Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Canada & Mexico 2011

Centro Historico and Jaso Heaven

Today's programme, once again carefully compiled by Bruce, called for an in-depth exploration of the Centro Historico, visiting a wealth of interesting buildings both secular and sacred in the old city centre. And again, the idea was that an early start would allow us to keep ahead of the heat and the crowds. Of course, this was a normal working day for the locals and, reflecting this, the Executive Lounge was nothing like as quiet at breakfast time. We decided to try taking the subway to our starting point, rather than a taxi: it proved to be fairly user-friendly and not as crowded as expected. We soon emerged into the large main square, universally known as the Zócalo, but formally called the Plaza de la Constitución.

As I emerged from the metro station, I expected to be impressed first and foremost by the grandeur of the buildings and by the size of the square. (Although modest compared to the likes of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, it is nevertheless one of the largest city squares in the world.) To my surprise, my initial impressions were dominated by two other factors. First, the anticipated open space of the square was filled in by an unsightly, ramshackle collection of tents and stalls associated with some kind of protest camp. And the buildings, while undoubtedly grand and impressive, were also decidedly crooked - in some cases alarmingly so, looking as though they might topple over at any moment.

The problem, it turns out, is multi-faceted. In the first place, large parts of Mexico City are built on land once occupied by a lake, and many of the larger buildings started sinking practically from outset. Secondly, the sinking effect has been exacerbated in modern times, as the mushrooming population dries up the remaining underground water supply. And as if all that weren't bad enough, the city is surrounded by volcanoes and built directly on top of a geological fault line. This is not a destination for those of a nervous disposition!

Our first stop was in perhaps the most perilous-looking landmark of them all, the Catedral Metropolitana, dating from 1525 but not finished until nearly three hundred years later. Precarious as it looked from the point of view of structural integrity, apparently the situation is under control, such that in 2000 the building was removed from the World Monuments Fund list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The cathedral complex consists of two separate buildings: the main church and a baptistry. The main church looked spectacular but sadly for us, around half of it was closed for a special service not listed in the already-packed daily schedule. We had to remind ourselves that Mexico has the second-largest population of Roman Catholics in the world, after Brazil, and that many of them are exceptionally devout by modern European standards.

Next on the agenda, on the eastern side of the Zócalo, was meant to be the Palacio Nacional, one of the grandest government buildings on earth. Sadly, it was unexpectedly closed for the day and we had to be content with admiring it from the outside.


BELOW and RIGHT: Catedral Metropolitana and baptistry


What a stroke of bad luck! Trying not to be too disappointed, we continued our walk past the Museo del Templo Mayor, a major Aztec museum that we knew was closed on Mondays. We continued behind the cathedral and then northwards on Republica de Brasil until we reached the restored 18th century Palacio de la Escuela de Medicina. As well as being a medical school, it also once housed the Inquisition, which continued in Mexico right up to the War of Independence. As well as being interesting in its own right, the building contained a quirky medical museum and an exhibition, in Spanish, about the Inquisition. The contrast between the two exhibitions reflected the profoundly incongruous nature of the building's history: in this place dedicated to preserving life and improving the human condition through medicine, human beings once inflicted the most grotesque atrocities on each other in the name of maintaining supposed purity of faith. I found myself shaking my head to the point where I thought it might be in danger of working itself loose.

From there, we moved diagonally across the street to the Baroque church Templo de Santo Domingo, built in 1736 on the site of the first Dominican church in Mexico City, itself dating from 1530. The present church has a wonderful high altar by Manuel Tolsa. We then returned to the Zócalo, passing the fascinating sight of traditional scribes at work. These people complete official forms and type letters - even love letters, apparently - for clients who are unable to do so for themselves. Many, seated at improvised desks right there in the street, were using ancient typewriters which in 2011 were a sight in themselves. Back at the main square, we retreated into the Holiday Inn for a comfort stop and mid-morning refreshment.
ABOVE and LEFT: Templo de Santo Domingo 

In due course, we set out along the Calle Cinco de Mayo in search of a further two historic churches. The first of these was the Iglesia de la Profesa, dedicated to St Philip Neri. As they were in the middle of midday Mass, we decided to come back to it. What would have been the final church of the day was Iglesia y ex-Convento de San Francisco, situated in the shadow of the Torre Latinoamericano skyscraper. We had to await the end of a service there as well, before it was appropriate to look around. Once part of the largest monastery in the city, now defunct, the surviving main church is noted for its fine altar and artwork.

We then retraced our steps to the Iglesia de la Profesa, dating from 1720 and reckoned to be one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque architecture.

After all this cultural overload, there can be little doubt that we had earned our lunch! We made our way to our planned lunch stop, the well-known Bar La Opera. One of the oldest, most opulent cantinas in the city, it is famous for a bullet hole in the roof left by none other than Pancho Villa himself.   

We had a perfectly acceptable lunch but, in line with what the guide books had led us to expect, it was nothing spectacular. At least one of the items on the menu didn't bear thinking about - see third picture above! Rested and re-fortified after the morning's exertions, we set off on the next leg of our exploration, which basically involved a lengthy walk all the way back to the Sheraton. We started out by passing the impressive sights of the Torre Latinoamericano, the Palacio Postal and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, but paid them scant attention at this time as they formed the basis of the plan for the following morning. Instead, we proceeded directly along the Avenida Benito Juárez, passing the edge of Alameda Central Park, until we met up with the Paseo de la Reforma, some 2km north-east of our hotel. Interestingly, we saw two different demonstrations in quick succession, one on Juárez and one on Reforma - the Mexicans certainly appeared to like their demos!

As we made our way towards the Sheraton, we soon came to the Monumento a Cristóbal Colón, or Christopher Columbus monument, dedicated in 1877. The next major intersection was marked by the Monumento a Cuauhtemoc, the last of the Aztec emperors. Continuing south-westwards, we soon came to the Bolsa Mexicana de Valores - the Stock Exchange, a landmark tower dramatically wedge-shaped, giving it an angled appearance. Trading takes place in a spherical dome covered in shimmering black and dark blue glass, while the offices are located in the tower itself.

After such a jam-packed programme of intensive sightseeing, you could be forgiven for thinking that our return to the Sheraton would effectively mark the end of the day. In fact you'd be terribly wrong, as a major highlight still lay ahead. After a rest, a chance to freshen up and cocktails in the Executive Lounge, we caught a cab to Polanco for a blowout dinner at the Jaso restaurant on Newton Street. At an attractive outdoor table on the upper-floor terrace, we were able to savour the nine-course chef's tasting menu, paired with wines. It was a fabulous feast:


  • Kumamoto Oyster with mignonette gelée
  • Tuna Tartare with avocado and chipotle vinaigrette
  • Jumbo shrimp tempura with ponzu sauce
  • Mushroom salad with hearts of palm
  • Foie-gras ravioli with chocolate sauce and raspberry
  • Braised pork belly with polenta and pork crackling


  • Deconstructed apple pie with cinnamon ice cream
  • Warm chocolate pudding with pistachio ice cream
  • Freshly baked Madeleine biscuits

A quick cab ride back to the Sheraton brought a busy and unforgettable day to a close. 

Monday 23 May

Next Day

Previous Day