Mexico City: Capital of Latin America

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The Independent Travel

Lying inside an almost unbroken circle of snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, Mexico City gives first-time visitors a thrill even before they touch down at Benito Juarez International Airport. Your plane will drop abruptly like a wounded duck and pan across the largest urban expanse you've probably ever seen.

With more than 22 million residents in the Greater Mexico City area, it is the largest metropolis in the Western world and behind only Tokyo and Seoul globally. With a sprawl of that scale, where should one even begin?

It is perhaps best understood as a crazy quilt of smaller towns and villages that over the decades were swallowed by the greater metropolis as it expanded. The Spanish colonial heart around the central square, or Zócalo the third-largest of its type in the world is far removed from the working-class barrios or the contemporary architecture of Santa Fe on the city's western edge.

Important also is at least a fleeting knowledge of how the city came about. First came the Aztecs in 1325, building an imposing city, Tenochtitlan. The Spanish arrived two centuries later, essentially laying waste to the city in 1521, before rebuilding it on top of the Aztec ruins. One of the most impressive legacies of Spanish rule is the Metropolitan Cathedral at the edge of Zócalo. It was built, however, on top of what was once an Aztec pyramid for offering sacrifices to the gods.

Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world. Foremost among them is the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, a huge area of woods and lakes that is to Mexico City what Central Park is to New York.

The Zócalo is one of two areas within the city designated as World Heritage Sites. The other is the "floating gardens" of Xochimilco towards the southern edge, where a boat tour evokes the city's sometimes forgotten watery past.

It is unlikely that any visitor to Mexico City will not at some time encounter the works of one of its greatest artist sons, the muralist Diego Rivera. One of his finest works is on view in the grand presidential palace on the Zócalo.

Some landmarks help you keep your bearings: the Zócalo itself, as well as the golden Angel of Independence, on the elegant avenue that slices through town called the Paseo de la Reforma, itself modelled on the Champs-Elyses in Paris. Mexico City also boasts several skyscrapers, including the Torre Mayor, which is the tallest building in Latin America. It has the oldest university in all of the Americas and only New York, London and Toronto have more theatres.

But it is a cultural and artistic boom that perhaps has given Mexico City the greatest lift in recent years: film directors conquering audiences around the world and nascent talents filling galleries and studio spaces in newly revived downtown districts such as Roma.

And if you can't find Roma, lift your hand in the air and wait a second or two. Yes, Mexico City still buzzes with little green VW Beetle taxis. Or take the world-class Metro, one of the reasons that Mexico City is ascendant in Latin America.

Mexico City scored way ahead of the rest of Latin America for its population, its underground network and its World Heritage sites.