The Aztec Heart Beats

By Habeeb Salloum

Mexico City -- “Look! It must be one of the most breathtaking sights in the world!” Our guide motioned with his hand at the panorama of Mexico City's huge Plaza de la Constitution, better known as the Zócalo. I looked in astonishment at the sweeping vista.

From our vantage point, the roof top restaurant of the Hotel Majestic, the gigantic square before us, teeming with life and hugged by historic buildings, was a stunning picture of the heart of Mexico. The womb, which gave birth to the country, the Zócalo, is the second largest square in the world. It is a remarkable showplace of the history of this highest city, geographically, on the North American continent - sitting in the clouds 2200 m (7,350 ft) high.

Built atop the ruins of the Aztecs’ main temple complex, the Zócalo has witnessed a continuum of historic development since it was first settled by the Aztecs in 1321 A.D. On this site, they developed the capital, Tenochtitlán. When Cortes, the Spanish conqueror arrived in 1519, he was astonished to see a city of 300,000 residents. At the time, it was larger than any contemporary urban centre in Europe with more than 80 palaces and temples.

After the Spanish conquest, all these structures were razed and from their stones a new city was built around the Square. The structures were erected on the exact sites and used for the same functions as the demolished buildings of the Aztecs, and beyond these structures the city grew. This part of Mexico City is known as ‘Centro Historico.’

When the builders of that colonial town started their plan, they in their wildest dreams, would never have visualized today's city of some 30 million residents, the largest city on earth. Considered the cradle of North American civilization, it is the core of the country's culture, politics and economy. At every turn, the city displays remains of the Aztec civilization, superb colonial buildings and modern skyscrapers. Its archaeological sites, world-famous museums, grand shopping plazas, fine restaurants and many cultural attractions make it an exciting city vibrating with life.

However, Cortes's city has its difficulties. The massive number of people has created formidable urban problems. Horrific traffic jams, ever-increasing shantytowns surrounding the city, spiraling crime and the all-encompassing air pollution, have become part of daily life.

The city's pollution was evident as we enjoyed our coffee atop the Majestic. Below us, the Square oozed with historic grandeur - the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north, the National Palace on the east, the City Hall on the south and old shops and hotels on the west.

Joining the massive crowd in the Zócalo, we explored the bordering buildings. From the west side of the Square, with its countless stores, dominated by jewellery outlets, we crossed to the northern edge to examine the mammoth Metropolitan Cathedral. The largest church in all of Latin America, it was built atop the remains of an Aztec pyramid. Started in the late 16th century, it took 250 years to complete and during that time it transformed into a mosaic of architectural designs which are delightfully accented by the adjoining parish church, El Sagrario, built in 1749 in the churrigueresque (baroque) style.

We entered the immense house of the One God, who had overwhelmed and totally destroyed the Aztec gods, to find that the Cathedral had been totally renovated. As we walked around, what struck me profoundly was the gold. It was as if the renowned Aztec gold had changed allegiance, from temples to churches. But had it? Even the sinking of the Cathedral had been somewhat arrested. Most of the early Mexican churches are sinking into the spongy soil on which Mexico City is built. Perhaps, Montezuma and Quetzalcoatl have not yet been totally defeated.

From the Cathedral we ambled to the National Palace on the east side of the Square. Occupying the exact site of Montezuma’s former palace, it is one of the oldest government seats in the world, still housing the President's office and the Ministry of Finance. The only survivor of 17th century architecture, it was originally built in 1693.

We walked up the stairs to view the renowned Diego Rivera Murals, blazing the inner hallways of the building. Truly breathtaking, they depict five centuries of Mexican history. Rivera worked for six years to complete these vibrant frescoes that many art experts consider them to be his greatest work. Very impressive in their grandeur, they are well worth a visit by every tourist who travels to Mexico City.

We ended our tour at the Temple Mayor archaeological site at the northeast corner of the Zócalo. Here was the heart of the great city of Tenochtitlán - the main ceremonial pyramid of that Aztec city. It was discovered in 1978 when electrical workers unearthed an eight-ton stone disk carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui.

Two square city blocks have been excavated but work is continuing. The most recent discovery was two large chambers containing over 61 m (200 ft) of decorative carvings. In addition to the remains uncovered on the site, 3,000 unearthed artefacts are on display at the excellent nearby museum.

As we walked away from the Aztec remains to join the milling masses crowding the Zócalo, I thought of Mexico's indigenous peoples, Conquistadors and their mixed descendants who are today's Mexicans. As if reading my thoughts, my guide remarks, “Look around you! Our people have absorbed many races from Aztecs and Spaniards to many other Europeans and peoples from other lands. These faces and this Square, with its structures, tell the story of our country."


photo: Habeeb Salloum

If you go:

Facts About Mexico City:

1) Mexico City has 646 hotels – 10% of the country’s hotels. In 2005, 12.5 million tourists both national and international stayed in these hotels. Also, there are 1,700 tourism category restaurants.

2) Currency can be exchanged at banks or exchange houses (casas de cambio) at the airport or in town. Acceptance of US dollars is not uncommon, although change may be given in pesos - currently US$1. - around 10.70 pesos.

3) The simplest and easiest way to reach the city centre from Mexico City's Benito Juárez International Airport is by taxi - cost about $15. to $25., depending on the distance. 4) Small cars, fully insured with unlimited mileage, rent for about $70. per day. Beware! It is not easy to drive in Mexico City.

5) Mexico City offers 100 museums, 44 art galleries and 4 archaeological sites.

6) There are good peoples’ transportation systems - buses and subways cost approximately 20 cents to anywhere in the city, but beware! They are always crowded. For taxis take those from hotels or ones called by telephone.

7) When you leave Mexico there is a ‘Departure Tax’ of about $18.00.

Additional Mexico City Sites not to be missed:

Travellers to Mexico City should not miss seeing: The National Museum of Anthropology, featuring 5,000 years of Mexican history, it is considered one of the finest of its kind anywhere on the globe; Chapultepec Park, housing an unparalleled collection of world-class museums amid acres of woods and gardens; Zona Rosa, an elegant neighbourhood of boutiques, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and cafes; Palace of Fine Arts, a marble palace which is the home of the world-famous Ballet Folklorico; and House of Tiles, one of the most beautiful baroque buildings in Mexico.

Note: All prices quoted are in US dollars.

For Further Information, Contact:

In Canada contact the Mexican Tourism Board 2 Bloor St. West, Suite 1502, Toronto, Ontario M4W 3E2. Tel: (416) 925 0704. Fax: (416) 925 6061. E-mail:
Toll free number: 1-800-44 MEXICO
Visit Mexico or E-mail:

In the U.S.A. 375 Park Avenue, Floor 19, Suite 1905, New York, NY 10152, USA. Tel: (212) 308 2110. Fax: (212) 308 9060.

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