Chapultepec Park and Castle
My perfect - and improbable - Tuesday started out with an Uber to Chapultepec Park. After a brief stop by HSBC to withdraw some cash, I used my phone to navigate my way. (It was more difficult to find the entrance from the Paseo de la Reforma than I'd imagined.) Once in the park, I enjoyed the early quiet as I walked toward the Castillo de Chapultepec. I stumbled across a few monuments and modest Aztec ruins on my way.
Chapultepec is a massive park, divided into three sections. You could compare the feel of it to Central Park in New York City, with its lakes, walking paths, and museums. However, Chapultepec is over twice as large - it even contains a theme park. The size of the park reflects Mexico City's urban sprawl, but is also a necessity in a city where oxygen is already in shorter supply due to the altitude and pollution. The park's symbol is the grasshopper, as Chapultepec means 'grasshopper hill' in Nahuatl.
Following my phone's GPS, I wound up and around to the Castillo de Chapultepec. I missed the stop with the little train that will take you up the hill for a few pesos, so I got my exercise in for the day with a hike to the top. (My left knee was still aching from Teotihuacan!) I don't know what I'd expected - "castle" is in its name - but I hadn't realized Mexico had any buildings quite as grand as the Castillo. Both its location at the highest point of the park and the architecture were impressive - the building was part fortress, part palace. There was already a small line despite it being early and a weekday. I paid my $51 (~ $3 USD) and entered the gates.
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The entire first floor of the Castillo serves as a national history museum. If you have even a basic grasp of written Spanish, it's great. (You'll get a lot of practice!) The first room briefly touched on Pre-Columbian Mexico. I breezed through, knowing I'd get my fill later at the Anthropology Museum. The rooms then led you through the Spanish colonial period, the War of Independence, various civil conflicts, and war with the US and with France. I'd read up on a bit of Mexican history while planning my trip - it's amazing what you never learn in history class. During the Mexican-American War, some young cadets helped defend the castle against the Americans. One of these "Niños Héroes" jumped from the parapet wrapped in the Mexican flag rather than letting it be captured and is immortalized in a large mural at the castle entrance.
It's always interesting to see history from a different perspective; in fact, this may have been the first time I 'd visited a museum that included a conflict with my home country, as experienced by the other side. In US history - especially as learned in the East Coast - the Mexican-American War is usually treated as a footnote, only considered interesting because a lot of the men who fought in it together later fought against one another during the American Civil War. When the dust settled on the Mexican-American War, the US installed Winfield Scott, the general who had taken Mexico City, as a military governor. (Back in the mid-1800s, it was popular for Americans to name their kids after national heroes - weirdly enough, one of my great-great-grandmother's brothers was named Winfield Scott McPherran.) The Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo was soon signed, and the United States withdrew from Mexico, acquiring Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah in the balance. The exhibits were a fun reminder that the state my parents live in was once part of another country!
Of all Mexican leaders, it seems like Benito Juarez is the most universally liked within Mexico. I knew little more than his name before visiting Mexico City, but between this museum and the Palacio Nacional, I have some sense of why he's held in such high esteem. Juarez was from an Zapotec peasant family, was orphaned at a young age, learned to speak Spanish and became a lawyer. (I'm ready for his musical now, Lin-Manuel Miranda.) He went on to be a judge and a governor, during which time he stood up to Santa Anna rather than give more lives and resources to the already-lost Mexican-American War. Mexico created a new constitution in 1857, and Juarez became President of the Supreme Court of Justice. He was elected President of Mexico in 1861 and served for five (non-consecutive) terms. Juarez decided to devote Mexico's money to rebuilding the country following years of partisan wars, and stopped paying interest on debts owed to several European nations. France invaded, were defeated at the Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo!), then came back and installed a puppet Emperor for a few years. Once Emperor Maximilian I had been deposed and executed, Juarez was again elected and served until his death in 1872.
The rooms took you up through the early 20th century before depositing you in some lovely gardens. A grand staircase led up to the second floor, which was restored to reflect the living spaces of the various inhabitants throughout the years - the Castillo itself was home to the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian I and President Porfirio Díaz, who followed Juarez. Díaz was a conservative capitalist who did much to modernize Mexico, but also focused on the 1% of his day and considered a villain by the revolutionaries that opposed him. (Enter Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.) The offices, parlors, bedrooms, and baths reflected the opulence of the late 19th century, all situated around a rooftop garden. I stepped into the garden from one of these rooms to the sound of applause - a proposal had just been accepted by a fountain in the courtyard!
It wasn't until later that I read that Castillo Chapultepec was used in the filming of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which makes total sense - it's that gorgeous. Overall, both parts of the museum were great, probably moreso because I had few expectations.
It was about 11:30 by the time I finished with the Castillo, which was getting more crowded by the minute. I caught the train back down the hill for 13 pesos. My legs rejoiced. From there, I walked toward the National Anthropology Museum. As I got close, I heard music and saw men in colorful costumes standing around a pole. It was the voladores! I got there just in time to watch the full performance, filming as four men spun on ropes while another sat atop the pole and played music. I tipped the guy 20 pesos when he came around with a basket - well worth it.
'Avatar the Last Airbender' realness