Manzanillo Letter- Feb, 2014

The consensus by those who know Mexico is that a visit to Mexico City is a must do. With that knowledge and coupled with the fact that we still had to admit “not yet” when asked if we’d ever visited, we packed a couple of bags, caught a flight from ZLO (Manzanillo) to MEX (Mexico City DF) via AeroMexico. Sixty-five min. later, Jan. 21st, we landed in one of the world’s largest cities. Three airlines offered service so of course price was the deciding factor for the just over one hour flight, with AeroMexico winning the bid – absolutely no complaints on the choice of airlines.

For city lovers, Mexico City (simply referred to as “Mexico” by Mexicans) offers enough of everything and a surplus of some things such as great restaurants, air pollution, beautiful boulevards, traffic congestion, history and culture, crowded subway and fabulous upscale areas. Our capable guides and friends, Hector and Malena, navigated with patience through what to us were hazards that would make a computer game programmer cringe. To drive successfully and efficiently in this city means to take one’s place in a mash of cars pointing within 120 degrees of the same desired direction, and then as traffic begins to move, find your slot in what appears to be a space too small for your vehicle. Hector and Malena love their home city and all it offers. This YouTube link, while in Spanish, allows the you to meet both of them and appreciate this wonderful (and somewhat famous in Mexico) couple:

Malena, along with more than 1000 competitors, competed in a triathlon in Manzanillo in Feb. this year, one of 12 or so events she has in her 2014 schedule. It was an experience that allowed us to better appreciate her amazing drive and witness the fraternity of truly fit people who love the sport. As the only woman in her age group, 60 to 64, she of course finished first, but she had a better time than all the female participants in the 55 – 59 age group. Sponsored by a gym in Mexico City, her drive allows her to compete several times a year in events as far away as Austria and Australia.

As an aside, Hector and Malena are lovers of Canada’s North and Alaska, having visited both on seven different occasions, including two winter visits to experience the Yukon Quest dog sled race There is no doubt that Hector and Malena know more about Canada’s North than do most Canadians. They have dipped their toes in the Arctic Ocean 3 times while summer traveling in simple style, staying in a tent. Needless to say we felt privileged to enjoy their great company, their innate knowledge of Mexico and it’s history, and their kindness, vibrancy and enthusiasm in showing us their great city.

While training for her events is a daily lifestyle for Malena, Hector, an engineer, has also accomplished much. He is the “El Padrino” of a very poor Mexican school located between Mexico City and Acapulco (meaning he and Malena support the school financially). It was here that Hector became aware of several people who spoke the original Aztec language including a local teacher. To assist him in learning to read, write and speak this complex tongue he spent several years under the tutelage of this teacher, ultimately writing a book (encyclopaedia size) translating the Aztec (Nahuatl) language into Spanish. One can only imagine the dedication to undertake and complete such an endeavour. How about trying to get your tongue around these: Xoloitzcuintli, Guachinango and Tepezcuintle

It was a unique and priceless opportunity, having this interesting and wonderful couple as our teachers, showing us many of the historic sites in an around Mexico City, and what the area means to them.

More than 1.6 billion people ride Mexico City’s subway each year making it the world’s no. 8 people mover, just behind New York’s. While possibly not displaying the mayhem we’ve seen on TV, etc. of India’s public transportation where people cling to the outside of trains and buses, it seems no one in Mexico, waiting to get on, accepts that a subway car will not hold a few more people. What makes it work well is that these gentle people are accepting of life as it is and allow those who appear most in need, the right of way.

While the official population of the city is something over 8 million, the greater metropolitan area population is in excess of 21 million. This metro area includes the population that live in the ‘Valley of Mexico’ which is really a contiguous area that includes the mostly dry central lake bed and extends into the higher valley sides. Speaking of elevations, Mexico City’s elevation is listed as 7350 ft. meaning much of the surrounding populated area is higher. Slipping over the rim of the Valley of Mexico on a beautiful 4 lane toll road requires reaching an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, and to emphasize the population concentration, on this road one quickly arrives at Cuernavaca with a population of more than 3 million.

The original city of Tenochtitlan (below), estimated to have been 3 – 5 sq. miles in area, was established by the Aztecs in 1325 and constructed on a somewhat elevated area of land in Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs were great engineers as they constructed dams on tributaries that flowed into the lake/basin, providing them with clean drinking water as well as some control of flow into the lake. Cortez and the Spanish defeated the Aztec empire in about 1521 and destroyed the dams, after which flooding became a constant problem. While many attempts were made over centuries to control periodic flooding, the current “Sistema de drenaje profundo” , was begun in 1967 and completed in 1975. This ultimate solution of modern drainage tunnels through mountains permanently solved the flooding problems, but has resulted in a constant shortage of water and contributed to the city sinking a few centimeters each year as water is pumped from non-replenishing aquifers below the surface.

The Spanish, subsequent to their 1521 conquest, simply began building a new city right on top of what the Aztecs had done, leaving nearly 200 yrs. of construction history buried. Our tour guides, Hector & Malena, explained that in most of the Centro Historico area, ruins can be found just below the existing construction. In fact we viewed exposed areas where sewer and other underground services often intersect this buried and sometimes artistically ornate Aztec stone construction. A small central area in “Centro Historico” has been excavated and reclaimed for viewing, together with a beautiful new exhibition center. This allows visitors and locals alike to see a little of the basic layout and then imagine the grandeur that was once this impressive Aztec center of culture.

Mandatory with a visit to any Mexican city and sometimes even small towns, is to visit the Cathedral. Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral is of course no exception. Construction of the building began in 1573 and continued for nearly 240 yrs., completing in 1813. Hector shared that because of the continual sinking of such heavy structures into the now almost dry lakebed, the government recently commissioned underground work that required 20 years to stabilize this cathedral’s foundations. One can imagine such an undertaking when floors and columns have already shifted and the digging required means sorting through Aztec ruins. This cathedral is massive being 360 feet in length, however it appeared somewhat aged and tired to us. Buildings such as this in all of Latin America are a continual work in progress and perhaps this cathedral is simply in need of more rejuvenation and maintenance.


On day two we visited the “Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe”, referred to as just the ‘Basilica’. We’ve discovered that if you say the word, “Basilica” anywhere in Mexico, Mexican’s know that you are talking about this particular building. This is the story as told to us by our very capable Malena:

Seems the peasant Juan Diego was visited by a vision of The Virgin Mary, known in this case within the Spanish Culture as ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’. Please understand that we have very elementary knowledge in this area, so we relate this as we understand and in our words.

On Dec. 9th, 1531, Juan Diego was visited by a vision of the Virgin Mary and asked to build a church in her houour on ‘this site’. When he communicated his vision and the Virgin’s request to the priests, he was rebuked and more or less told get lost. The priests wanted proof that what he saw was in fact the Virgin Mary. When he was again visited, the Virgin Vision told him to gather flowers at the top of Tepeyac Hill, carry them in his cloak to the priests and throw his cloak (blanket) down in front of the priests. Seems that Castillian Roses were not native to Mexico and certainly not in Dec. but that is what Juan Diego was able to gather and deliver. When returning to the Archbishop of Mexico City, Juan Diego opened his cloak and threw it down in front of the priests. The unusual roses cascaded onto the floor, but then the image of the Virgin (of Guadalupe) appeared on his blanket. The priests then understood, Juan Diego became immortalized, and plans were made to build the ‘Basilica de Neustra Señora de Guadalupe’. This famous cloak (blanket) is framed and exposed for all to see in the new modern Basilica.

All of this dialogue was, by the way, communicated in Nahuatl, the native Aztec language. Interesting that some believe the word Guadalupe was transliterated from Nahuatl and from possibly one of these words: Tecuatlanopeuh OR Tecuantlaxopeuh. Other theories have it that Guadalupe is simply the Spanish version of the Nahuatl word: Coātlaxopeuh. Makes sense to me!

Construction on the Basilica began in 1531 was completed in 1709. It is now the most visited ‘Marian Shrine’ in the world, with millions of people gathering here each year, some who walk as far as 500 km to arrive on or around Dec. 12th. If crowds are your thing, maybe a visit next Dec. should be on your bucket list. In Dec. 2013 the Basilica was visited by 7 million people.

Like many or maybe most of the substantial structures in Mexico City, the Basilica has unevenly sunk into the lakebed giving the floor an undulating surface akin to swells on the sea. For those of us who live in or on near perfect construction of verticals and horizontals, navigating oneself inside of these imperfect structures requires conscious thought. Floors slope, columns tilt, and walls lean, resulting in a myriad of parallelograms and angles that affect the senses – look carefully at the photo below.

In 1974 – 76 a new modern Basilica was built nearby measuring 330 feet in diameter and capable of holding 50,000 people.

Malena shared that most of the people making the trek and enduring the crowds are the nation’s poor. They come to ask for that over which they have no control, and to give thanks. Many walk on their knees (sometimes bloodied) near the end of their journey in humbling themselves before God. Observation by the uniformed such as yours truly suggests that the more well to do in Mexico are not too different from those in our home countries. Maybe we sometimes forget to give thanks for what we have, especially when we have plenty?

Witness this man holding a bible and walking several hundred feet on his knees while approaching the new Basilica.


Next was a short 40 km drive to the northeast of Mexico City – Teotihuacan (tay-o-tea-whaw-‘can). Gasps of amazement at the first view of the ‘Pyramid of the Sun’ must be normal (nearby is a similar smaller structure called the Pyramid of the Moon). This major structure was begun sometime before the birth of Christ and completed in approximately 250 AD.

The civilization that created these worship pyramids lasted into maybe the 7th or 8th century. What remains is well cared for and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico. Being the largest pyramid in Mexico, the Pyramid of the Sun is part of structural remnants of an ancient civilization that covers an astonishing total area of 32 sq. miles. Not surprisingly, as of 1987, this area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, guaranteeing it’s future enjoyment for many generations.

One of our first questions was, “What’s inside?” Turns out the answer is everything that could be used to fill up the space – rocks, mud, etc. The structure is near original but did have in addition to what one now sees, a worship temple on top. Bottom line is that this is simply a very big solid pyramid – 438 feet across and almost 250 feet high. It’s a major climb, but one which Vicky and Malena (of course) did with ease. Hector and I agreed to stay on the ground as instructed and take pictures of the two of them on top.

Study suggests the culture that built Teotihuacan began possibly 1500 years prior to the Aztecs (250 BC), peaking at about 450 AD after which there seems to be more speculation than fact concerning its demise and timing.

In trying to understand that the inside is simply fill, Hector explained it this way: “Why would you want to go inside anyway? These people worshiped among their God’s, the Sun and the Moon. These pyramids were erected to the God of the Sun and the God of the Moon, and you can’t see these Gods from inside! In addition, the very temperate climate does not require housing to survive, so most living was probably conducted on the ground and/or within a boundary of what was part of a building or improvement”. Our first reaction was then probably somewhat predictable since we of course spend most of our lives and a substantial portion of our earnings trying to get the exact right house in which to live out the rest of our lives (inside).

One must be inclined to ask, what’s so special about the area that comprises Mexico City that 25 million or more people would choose to live in or near this area now and that its’ history extends back for thousands of years? Don’t have the answer exactly and who could in 6 days? For sure it has an ideal climate, must have had resources needed during these millenniums of years, had ample water in a lake surrounded by mountains, became a center of culture, and has/had unquestionable beauty. It is now simply there, functioning with a predictable rhythm similar to most cities.

We stayed in an upscale area called Polanco. Without a doubt the pace and services in this special part of the city would rival almost any such upscale area in any of the world’s great cities. Several of the foreign embassies are located in Polanco as are many upscale and expensive apartment complexes. The best in food can be found in Polanco with restaurants of every kind and description. While they serve early birds like us at 6-7 pm, but typical in Spanish cultures, reservations are often required to guarantee access after 9 pm in the evening.

The visit to Mexico City was a great experience and gave us new appreciation for our little town of Manzanillo and its quiet, simple, tropical elegance. What a contrast, but then that’s part what makes Mexico so special to those who choose to discover its charm. As always the people are gentle and hospitable – we make new friends with each visit. The list of potential places to visit in Mexico is long, but the time is not – we have to ramp up the pace if we’re going to see all that this beautiful country has to offer.

Hope you enjoy and find something interesting in this letter,
Mark & Vicky

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