As you sit in the back of a cab, the repeating pattern of buildings and street vendors rush by you; old colonial palaces surrounded by sprawling art deco department stores, high-rise buildings that attempt to mimic the stature of the Empire State Building, a Parisian-inspired Opera House. The car slows down and the maze of urban landscape gives way to a plaza.
The plaza is packed. As a central subway stop for the city's business area, the plaza hosts people from all walks of life. You step out of the cab and notice the nice spring breeze rustle through the trees. Finally, after walking through the plaza you reach a clearing, and sit down to fully appreciate your arrival in Mexico City.
For a few moments the cacophony of rush hour traffic is drowned out by the classical tunes emanating from the street organ of an organillero (organ grinder). Organilleros have been a staple of the city since the 18th century, when German immigrants brought with them these clunky wooden contraptions that would grace the streets with their music.
You carry on and walk along the street of 5 de Mayo when you encounter Bar La Opera — a typical Mexican cantina made popular by Pancho Villa’s visit 100 years ago at the end of the Mexican Revolution. In this cantina it is said that Pancho Villa pointed at the roof and discharged a handgun, leaving a bullet hole remains there to this day.
In the spirit of the place, you take a seat at the bar and order a cold beer. As you calmly sip on your drink you look around and take in the decadent rococo style that adorns the whole cantina. Once again, the steady, almost rhythmical sound of the city is drowned out by the outbursts of conversations around you and last night's soccer game replaying on the small TV on top of the bar.
Upon finishing your beer, you decide to carry on towards the central plaza. When you turn the corner, you are taken aback by the sheer scale of the place. The plaza is a square, measuring over two hundred meters on each side. At the center a monumental flag rises above the flat expanse of pavement. The flag marks the epicenter of the plaza that the local people (who are referred to as capitalinos, chilangos, defeños — or a combination of all three) call el Zócalo.
The Metropolitan Cathedral and the President’s Office frame the sides of the plaza. The Spanish colonial architecture, built from the ruins of once great Aztec temples, seems to have completely eliminated the presence of the civilization that once stood there. Yet as you walk around the plaza you notice several glass panels on the floor, which become your windows to the underworld, the remnants of the Aztec empire.
Following this trail of ancient Aztec crumbs, you eventually come to one of the most magnificent aspects of this city: the ruins of the grandest temple of the Aztec Empire. Nestled in between the Metropolitan Cathedral and the former Palace of the Viceroy’s Archbishop lies the Templo Mayor. The temple that once stood over 60 meters (almost 200 feet) is now a massive ruin that has sunk about 12 feet underground. The Templo Mayor consisted of the shrines to two of the main Aztec gods; Tlaloc (rain) and Huitzilopochtli (war). The ruins and the adjacent museum contain most of the remains of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, which were discovered in the 1960s during the construction of the city’s subway system.
In this place, Aztec ruins, colonial buildings, and a modern skyscraper are all contained within a single frame. You stand there, witnessing history collide into a single moment in time, thinking about the mix of cultures and people that have yet to be incorporated here, considering the intricate details that upon which this city was built — until your stomach growls at you, and you head into the subway station, in search of some authentic Mexican food.