Exploring Seven Centuries of Mexico City

You already know that your five-week co-working stint in Mexico City, the biggest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere, will be incredible. It is home to 20,000 residents, more museums and better street food than any other city on Earth, and by itself is fifth largest economy in Latin America, right after Colombia.

You may not realize that this is also the oldest capital city in the Western Hemisphere. It was originally founded June 20, 1325, on an island in Lake Texcoco, to preside over the nascent Aztec Empire. As the empire grew, stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the shallow lake waters were systematically reclaimed, and transformed into a glittering, planned city-state of engineering marvels.

By the time Spanish first set their eyes the “City of Nopal,” named for the very same nopal cactus depicted on the modern flag of Mexico, it was one of the most powerful cities in the world. Its markets were filled with goods from as far away as the modern United States and Peru. Potable water was brought in by terracotta aqueducts from the mountains, and waste removed by a system of drains and sewers.

Broad, paved roads, precisely oriented north-south and east-west, welcomed the Spanish into this city of huge masonry temples, schools, and buildings that were home to some 200,000 people—four times the population of London. Every night, a small army of a thousand public employees picked up trash and scrubbed the city streets—an idea Europeans wouldn’t consider for centuries.

Of course, all the attention to hygiene would, in the end, contribute to their downfall. Mexico’s competing empires fell to guns, steel, and an onslaught of diseases bred in Europe’s unkempt alleyways. Tenochtitlán was christened Mexico City. Lake Texcoco was all but drained.

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From the moment you arrive in Mexico City, however, you’ll experience echoes of its ancient past. Benito Juárez International Airport, for example, was named for the first indigenous head of state in the modern Americas.

Benito Juárez, who governed from 1858 to 1872, was a Zapotec Indian and Supreme Court Justice who overthrew the French, twice, restoring the Mexican Republic and giving us all Cinco de Mayo. He was also a Freemason and atheist, whose Reforma expropriated Catholic Church’s landholdings, separated Church and State, and decriminalized collective land ownership (the norm prior to the European Conquest).

And that’s just for starters.

There’s so much more about Mexico City’s history that will surprise, educate, and amaze you. Since you’ll be here with Hot Desk International for five full weeks, you will have ample opportunity to explore. Here are a few places to begin.

Teotihuacan (300 BC)

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Aztec enthusiasts will tell you Mexico City was founded in 1325, while Europhiles point to the Spanish founding on August 13, 1521. But the megacity’s UNESCO-protected suburb of Teotihuacan was established some 1600 years earlier. Today, this vast complex of pyramids, temples, and tombs is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.

At its peak, from about 100 A.D. to 250 A.D., Teotihuacan had a population of perhaps 125,000 (making it the sixth largest city in the world) was the most important city in the Americas, a center of art, culture, and obsidian weaponry. It collapsed around 550 A.D. Its awe-inspiring ruins were named Teotihuacán, “Birthplace of the Gods” by Aztec mythmakers in the 1300s. The name stuck, and we think you’ll agree it could not be more fitting.

The Great Temple (1487 A.D.)

Aztec Emperor Ahuizotl laid the foundations the Templo Mayor in 1467, at the highest point on his imperial island. It was not the first temple built on this site, but it was the grandest.

Conquistador Hernán Cortez, after extolling its magnificence to the Spanish crown, had the temple torn down in 1520. He then built Mexico’s massive Metropolitan Cathedral (constructed between 1567–1788) next door, symbolically replacing the Aztec gods of rain (Tlaloc) and war (Huitzilopochtli) with Christianity. The old temple was never quite forgotten, however.

In 1978, electrical workers were excavating an area adjacent to the Cathedral and found a massive stone monolith depicting Coyolxauhqui, the sister of Huitzilopochtli. Around her were the ruins of the legendary Templo Mayor.

The Mexican government decided to excavate, and today you can see the remains of the original pyramid and thousands of stunning artifacts at the Templo Mayor Museum. It’s right on the Zocaló (Plaza de la Constitución), Mexico City’s main plaza. Also built in the 1460s, at the intersection of Tenochtitlán’s main north-south and east-west thoroughfares, it remains a wonderful place for a wander, with street vendors, protesters, musicians, dancers, businesspeople and everyone else.

Just like Ahuizotl would have wanted.

Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 9, 1531 A.D.)

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Surprise: The most visited Catholic pilgrimage isn’t the Vatican, which only receives some 18 million visitors per year. It’s this space-age basilica on the northern outskirts of Mexico City, the destination of some 22 million faithful annually.

Many do not realize that Tepeyac Hill, where the Basilica now sits, was once home to the shrine of the Aztec Goddess of Mother Earth, Tonantzin.

The Virgin of Guadelupe, Patron Saint of Mexico and “Empress of the Americas” first appeared to an indigenous peasant, Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, on December 9, 1531. She asked him, in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, to build a shrine in her honor. The Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, wanted proof. Juan Diego returned to a hilltop, and the Virgin filled his cloak, or tilma, with roses.

On December 12, when he opened his cloak for the archbishop, the roses fell to the floor and revealed the famous image of the notably indigenous Virgin of Guadalupe. Despite centuries of Catholic controversy equating her with Tonantzin, December 12 remains one of the most important holidays in the Mexican calendar, overshadowing even Christmas in its pageantry and devotion.

We recommend visiting the Basilica almost any other week of the year, as long as you visit. Be sure to ask Hot Desk International staff about a day trip combining the Basilica with Teotihuacan.

Chapultepec Park (September 13, 1847)

At the center of Mexico City is one of the world’s great urban greenspaces, Bosque de Chapultepec. Its rolling 686 hectares (1695 acres) are home to dozens of playgrounds and picnic areas, scores of murals and sculptures, at least eight museums—don’t miss the incredible National Museum of Anthropology or fascinating Museum of Modern Art—and the Chapultepec Zoo, re-founded in 1924, not far from where Aztec rulers kept their zoo.

Chapultepec, “Hill of Grasshoppers” in Nahuatl, is the rocky centerpiece of the park, and has been an important part of the city for centuries. Remains of Toltec architecture, contemporary with Teotihuacan, are still in evidence. It was sacred to the Aztecs. And atop the hill is the only royal castle in the Americas, constructed in 1775 and once home to Mexican Emperor Maximilian I.

Subhead: Museo Soumaya (March 3, 2011)

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In 2010, Mexico hit a benchmark that left its northern neighbor, not to mention Western Europe, in shock. One of Mexico’s homegrown billionaires, telecom magnate Carlos Slim, was named the richest man in the world by Forbes magazine.

A year later, Slim opened one of the world’s most remarkable art museums, Museo Soumaya, a glittering marvel of architectural whimsy in Mexico City’s posh Polanco District. It was designed as a showcase for the very best of Mexican and Latin American art, but it is also a repository for Slim’s incomparable international collection—Rodin, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and so many more.

During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the strategically important hill became the Mexican military’s last stand against US General Winfield Scott. Outgunned and outnumbered, Mexican forces finally capitulated, after a full day of hand-to-hand combat under constant artillery bombardment.

Or, you could just find a bench at Plaza Uruguay and contemplate what comes next for Mexico City, one of the most fascinating destinations in history!

By Paige R Penland