On the Aztec Trail in Mexico City

This piece was written by Red Room contributor Jim Johnston.

Although Mexico City gets a lot of notice these days for its trendy bars, hip hotels and chic art galleries, what makes this city really cool has been around for almost 700 years: The city was founded by the Aztecs in 1325, and although the Spanish conquistadores tried hard to erase the pagan past, the Aztec influence is alive and well.

The phone book lists nearly 800 Moctezumas, and you’ll see those tongue-twisting Nahuatl names everywhere: Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl, Nezahualcoyotl, Chapultepec. The basilica of La Vírgen de Guadalupe is built over an altar where Aztecs prayed to their mother goddess Tonantzín.. Fragments of the past turn up at building sites throughout town–even the metro has its own Aztec ruin, the temple of Ehecatl, god of wind, at the Pino Suarez station.


The best place to begin exploring Mexico City’s Aztec past is at the Zócalo, the vast open plaza which was once the ceremonial center of Aztec life. Ruins of the Templo Mayor, the main site of Aztec worship and sacrifice, were unearthed at the Zócalo in 1978 while electric cables were being installed. You can stroll through the ruins and visit the small museum here.

The Palacio Nacional, seat of national government, spans the entire east side of the Zócalo. Inside are murals glorifying Mexico’s Aztec past, painted between 1929 and 1945 by Diego Rivera. These seductively colored paintings depict daily life of the Aztecs before the conquest. One shows an Aztec market in full swing with the city of Tenotichtlán in the background. Fruits, vegetables and flowers are being sold, as well as woven straw mats, hand-made pottery, medicinal folk herbs, and of course, tortillas. It all looks much like any Mexican market today, except perhaps for the human arm one butcher offers for sale. To see a modern-day market not far removed from Rivera’s images, go to the Mercado Jamaica, one of the most colorful traditional markets in the city. It also houses the city’s dazzling wholesale flower market, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

[Photo credit: Flickr, Ireed76]

The most important Aztec art is found at the Museo de Antropología on Paseo de la Reforma in Chapultepec Park, a few miles west of the Centro Histórico. The Sala Mexica, at the far end of the central patio, contains the Aztec collection. One of the most compelling sculptures is a horrific mother figure, the great maternal monster, Coatlicue. In Aztec myth, Coatlicue was murdered by her 401 children. Her statue, over eight feet tall, looks like a snakeskin-covered tank mated with a Japanese super-hero. The Spanish were horrified by her and kept the statue out of sight. She is so mean and ugly that even the museum gift shop doesn’t carry a replica.


One of the most delightful ways to absorb Aztec culture is through its food. Tortillas, chiles, tamales, guacamole, pulque, atole, mole, tlacoyos, huitlacoche, nopales, pozole, chocolate and vanilla are just some of the foods you will easily encounter today that were eaten in pre-Hispanic times. Adventurous diners can seek out escamoles (ant eggs), chapulines (crispy fried crickets), or gusanos (worms of the maguey cactus) rolled up in a fresh tortilla and eaten live with salt and lime.

Street stalls carry on the Aztec food tradition in Mexico City. Throughout town- expecially around markets and metro stations–you’ll see women cooking over charcoal fires, making tlacoyos, which look like small flattened footballs made of blue corn. They are filled with beans or cheese, then cooked on a dry griddle, topped with chopped cactus, onions, cilantro, grated cheese and your choice of red or green salsa. Pre-Hispanic ingredients are found on menus in most Mexican restaurants. Ensalada de nopales, a salad of cooked cactus with onion and cilantro, has a slightly tangy flavor and crunchy-soft texture Huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn cobs with a delicate, mushroom-like taste, is used as a filling for quesadillas. Flor de calabaza are squash blossoms, used in soothing soups and quesadillas. Pozole, a thick soup made with hominy, was mentioned in the chronicles of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, an early Spanish missionary. He reported Moctezuma eating pozole that contained thigh meat from a sacrificed warrior. Today’s version is usually made with pork and garnished with lettuce, radishes, onion and oregano. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of Aztec- inspired foods are tamales, ground maize steamed in corn husks or banana leaves, which can be found at street stalls all over town in the early morning.

UNESCO declared the Centro Histórico of Mexico City a World Heritage site in 1987, while it was still reeling from the devastating earthquake of two years earlier. Recent investment in the Centro and Alameda areas of the city have made it a cleaner, safer and more vibrant place than ever. But amidst the rush to make Mexico modern, trendy and slick, those ancient artifacts keep popping up out of the ground, constant reminders of Mexico City’s glorious Aztec past, humbled but not vanquished.


Maps: The Tourist kiosk to the right of the Cathedral has excellent free maps of the major tourist areas. Guia Roji maps, sold at newsstands and at Sanborn’s, are the most comprehensive (also on-line at www.guiaroji.com)

Taxis: Registered sitio taxis are the safest way to travel around the city. You find them at most hotels and at designated spots around town marked with the word sitio. There are sitios on the Zócalo behind the Cathedral on the left side, and in front of the Anthropology Museum. At most sitios you can also hire a taxi by the hour, usually US$10 to $15 per hour. Always negotiate prices beforehand if there is no meter in order to avoid surprises. Get a card from the sitio-you can call them from anywhere in the city to come get you.

Metro: The metro is fast, efficient and cheap (3 pesos, less than 30 cents). Avoid rush hours (8-10am and 5-7pm) and you will be fine. The system is easy to figure out from maps in each station. Metro stop Auditorio on the no.7 line is about 5 blocks from the Museum of Anthropology. Metro Jamaica on the no.9 line is right in front of the market. The Zòcalo metro stop is on the no.2 line.

Bus: From the Centro and along Reforma, buses marked Auditorio take you to the Museum of Anthropology. Buses marked Metro Hidalgo or Zócalo head back to the Centro Histórico.


Hotel Gillow (Isabel la Catolica 17 at the corner of Cinco de Mayo, tel. 5512-2078). Just a block off the Zócalo, this comfortable place is a good deal, with doubles around US$50,). Rooms on the 6th floor have terraces. They don’t take reservations for terrace rooms, however, so asck when you check in. (www.hotelgillow.com)

NH Hotel, (Palma 42, Centro Histórico, tel. 5130-1850) is a attractive modern hotel, well-located in the centro.

Camino Real Mexico (Mariano Escobedo 700, Colonia Anzures, tel. 5263-8888). Located near the entrance of Parque Chapultepec, this impressive hotel was designed by Ricardo Legorreta, one of Mexico’s leading architects, who was inspired by the vast pre-Aztec spaces of Teotihuacán. It has a fun big-hotel feel with flashy restaurants and bars, a swimming pool and peaceful garden. Doubles start at US$190 ($130 on weekends).


La Terraza del Zócalo. (#13 on the west side of the Zócalo-take the elevator to the 6th floor). Mexican food with comtemporary flair is served on a terrace overlooking the Zócalo. Open from noon till 8pm daily, till 3am on Fridays and Saturdays. (around US$30 for two without drinks)

Cafe Tacuba, (Calle Tacuba 28, near Bolivar, Centro, 5518-4950 or ?-2048, Traditional Mexican food in a charming tiled room. Open from 8am to 11:30pm daily, Sundays until 6pm. (around US$35 for two without drinks)

Restaurante Chon (Regina 160, Centro, 5542-0873, www.restaurantechon.com). Exotic pre-Hispanic cuisine, dreary decor. Lunch only. Closed Sundays (around US$45 for two without drinks).

Pulquería Las Duelistas, (Aranda 30 near Ayuntamiento, Centro). A good place to try this fermented cactus-based drink.

Mercado Jamaica, located at the corner of Avenida Morelos and Congreso de la Union, a few miles southeast of the Zócalo, metro stop Jamaica on the #9 line. There is a taxi sitio behind the flower market.

A native New Yorker, Jim Johnston has lived in Mexico City since 1994. He is author of Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. Read his blog on Red Room.

[Photo credits: Flickr, su-lin; Flickr, sheeprus]