A Travellerspoint blog

A wonderful museum and a first look at Mexico City

Mexico day one


View Mexico 2024 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Wall painting from Teotihuacan, Museum of Anthropology

Having reached the hotel at 6.00 AM we were glad to be able to check into our room straight away and catch up on a bit of sleep. But with plans for the day and in any case wanting to adapt as soon as possible to local time we set an alarm for 9.00. As it happened I was awake again by 8.30! Once Chris woke too we sorted the bags we had just dumped on arrival then went for a light breakfast before our pre-booked city tour.

Museum of Anthropology

Our guide Lisbet arrived at 11.00 and we drove to the Museum of Anthropology in a large park, the Bosque de Chapultapec, busy with local families on this sunny Sunday morning. We had to queue for a while outside, but it was pleasant to be out in the fresh warm sunshine, having left wintery London behind just yesterday.

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he Museum of Anthropology

Lizbet went to buy our tickets (no free entry for visitors to the country, even on a Sunday). Meanwhile we could enjoy the stunning mural by Rufino Tamayo, an artist from Oaxaca. This is ‘Duality’, depicting the epic encounter between two Aztec gods, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent and Tzecatlipoca, the jaguar.

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Mural by Rufino Tamayo

From here we proceeded to the central courtyard, roofed in part by a massive square concrete umbrella supported by a single column. This column is carved with pre-Hispanic iconography, while down it a waterfall cascades (to the delight of the visiting small children, so I had to wait to get a decent photo!)

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Fountain in the courtyard

Liz led us on an excellent tour of some of the main highlights, carefully picking out pieces that would tell the story of these earlier civilisations and lay a foundation for our later visits to the ruins of Teotihuacan and Monte Alban. Here are some of them.

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The Disk of Mictlāntēcutli

Also known as the Disk of Death, this is a pre-Hispanic sculpture depicting Mictlāntēcutli. He was the Aztec god of death and ruler of Mictlān, the underworld of Aztec mythology. The disk was found by archaeologists in the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in 1963. It features a skull with a tongue sticking out, surrounded by a pleated paper headdress.

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The Piedra del Sol

The piece that fascinated me most was probably the Stone of the Sun, which was discovered in 1790 when the city’s main square was being laid out. Liz explained it to us in great detail. Some of her explanation I took in at the time, and I’ve since supplemented it with a bit of research. Google Arts and Culture explains:

The Sun Stone, or Piedra del Sol, is a representation of the Aztec concept of time, its cyclical nature, and the relationship between the gods and humans. In one sense it’s a calendar, but it’s ceremonial rather than practical.

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The Piedra del Sol

The Aztecs used separate but connected calendars to mark earthly time and ritual time. From Google again:

The Aztec solar year lasted 365 days. There were 18 months of 20 days, as well as 5 intercalary days. They also used a 13-month, 260-day ritual calendar. Every 52 years, or 18,980 days, the ritual and solar calendars coincided. This is sometimes called an ‘Aztec century’.

The details on this stone are incredible, and it’s massive. You really need the presence of a person to appreciate its size. That was easily done, as a steady stream of families queued to pose their children beneath it, while couples also waited their turn.

Liz pointed out the face of a god in the centre, around which are four squares, each of which represents a previous era. The Aztecs named these: Jaguar, Wind, Rain, and Water. It was believed that when each era ended, the world was destroyed and recreated. The Aztecs believed that they lived in the fifth age, and that like all ages, theirs would be destroyed because of its faults.

The first ring features twenty symbols representing the days of the Aztec month. These were each dedicated to particular religious and agricultural festivals and associated with a compass direction and a symbol.

The second ring appears to act as a sort of compass too, with arrows indicating the cardinal points. Around this, two serpents are coiled, with human heads in their mouths. These too are gods.

If you are as intrigued as I was by this object you can read more, and see close up images, here: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/decoding-the-sun-stone/CwUBgE-UXSRhLw?hl=en

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Pacal the Great

Pacal the Great or Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal to give him his Mayan name, ruled Palenque in the seventh century AD. After his death he was buried in a sarcophagus in one of the city’s stepped pyramids. The museum has reproduced his tomb as it was when discovered by archaeologists in 1952. His skeletal remains were still lying in the sarcophagus, wearing a jade mask and bead necklaces. The body was surrounded by sculptures and reliefs showing his transition to divinity and figures from Maya mythology.

The actual jade mask and necklaces are also on display in the museum. These are among the 124 objects stolen from the museum in 1984, of which 111 were recovered a few years later when the thief stupidly tried to trade them for cocaine.

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The statue of Chalchiuhtlicue

Chalchiuhtlicue was an Aztec deity of water, rivers, seas, streams, storms, and baptism. She is also associated with fertility. This statue of her was found at the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan. Her name means ‘she of the jade skirt’. In this portrayal she is wearing a large rectangular headdress, ear muffs, a necklace with three strings of beads, huipil (traditional blouse), skirt and sandals.

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Replica of Temple of the Feathered Serpent

We were to see the real thing for ourselves the following day, but this reproduction allows for a closer look at the details. There were also some original pieces from that temple, like the one in my photo at the top of the page.

And there’s more … much more! But did I mention I was jet-lagged and very short of sleep?! That’s my excuse for not fully taking in everything this wonderful museum has to offer, although I did my best and forgot my weariness in admiration of some of these artefacts, so beautifully crafted all those years ago. I also really appreciated how well the carvings were lit to bring out the details, and of course the fact that photography was allowed (without flash).

Here are a few more highlights:

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Turquoise covered skull

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Aztec stone relief of a jaguar, and priest of the God of Death

City tour

By the time we finished our museum visit I for one was weary and glad when Liz proposed a coffee break. The Museum café was busy, so she took us to an alternative in a nearby bookshop in the park, overlooking the boating lake. It was a lovely cool space (in both senses of that word) and the coffee was good too.

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Bookshop near the Anthropology Museum

Then our driver picked us up and we had a slow drive back into the city centre along the Reforma, with lots of monuments and other public art. I grabbed a few photos from the car.

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On Reforma

Diego Rivera Mural Museum

We started our walking tour in another museum. This is a much smaller one, and a personal favourite of Liz’s that she was keen for us to see. The name of this museum says everything you need to know about it. It is home to a huge mural by one of Mexico’s favourite sons and most famous artists, Diego Rivera. Rivera painted Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central) for the Hotel del Prado Misión in 1947. The hotel was so badly damaged by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City that it had to be demolished, but this mural survived. The museum was built around it to both support the wall and protect the art work.

The painting features around 150 figures shown enjoying a Sunday afternoon together in the nearby park, the Alameda Central. Many of them were prominent in the country’s history, including Hernán Cortés, Benito Juárez, Maximiliano de Habsburgo, Francisco I. Madero and Porfirio Díaz. Interspersed among them are more everyday people such as street vendors and revolutionary soldiers.

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Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central

The left side of the mural depicts the Colonial era of Cortés and the Spanish Inquisition. From there it moves through the centuries to the early 20th century and the fight for independence on the right-hand side. In the centre is the ‘Catrina’, the Day of the Dead skeleton dressed in 19th-century European fashion. Next to her Rivero presents himself as a young boy, while his wife Frida Kahlo rests her hand on his shoulder.

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Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central

Alameda Central

Our walk then took us through the park that forms the backdrop of Rivera’s mural. Rather appropriately it was a Sunday afternoon, so it was very busy with local families. Children were playing in the fountains (it was by now pretty hot), there were lots of food stalls doing great business and people relaxing on the benches or picnicking.

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In the Alameda Central

The Palacio de Bellas Artes

On the far side of the park we stopped to photograph the striking Palacio de Bellas Artes. This was built to celebrate the centennial of the Mexican War of Independence in 1910. The architecture is a mix of Art Nouveau and Neoclassical and I was struck in particular by the beautiful orange dome and the ornate statuary adorning the arches of the roof.

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The Palacio de Bellas Artes

Centro Historico

We strolled along a few of the streets between the park and the Zócalo, the huge square at the heart of the city. These too were busy with locals as well as tourists. Despite the crowds, and my increasing travel-induced weariness, I grabbed some photos of a few buildings that especially appealed to me, including one that seemed to have a more Portuguese than Spanish influence. This is the Casa de Azulejos, covered in blue and white (mainly) tiles from the Mexican state of Puebla. This was once the home of an aristocratic family but is now home to a department store and restaurant. We didn’t go in, but I took lots of photos of the exterior.

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Casa de Azulejos

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In the Centro Historico

The Zócalo

This huge square, also known as the Plaza de la Constitución, was once the heart of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. To emphasise their dominance over the indigenous populations and erase all traces of the Aztecs, the Spanish conquerors built their new capital on top of their city, reusing its stones.

On this busy Sunday afternoon the square was lively with street performers, tour groups, a local music performance and more. It was the street performers in particular that caught my eye and my lens. Many were dressed in costumes based (loosely, I suspect) on indigenous styles, with feathered headdresses and wristbands, and lots of body paint.

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Street performers in the Zócalo

The Catedral Metropolitana

The cathedral lies on the north side of the Zócalo. This was built over several hundred years (1573 to 1813) around the much smaller church that was erected soon after the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan, eventually replacing it completely. It therefore shows a mix of architectural styles. It was hard to get a good photo of the exterior with so many people milling around and with scaffolding covering one of the towers. But I picked out a few details including a relief panel above the east portal showing a ship carrying the four apostles, with Saint Peter at the helm. According to Wikipedia, the title of this relief is The ship of the Church sailing the seas of Eternity.

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The Catedral Metropolitana

Inside the cathedral it was cool and much more peaceful than the square outside. We took the opportunity for a short rest before strolling around. I found it rather sombre but liked some of the details. The sunlight was falling on some of the statues, making them stand out from the rest of the rather dark interior.

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In the Catedral Metropolitana

Liz led us around the main altar to the choir area behind and the royal chapel with its Altar of the Kings. This was even more ornate than the main altar and rather better lit, although still hard to photograph. There were many side chapels too, each with its own ornate altar. With more time, more energy and better light I would have taken many more photos, I am sure.

The Templo Mayor

By now I was definitely wilting, a combination of tiredness and heat with a bit of altitude and jet lag thrown in. I would happily have gone straight back to the hotel from here, but Liz wanted to show us one more sight. Behind and to the east of the cathedral lies the Templo Mayor. Here are the ruins of the massive temple pyramid that was one of Tenochticlan’s holiest sites, which was destroyed and its stones used to build the cathedral. Its rough location was known about for years but until relatively recently not properly investigated. This was in part because it was thought to lie under the cathedral and in part because this was an area of higher-class housing which people were reluctant to destroy.

From time to time small finds were made in the area but little done to explore further. But in 1978 electricity workers found a massive pre-Hispanic stone disc, which triggered renewed interest. A major archaeological dig was initiated, for which a number of buildings were demolished. According to Wikipedia, more than 7,000 objects have been found here, mostly offerings including effigies. They are now displayed in the next-door museum, which we didn’t have the time or energy to visit. The site itself can also be visited but we contented ourselves with a quick look from above. And I failed to take a single photo!

Winding down

After that quick look at the Templo Major we did head the few blocks to the hotel where we said goodbye to Liz and had a break relaxing in our room, sorting photos and trying to choose a restaurant for dinner.

Being Sunday many were closed so in the end we settled on eating in the hotel’s restaurant. While nothing fancy the food was fine (I liked the mango and Chipotle sauce on my chicken) and the beers cold and refreshing.

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Dinner at the Hampton Inn

Posted by ToonSarah 09:59 Archived in Mexico Tagged art architecture park history mexico museum cathedral archaeology street_photography

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Comments

Even when jetlagged and weary you still take great photos.

I must admit I know nothing about Aztec mythology. I really should read up on it.

by irenevt

Thank you Irene :) I find looking for photo opps keeps me awake! The Aztecs are fascinating but I found the people of Teotihuacan, who predated them, even more so. I'll be sharing our visit there in my next post.

by ToonSarah

Wow Wow Wow, if I had not slept one bit I wouldn't have done so much in a day. Seeing the pictures, I know I have to go one day. I read loads of good things about the museum and the park seems so nice to have a break there ... love you first day!

by Ils1976

Glad you're liking what you're seeing so far Ils!

by ToonSarah

Wow, you managed to see so much on your first day. I doubt I would have even been able to get out of the bed after journey like that! :)

by hennaonthetrek

Pre-booking a tour really pushes you to get going Henna!

by ToonSarah

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