Destination: Mexico City : Central Park South : Rejuvenated Chapultepec, the Soul of the Capital, May Now Be One of the World’s Finest Urban Parks
This is the capital and heart of Mexico. But to find the core and soul of Mexico City, one must visit Chapultepec Park on a Sunday.
In a city of magnificent public spaces and public art, Chapultepec is the ultimate open space, green and egalitarian, open to all for free. Nearly twice the size of New York’s Central Park, the 1,561-acre Chapultepec is probably the world’s busiest and, arguably, finest urban park.
To Chilangos , as Mexico City residents call themselves, it serves as a prime source of recreation and surcease from urban chaos and pollution, a verdant refuge in what is now the world’s most populous metropolis with nearly 20 million people, and growing rapidly.
They visit the park at a rate of more than a million and a half a week, mainly on weekends and holidays, when the crush nearly rivals the Mexico City subway in rush hour. They picnic, cycle, stroll, boat, and drink in Mexican history, art and culture in the park’s eight superb museums.
Though I am a regular visitor to Mexico, I had not been to the capital for more than 10 years. I recall the park then as run-down and scarred by litter, with many of its trees dying from pollution. On a return visit this August, I found the park still very crowded, but transformed and vastly more attractive.
In recent years the Mexico City government has poured more than $70 million into renovating and updating the park, or the bosque (forest), as it is called locally. They planted thousands of new trees, intensified the long-standing war on rats, shut down and remodeled run-down restaurants and cafes, and built a dazzling new museum for children, Museo del Nino el Papalote, which opened nine months ago.
They also brought in a private company to remodel a decrepit, 30-year-old amusement park, La Feria. After an $18-million, three-month face-lift, it reopened last December with 49 new rides and has quickly become a major national attraction. Little wonder: For only $6 total, a family of four can spend the whole day, with 30 free rides per person.
But nothing has energized Chapultepec quite so much as the reopening of its 60-year-old Zoologico (zoo) on Aug. 1 after a two-year, $71-million renovation. The zoo was designed by the renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta, who also redesigned Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. It reflects his stark planar style, with bright yellows and purples, and drew such crushing crowds--150,000 people--on its first day that the authorities had to shut it down for a few days to revamp security arrangements.
The reincarnation is part of Mexico City’s attempt to redefine itself and make itself more attractive to visitors, both foreign and Mexican.
I was impressed with the changes: The once-clogged streets in the historic city center near the cathedral and national palace have been cleared of street vendors in a complex political arrangement whereby thousands of them were relocated to small stalls in newly built malls.
Bicycle-drawn taxis have been introduced downtown to reduce air pollution and congestion. And efforts are being made to upgrade the traditional tourist center in the Zona Rosa, which has become somewhat seedy in recent years.
Chapultepec is steeped in Mexican history. It was an Aztec ceremonial site more than 700 years ago, and later an aqueduct was built to carry water from its spring to Tenochtitlan, the great pyramid city 25 miles northeast of downtown Mexico City. Legend has it that the profligate Montezuma II kept an aviary in Chapultepec and maintained a human-relay system of 900 people to bring fresh fish to feed the birds every day from Veracruz 240 miles away.
With the Spanish invasion by Hernando Cortes, the forest became a site for bloody battles in 1521, and the Spanish built a castle on Chapultepec Hill in the 18th Century.
With Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1810, Chapultepec was declared public property and served an important role in the century-long interim between liberty and democracy. The castle was the home for Emperor Maximilian and, later, for Mexican presidents. It is now a museum of Mexican history; the current president still lives in the park, in a mansion just behind the Russian Mountain roller coaster.
I stayed at the Hotel Nikko on the northern edge of the park, adjoining the fashionable Polanco residential area. That area is becoming a new tourist destination, with luxury hotels and restaurants. In addition to the Nikko, there is the Presidente Inter-Continental Mexico City and, to open later this year, the 300-room Mandarin Oriental Mexico.
From these hotels, it is an easy walk to the famed Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology), the zoo and botanical gardens.
Chapultepec, open every day of the year, is divided into three sections. The most crowded is Section 1, which includes the zoo, the castle, the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art), a children’s section, the botanical garden, a garden reserved for the elderly and a Korean garden, among many other attractions. Section 2 has the amusement park, a lake with the famed Lago del Chapultepec restaurant, the 10,000-seat national auditorium, a museum of technology, the new children’s museum and murals by Diego Rivera.
Section 3 is more pastoral, with jogging trails, stables and a rodeo arena.
For most foreign visitors, the chief attraction is the anthropology museum, just north of Section 1 across the Paseo de la Reforma. Reserve the better part of a day for this museum, an institution that ranks with the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of the world’s premiere cultural assets. (The inscriptions on the exhibits are extremely informative, but all in Spanish; it is probably worth buying an English guide for 45 pesos, or about $14.)
The museum traces the pre-Columbian origins of human habitation in Mesoamerica, through Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, Maya and other cultures.
The most arresting section is Room VII, devoted to the Aztecs, with the famed round Aztec calendar stone and a realistic diorama of Tenochtitlan life. But I focused on Room X, which houses the stelae --carved-stone religious statuary--and other highly refined artifacts of Mexico’s most advanced pre-Hispanic civilization, the Maya Indians of the Yucatan Peninsula. An auditorium off the lobby features regular dance and music presentations.
But one doesn’t have to go to a museum to get an anthropological experience in Chapultepec. As I discovered on a recent Sunday, the park is a colorful circus of activity, conducted amid a maze of paths lined with elegant wrought-iron benches, artificial lagoons and carefully tended gardens.
The most prominent trees are the more than 1,000 ahuehuetes , sequoia-like trees planted by the Aztecs more than 10 centuries ago.
Vendors with small carts sell a dazzling array of snacks, such as chicharrones , which look like huge potato chips but are made of flour and pork and covered with chile sauce, or mueganos , a candy covered with caramel and pieces of lemon and coconut. For four pesos you can have your fortune told by a green sparrow-like bird, a gorrion , which comes out of its cage and picks a folded-paper fortune out of a box.
Most visitors would find the park more agreeable on a weekday, when the crowds are thinner. But, determined to have the most authentic experience, I ventured in on a cloudy, drizzly Sunday.
With a smattering of Spanish, it is not hard to meet the locals, who usually come in large family groups to picnic, walk and talk, often traveling hours by bus from remote parts of the city.
Near the lake, I chatted with Antonio Soto and his wife, Claudia, who were strolling hand-in-hand with their 3-year-old son, Carlos Jiovani, clad in a Milwaukee Brewers baseball jacket. Soto told me he labors weekdays as a production worker in the huge Bimbo bread factory and his wife sells Tupperware. But about once a month the Soto family takes the one-hour bus ride from their remote suburb to Chapultepec. The boy loves the carnival games, Soto said, and wants to see the zoo. “We want to go to the zoo, but we are waiting for the crowds to die down,” Soto said.
Indeed, the lines at the amusement park and the zoo are often long on weekends. Still, for visitors with children, both are worth the visit. Fifteen-acre La Feria is small by American amusement-park standards, but well-organized, clean and distinctly Mexican.
The entrance to the roller coaster sits under a huge painted Aztec calendar and the fronts of the coaster cars have elaborate carved images of the Aztec fire snake.
My last Chapultepec stop was the zoo. The 44-acre zoo, with 1,294 animals, is by no means the world’s largest, but it is very possibly the most elegant.
I entered through a broad, tiled esplanade leading into winding paths that flow into several major ecosystems: tropical rain forest, woodlands, savannah, tundra. There is also a fine six-acre aviary that has two golden eagles, the symbol of Mexico.
The paths are lined with bamboo and other vegetation and rise up and down through banks of false rocks and waterfalls, all part of Legoretta’s purpose of trying to make visitors think they are truly away from the city, in a strange land. But the familiar is close at hand: Among the zoo’s food concessions are a McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza.
The zoo is best known for its collection of four pandas, the largest outside China. It also has several species seen almost nowhere else, including several escuincles , a now-rare black hairless dog kept by the Aztecs, and volcano rabbits, an endangered species that lives on the slopes of volcanoes that surround Mexico City.
After three days of wandering around Chapultepec, I left with an exhilarating feeling. Having seen some of the worst of Mexico City on previous visits--the fabled smog, the notorious traffic jams, the poverty-stricken barrios and political turmoil, I thought this was certainly the best of Mexico.
Sunday in the Park
Getting there: Aeromexico, Mexicana, United and Delta fly nonstop from LAX to Mexico City; fares start at $352 round trip. Once in Mexico City’s new international terminal, buy a taxi ticket for 37 pesos ($11.70), the flat fare to the hotels near the park.
Where to stay: Mexico City has scores of good hotels, but the two closest to the park are the Presidente Inter-Continental Mexico City and the Hotel Nikko. Rates at the 659-room Presidente start at $275 double, 10% tax included; from the U.S., telephone (800) 327-0200. Next door, the 750-room Nikko starts at $264 double, tax included; tel. (800) 645-5687. Prices are subject to substantial negotiated discounts, depending on time of year or day of week.
Where to eat: The main restaurant in the park is the Lago del Chapultepec, with huge windows facing the main lake. It serves a champagne Sunday brunch buffet at $36.40 per person; local tel. 515-9586. Numerous snack bars and cafeterias offer faster and cheaper meals.
The best deal in the park is the National Museum of Anthropology’s full-service restaurant, on Paseo de la Reforma and Calz. M. Gandhi, which serves excellent fish, soups and sandwiches for about $8-15 (plus museum entry fee of approx. $5, free Sundays; museum; tel. 553-6266. Open during museum hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
Nearby, a new favorite is the Casa de Campo, a restaurant that specializes in fish in the upscale Polanco district, at Presidente Mazarik 407; tel. 282-2064. Dinner runs about $66 per person, including wine, taxes and tip; closed Sundays; reservations recommended. .
For more information: To ask about travel to Mexico City, call the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90067; tel. (310) 203-8191. In Mexico City, local tourist information only, the Mexico City tourism office is at 54 Amberes in the Zona Rosa; tel. 525-9380.