The Ghosts of Mexico City

A friend had told me that upon seeing Mexico City from the air I would be struck by how dense it is, and this was certainly true.

A friend had told me that upon seeing Mexico City from the air I would be struck by how dense it is, and this was certainly true.

The Aztecs founded what is now one of the largest cities in the world in 1325 after the fall of the Toltec Empire. According to their lore, they were led to establish the city on a small island on the western side of Lake Texcoco by Huitzilopochtli, their principal god. It is believed that he indicated that they had found their new home with a sign — an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak (the now famous motif that graces Mexico’s flag). By the time the Spanish arrived with Hernán Cortés in 1521, Tenochtitlán had so grown in size and power that it served as the center of an empire that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps at no other time during the year is the legacy of this merging of cultures more apparent than in late October/early November, when the celebration of the Day of the Dead is manifested in altars or ofrendas that commemorate the deceased with both pre-Hispanic and Roman Catholic iconography. I took note of the marigolds I saw everywhere as we approached the hotel, and I would later learn that this flower that the Aztecs used to honor the dead is planted throughout the city every year in honor of this sacred holiday.

Night view of the Cathedral

From its place on the Paseo de la Reforma (which Maximilian I modeled after the Champs-Élysées), the white aluminum and glass façade of the new St. Regis Mexico City’s 31 stories is a grand testament to the cosmopolitan spirit that exists at the heart of Mexico City. Designed by legendary architect Cesar Pelli, with interiors designed by Yabu Pushelberg, it rises behind the iconic Diana fountain and draws the eyes skyward. Our butler led us to our room on the 10th floor, and en route, I immediately noted the impressive amount of natural light that floods virtually every space of the hotel’s interior. Evidence of Yabu Pushelberg’s artfully modern appreciation of traditional Mexican design elements is found throughout, and ranges from an artisan-designed stone birdbath in one of the main lobbies to the large pieces of black Oaxacan pottery that adorn the concierge desk.

I’ve always found that my sense of being welcomed in a foreign country is greatly aided by a hotel staff that makes it their mission to make me feel at home, and I soon encountered such hospitality as our butler promptly and cordially took us on a tour of our room. After drawing back the curtains of the floor-to-ceiling windows, she clearly explained to us the workings of our phone system, the locations of various outlets and how to turn on the TV in our bathroom (by touching the mirror!).

St. Regis

The St. Regis’s Diana Restaurant is headed by the talents of Executive Chef Jeff Pelaez, who brings Michelin-star experience and AAA Five Diamond Awards from Mexico to his leadership of the culinary team. My supper of a classic Mediterranean bouillabaisse did not disappoint, and although as a rule I do not wash my dessert course down with a Bloody Mary, I could not resist a nightcap in the King Cole Bar. I had heard of the famed Sangrita Mary of the St. Regis Mexico City, and it truly is everything my taste buds could have longed for. The secret, as it turns out, is the pasilla chile puree — smoky and deep, it tastes the way Mexico City would taste if it had a flavor.

Saturday morning began with a tour of the Condesa. One of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs, it is noted for its Art Deco architecture and the bohemian contingency that renders it something of an artist’s corner. As a Southern California girl, I felt a poignant familiarity as I strolled through a park that was hosting a breast cancer awareness rally while eating chicharones I’d bought from a street vendor; the native plant life, including the omnipresent marigolds, added a touch of exoticism to the moment.

Walking through a neighboring square, the scent of copal incense rose from the vessels that the native Aztec dancers were holding, as still more street vendors sold sugar skulls and pan de muerto (sweet Mexican bread decorated with crossed bones) for the holiday. The Condesa is a neighborhood in the truest sense of the word and offered a charming pause from the hustle and bustle just outside the hotel.

La Casa Azul, or “the Blue House”, in which Frida Kahlo was born, lived and died would be easy to miss were it not for the vibrant hue of its exterior, as, from the outside, its façade melds so seamlessly with the other colonial-style buildings on Calle Londres in the colony of Del Carmen Coyoacán. Once inside, of course, you are transported to another time and place, specifically, the one that Frida occupied for her brief 47 years on earth. Centered on a large, lush courtyard and fountain, the home contains not only the artwork that Frida and Diego collected and produced, but their personal effects as well.

To have walked inches past Frida’s easels, tools and the very bed in which she passed from this life is an experience I’ll never forget, positioned as they were with a gorgeous view of the outdoors that she could enjoy when she could no longer move downstairs. As we stood before a large Day of the Dead altar that the museum had constructed in honor of Diego, the museum’s director confided to us that on occasion, she has heard the sound of labored footsteps emanating from Frida’s office in the basement when no one was there. She also mentioned witnessing supernatural phenomena, such as the appearance of wet footprints on the grounds seemingly out of nowhere, but was quick to point out that her sense of Frida’s presence is benign, playful and ever welcome.

Before we knew it, we were ready for lunch, which is exactly what was waiting for us as we approached the Museo Dolores Olmedo. Almost as if on cue, the skies let out a torrential All Hallows Eve rain just as we made it underneath the tent that Ms. Olmedo’s staff had erected for our very special outdoor lunch buffet. Satiated by what was some of the best authentic Mexican food I’d ever tasted, we then embarked on a guided tour of one of the largest collections of Diego Rivera’s and Frida Kahlo’s work on the planet, including Kahlo’s The Broken Column (1944) and the Sunsets series that Rivera produced at the end of his life.

Dolores Olmedo was a close friend of Rivera’s who posed for many of his early paintings, and although she had a strained relationship with Kahlo, she was a great admirer of her work. Ms. Olmedo, a shrewd businesswoman and an undeniable presence in Mexico’s art scene, lived on the grounds of the museum from 1988 until her death in 2002, having opened it to the public in 1994 with the intention that it be a celebration of all things Mexican. Peacocks and Mexican Hairless Dogs wander the exquisitely manicured grounds, which also include a 16th century chapel. At the Museo we also viewed pre-Hispanic artifacts, crafts and a special ofrenda exhibition that dazzled our eyes with its colorful displays of traditional Dia de los Muertos folk art. Dark was descending as we exited the exhibition, and the sleepy bus ride to our next destination allowed us a brief nap before we made our most haunted stop yet.
Our bus pulled into the parking lot at Lake Xochimilco, and for all I knew we could have been arriving at the County Fair. Kids begging their parents for flashing neon devil’s horns ran past me as the scent of what I could have sworn was funnel cake wafted through the air. It was hard to believe that I was standing feet away from our entry into an ancient world, but soon enough the site’s PR director introduced herself and pointed us in the direction of the small boats, or trajineras, that would transport us down the ancient canals that the Aztecs had built.

Suddenly, once inside the boat, all was much quieter. Our vessel, along with other boats, made its way down the canals as torches on the marshy embankment lit our way with their eerie light. Once all of the boats reached the lake, they formed a wide circle around a stage, upon which was built a small replica of an Aztec temple. There, we saw a reenactment of La Llorona. This legendary ghost story tells the tale of an Aztec woman who wanders the earth weeping for eternity after murdering her children, who were rejected by their Spanish father. A highly musical performance, it featured artists who treated us to the almost other-worldly sound of traditional Aztec music, and as our boat was rowed back to the dock after the performance, I could almost feel the presence of the land’s original inhabitants all around me.

Our Sunday began with a bike ride from the hotel up to Chapultepec Castle, the stately palace of Maximilian I, the Austrian emperor who ruled from 1864 to 1867 during the French Intervention. Like many cities that are trying to revive bicycling, Mexico City is now closing down certain streets on Sundays for this very purpose. We had lunch at a small taqueria in the Zócalo area of Downtown Mexico City, where we saw one of Diego Rivera’s largest murals at the National Palace — a depiction of Mexico’s history from 1521 to the 1930s.

The Zócalo is fascinating, containing buildings that look as though they could have been transplanted from Florence, which line streets that lead to a large, bustling piazza-like square. There, the largest cathedral in Mexico City shifts its weight on one side as it slowly sinks into the ground beside the foundation of an Aztec temple. As it turns out, the Spanish did not take into account the fact that Mexico City was built on water, and although the lake was drained in the 17th century, much of the older architecture is nonetheless paying the price of resting on soft earth. Steps are being taken to protect these historic sites, however, and methods of preservation include pumping cement beneath them.

Cupula of La Basilica De Guadalupe

After much walking that afternoon, I was ready for my 60-minute massage at the Remède Spa. Located on the 15th and 16th floors of the St. Regis, it features a swimming pool with panoramic views of the city and waiting rooms where guests can recharge with tea, champagne, fruit and truffles as they look forward to their treatments. After my heavenly aromatherapeutic massage, I had a refreshing glass of the St. Regis’s signature “relaxing” blend ice tea and floated to my room to collapse on my bed. I joined our group of travelers that evening for dinner and dancing in the Condesa, and by that time I had started to experience the “but I don’t want to leave yet” pangs that I only feel when I’ve truly fallen in love with a place.

Our flight back to Los Angeles was the next day, but I knew that I could not leave Mexico City without seeing the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Located on the outskirts of Mexico City, it was built in the 1970s and houses the tilma (apron) of Saint Juan Diego, upon which an image of the Virgin Mary is believed to have miraculously imprinted itself after she appeared to him 1531. It is surrounded by older structures, in particular the original basilica that was built not long after the reported apparitions (also sinking, I might add).

I was incredibly moved to join thousands of Mexicans for mass in the large basilica, and to see up close the tilma that has befuddled scientists to this day for numerous reasons (but that’s another article). Many historians have said that to understand the Mexican people’s love for “La Virgencita” in her Aztec dress is to understand Mexico itself, since her appearance truly marked the beginning of a merging of the Spanish and Aztec cultures that had previously refused to do so. Approximately nine million people visit the basilica for her feast day every year on December 12, in a spirit of pious revelry that so succinctly sums up the textured, paradoxical spirit of Mexico. Mexico City’s siren song is already luring me back as I write this, and I intend to make my next stay considerably longer.