It appears that Mexico isn’t too popular, these days, according to one of the nominees for the US presidency. There’s even some talk of erecting a “wall” to keep certain undesirable elements from crossing the border. But if one listened to such preposterous scaremongering, which is just in order to garner votes and is totally impractical anyway, you’d be missing out on this wonderful North American country and her eponymous, high-altitude capital.
However, in fairness, it’s true to say, Mexico City, which can trace its origins back to when the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325, was once notorious for crime, pollution and overcrowding, with a Federal District population 8.85 million. Yet, in the same way that London was once famous for smog or South Africa for apartheid, this is ancient history. Today, a town that is divided into 16 delegaciones (equivalent to boroughs) is a delightful mélange of fascinating museums and galleries, impressive cathedrals and churches, and atmospheric cantinas and restaurants. In 1521, when the Spanish completed their conquest of the Aztec Empire, they practically destroyed Tenochtitlan; but they rebuilt what was left as Mexico City, locating their headquarters in the borough of Coyoacán. Its historic centre, which still has some edifices dating from that era, is a pleasing mix of cobbled streets and bijou squares that are home to quaint cafes and bars, and a couple of interesting open-air markets. One of the highlights of this milieu is the intriguing La Casa Azul, The Blue House, where the celebrated painter Frida Kahlo resided. Now a museum, as well as displaying many of her self-portraits and other vibrant, deeply symbolistic pictures, it’s a showcase for some of the mementos and personal belongings that defined her turbulent marriage to the painter Diego Rivera, whose iconic History of Mexico mural is in the National Palace. He also designed the pyramidal Anahuacalli Museum out of black volcanic stone, to house thousands of his own pre-Colombian artefacts. A friend of Kahlo and Rivera was the former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, who was granted political asylum by Mexico in the 1930s, and has had his old property turned into a museum that bears his name. Fortress-like with high walls, watchtowers and barred- or steel-shuttered windows to protect the dissident from Stalin’s henchmen, the property has bullet-riddled interiors from a failed assassination attempt, with the Marxist revolutionary’s furniture, books, papers and trademark round glasses left exactly as they were when someone did succeeded in murdering him in 1940.
Another borough that’s well-worth a visit is Xochimilco, which is Náhuatl for “place where flowers grow”. About an hour from the centre of town with public transport, this Unesco World Heritage Site is the perfect escape because one can drift through the areas’ network of enchanting canals in a trajinera. These flat-bottomed boats are more colourful than the most variegated chameleon, and are steered by an oarsman as if it was a gondola. Expect to encounter chinampas – artificial “floating gardens” made of mud and reeds – and a flotilla of small canoe-like vessels (chalupas) whose vendors haggle to try and sell you everything from handicrafts and trinkets to food.
Maybe there’s not a more arresting sight in this country than a vista of the Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque pressed up against an azure horizon, with the imposing Tecajete volcano slumbering in the background. In the State of Mexico, about a 75-minute drive from the capital, this 45km-long, sandy-grey structure takes its name from the Franciscan monk who initiated its construction in 1553. Made out of adobe bricks and, remarkably, it is in part still functioning. When you look up at the structure’s slew of beautiful arches from a low-angle, it’s easy to imagine this extraordinary feat of mankind could be a stairway to heaven.