISTICIO!

A busy day 1, and even busier day 2, a travel day on day 3....and now finally on day 4 in San Miguel, a much appreciated rhythm and organization to life is beginning to establish itself. More on La Casa de Trotsky and bus rides and a crazy old hilly town tomorrow.

hasta luego


lambdadoc said...

Woo-hoo, Jason! Looks like your trip has started off spectacularly. I'm looking forward to more updates. be well.

Melissa said...

Glad to hear that you are having such a great time in Mexico. Sounds like you are really getting around to the sites :) Looking forward to more fun-filled stories; if you keep it up I just might have to take a trip down there myself, lol. Be safe and have fun.