A line of cars careers towards us and suddenly our mini bus pulls out, screeching its way around the 8-lane wide roundabout. ‘Do you think I drive well?’, shouts a man with a smirk on his face.
I am in Mexico City and Francisco is our driver and guide today through the maze of chaotic streets in this North American megalopolis. Longtime overlooked by visitors for its links to the country’s drugs war, this car-clogged city has today got its act together, and as I’m about to discover, abounds in cultural treasures.
This bustling place is a fine mix of fascinating Aztec ruins, colonial baroque churches and temples and gigantic squares, the largest of which is the Zócalo. This vast, 240m-wide plaza was the ceremonial centre in Aztec times and our bus bunny hops on to it from a pothole-studded side street. At the square’s heart lies the imposing Catedral Metropolitana, the largest cathedral in the Americas, whose lavish all-gold interior completely dazzles us.
A few steps northeast we witness how easy it is in this city to jump from one era to another in a matter of minutes. The Templo Mayor is the centre of the universe in Aztec culture for it is built where the Aztecs glimpsed their symbolic eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its mouth, today the national emblem of Mexico.
Just steps away is the Palacio Nacional, a grandiose colonial era structure home to striking murals from artist Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most famous son. The 9 paintings evoke key moments in the country’s history, from the ancient Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl to post-revolutionary Mexico.
A couple of hours later and I’m being stared at intensely by a colossal stone Olmec head. This is one of many gargantuan statues representing the ancient Olmec civilisation of Mesoamerica on display here in the fascinating Museo Nacional de Antropología. Located within the Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s answer to New York’s Central Park, this two-floor ultramodern building houses displays on pre-Hispanic Mexico alongside those exploring Mexican indigenous culture in modern times. I quickly realise that there’s more to take in than I can possibly manage in one visit.
It can take half a day to move from one side of this mega city to another. The final stop on our whistle-stop tour is the Museo Frida Kahlo in the city’s southern district of Coyoacán. This quirky artist’s cobalt-blue home-turned-museum is a quaint little place where jewellery, photos and bold clothing vie for attention alongside her many vibrant self portraits.
As we leave a group of hawkers present us with generous slices of fruit splashed with salt, chilli and lime that literally take my breath away. This city, it would seem, is a vibrant assault on the senses at every turn, and I can’t wait to go off on my own and explore more of it on day two.