Mexico is due south of the United States, and it is only a short plane ride from most of the places we used to live. But before our daughter Tory decided to move to Mexico in 2020, it was a place neither of us had ever been.
Last year, we visited Tory in Playa del Carmen, near Cancun, where she first thought she would settle. Playa was lovely, but already by the end of last year Tory had decided not to live full-time in a place so dedicated to short-term tourism.
So this year, we arranged to visit her in her new home in Santiago del Queretaro, in the middle of the country. But first we spent a few days in Mexico City.
Mexico City is enormous, with a metropolitan area of over 20 million people – much bigger than the European cities we’ve been visiting for the past few years. Its unusual geography – situated in a large bowl at 7200 feet, virtually surrounded by mountains makes for an interesting airplane landing approach. if you’ve ever flown into Denver, you know what I’m talking about – the pilot had to make a big turn over the city to find a landing path through the shifting winds.
Travel sites for US and European destinations have been filled, especially since Covid, with horror stories about long lines at passport control or for checking in or picking up luggage. Not so in Mexico City, where the passport control gates were fully staffed and we got through in about 10 minutes.
At the suggestion of Tory and her friend Daniel (a native of Mexico City), we stayed in the Condesa neighborhood, a district of low-rise buildings, pleasant parks, and lots of shops, cafes and restaurants within walking distance. That’s important, because Mexico City is a huge place, and not that easy to get around. There is a metro, but in general public transportation isn’t great and taxis are sometimes unreliable. Interestingly, Uber is a good option, especially for tourists like us who don’t speak Spanish, because you can make all the arrangements online.
We had only a few days in Mexico City – arriving Saturday evening and leaving Wednesday morning – so we knew we wouldn’t be able to see everything. But we did manage to get a lot in.
On Sunday, we ventured into the old historic city center. However, our Uber driver couldn’t reach it because of an enormous military parade. We couldn’t cross the street, either, so we wound up taking the metro for one stop. The metro was very cheap (about 25 cents per ride) and very crowded. We didn’t see many tourists.
We finally reached the Murals Museum, which included murals by Diego Rivera and other noted Mexican muralists. We had seen pictures of some of these murals before. But the sheer size and scale of these murals is difficult to convey even in a photograph. We particularly liked “Sunday in the Park,” which depicted the entire history of modern Mexico in the guise of an afternoon stroll. A helpful graphic guide identified all the major characters, from Benito Juarez to Porfirio Diaz to Catrina, the elegantly dressed skeleton who has become a symbol of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
Palacio del Bellas Artes
Our next stop was the Palacio del Bellas Artes. The Bellas Artes is Mexico’s premier museum of contemporary art in a magnificent setting. Construction on the building began in 1904 under Italian architect Adam Boari, but because of land subsidence and other issues, it was not completed until 1934, under Mexican architect Federico Moascal. The colorful dome is one of the iconic features of Mexico’s historic district.
The museum included a number of oversized murals by Diego Rivera ant other muralists. Here is Man Controller of the Universe, executed by Rivera in 1934 – a painting so vast it required three shots from a standard camera to get it all in. Note the image of Lenin on the right – Rivera was a committed Communist.
Rivera was the original artist chosen to execute a mural in the entrance of Rockefeller Center, in New York City. The story goes that Rivera’s mural also included an image of Lenin. Rockefeller objected to the image, but when Rivera wouldn’t back down, his commission was cancelled and his work painted over; another artist was chosen for the New York City project. The image of Lenin seems to have been less controversial in this setting.
Here is another work by Rivera, the Carnaval de la Vida (1936).
The Art Deco interior of the Bellas Artes Palace is itself a work of art – note the Mayan symbols at the top of the column.
A short walk from the Bellas Artes was the Palacio Postal, the city’s main post office, in continuous operation since it was opened in 1907.
At the center of the Mexico City historic district is the Zocalo, formally known as the Plaza de la Constituciòn. A central piazza like this, flanked by a cathedral and government buildings, is a common feature of European architecture. But the scale of the Zocalo is huge – 220 x 240 meters. The larger dimension is nearly 800 feet – almost as long as three football fields.
The cathedral, begun in 1573, is immense, and because parts of it are currently under restoration, we had to walk all the way around to find an open entrance.
The interior featured an exuberant use of local woods, some of it painted in gold. The real gold (and silver) mined from the New World as exported back to Spain, where it overloads the cathedrals – I liked this one better. We were lucky enough to be allowed in to the choir area (not always open) where we could see the magnificent wood carvings up close.
The cathedral stands on the former site of the Templo Mayor, the principal temple of the Mexica people who were living in the city when the Spaniards arrived. A small excavation commemorates the older building.
Later we visited the Museo Nacional de Arte, which was hosting a festival of traditional dancing outside. Many of the dancers work circlets of shells around their ankles, which created a percussive beat for the dances.
The art museum included work by Spanish painters: here is a depiction of Santa Casilda by Zurbaràn (1645) and a portrait of Asencio Julia by Goya (1798).
There was also an unusual portrait by Rivera.
House Museum Guillermo de tovar
On Monday morning, we visited a 19th C house of which was once the home of Mexican historian Guillermo Tovar de Teresa and is now a museum. It was interesting that although Tovar was a man of the 20th C (1956-2013) the interior furnishings and ambience of the house reflect its 19th C heritage.
Later we went to the Soumaya Museum, which houses what had been the personal art collection of Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man. Slim not only built the museum, named for his late wife, to house his collection – he made it available to the public for free.
The ground floor included replicas of works by Rodin (The Gates of Hell) and his onetime student and lover, Camille Claudel (The Waltz). Claudel’s work was considered scandalous when it was completed in 1895 because of its frank sensuality – not a problem for male artists, of course.
The collection of paintings was stunning, and included first-rate works by European masters from various periods – not an easy collection to build in the 20th C, when the value of these paintings was already recognized.
Here are some highlights.
Portrait by Murillo (1665) and Titian (1550)
Santa Barbara, by Bernardo Luini (1510) and The Tears of St. Peter, by El Greco (1596).
Flemish landscapes by Pieter Brueghel the younger (1610) and Piet Mondrian (1898).
Serenata Mexicana, by Marc Chagall (1947) and Cottage with Peasant Coming Back Home, by Van Gogh (1885).
Autumnal Meditation, by Giorgio di Chirico (1913) and Piazza San Marco at Moonlight by Frederic Nerly (1871). I always love these moonlight pictures since with the invention of electric light we rarely see city landscapes lit only by moonlight anymore.
The collection included a number of pieces by women artists, who are often not well represented in traditional art museums.
Santa Apolonia, by Artemisia Gentileschi (1644) and St. John the Baptist, by Elisabetta Sirani (1665).
Portrait of Eva Gonzales in Dieppe, by Jeanne Gonzales (1880) and Houses under the Snow, by Berthe Morisot (1893)
Composition in the Workshop, by Tamara de Lempicka (1941) and portrait of Jeanne Charrier, by Marie Laurencin (1948).
The museum was much larger than we realized, and most of the more interesting pieces were on the upper floors. Next time we’ll start at the top and move down.
our lady of Guadalupe
On Monday afternoon, we visited the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
According to legend, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared several times to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego, who lived in the hills which were then outside of Mexico City. Today,
The small church built at the top of the hill commemorates the site of the original vision, and is quite charming.
The courtyard in front of the church offers stunning views of the city – sometimes. The city’s unusual geography, and the large number of motor vehicles, means it has some of the most polluted air in the world. We were lucky to have been there shortly after there had been some rain, which meant we could see some of the surrounding mountains.
The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe quickly outgrew the small church, however, and a much larger brick church was built at the foot of the hill in the early to accommodate pilgrims. This church has suffered substantial damage over the year due to land subsidence and (probably) subterranean earthquakes. The floor is noticeably tilted, and the church is no longer used for large services, although you can still visit.
Large services are now held in the new church next door, which was built in the 1970s. The exterior is rather ugly, although the interior is very pleasant and clearly geared towards hosting the many pilgrims who visit the site every year.
On Tuesday morning, we visited the Anthropological Museum, which is a history of Mexico’s indigenous people from the earliest known peoples to the present day. It’s a spectacular museum, and has representative artifacts from archeological sites that it would take you months to visit individually.
As you can see, some of the exhibits were enormous in scale, while others were quite small. The museum includes handicrafts – baskets, ceramics, clothing – from the various peoples – a type of history often overlooked by more traditional museums.
We spent nearly three hours here but still couldn’t take it all in. Clearly, we need to go back.
On Tuesday afternoon, we traveled across the city to the Coyoacan district, hoping to visit the Frida Kahlo museum. Unfortunately, it was booked out a week in advance – something to remember for next time. We did, however, enjoy the neighborhood , with its beautifully decorated houses and storefronts, and the Coyote fountain for which the district is named.
In Coyoacan, we also visited the lovely small church of San Juan Bautista, which was started in 1522, making it one of the oldest Spanish churches in Mexico.
Food and drink
We had heard the food in Mexico City was great, and it did not disappoint. In general, the food was much heartier, and more interesting than “Mexican” food served in the United States. Beef flautas, for example, were served with a beef bone, and a small spoon to scoop out the marrow. The spicing was more varied too. At every meal, we were served two or three different salsas, with the waiters helpfully pointing out which were made from the hottest chilis and which were “mild” (generally hot enough for me). Tory and Daniel helped us navigate the menus, so we could choose between unfamiliar offerings we were willing to try – goat molé was excellent – from those that I couldn’t manage, like fried grasshoppers. (Ted says the fried grasshoppers tasted mostly of salt. But they were a culinary bridge too far for me.)
Here we also had one lunch at Entremar, a highly regarded seafood restaurant.
And of course, there was always mescal, a tasty liquor I had learned to like on our last trip to Mexico. Every restaurant seemed to have a different variety, each with a subtly different flavor.
To me, though, Mexico City’s biggest culinary surprise was the excellent pastry. Freshly made churros (fried sticks of dough with brown sugar and cinnamon) were a thing of wonder, and bore little resemblance to the stale things sometimes sold in the US. Another local specialty is concha, a doughnut covered with a cookie-like “shell” (hence the name). A number of pastry shops also offered kouign-aman, a specialty of the Breton region of France, made with a lot of butter. I have no idea why this pastry has found a foothold in Mexico, but I am glad it did.
On Wednesday morning, we drove to the city of Queretaro, where Tory is now living – about 3 hours northwest of Mexico City. The city is the capital of the Mexican state of Queretaro, and has a metropolitan area of about 1 million, and is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in Mexico. It has a lot of technology workers, many who came here from Mexico City looking for cleaner air and a less chaotic environment. The city is far enough south for mild winters, but its altitude (about 6000 feet) is high enough to keep the summers from being too hot. Its climate and vegetation reminded me most of Palm Springs, California, although here the rainy season is in the summer.
The city also has a Samsung plant, and enough Korean workers to support several home-style Korean restaurants – not something we can easily find at our home in Italy.
On Thursday we shared Thanksgiving dinner with Tory’s friends in the local American expat community. One guy brought 20 year old tequila, which was very fine and quite different from any tequila I had tasted before. It’s not something that is easily purchased, however.
On Friday, we visited the historic center of Santiago de Queretaro, which was founded by the Spanish in 1531. Christmas decorations were starting to go up.
This statue reminded us of the dancers we saw in Mexico City.
The Templo di San Francisco was started in 1589, and completed in the mid-17th C.
This statue commemorates the Marquis Juan Antonio, who oversaw the building of the aqueduct that secured the city’s water supply in the 18th Century. (We visited the aqueduct, which is just outside the historic center, on our last day).
There were some nice views here. As you can see, the weather was quite a bit warmer in Queretaro than it had been in Mexico City (I was able to ditch the coat and scarf, and borrowed a sun hat). In addition to Tory and her friend Daniel, we were accompanied by Tory’s dog Pinch, an elderly chihuahua/terrier mix who enjoyed being in his special stroller.
Earlier this year, we visited Castel Miramare in Trieste where Maximilian Hapsburg, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, departed for Mexico in 1864, where he expected to be welcomed as emperor. Things did not go as planned, and his ill-fated journey ended here in Queretaro in 1867.
His last headquarters were in the Templo de la Santa Cruz, a 17th C church. He was condemned to death by the local authorities (an event commemorated by a plaque in the theater in which he was tried) and spent his last night in this cell before being shot by a firing squad the next morning.
Pico de Bernal
On Saturday, we visited the Pico de Bernal, a 1400 foot monolith, one of the largest in the world. The rock is believed to be the exposed core of an ancient volcano.
We only walked partway up the hill – when I saw folks going past me wearing helmets and carrying ropes and serious hiking gear, I realized that scaling the peak was way beyond my capabilities. But we did get some magnificent views.
We had lunch in the small town of Bernal, which was lovely.
Later we visited the Freixenet winery. Mexico is trying to develop the Queretaro region into a wine-growing area, and Freixenet, a Spanish wine producer, is invested in the effort. I think they have some ways to go, although the winery is lovely.
On Sunday we stayed home and watched the World Cup. We did, however, visit a restaurant that served Barbacoa – barbecued meat which in this region is generally ram. You ordered meat by the cut – we chose shoulder – and also enjoyed consomme made from the bones, flavored with lime. One dish on the menu translated as innards served inside the sheep’s stomach – sounds like haggis to me.
On Monday, our last full day, we went to San Miguel de Allende, about an hour from Queretaro city in the neighboring state of Guanajuato. San Miguel, founded in 1555, is a charming little city which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. It has been discovered by wealthy American retirees, which means prices here are about twice as high as they are in the surrounding region, and restaurants are a bit more “California.” It’s well worth a visit, though.
The church of San Francisco was built between 1778 and 1798 – the ornate style is quite a bit different from the historic churches we saw in Queretaro.
The church of San Miguel Arcangel, the town’s patron saint, was built in the 17th C with a traditional Mexican facade. The neo-Gothic facade was added in the 19th C. The interior includes a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, very common in Mexico. I have no idea why there’s a statue of St. Patrick, but there is he with his unmistakable shamrock.
The city has done a good job preserving its historic buildings. And yes, sadly the Spanish Inquisition was here too.
That’s all for now. I’ll close with a picture of me, Tory and Pinch in the wonderful gardens of San Miguel.