Mexico: From Aztec to Hi-Tech

Article excerpt

To decide whether or not you will enjoy Mexico City, try this simple test. Someone has plonked an international airport well within the boundaries of the world's biggest capital. Your reaction is either (a) yikes! - the final horror in a gallery of urban squalor; or (b) gosh, how convenient, and what a spectacular introduction to the city - particularly at dusk, when a smouldering blood-orange glow drapes over the whole vast arena.

If you choose the latter, and turn up at said airport, your person and possessions will soon be packed tightly into a taxi that defies most known principles of mechanics. The driver will pick the right beat of the complex choreography that constitutes traffic here. Imagine large lumps of steel being hurled at high speed in seemingly random directions on a surface better suited to tanks than to clapped-out Toyotas, then remember you are enclosed in one of them. Welcome to Mexico City.

At the point when a tram, a truck and Tristar are about to converge on your taxi, you could start to feel breathless from both fear and the high altitude. But hold on tight, and your anxieties will evaporate. Mexico City turns out to possess a calm and civilised soul, which rewards those with the modicum of courage required to seek it out. Imagine a slightly bedraggled version of Paris, and you are nearly there. Handsome, low-rise apartment buildings mingle with glamourous flourishes by 19th-century architects and the odd eruption of Mexico Moderno brashness. The archaic street layout reflects the fact that the Spanish imposed their capital upon an ancient Aztec site, and furthermore one which straddles a geological fault line. Eleven years ago the earth shrugged a little, and at least 8,000 citizens died. Perhaps this was a final murmur of revenge from Moctezuma, whose palace lies buried beneath the present Palacio Nacional. Traces of the original have been eradicated by an edifice that shows up all the eccentricities inherent in Mexico. The ruling junta - which Mario Vargas Llosa called "the perfect dictatorship" -rejoices in the contrary name of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. A bewildering nation indeed. Tourists are allowed to delve into the heart of Mexico, and tour the Palacio Nacional for free. It resembles a promising but not perfect hand at poker: a scarlet-tinged frontage of solid Baroque, topped by Twenties triumphalism that belongs to a quite different suit. Inside, you are instantly diminished by the size and power of Diego Rivera's murals. Mexico's history, from civilisation through subjugation to revolution, wraps itself tortuously around a grand staircase. After this instant briefing in the intrigues of colonialism, descend to a central square that rivals the airport in area. The Plaza Mayor has been the city's main meeting-place for a millennium or more. Across it, the state, in the form of the Palacio Nacional, faces off against the Church. Mimicking the desecration of the Aztec palace, the cathedral was built above the site of the temple. (Or rather, the sites. The ancient calendar was based on a cycle of 52 years, and at the end of each cycle a new temple was built.) Hernn Cortes and his fellow conquistadores destroyed the Aztecs with grotesque ease. Some of the architecture of conquest was borrowed from the vanquished civilisation - for example the pyramidical references in the cathedral - but mostly they set about constructing a city in the image of Europe. That they succeeded is most evident along the Paseo de la Reforma. The broadest and grandest of avenues slices arrogantly across the city, depositing elegant edifices along the way. …