Part 3: Mexico City, a Quest to Learn about Mexico's History and Culture

by Mari Pintkowski  (August 2012)

Our quest to learn about Mexico's culture and history by seeing it first-hand has proven to be a great experience. The journey continued on the third day of our trip when all rooms in the Grand Hotel of the city of Mexico had previously been booked for the Paul McCartney concert, to take place that night at the central plaza, zocalo, right in front of the hotel. We were forced to find other accommodations, and decided to head south to Tepoztlan with an old friend who was driving that day to visit her dad in the little pueblo south of Cuernavaca.

We had a few hours until we were scheduled to meet Yogi at her house in the colonial section known as San Angel. We had our cab driver stop at the nearby Frida Kahlo Museum, located in her childhood home, Casa Azul, where she lived most of her life, even when she was married. While touring the home, we caught a glimpse into the lives of Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera, two famous 20th century artists. I had seen the movie, with Frida portrayed by Salma Hayek several times and was intrigued to learn more about their art and tormented lives.

Frida's life was one of pain and sadness, and her suffering was the theme of many of her paintings. She was crippled by polio at age six and a victim of a trolley accident in 1925 that shattered her pelvis and broke her spinal column. In the museum/home you are able to see the workshop where she mixed her paints and sat in her wheelchair while she painted at the easel. I was intrigued to see the bed where she spent many hours in traction after the life-changing accident. There was a mirror built into the canopy of the bed so that she was able to see her reflection in order to better paint her favorite subject. The body cast she was forced to wear became her canvas and this is displayed in her studio. I never realized how often she included butterflies in her paintings, and was touched to see that on the canopy of the bed she slept in at night was a lovely collection of these delicate-winged creatures.

I have always loved authentic Mexican pottery and tile, and the kitchen in the house displayed an interesting collection that kept me staring for quite some time. Every utensil, no matter how utilitarian, appeared to be a work of art in this sunny space that was the center of life during Frida's youth.

I suspect that the dark, volcanic stone courtyard and lush gardens she romped around in as a child, and later when she lived in the house with the menagerie of spider monkeys, Mexican hairless dogs, parrots and other animals, were not as manicured as they are today. Narrow paths lead around the large courtyard with photos from Frida and Diego's history tucked in between the beautiful collection of plants and pre-Columbian art which was a passion of the famous couple. 

Some of the small, colorful outbuildings are now used as bathrooms and a lovely gift shop, stocked full of "Frida" collectibles. Time once again ran out, before we could visit Diego's art studio next door. I made a mental note to come back another day and repeat the tour.

The scenic road to Tepoztlan, with a turnoff to Cuernavaca, was busy with travelers going to and from the homes of their families on this Mexican Mother's Day. Tepoztlan, a Nahuatl word meaning "place of abundant copper" or "place of broken rocks" is currently designated as one of Mexico's Pueblo Magico. It is famous as the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god who was widely worshipped in ancient Mexico. The Tepozteco Mountain dominates the views no matter where you are in this little village. There is a small ruin site on top of the mountain that is a sacred site for the ancient people, as well as a popular tourist attraction. The abundant deposits of metals, especially copper, in the mountains add to the mysticism that surrounds this area of Mexico. A cloud followed us to this magical little pueblo and barely lifted the short time we were there.

We visited with friends at a hideaway in the Valley of Tepoztlan before checking in at Posada del Tepozteco, our home for the night. The restaurant at the little Posada was bustling with families celebrating Mother's Day, so we decided to walk into town, a short distance away. The famous weekend market was still teeming with activity, as were the quaint little family- owned shops scattered around the village.

When we returned to the hotel we enjoyed a walk around the grounds. The gardens at the Posada del Tepozteco were exquisitely constructed on a hilly site that had been terraced to provide many different levels with colorful trees, plants and sculptures to delight your senses. The rainy season began that night with much force but, tucked into our hideaway with a view of the World Heritage site, Dominico de la Natividad and Tepozteco Mountain, we weathered the storm comfortably.

The next morning as the sun began to peek out, we walked the few blocks into town and noticed how the cobblestone streets had a shine from last night's storm. We went straight to the convent and church that can be seen from every hillside surrounding the town. The church gate is covered with a mural that is prepared each year using seeds, pods and other natural materials. This in itself is worth going to Tepoztlan to see. We wandered alone through all of the chambers where the nuns and priests lived on the second floor of the convent and knew that many hours of hard work went into constructing yet another monument to the Spaniards and their religion, which was so forcefully imposed on the original settlers of these small villages.

We wandered in and out of the steep side streets of the pueblo and decided to eat at the most colorful restaurant in town, Los Colorines, and were delighted with the décor and traditional Nahuatl/Mexican food.

Once again, we left a few sites to visit the next time we come to Tepoztlan, one of Mexico's magic towns.

Our last few days were spent with Mexican friends who live just north of the historic district in the state of Mexico. Here we had lots of practice speaking Spanish and experiencing life in a gated community in the suburbs. Having our own personal tour guide for a few days was a real treat. Our friends wanted to make our tour to the historic capital complete by taking us back to the central area and this time we bought a ticket on a Turibus and returned to the zocalo to the National Palace to see Diego Rivera's murals.

From the upper level of the Turibus we spotted a colorful parade advancing down the Reforma toward the city's signature monument, The Angel of Independence, so we jumped off the bus and stationed ourselves beside the bleachers where each nation's team that was participating in the International Fair stopped to perform their song and dance for the dignitaries seated there. The colorful costumes, music and spirit of national pride by each group was pure joy to see.

Now back to our original plan to go to the National Palace. This turned out to be the best site for learning about Mexico's colorful history. We were stunned when we made our way up the staircase surrounded by the first grand mural. How would we ever make sense of the paintings? As we stood in awe at the top balcony looking at the story depicted on the wall, we were approached by Javier, a senior independent tour guide. He even carried his folding stool in one hand in case he had the opportunity to stop and rest between tours. We hired him on the spot. His sense of humor and knowledge of Mexican history, as depicted in every inch of the murals that covered the walls on the second floor of this building, were fascinating. I am only hoping that I can retain this knowledge when it is time to take the immigration test.

Our last day in Central Mexico was spent with our friends touring the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. We headed southeast into what is known as the Basin of Mexico where the enormous archaeological site is located. We did know that we were about to see some of the largest pyramidal structures built in pre-Columbian times, but the immensity of it was pure shock. We did not hire a guide which is the custom at the Maya ruin sites near Tulum, so we proceeded aimlessly down the Avenue of the Dead until we came to the Pyramid of the Sun and joined the crowds queuing up to climb to the summit. This city of over 125,000 inhabitants was built during the Pre-Classic period (100 B.C. until 250 A.D.) and lasted until the 7th or 8th century. It was one of the largest cities in the WORLD at the time and even included multi-floor apartments along the Avenue of the Dead which were built to accommodate the population. It is unclear who the original founders of the city were, but it is believed that it was a multi-ethnic site that included the Nahua, Otomi and Totonic cultures. When we arrived at the summit, you could not help but think about the fact that we were standing upon a structure built almost 2,000 years before. The early settlers had no army and no written language, but were comprised of many artisans, mathematicians and, most importantly, a very strong population of workers. During the peak of civilization there were lakes surrounding the area and very rich farming land. Today the area resembles a high desert with mountains in the distance.

Driving away from the ruins, there were 30 or more restaurants side by side offering the same fare barbacoa, lamb or sheep cooked on a wood-burning fire, so we stopped at one to sample the local fare.

The next day we left with a camera full of photos, an invitation to return, and a list in the works of places to visit next time, próximo vez.

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate the #1 B&B in Tulum, La Selva Mariposa. To read more of Mari's stories go to the archives of or order her travel memoirs on

Mari Pintkowski