In June 2016 I went to Tulum and Mexico City. Although I’d by then lived in neighboring California for 17 years, my prior experiences in California had been limited to Baja California — namely Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada, Mexicali, Rosarito, San Felipe, and Tijuana. While I certainly didn’t expect the Yucatán or capital to closely resemble the border and resort towns of Baja California, nothing prepared me for just how different they turned out to be.
The first stop was Tulum. Every year Una and I travel for our June birthdays. Where we go involves some negotiation. She prefers rest and relaxation whereas I quickly lose my mind if I relax for too long. That said, I believe that it was me that suggested Tulum. Several of my friends had gone their and found it sufficiently relaxing while at the same time I hoped the ancient ruins of a Maya city would temporarily satisfy my taste for urban life.
Tulu’um is the Yucatec name for the ancient walled city located on the coastal cliffs of the Yucatán Peninsula. It was one of the last cities founded and inhabited by the people retroactively named the Maya and reached its zenith between the 13th and 15th centuries. Well-preserved and scenic, it has long been popular with tourists drawn to the area.
I have long been interested in ancient urban Native Americans like the Chachapoyas, Chico, Chimú, Inca, Olmecs, Mexica, Mississippians, Puebloans, and Maya. The Maya famously established several cities and towns, including Chichen Itza, Coba, Copán, Calakmul, Caracol, Cival, El Pilar, Mixco Viejo, Motul de San José, Quiriguá, Q’umarkaj, Río Azul, Santa Rita Corozal, Sayil, Seibal, Tikal, and many others — which I’ve attempted to include on the map above.
I believe that my introduction to the Maya came when I was about eight years old. My older sister had a copy of the Choose Your Own Adventure book, Mystery of the Maya, which repeated the oft-told tale of a once mighty, urban culture which apparently vanished after the collapse of its empire. I remember an adult suggesting the possibility that extraterrestrials had shown the ancient Mesoamericans and North Africans how to build pyramids but my mother pretty quickly and logically dismantled that silly notion. When I made myself a tunic with an old sheet and fabric crayons, it was adorned with Mayan temples (and other motifs).
It was quite a bit later that I discovered that the reality of the Maya was more complicated than I’d been led to believe by either interactive children’s books or pseudoscientific loons. Although the Maya peoples had abandoned their cities in antiquity, the Maya people never vanished. In fact, there are some seven million Maya people, mostly living in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Several dozen Maya languages are still spoken by an estimated six million Maya. Furthermore, the “Maya Empire” was never really an empire, so to speak, it was more properly a culture or civilization comprised of fluctuating political alliances between various states and chiefdoms. Even if I could, it’s more than I want to thoroughly explain here although I will point English speakers to the excellent historical podcast, In Our Time, which broadcast with perfect timing a program titled “The Maya Civilization“ as I was relaxing in the Riviera Maya.
Tulum seems to have really only emerged as a massively popular tourist destination in the past decade or so. Nearly everyone that I know that’s visited, anyway, has only done so in the current decade. Mexicans, on the other hand, seem to have been aware of its charms for quite a while, though, and our friend Roger told me that as a child his family used to vacation their regularly in the 1980s. He also expressed doubt, based on our conversations and my photos, that whether he’d even recognize the modern Tulum — an oasis of yoga studios, rich hippies, and fine dining — as being the same place as the largely undeveloped coast dotted few cabanas of his memory. Substantial development of the “zona hotelera” really began in the early 1990s. Still, although I’ve never been to any of the massive, self-contained luxury resorts of nearby Cancún, Tulum’s tourist path seems happily to be heading in a different direction. Although nothing in Tulum really qualifies as “roughing it,” I doubt that many of the tourists who choose Cancún would soon trade their swimming pools and upscale, air-conditioned hotel rooms for occasionally leaky thatched huts frequently shared with insects, spiders, and lizards.
The actual town of Tulum is located inland a bit from the tourist area, separated by the dense jungles of the Parque Nacional Tulum. To the south is the even more vast Sian Ka’an — a biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’m not sure how many tourists make it into town except, perhaps, when arriving or leaving. Aside from a breakfast and a bit of time spent in a market and bus terminal, I didn’t see much of the pueblo. However, from the presence of internet cafes, bicycle rentals, boutiques, gyms, and tour operators, it would seem likely that at least some visitors find themselves spending more time there than we did.
The breakfast we had in the town of Tulum was at La Coqueta, where we devoured a heap of chilaquiles. It seemed excellent… and may’ve been. Then again, as exhausted and famished as we we were, a meal at Home Town Buffet might’ve just as easily felt like a life-changing event. Whatever the case, after finishing we took a cab to Coco Tulum, dropped off our luggage, and then collapsed on the beach for an indeterminate amount of time, albeit one sufficient for me to acquire a sunburn even in full shade.
La Coqueta probably really was good, I should point out, simply because almost everything we ate in Tulum was delicious — even when I was fully rested and only half hungry. During our stay I remember enjoying meals at Cabañas Playa Condesa, Juanita Diavola, La Creperia, Tunich, and Posada Margherita. My favorite meals, though, were at Hartwood, Mur Mur, and Restaurare.
To the north of town, along the coast, are the ruins of ancient Tulum, formerly a major port and obsidian trading center and once home to an estimated 2,000 or so people. The ruins are strikingly situated atop twelve meter tall sea cliffs and afford a breathtaking view of the Caribbean. The word “tulum” is Yucatec for fence, trench, and wall — and apparently refers to the city’s peripheral barrier. It’s also possible that the inhabitants actually referred to it as Zama, meaning “city of dawn.” Though faded and cracked, still vibrant murals decorate many of the structures, often depicting a god believed by many to be Ah-Muzen-Cab, who was associated with bees and honey.
The most striking natural feature of Tulum and the Yucatan is its network of sinkholes, usually referred to even in English by their Spanish name — cenotes. I grew up in Missouri, which you may or may not know is “the Cave State.” Missouri is also home to 15,981 documented sinkholes, the largest of which was located in the county of my upbringing, Boone. I remember sinkholes only as objects to be feared. Tales were told of them swallowing livestock, houses, pets, people, and golf courses. Even though I worked at a scuba shop for nearly half my Missouri childhood, I never ventured into one until visiting Tulum. Maybe its like the case the Patagonian toothfish, an ugly animal rebranded “Chilean Seabass” to make it desirable for fish eaters. Cenote, derived from Yucatec “ts’onot,” is a more pleasant sounding word than sinkhole.
When planning to visit the cenotes, I came across many online tales written by tourists who bragged of circumnavigating the local guides in the name of saving a few pesos. My advice is to not be one of these terrible people who deprives locals a chance to make an honest living, and additionally deprives the visitor the opportunity to learn anything of the local lore. We used a service called Adventure Tour Center. Our guide, David, was an amiable guy who taught us a few Maya words, including “kis,” which means “fart.” It amused David that someone might confuse “kis” with “beso.” Not that this was the sort of local lore of which I wrote — but I thought it was worth mentioning.
Our first stop was Playa del Carmen, where we picked up another guide took us snorkeling in Akumal Bay amongst (albeit maintaining a respectable distance) some green sea turtles, various species of fish, and a couple of Caribbean reef squid. It was Una’s first time snorkeling, which in retrospect, was probably something we should’ve practiced in a swimming pool or somewhere other than the open water. The filming and photography she attempted mostly yielded blurry photos and shaky footage. Had we used an action camera instead of a phone, some of the footage still might’ve been interesting. You live and learn, hopefully.
David then took us to Sistema Dos Ojos, a vast underground network of flooded caves which explorers only began charting in 1987. We snorkled in the two adjacent cenotes, the titular Dos Ojos, as well as into the Bat Cave, so named for obvious reasons. Although signs clearly stated that snorkelers must use a guide to enter, there were tourists there without them who were told to leave. Yet another reason to pay a few extra pesos for a guide.
The water in the caves was very clear albeit quite bluish, an effect resulting from the rainwater which fills them passing through limestone. Their were also occasional low rumbles, possibly the echoes of thunder, although David jokingly warned that it was the rain god, Chaac, and that our presence had angered him. Although they shouldn’t be viewed as substitutes for the actual experience of swimming in the cenotes, there are at least two documentaries, Journey Into Amazing Caves (2002) and Planet Earth (2006), which provide glimpses into these scenic cenotes.
Our final cenote was a smaller, community-maintained one named Cenote Nicte-Ha. As we drove toward it along the jungle road, we saw a coati dart across our path. David described the animal’s flavor, and that of several birds which he pointed out. I kept to myself the fact that I don’t eat animals. Arriving at the cenote, David pointed to a small yellower bird and described a method of preparing it before we took in the site of a colorful pool enjoyed by a handful of locals and tourists. Although I was eager to head to Mexico City for the second half of our vacation, I had completely fallen for the charms of the Yucatan and David suggested other locales to visit in the future.
After five days on the Yucatan, I was ready for Mexico City, the largest city in North America. Home to roughly 20,893,000, only São Paulo has a larger metropolitan population in the Americas. Upon exiting Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez we entered a taxi and were thrust into the hustle and bustle as our driver aggressively squired us to our temporary digs in the Roma Norte neighborhood.
My earliest associations with Mexico City were probably formed in the 1980s, when a deadly earthquake thrust it into the spotlight. What the world and I saw was a huge metropolis whose population had swelled with the arrival of Mexicans from the countryside who came in search of industrial jobs. It was also a city apparently plagued with corruption, crime, and pollution. I’m assuming that many my age formed — and in many cases stubbornly held onto — similar associations, even if 31 years have rendered them less unrecognizable and increasingly inaccurate.
Many American friends (none, though, who’d actually been to Mexico City) expressed concern about safety in Mexico City, with some telling me categorically that under absolutely no circumstances would they ever visit any part of Mexico. Data reveals, however, that Mexico City has a lower violent crime rate than the American cities Albuquerque, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Oakland — all cities which I’ve visited and escaped with nothing worse than a sunburn or headache. Research also showed that only one US state is home to two of the top ten most murderous cities — my home state of Missouri — and never have I heard an American express concerns about the safety of being there. The gulf between Americans’ fears of Mexico and the reality of violence in the US was tragically underscored by the murder of 49 club-goers in Florida, news of which I became aware whilst having my breakfast in Mexico’s capital.
Of the 26 million Americans who annually visit Mexico, few make their way to its most vibrant city. About twelve million tourists visit Mexico City annually — and about half of them come from other parts of Mexico. In five days in the capital I only met two Americans — a couple of young women from Chicago with whom we shared a ride-hail one night. We struck up a conversation and they revealed that they’d both recently graduated from college and were enjoying an adventure before the business of getting jobs. We compared our itineraries and discovered considerable overlap. Even so, I was surprised to bump into them again a couple of days later, at the Mercado de Artesanías La Ciudadela.
Aside from the two Americans, ourselves, and a few people in a hotel, I heard almost no languages other than Spanish spoken, albeit in various dialects. There are substantial numbers of Argentinians, Chileans, Colombians, Cubans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Spanish, Uruguayans, and Venezuelans who live in Mexico City. Living in Los Angeles, my Spanish skills are indefensibly mediocre, albeit apparently better than most Defeños’ English skills. In other words, whilst you can charade your way through most situations, being able to speak the local language is helpful.
There are also many Defeños not from Spanish speaking countries. Substantial numbers of Americans, Brazilians, Canadians, Chinese, Egyptians, Filipinos, Germans, Haitians, Koreans, Lebanese, Romanians, Swiss, and Syrians also live there — although most presumably speak Spanish or have children who do. As far as I could tell, there are really only two proper ethnic enclaves in Mexico City, Barrio Chino and Pequeño Seul.
Barrio Chino appears on many maps and in tour books, but is little quite small, limited primarily to two blocks of Dolores Street, in part because most Chinese were driven out of the area in the 1930s. Chinese immigrants began arriving in Mexico in the 1880s, primarily to work on the railroads. Many moved from northern states to the capital in 1910, when the Mexican Revolution began, fleeing warfare and nativist violence, such as the massacre of 303 Chinese at Torreón in 1913. In recent years, Barrio Chino has also been promoted as a tourist destination and symbol of increased Mexican-Chinese relations, and as such is the site of the annual Lunar New Years Festival, and it remains the symbolic center of the Chinese-Mexican community.
Strangely, Pequeño Seul appears on no maps that I’ve seen (so I made my own map) but although less promoted seems like the more vibrant and distinct of the Mexico City’s two ethnic enclaves. The first Koreans immigrated to Mexico in 1905, not long after the Chinese, and originally favoring the Yucatán where most worked on Henequen plantations. The original immigrants were mostly migrant workers. Since the 1990s, most Koreans have chosen Mexico City, specifically the western half of Zona Rosa. Today it’s home to a fairly vibrant Korean community, with markets, restaurants, social services, and the like. Unlike Barrio Chino, however, with its paper lanterns and paifang, there are few obvious indications of Pequeño Seul’s existence beyond the presence of Korean-Mexicans themselves and the businesses they run.
It’s worth remembering that Mexico was not founded as a Spanish city, though, it was founded by the indigenous Mexica. Today, roughly 19% of Mexiqueños speak an indigenous language such as Nahuatl, Otomi, Mixtec, Zapotec, or Mazahua. The Spanish Empire’s Ciudad de México was built atop a pre-existing metropolis, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, founded on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325. It became the capital of the Mexica’s Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān (meaning “Triple Alliance”) although it is referred to by most non-Mexica as the Aztec Empire. It remained the Mexica’s capital until 1521, when it was conquered by Spain. Atop the Mexica’s main temple, Huēyi Teōcalli, the Spanish built the largest cathedral in the Americas, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos, beginning in 1573. Today you can visit both the beautiful cathedral and spy through glass on the ground, parts of the temple whose stones were used to build the conqueror’s house of worship.
According to Native accounts, the semi-nomadic Mexica had arrived in Lake Texcoco as they fled the forces of the king of Colhuacan. According to their own legends, the Mexica were being pursued because they’d flayed the king of Colhuacan’s daughter — but only because they were ordered to do so by their god, Huitzilopochtli. The same god also gave them a sign, of an eagle atop a nopal, which is why they chose to found their city there. The symbol now, of course, is familiar as the basis of the Mexican coat of arms. Lake Texcoco was historically the largest of an interconnected chain of five major and several smaller lakes; it was also the lowest-lying, and the network of surrounding lakes drained into it. After the Spanish conquest, the lake was drained, and most of the basin is today occupied by Mexico City. The city was for century subject to severe flooding until In 1967, when the Drenaje Profundo network of tunnels was installed under the city. As a result, the city today suffers from a variety of ecological consequences ranging from water shortages, a sinking city, and soil liquefaction during earthquakes. There is currently a movement to restore some sort of balance between the historic network of lakes and the now semi-arid basin. For at least a decade, activists have called for the city’s 45 rivers, paved over with motorways and turned into drainage canals, to be turned once again into open rivers which would recharge the aquifer — something akin to Seoul‘s Cheonggyechon River, which though originally contreversial has now long been popular with both that city’s residents as well as tourists.
Even with the rivers still covered by cars, there’s still much to enjoy for both Mexico City’s residents and tourists, including the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, the picturesque Centro Histórico area and its famed Zócalo, the floating gardens of Xochimilco, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the National Palace, the Paseo de la Reforma (with its iconic Angel of Independence statue), the Fine Arts Palace, the many beautiful parks, the countless shrines, the nearly three dozen concert halls, a robust live theater scene, and the world’s supposed largest concentration of museums (about 160).
On the question of why more Americans don’t visit Mexico City, I wonder if some simply (and wrongly) assume that it will resemble one of the US’s city’s with a large Mexican population, cities like San Antonio, Albuqurque, Tuscon, or Los Angeles. Even though Los Angeles is home to more Mexicans than any city in the world outside of Mexico, Mexico City barely resembles it any more than it resembles the cities of other people whose populations can make the same claims, i.e. Armenians, Canadians, Filipinos, Iranians, Koreans, Salvadorans, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese. Conversely, Mexico City is home to more Americans than any city outside the US and I doubt many visitors to the DF would mistake it for NYC.
The city that Mexico City most reminds me of is Paris — only Chilangos are on the whole better dressed than Parisians and their city is much cleaner. Last summer, well dressed Chilangos seemed to favore tailored suits in blue and gray, often with pink or check dress shirts, and paired with brown or blue suede desert boots or black monk shoes. Shirts were worn as they were designed to be — tucked in and with a belt — and in this city of nearly nine million, I only saw about nine bun boys — and one wasn’t so much rocking a “man bun” as a French twist so he doesn’t really count. It’s harder for me to rate the style of Chilangas. For me, women seem almost supernaturally capable of making anything work — although I’ve yet to see any pull off acid wash mom jorts (aka Daisy diapers). There seemed to be more freedom of style, though, among Mexico City’s women than one sees in Los Angeles, for example, where last year blue hair was de rigueur for the female ultra conformist. In Mexico City, by contrast, this shade of dye (now featured on Mattel’s Barbie) was completely unknown.
The physical resemblance between the capitals of France and Mexico isn’t coincidental, by the way. In 1864, after rising to power, Emperor Maximilian commissioned the construction of a grand, Champs-Élysées-like boulevard between the city center and his residence, Chapultepec Castle. During the reign of Porfirio Diaz, Baron Haussmann‘s modernized Paris was the explicit inspiration for a city promoted at home and abroad as the “Paris of the Americas.”
If you still find it hard to shake your associations of Mexico City, let me further add that in my five days there I heard a great deal of music but not one, single narco corrido, norteño, sureño rap, ranchera, mariachi, or Tejano tune. At not one restaurant did a musician perform “La Bamba,” “Cielito Lindo,” or “La Cucarachacha.” I did, on the other hand, hear cumbia, industrial, banda, heavy metal, teen pop, jazz, and rock… including songs I recognized by Prefab Sprout and the Feelies. Oh, of course I heard Morrissey tunes. Mexico City isn’t Bizarro Mexico, after all.
Naturally I made a playlist of Defeño artists to soundtrack my stay there — including mainly artists I didn’t hear on the radio at any point — artist such as Emmanuel, Maria Luisa Landin, José José, Lila Deneken, Cesar Costa, Gualberto Castro, Los Hermanos Castro, La Malinche, Gabriela Ortiz, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Javier Alvarez, Daniel Catan, Enrico Chapela, Mario Lavista, Carlos Chavez, Melesio Morales, Francisco Lopez Capillas, Jorge Muñiz, Javier Solis, German Valdés, Jotdog, Hello Seahorse!, Elefante, Los Daniels, Fobia, Caifanes, Los de Abajo, Los Dandys, Los Tres Ases, and others.
As with Tulum, the food in Mexico City was mostly quite good. It’s not the same as Cal-Mex or Tex-Mex, of course, nor even Northern Mexico — but in case you doubt I saw not one burrito, cemita, chimichanga, fajita, or tostada. There were zero fiesta packs, fresca bowls, naked chicken chalupas, waffle tacos, volcano burriots with lava sauce, or doritos locos anything — because there are zero locations of either Taco Bell or Del Taco (both American chains). Mexico City has its own regional style of Mexican food, which draws inspiration from indigenous culture, traditions from other parts of Mexico, and foreign influences. Street food, taco stands, barbacoa, birria, cabrito, carnitas, mole, and tortas are all common. Foreign cuisines, including Argentine, Italian, Japanese, and Korean are also well represented.
Our food at Hotel Carlota was, though good, not especially memorable. We stayed their toward the end of our trip, hoping to trade AirBNB location for a bit of hotel pleasantry. Both the food, the drinks, and the rooms were fine, I suppose, although the subway tiles-Edison bulb-chalkboard menu-reclaime wood aesthetic feels increasingly oppressive the longer it exists and the wider its hegemony spreads.
The ambiance of Mercado Roma, a trendy food hall, was a bit more inspiring, although the meat-heavy food options mostly left me underwhelmed. We also ate at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, where we did not stay. The food there was also satisfactory if unexceptional, but the decor and aesthetics of the building were enough to make the visit worthwhile.
I was more impressed with the food at Cafebrería El Péndulo, Churrería El Moro, LALO (recommended by a waiter at Hartwood), La Casa de Toño (where I ate so many flautas I nearly exploded), Cirene (where I had my pre-birthday dinner), Maximo Bistrot Locol (where I had my birthday dinner), and the Por Siempre Vegana Taqueria taco truck — all of which were truly excellent.
Mexican cuisine, to me, seems to be one of the world’s finest, surely as varied and refined as any in the Americas — so why it continues to be so underrepresented in Asia and Europe is to me one of life’s great mysteries. In the meantime, all the more reason to explore Mexico.
During our stay in Mexico City we took a side-trip to the ruins of Teotihuacan, located about 40 kilometers northeast of Mexico City. Teotihuacan was established over 1,000 years before Mexico-Tenochtitlan — somewhere around 100 BCE — and much less is known about its inhabitants. It seems to have reached its zenith somewhere around 450 CE, when it was one of the largest cities in the world. Its major monuments and structures associated with the ruling class were systematically destroyed around 550 CE but the city may’ve continued to function for another 200 years or so. The ethnicity of the city’s Teotihuacanos is another subject of debate, with the Nahua, Otomi, and Totonac all suggested along with the additional possibility that it was multi-ethnic.
Before they founded Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the Mexica arrived in the Valley of Mexico from the north around 1250 CE. By then, Teotihuacan had long been abandoned but the Mexica adopted aspects of their architecture and what else they could glean from the city they named “Teōtīhuacān,” Nahuatl for “birthplace of the gods.” It’s possible that Maya texts which refer to an ancient city as puh, or “place of reeds,” were also referring to this city — and that bundled reeds were a metaphor for the large concentration of the estimated 125,000 people who lived in the densely populated place.
Although the massive pyramids — especially the Pyramid of the Sun — are its most famous features, the still-vibrant murals, ruins of multi-story apartments, and civic infrastructure including the Avenue of the Dead and complex network of sewers are, if less ostentation, arguably equally impressive.
Although there had previously been minor excavations of the site, it wasn’t until 1905 that Mexico conducted a major excavation and restoration, in part timed to commemorate the centennial of the Mexican War of Independence in 1910. As with any ancient ruins, it’s easy to wonder, if not accurately imagine, what life would’ve been for the citizens of this mysterious stone age city.
It’s also easy to wonder about the rest of Mexico. My adventurous grandfather told me that Guadalajara was his favorite city on earth. Our guide in Tulum recommended Mérida. I’ve long had my eye on Chiapas and Oaxaca and want to explore more of Mexico City. And Una keeps asking when we’re going back to Tulum.