Photo Essay: Examining Mexico City’s History on a Tour of Three Significant Sites

by Ekua on July 17, 2011 in captured on memory card,Mexico,race/culture/identity

When I first arrived in Mexico City, I stayed at Hostel Amigo Suites, the younger, but more mellow and grown up sister of the noted party hostel, Hostel Amigo. I found that Hostel Amigo should be known for more than its lively nighttime events, it has an educational side as well. Together with Hostel Amigo Suites, it runs fantastic tours with a guide named Alejandro. I took two tours led by him and he singlehandedly restored my faith in the art of the day tour.

Alejandro’s knowledge of and passion for Mexico City were inspiring and contagious and enlightening. It’s a city I quickly became enamored with the first time I visited, but this historical tour (and a market tour) solidified Mexico City as one of the most fascinating cities I’ve ever been to. Here are some photos and tidbits of history that I picked up on an illuminating day in and around Mexico City:

A relief depicting a monkey on the Templo Calendárico at the ruins of Tlatelolco. Tlatelolco was one of the most important Aztec cities and it was the location of huge market where thousands of Aztecs would come to buy and sell goods.

Some of the ruins of Tlatelolco and Iglesia de Santiago in the background. The Spanish built the church with stones taken from Tlatelolco after they destroyed it. Both the church in the ruins sit on a spot known as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, or the Plaza of Three Cultures. It’s earned this name because this one spot has elements of pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern Mexico. The history of this location deserves its own post which will come soon.

Part of an image inside Basílica de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe that depicts the story of how the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe came to be. The Basilica is built below Tepeyac hill, the site where it is said that the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe first appeared to the Aztec peasant, Juan Diego. It was here that Alejandro told us the history of it all, some of which I highlighted in a previous post.

There was a mass in progress inside the new Basílica de Guadalupe when we visited. The Basilica can hold up to 10,000 worshipers at a time.

Colorful detail on the outside of the new Basílica de Guadelupe. The new Basilica was built between 1974 and 1976 because the old Basilica is sinking and couldn’t handle the amount of visitors it was receiving. I kind of love the flashy and mismatched 1970s aesthetic.

The original Basílica de Guadalupe. In this picture, you can see a bit of the tilt of the sinking building. Much of Mexico City is sinking because much of it used to be a lake. The Spanish drained the lake and established their new city on top of it.

It is said that the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe was created on December 12, 1531. Each year during that week and especially on that day, millions of pilgrims descend on the Basilica for the Festival of Guadalupe. The Basilica is the most visited Catholic shrine in the world.

At La Villa de Guadalupe, a Pope Mobile from Pope John Paul II’s 1999 visit to Mexico City is on permanent display. The Catholic establishment was slow to fully recognize the Basilica the because the kind of Catholicism practiced in Mexico isn’t always pure (Read: amongst indigenous populations, it’s often heavily infused with native beliefs. A lot of this duality goes hand in hand with the Virgen de Guadalupe, the syncretised image of the Virgin Mary that the Basilica was built to celebrate). Even so, Juan Diego became an official saint in 2002.

I noticed this on the fence as we exited La Villa de Guadalupe.

The Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. Something that visitors to Mexican archaeological sites should know is that many of them have been rebuilt. Without a guide, the way to know this is by looking at the stones. If there are small stones dotted in the cement between larger stones, it means that what you are looking at is a recreation. Personally, I’m not a fan of this method. For me, part of the appeal of ruins is to see what happens when something that man built is left to the elements, even if it’s mostly rubble. And when it comes to accuracy of rebuilding, I think it’s left up to the imagination of the builders. It makes you wonder, “Is this really what it looked like?” Nevertheless, I thought Teotihuacan was worth visiting for the history. And some of the restoration has made it possible to climb the big temples, which I also thought made the visit worth it.

A view of the city while walking up the steep steps of the Pyramid of the Moon. Teotihuacan predates the Aztecs. In fact, its current name was given to it by the Aztecs who believed it was a “City of Gods”. A lot of the early history of this place is unknown, but excavations have revealed a very apparent culture of human sacrifice. It is believed that the city was established sometime around 100 BCE.

A view of the Avenue of the Dead from the Pyramid of the Moon. As we walked along it after climbing the Pyramid of the Sun, we saw that it was indeed an avenue that extends for quite a distance.

A worn painting of a jaguar and a reminder that the buildings were not the color of the stones, they were most likely painted red and accented with murals. Mural painting in Mexico goes waaay back.

The formidable Pyramid of the Sun. The top is flat, but it used to be occupied by a temple. Although you can’t see mountains in this picture, from certain angles, the shape of the temple blends in with the mountainous scenery. The shape of the temples might have been chosen in part to mimic the natural scenery around the city.

The temples are huge, but from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon looked like a dwarf compared to the mountains behind it.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee July 18, 2011 at 1:25 am

I have to agree, a good guide can really make a big difference. It’s easy to just learn a script and stick to it, but the really great guides are the ones who make that script their own and have a passion for the history they’re showing you. We had such a guide when we visited Gibraltar last year and I will always remember that day trip fondly because of all his little anecdotes and interesting insights.

I really enjoyed the photos of Teotihuacan – read so much about its history in National Georgraphic, but never knew what it looked like. the Aztecs, and all the South American tirbes really, had such a fascinating culture!


Ekua July 20, 2011 at 11:25 am

In tourist spots in Latin America, there’s kind of a culture of schlepping people around on tours. Granted, many of them are pretty cheap when you factor in the distances driven, but it was nice to be inspired by a tour for once and have a guide who was really interested in history!

Teotihuacan was really interesting. I sometimes get bored with ruins, especially when I know that there’s been rebuilding, but Teotihuacan still has a special energy about it, especially the Pyramid of the Sun.


Marie July 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Oh Ekua,
I’ll give your post about Oaxaca food some extra love!


Marie July 25, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I meant to leave this comment on your “My 7 Links” post, not sure what happened!


Brittany September 4, 2011 at 11:02 am

You have a wonderful blog with amazing pictures. I came upon it because I am planning on going to Mexico City for five days in October. How do you find a guide like Alejandro? Did you just get lucky? I would love to see the hidden gems of Mexico City. Any tips? Suggestions?


Ekua September 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Hi Brittany – thanks for you kind words! The tour I did with Alejandro was through my hostel which was called Hostel Amigo Suites. They have a sister hostel called Hostel Amigo and they do those day tours together. I think you might be able to book a tour with them even if you’re not staying there. I pretty sure that it is a daily tour, but Alejandro doesn’t do it every day because he runs other tours.

Suggestion: There is A LOT to do in Mexico City so keep in mind that you can’t do it all. Pick the things you are most interested in and really enjoy them. Also I recommend getting to know the subway system because it’s a really cheap and convenient way of getting around! If you want suggestions on specific things to do, feel free to email me! My email is on my “About the Author” page.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: