Destination guide: Ciudad de Mexico
Ciudad de Mexico was the birthplace of the Aztec culture and one of the main strongholds of the Spanish Conquest and is a must-see destination for anyone travelling to North America. One of Ciudad de Mexico’s main attractions is the Zocalo, which houses the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral and the ruins of a Tenochtitlan temple.
Nearby, you can also visit the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Theatre of the Insurgents with a mosaic mural by Diego Rivera and the floating gardens of Xochimilco, as well as many other tourist landmarks. Purchase your flights at LAN.com and get ready for an incredible vacaction in Ciudad de Mexico.
Content powered by Lonely Planet
Ciudad de Mexico - History Overview
Driving over the sea of asphalt that now overlays this highland basin, you’d be hard pressed to imagine that, a mere five centuries ago, it was filled by a chain of lakes. It would further stretch your powers to think that today’s downtown was on an islet crisscrossed by canals, or that the communities who inhabited this island and the banks of Lago de Texcoco spoke a patchwork of languages that had as little to do with Spanish as Malay or Urdu. As their chronicles related, the Spaniards who arrived at the shores of that lake in the early 1500s were just as amazed to witness such a scene.
That lake covered much of the floor of the Valle de México when humans began moving in as early as 30,000 BC. Eventually the lake started shrinking, and hunting became tougher, so the inhabitants turned to agriculture. A loose federation of farming villages had evolved around Lago de Texcoco by approximately 200 BC. The biggest, Cuicuilco, was destroyed by a volcanic eruption three centuries later.
Breakthroughs in irrigation techniques and the development of a maize-based economy contributed to the rise of a civilization at Teotihuacán, 40km northeast of the lake. For centuries Teotihuacán was the capital of an empire whose influence extended as far as Guatemala. However, it was unable to sustain its burgeoning population, and fell in the 8th century. The Toltecs, possibly descended from the nomadic tribes who invaded Teotihuacán, arose as the next great civilization, building their capital at Tula, 65km north of modern- day Mexico City. By the 12th century the Tula empire had collapsed as well, leaving a number of statelets to compete for control of the Valle de México. It was the Aztecs who emerged supreme.
Aztec Mexico City
The Aztecs, or Mexica (meh- shee -kah), arrived a century after the Toltecs’ demise. A wandering tribe that claimed to have come from Aztlán, a mythical region in northwest Mexico, they acted as mercenary fighters for the Tepanecas, who resided on the lake’s southern shore, and they were allowed to settle upon the inhospitable terrain of Chapultepec. After being captured by the warriors of rival Culhuacán, the Aztecs played the same role for their new masters. Cocoxtli, Culhuacán’s ruler, sent them into battle against nearby Xochimilco, and the Aztecs delivered over 8000 human ears as proof of their victory. They later sought a marriage alliance with Culhuacán, and Cocoxtli offered his own daughter’s hand to the Aztec chieftain. But his pride turned to horror at the wedding banquet: a dancer was garbed in the flayed skin of his daughter, who had been sacrificed to Huizilopochtli, the hummingbird god.
Fleeing from the wrath of Culhuacán, the tribe wandered the swampy fringes of the lake, finally reaching an island near the western shore around 1325. There, according to legend, they witnessed an eagle standing atop a cactus and devouring a snake, which they interpreted as a sign to stop and build a city, Tenochtitlán.
Tenochtitlán rapidly became a sophisticated city-state whose empire would, by the early 16th century, span most of modern-day central Mexico from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and into far southern Mexico. The Aztecs built their city on a grid plan, with canals as thoroughfares and causeways to the lakeshore. At the city’s heart stood the main teocalli (sacred precinct), with its temple dedicated to Huizilopochtli and the water god, Tláloc. In the marshier parts, they created raised gardens by piling up vegetation and mud, and planting willows. These chinampas (versions of which still exist at Xochimilco in southern Mexico City) gave three or four harvests yearly.
When the Spanish arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlán’s population was 200,000 to 300,000, while the entire Valle de México had perhaps 1.5 million inhabitants, making it one of the world’s densest urban areas.
Capital of Nueva España
So assiduously did the Spanish raze Tenochtitlán that only a handful of structures from the Aztec period remain today. Having wrecked the Aztec capital, they set about rebuilding it as their own. The conquistador Hernán Cortés hoped to preserve the arrangement whereby Tenochtitlán siphoned off the bounty of its vassal states.
Ravaged by disease, the Valle de México’s population shrank drastically – from 1.5 million to under 100,000 within a century of the conquest. But the city emerged as the prosperous, elegant capital of Nueva España. Broad streets were laid over the Aztec causeways and canals. Indigenous labor built hospitals, palaces and a university according to Spanish designs with local materials such as tezontle, a red volcanic rock that the Aztecs had used for their temples. The various Catholic orders had massive monastic complexes erected.
Building continued through the 17th century but problems arose as the weighty colonial structures began sinking into the squishy lakebed. Furthermore, lacking natural drainage, the city suffered floods caused by the partial destruction in the 1520s of the Aztecs’ canals. Lago de Texcoco often overflowed, damaging buildings and forcing thousands to relocate. One torrential rain in 1629 left the city submerged for five years!
Urban conditions improved in the 1700s as new plazas and avenues were installed, along with sewage and garbage-collection systems. This was Mexico City’s gilded age. But the shiny capital was largely the domain of a Spanish and criollo elite who had prospered through silver mining. The masses of indigenous Mexicans and mixed-race peasants who served them were confined to the outskirts.
On October 30, 1810, some 80,000 independence rebels, fresh from victory at Guanajuato, overpowered Spanish loyalist forces west of the capital. Unfortunately, they were ill equipped to capitalize on this triumph, and their leader, Miguel Hidalgo, chose not to advance on the city – a decision that cost Mexico 11 more years of fighting before independence was achieved.
Under the reform laws instituted by President Benito Juárez, in 1859 monasteries and churches were appropriated by the government then sold off, subdivided and put to other uses. During his brief reign (1864–1867), Emperor Maximilian laid out the Calzada del Emperador (today’s Paseo de la Reforma) to connect Bosque de Chapultepec with the center.
Mexico City entered the modern age under the despotic Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico for most of the years between 1876 and 1911. Díaz ushered in a construction boom, building Parisian-style mansions and theaters, while the city’s wealthier residents escaped the center for newly minted neighborhoods toward the west. Some 150km of electric tramways threaded the streets, industry grew, and by 1910 the city had more than half a million inhabitants. A drainage canal and tunnel finally succeeded in drying up much of Lago de Texcoco, allowing further expansion.
After Díaz fell in 1911, the Mexican Revolution brought war, hunger and disease to the streets of Mexico City. Following the Great Depression, a drive to industrialize attracted more money and people. Factories and skyscrapers sprang up in the following decades, but the supply of housing, jobs and services could not keep pace.
Mexico City continued to mushroom in the 1970s, as the rural poor sought economic refuge in its thriving industries, and the population surged from 8.7 to 14.5 million. Unable to contain the new arrivals, Mexico City spread beyond the bounds of the Distrito Federal (DF) and into the adjacent state of México. The result of such unbridled growth was some of the world’s worst traffic and pollution, only partly alleviated by the metro system (opened in 1969) and attempts in the 1990s to limit traffic. On September 19, 1985, an earthquake measuring over eight on the Richter scale hit Mexico City, killing at least 10,000 and displacing thousands more.
Today the Valle de México metropolitan area (which extends as far outside the city as Amecameca and Tula) numbers 21 million inhabitants, around a fifth of the country’s population. Mexico City is the industrial, financial and telecommunications center of the country; its industries generate a quarter of Mexico’s wealth, and its people consume two-thirds of the country’s energy. Its cost of living is the highest in the nation.