Parque Alameda Central - the Heart of Mexico City
Before I arrived in Mexico City, I thought of the Zocalo as the heart of the city. But after staying at Hostel Suites DF in Colonia Tabacalera, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that at some point the city center shifted west to the Parque Alameda Central. I started my Sunday morning sitting on one of the many benches on the edge of the park, facing Avenida Juárez. Like the Paseo de Reforma, the street is blocked off to traffic on Sundays and is an excellent place to watch the city go by.
To my left was a monument to Benito Juarez and beyond it, the grand dome of the Palacio Bellas Artes. I'd been thrilled to see jacaranda in bloom as my plane had landed the day before, dotting the city pale purple. The park has many other trees, plants, and fountains, and was bustling with families and vendors every day during Holy Week.
Branching out from the park to the east, the Avenida 5 de Mayo and the pedestrian passage Avenida Francisco I. Madero both lead to the Zocalo. Both are lined with 18th and 19th-century buildings, mostly shops and restaurants, and are packed with people. There are certain sounds I will always associate with the city - the music of the organ grinders, dressed in their khaki uniforms, the call to prayer-like sound of the tamale vendors, the beeping of the crosswalk as the little green man moonwalks in his box.
South of Alameda Central, the neighborhood becomes a little less polished. To the east, you'll findA few streets over, I stumbled across the Barrio Chino. At night, the red lanterns hanging along the Calle Dolores are lit, making it ridiculously picturesque in a gritty sort of way. You can also find some of the city center's best and cheapest taquerias in this area. Avenida Independencia seemed to have a particularly high number of hole-in-the-wall restaurants - including one particularly scenic one tucked into the ground floor of a crumbling colonial-era building.
The Palacio de Correos de Mexico is located across from Bellas Artes and was closed, sadly, from Thursday through Sunday of Holy Week. (A disappointment both because I wanted to see its beautiful interior and send a few postcards!)
You'll find the Museo Mural Diego Rivera by the Hidalgo metro stop, buried behind rows of sidewalk vendors. While there are a few other pieces of work by American-Mexican artist Pablo O'Higgins, the main attraction here is a large mural painted by Diego Rivera, which was rescued from a hotel destroyed in the 1986 earthquake. The mural depicts the history of the city shown as a walk through the park - most of the personalities within visited it at one point or another. Rivera also gets in a history lesson and social critique - which in Mexico, are often one and the same. Showing the parks origins as a burning grounds for the Spanish Inquisition... He also depicts a family of campesinos being driven from the park by a policeman as a little girl with the blonde curls of a criolla laughs. Diego himself is right in the center of the crowd, a child holding the hand of la Catrina. Frida Kahlo peers at us over his shoulder. Boards on either side of the room (in English and Spanish) give you the rundown of who's who.
I also paid a visit to the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes. While the building is gorgeous from the outside and the Ballet Folklorico may be great (I don't know, as it was sold out despite assurances from the people on the Mexico City board on Tripadvisor that it wouldn't be), I wouldn't recommend the museum. Unfriendly employees, poorly marked and laid out, only one small exhibit open, and there are better murals to be found elsewhere in the city. I'd suggest getting a coffee at the cafe on the top floor of Sears, directly across the street, and enjoying the view from afar.
One museum that did not disappoint, however, was the Museo de Arte Popular. First, I went that Sunday morning, and was delighted to find it was free! But secondly, it's an interesting and well presented museum. It's in a beautiful old building which is still clearly being refurbished, but the existing exhibit spaces are beautiful. The bottom floor features large alebrijes, fantastical creatures in every color of the rainbow, as well as a VW Beetle entirely covered in seed beads. I saw it in person, and I still can't comprehend the amount of time and work that would take.
I rode up in the glass elevator to the top floor, enjoying the colorful kites that hang from the roof before checking out the first exhibit, one on fantasy art. This included various "trees of life" - celebrating everything from traditional arts to mole-making - the aforementioned alejibres, and a small section on sirenas - mermaids. Next up was a room on religious art - various devotions like ex votos (something I first heard the concept of in Padua, Italy - essentially an illustrated thanks to a saint for a prayer answered), statues, masks, and other relics lined the walls. I thought it was interesting the museum chose to categorize all religious beliefs, from Catholicism to indigenous beliefs, in one room. There was also a small room at the center devoted to the worship or appreciation of death. The floor of the round room was lined in photos of marigolds, showing an level of thought put into the exhibit design that made me smile.
Finally, there was an exhibit on traditional art from the various regions of Mexico that was interesting, but also more on par with what you'll see at other museums, like the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. There was also what seemed to be a visiting exhibit on tiny quilled paper animals by Adan Gonzales Enciso, which was pretty neat. Magnifying glasses were provided to get a better look at the incredible detail in these minuscule creations. The museum also had a wonderful gift shop - slightly on the expensive side, but of good quality and an interesting variety.
As it was for Diego, the Parque Alameda and surrounding area was an anchor for my experience in Mexico City, a lively, vibrant area that moves to the heartbeat of this sprawling city.