First published in Atención San Miguel
Not far from the Zócalo, Mexico City´s vast main plaza, is the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Argentina #28 near Venezuela) where jacaranda- filled courtyards are decorated with murals by Diego Rivera, painted here between 1923 and 1928. There is too much to see in one visit, so I recommend beginning upstairs on the 3rd floor, where Riveras’s later work exhibits greater control of design and color. The murals are an allegory of the Mexican Revolution, with scenes of triumphant workers and decadent capitalists united by a long scroll painted with lyrics of Revolutionary songs. These are my favorite Rivera murals in the city, full of movement, opinion, and colors you want to sink your teeth into. Rivera used wife Frida Kahlo as a model for an armed revolutionary in the panel “The Arsenal” near the top of the stairs. Murals on the first floor depict traditions and festivals of the Mexican people. Passing beyond the back patio you enter a colonial building (the former Customs House), where murals by David Alfaro Siquieros, Rivera´s famed contemporary, enliven the large stairwell with their bold imagery and energetic technique. .
Eight blocks west of the Zócalo is the Alameda, an oasis of green in the city center, a perfect place to relax under an umbrella of jacarandas, get your shoes shined, and watch the world go by. Surrounding the park are some of Mexico City’s best sights. The recently renovated Palacio de Bellas Artes, looking like a giant wedding cake at the end of the park, is the principal venue for opera, concerts and ballet. The museum upstairs has murals by Rivera, Tamayo, Siqueiros and Orozco among others, and there is a Museo de Arquitectura (separate admission ticket) on the top floor, well worth visiting for the up-close view of the dome over the lobby.
Attending a performance at Bellas Artes is the only way to see the magnificent Aztec-Deco interior of the theater, with its Tiffany stained-glass stage “curtain”. Events are listed on the wall in the front lobby, where you will see ticket booths (taquillas). The Ballet Folklórico presents colorful dance performances every Sunday and Wednesday; the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional has concerts on Friday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 12 noon, with tickets for as little as 80 pesos.
Directly across from Bellas Artes you will see a Sears store, whose 8th floor café is perfect for viewing the jacarandas in the Alameda below—and the coffee is good, too.
On the north side of the Alameda, on Avenida Hidalgo, is the Museo Franz Mayer, with a fine collection of colonial art housed in a lovingly restored 16th century building. Be sure to visit the museum’s tranquil cloistered garden to best enjoy the elegant colonial architecture here.
South of the Alameda, behind the high-rise Hilton Hotel, is the Museo de Arte Popular (Revillagigedo and Independencia, www.map.org.mx). A top-notch collection of Mexican handicrafts is beautifully displayed here in a renovated Art-Deco building. All proceeds from the store here go to the artesans.
The most dramatic display of jacarandas is found in Colonia Condesa. Take a taxi to Avenida Michoacán in Parque Mexico, where you will see a statue of a buxom nude holding two jugs spouting water. This marks the middle of the park, where you can also find a taxi sitio for your return trip. Ambling through this cool, shady neighborhood park is a pleasure, especially on weekends when you might encounter a used book sale, art classes for the kids, or an impromptu tango milonga near the duck pond. The park is a large oval whose perimeter is defined by Avenida México and by a larger concentric oval, Avenida Amsterdam. Walking along these streets will give you a good feel for the mix of nature and architecture that characterizes this colonia--and you can’t get lost in this otherwise complicated neighborhood, as the oval shape returns you to your starting point.
Weekly markets, known by the Aztec name tianguis, are set up in the streets as they have been for centuries; here you might see a woman with a Chanel bag buying handmade tortillas from a country woman in braids and a rebozo. Sounds of an older Mexico are heard in Condesa: the whistle of the knife sharpener, the cries of men delivering gas or water, the hoot of the camotero who sells sweet potatoes from a push-cart at night, or a one-man band playing trumpet and drums.
On Avenida Michoacán, about five blocks from Parque México (walking in the direction of the traffic) , is the commercial center of Condesa, with lots of places to shop, eat, or sit and watch hip, young “chilangos” (as D.F. residents are known) looking great and having fun. At Café La Gloria (Vicente Suarez at Amatlán) you can admire the work of established Mexico City artists on display while dining on bistro-style food. Artefacto (Amatlán 94) sells home accessories that mix traditional materials with sleek design. El Milagrito (Mazatlan 152) features whimsical gift items with images of Mexico’s twin goddesses, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Frida Kahlo. You can cool off with a gelato at Neve-Gelato (on the corner of Michoacan and Cuernavaca).
Start at Avenida Michoacán in Parque Mexico, where you are surrounded by jacaranda trees—you will see a statue of a buxom nude holding two jugs spouting water, which marks the middle of the park. Ambling through this cool, shady neighborhood park is a pleasure, especially on weekends when you might encounter a used book sale, art classes for the kids, or an impromptu tango class near the duck pond. The park is a large oval whose perimeter is defined by Avenida Mexico and by a larger concentric oval, Avenida Amsterdam. Walking along these streets will give you a good feel for the mix of nature and architecture that characterizes this colonia--and you can’t get lost in this otherwise complicated neighborhood, as the oval shape returns you to your starting point.
The nearby Condesa DF Hotel (at the corner of Veracruz and Parque España) is a fashionable hotspot, with a spectacular display of jacarandas, best enjoyed from the rooftop. Take the elevator to the top floor, where the wood-planked terrace, complete with hot tub, seems to float on waves of jacaranda trees lining Avenida Veracruz.
In Xochimilco at the southern end of the city is The Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, an idyllic place for a spring visit. Olmedo, a rich socialite patron of Diego Rivera, opened her house and collection to the public in 1994. Manicured lawns are planted with jacarandas and flaming red colorin trees; strutting peacocks and waddling ducks lead you to her 16th century hacienda. Out front is a fenced-off area where several xoloitzcuintzles, rare hairless dogs of pre-hispanic origin, are frolicking or sleeping. The ceramic sculptures of these dogs from the state of Colima are a highlight of the museum’s small but impressive pre-Hispanic collection. The museum features works by Diego Rivera, including a roomful of luscious small paintings of sunsets, his best lithographs, and early work from his cubist period. Frida Kahlo has her own room, the largest collection of her paintings anywhere.
Visit the website (www.museodoloresolmedo.org) for more information and directions. Make a copy of their map, as many cab drivers have trouble finding this place. The museum is near to the La Noria metro station.
Perhaps the best place to view the jacarandas is from the air--if you are arriving by plane, be sure to get a window seat.
If you think of Mexico City as a big ugly metropolis, visit during jacaranda season and see if you don’t change your mind.