Distrito Federal

Introduction


Indisputably one of the world’s largest metropolises, Mexico City is also the Western Hemisphere’s oldest urban center–taking into account the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Even in those days, the city had a way of impressing newcomers. Reporting back to King Carlos V about the wonders of the Aztec seat of power, Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes wrote he had seen things "… which cannot be adequately described in words."
The sight of the Aztecs’ imposing temples left Cortes and his men awestruck. Struggling to convey the majesty of what he saw, Cortes compared this new world with the old. Imagine the king’s surprise at learning that "one of the plazas is twice the size of that of Salamanca," and "the principal pyramid is taller than the tower of the cathedral at Seville," or that the stone and wood craftsmanship that adorned these monuments "could nowhere be bettered." The conquistadors were amazed at what they found, though just a short time later they would destroy it to make way for the Spanish reign that followed.
Nowhere is Mexico’s explosive past better depicted than at its central plaza, the Zocalo. Surrounded by some of the finest buildings of the colonial era, lie the remnants of one of the Aztecs’ principal monuments, the Templo Mayor. Its mysterious shapes stand as a haunting tribute to the pre-Hispanic civilization that flourished here long ago.
Officially known as the Federal District (Distrito Federal), the country’s capital ranks as the world’s second-largest city, after Tokyo, with nearly 19 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area.
For decades, the federal government was concentrated in the old quarter, here called the Historic Center (Centro Historico). The official headquarters of the president, the Palacio Nacional, is still there, but the various ministries are now scattered all over the city.
The poshest residential areas lie to the west, in an area called Las Lomas (The Heights), and to the south, in San Angel and Coyoacan, once independent towns and still delightfully colonial in style. Other interesting neighborhoods, or colonias, are Condesa, Mexico City’s answer to SoHo, and Roma.
Most major cities grapple with urban problems–a city this size, all the more so. Notorious levels of air pollution (especially during the winter months), crime, traffic congestion, slums, beggars, overpopulation, and lack of sanitation plague the city. To curb pollution levels, a one-day-without-a-car program is in place.
The weather is usually mild. Cold snaps are short lived, so few homes have central heating. Summer is the rainy season, but showers rarely last more than an hour and usually occur in the late afternoons or evenings. Spring and fall are warm, but not hot. Air-conditioning is rare.
Elevation is important. At 7,350 feet the air is much thinner and takes getting used to. One drink packs the wallop of two. It’s also best to eat light when first arriving.

Brief History


In 1345, under the leadership of Tenoch, the Mexica, or Aztecs, established the city of Tenochtitlan at a spot where an eagle was perched atop a cactus, a sight they believed signaled the location of their permanent homeland. Through conquest, the Aztecs gradually extended their realm, collecting tribute from distant lands and making Tenochtitlan ever more magnificent.
Since 1517, the year Spaniards first approached the Yucatan Peninsula in their ships, messengers had been bringing Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II drawings of the mysterious acalli, or waterhouses, sighted off the coast. Initially the emperor believed the light skinned, bearded warrior to be the fair god Quetzalcoatl who, according to Aztec legend, had been forced to flee east, but promised to return. Thus inclined toward appeasement, Moctezuma sent gifts of gold, silver and finely woven garments, which merely fueled the Spaniards’ lust for riches.
She made his way across the mountains, Cortes gathered the support of Indians eager to sever their allegiance to the distant capital. Arriving at Tenochtitlan, Spanish chroniclers recorded their amazement at finding a city "grander than any in Spain." Dominated by the towering Great Temple—Templo Mayor—with twin altars dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and the rain god, Tlaloc, Tenochtitlan was a city of canals connecting residential areas to the main plaza. It spanned from today’s Zocalo to the Latin American Tower, and north past Tlatelolco.
The Spaniards were welcomed and treated royally, a situation they exploited to the point of taking over Moctezuma’s palace and imprisoning their host. The citizens of Tenochtitlan, disillusioned by their leader’s weakness, removed him from office. He was later stoned to death by an angry mob he had been trying to calm.
Moctezuma’s brother, Cuitlahuac, succeeded him, but reigned for only 80 days, succumbing to smallpox, a disease brought over by the Spaniards. Their 26-year-old cousin, Cuauhtemoc, who was outspoken in his resistance against the Spanish, became the last Aztec emperor. It was Cuauhtemoc who led the Aztecs in the final battles, and who is most revered today.
The Aztecs actually won the first battle, driving the Spaniards out of Tenochtitlan on a night known to history as "La Noche Triste" (The Sad Night). Many Spaniards drowned in Lake Texcoco, weighed down by stolen gold. Cortes is said to have rested under a large tree in the town of Tacuba during the retreat and wept over his losses. What’s left of a tree said to be the very same one, is still preserved.
Many factors contributed to the Spanish victory. Lured by reports of gold, reinforcements arrived from Cuba; an important alliance was formed with nearby Tlaxcala, a never-conquered enemy of the Aztec empire; Spanish weapons were considerably better; the Spaniards killed their enemies instead of saving them for sacrifice; and an indecisive, obsessively religious ruler was on the throne when the Spaniards arrived. Equally important were the diseases, including smallpox, that the conquistadors introduced into the New World with devastating effects for the indigenous population.
Tenochtitlan was blockaded for nearly four months while its citizens slowly died of hunger, thirst and foreign diseases. Cuauhtemoc was taken prisoner on August 13, 1521, at the site of what today is the Church of the Conception, near Tlatelolco. Before the Spaniards arrived, Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco was larger than any European city, with possibly 300,000 inhabitants. Forty years later, the indigenous population was recorded at 75,000.
Following the conquest, the Spaniards filled in Lake Texcoco and used the stones of the Aztec capital’s great palaces and temples to construct their own churches and buildings. Cortes returned to Spain and remained in his country’s service, though always intending to spend his retirement in Mexico. He died in Spain, however, in 1547 at the age of 63. His remains were sent, at his request, to the Hospital de Jesus, which he established near the Zocalo in Mexico City. They are still there today.
During the colonial era, the capital grew, acquiring a distinctively Spanish look with both European and Moorish architectural styles. The Spanish also instituted their own class system, dominated by the aristocracy and followed, in descending order of social status, by Mexican-born Spaniards (criollos), those of mixed Indian and Spanish blood (mestizos), and slaves.
Today the capital is not just the country’s political, financial and artistic center, but also its historical vortex, where modern-day Mexico began and evolved. Walking around the Centro Historico, it is impossible not to sense the ghosts and picture the people who constructed the buildings—those still standing and those lying buried below—to imagine their struggles and admire their achievements.

Modern Mexico City


Also called the Distrito Federal (Federal District) or simply D.F., Mexico City is the country’s capital and center of commerce, finance and the arts. It ranks as the world’s second-largest city, after Tokyo, with about 18 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area.
For decades, the federal government was concentrated in the old part, or Centro Historico (Historic Center), around the Zocalo. The National Palace (office of the president) is still there. But the various ministries (here called secretariats) are now scattered all over the city.
Banking, too, is concentrated in the old part. Many of the palatial mansions of the colonial era today serve as headquarters for the nation’s biggest financial institutions.
The Centro Historico ends at an avenue named after former President Lazaro Cardenas. Across the street, modern Mexico begins.
The poshest residential areas lie to the west, beyond Chapultepec Park, in a zone called Las Lomas (The Heights); and to the south, in San Angel and Coyoacan, once independent towns and still delightfully colonial in style, and in Pedregal, near the national university, where the modern homes are more reminiscent of the U.S. suburbs. Other interesting neighborhoods, or colonias, are Condesa, Mexico City’s answer to SoHo, and Roma.
To the north are big factories. Many lie across the city limits, in the State of Mexico, in an area best described as a hybrid of First World industrialization and Third World poverty.
Most major cities must grapple with urban problems—a city this size, all the more so, especially in the wake of the 1994 peso devaluation, which triggered a financial crisis and led to unprecedented levels of crime.
Mexico City struggles with notorious levels of air pollution (especially during the winter months), traffic congestion, slums, beggars, overpopulation, and lack of sanitation. To curb pollution levels, a “one day without a car” program was instituted.
The public transportation system is regularly expanded, but always appears to be overloaded. The city’s population growth rate, while slowing to about 0.5 percent a year, continues to outstrip government efforts to keep up even with the demand for basic services such as housing and water.

Weather


Someone once said Mexico City has good golfing weather year-round. That about sums it up. Cold snaps are short lived, so few homes have central heating. Summer is the rainy season, but showers rarely last more than an hour and usually occur in the late afternoons or evenings. Spring and fall are warm, but not hot. Air-conditioning is rare.
Elevation is important. At 7,350 feet the air is much thinner and takes getting used to. One drink packs the wallop of two. It’s also best to eat light when first arriving.
Unlike hotter, coastal towns, the capital doesn’t shut down for an afternoon siesta. But visitors, especially those who plan to stay up late and enjoy the city’s nightlife, are well-advised to pretend it does. A nap will keep you feeling in the pink.
Dress is often dressy. This is a sophisticated town, and jacket and tie are never out of place. Shorts of a conservative length are okay, but resort wear in general is not common.
Driving aside, life here generally moves at a slower pace. People seldom hurry and when punctuality is expected you’ll be told to function on “English time.”
Keeping in touch with things back home is easy. All major newspapers are available and The News, Mexico’s leading English-language newspaper, carries national and international news, as well as New York Stock Exchange quotations, movie listings and notices of community events.

Getting Arround Town


Taxis: Avoid flagging a regular taxi–assaults have been known to occur, and tourists, often toting cameras and recent purchases, are especially vulnerable. Sitios, or radio cabs, offer a convenient, reasonably priced and safe way to get around town. Radio cabs usually add a surcharge to the amount registered on the taximeter. Hotels and restaurants are accustomed to calling radio cabs for their guests and clients.
Regular cabs come in two colors, yellow or green, but mostly one shape: the Volkswagen "beetle." The word "Libre" ("Free") in the front windshield means it is available. Ensure the taximeter is working before getting in. If it’s not, wait for another cab–such an irregularity could be a sign of a rogue taxi. After 10 p.m., a 20% surcharge is added to the fare.
Upon arrival in Mexico City, take only taxis belonging to the special airport concession. Prices are fixed according to destination and tickets can be purchased at clearly marked booths found both in the baggage claim area and next to major airport exits.
Metro: The Metro, or subway, is user-friendly and a bargain to boot. A ticket, sold at booths inside the station (which also offer free subway maps), costs two pesos. Trains run from 5 a.m. (6 a.m. Saturdays, 7 a.m. Sundays and holidays) to half past midnight (1:30 a.m. Saturdays, 1 a.m. Sundays and holidays) and each station displays a map of the network. At peak morning and afternoon hours, separate cars are reserved for women. Avoid the subway during rush hour and watch your wallet or purse when taking any public transit.
Peseros: These minibuses–originally called peseros because a ride cost one peso, but now also known as colectivos or combis–shuttle along fixed routes. The minimum fare is two pesos. The farther you go, the higher the fare, though never more than four or five pesos.
Buses: Buses run regularly and during non-rush hour are an easy way to get to museums in the Chapultepec Park area. The two-peso fare must be in exact change.
Safety: Don’t carry a lot of money with you or wear anything too flashy; leave valuables in your hotel safe or deposit them at the front desk. Only withdraw money from ATMs during the day and preferably from machines located inside shopping malls and supermarkets.
by Travel Guide Mexico