Every traveler to Mexico City comes with a list of things to see and do. I grew up in Southern California with parents who were enamored with Mexico. Whenever we could, the family would pack into our station wagon and drive to beaches, then villages, and finally on one long road trip, we visited several major cities including Mexico City off the beaten path.

I’m sure that my father was swayed by the beauty of the iconic University when he pulled the family station wagon close to the main plaza. Back then, I was a moody teen but still remember looking up at the stunning surface that dwarfed our little tribe. So it was a mixture of nostalgia and amazement when I jumped out of a tour van recently* to cross the University Plaza to admire the same building and mural. Some childhood places seem so much smaller when you see them as an adult. Mexico City isn’t like that.

The water filtration system, lunch and picking from the Floating Farms of Xochimilco.

The water filtration system, lunch, and picking from the Floating Farms of Xochimilco.

Deep into Xochimilco – The Floating Farms

The remains of Aztec canals continue to be a liquid jewel south of downtown Mexico City and are enjoyed by both locals and visitors.  What isn’t there to love about an afternoon being pole-propelled through the narrow waterways? I brought my boyfriend a few years ago and as we moved along vendors pulled their trajineros, traditional narrow canoes, near. A small mariachi band balanced carefully while passionately playing for a few pesos. Another boat sidled near offering beer and a woman on board expertly dipped a ladleful of salsa onto outstretched plates of fresh tortillas and shredded pork. One last boat opened up trays of jewelry and I came home with a silver snake ring. Families held birthday parties on other boats. College students danced and sang from another boat and romantic couples cuddled as they floated past.

It was much quieter on a recent morning as my small group pulled up to the main Xochimilco landing. Between the van and boat, we passed a group of men fixing reeds and leaves to a wire sculpture of a huge lizard-like creature. It was my introduction to Axiotl, a revered amphibian indigenous to these waters. Soon we pushed past the lines of parked party boats and into the calm waters, the sound of our captain’s pole sloshing as he guided us forward.

The canals are home to chinampas, an ancient agricultural system of farming that continues vibrantly. Other boats slipped past carrying flowers, baskets of vegetables, and even a donkey who calmly stepped out of his floating transport. Cranes hunted their flat webbed feet well suited to the cobblestone shore, and migrating herons competed for little fish in the dark waters. The banks held a history in layers of rock and roots.

Here families still till communal acres to grow organic foods and now collectives share the processes with visitors. Our boat pulled into a cutout in the canal and we were welcomed by Rosa and Marco Polo of the Olintalli Cooperative. Marco proudly showed us one part of the canal that traversed his land where he is using a filtering system of volcanic pumice and water plants to increase water quality. It’s working and he lifted up a handful of greens to show us small snails. It’s good news for the endangered Axiotl salamanders who only grow in the wild of this region. Aztec legends speak of their powers and now scientific researchers are studying their ability to regrow limbs which might have healing benefits for humans as well.

After picking greens for our lunch we sat with our hosts for a fresh and tasty meal before returning to the canoe. One day I look forward to returning for a sunrise kayak tour with our guide, Rutopia,  and perhaps be blessed to spy an Axiotl in its native habitat.

Collage of architectural details across Mexico City

Collage of architectural details across Mexico City

The Architecture of Mexico City Off the Beaten Path

I left the itinerary for my second trip to Mexico City to my travel buddy, Pamela. She’d lived here as an architecture student years earlier and we hopped around the town for several days on an eclectic tour of Mexico City off the beaten path. We wandered the Zocalo, the museums, the cathedral, and dodeged a demonstration in the central plaza. She arranged for rooms in the iconic Hotel Camino Real Polanco a marvel of sweeping stone, wide staircases, and natural light. The 1968 hotel is considered a significant example of the ‘Escuela Tapatica de Arquitectura’ school of the last century but the Bauhaus and Mayan-influenced design felt fresh. I instantly became an admirer of the architect Legoretta and his mentor, Luis Baragan. The lobby and public spaces echoed the ancient stone pyramids and temples in Teotihuacan, a significant healing center in my life.

Collage of Mexico City with tastes from around the country

Mexico City tastes gathered from around the country

Art Deco and Nouveau – Colonial Roma

While on a food tour of the Mexico City neighborhood of Colonial Roma, I was surprised to see Art Noveau facades. I remembered similar treatments in Paris. The connection is set in stone as architects had been lured from Europe to the cultural freedoms and wealthy patrons of Colonial Mexico City. Today the buildings are protected, at least the street fronts are as many have been switched from private residences to restaurants and apartments.

Before leaving Colonial Roma, take time to eat in one of the wonderful and small cafes that dot the neighborhood or better yet, take a food tour. I tasted dishes and cocktails from around Mexico on an evening walk around the neighborhood with SaboresMexicoFoodTours.com. Their knowledgeable guides know the history, the architecture, and the people from the ground up. It was one of my favorite evenings in Mexico City.

Collage of pictures from Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul

Pictures from Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul

Frida’s Neighborhoods – Colonial and Modernist Studios

Walk the streets off the central plaza of Coyocan where sidewalks pass flat, gated homefronts. Just beyond the thresholds, most hold inner courtyards and even gardens. Such was the home, Casa Azul, where the artist Frida Kahlo grew up. The living areas cover most of the city block and surround an inner courtyard with trees, fountains, and even a pyramidical altar. An upstairs, corner studio is filled with light. Here Frida and Diego Rivera would paint and an adjacent room is filled with the canopied bed that she died on decades later.

Frida’s most famous work was created elsewhere in her side of Casa Estudio, one of two side-by-side houses built by Diego’s friend, the architect-painter, Juan O’Gorman. Today they are surrounded by thick cactus and provide few clues to the tumultuous relationship between the artists. Each house holds favorite objects and mementos like Diego’s collection of paper mache figures and Frida’s glassware.

The two residences are connected by an elevated bridge and they lived there in 1934 until Frida’s father died. She returned to Casa Azul in 1941 and remained there until her death. Tours of the homes are available by ticketed and timed entrances.

Mexico City central neighborhood buildings and hotel.

Mexico City central neighborhood buildings and hotel.

Parks and Churches

Stand in the city’s historic center, the Zocolo Or Plaza de la Constitucion and you can’t miss the largest Catholic Cathedral in Latin America. Built on top of sacred Aztec space near Templo Mayor, which can still be glimpsed through several cuts in the floor that are covered in glass. It took nearly two centuries to complete ((from 1573 to 1813) and so incorporates different architectural styles, including the Gothic, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Neoclassical styles, as they came into vogue over the centuries.

The echoing interior holds multiple niche chapels and areas for congregants to cluster. It thrilled me to pivot slowly noticing the craft in stone and wood, some embellished with gold leaf or ironwork.

Leaving the center walk along the street of silversmiths, along Madera to a treelined expanse next to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The Alameda Central is a tree-lined passage that was established in 1582, and is the oldest public park in the Americas. I was lucky to walk through as the jacaranda trees were in bloom and just beginning to drop their violet petals. The many treelined streets throughout the capital city, provide urban pressure relief and shade on hot days; companionship, and a quiet refuge anytime.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Getting around Mexico City takes patience, especially if you are driving. There have been numerous strategies to lower the traffic and reduce the pollution to varying success. I’ve had great luck taking the subway and it’s definitely the most affordable way to go.

For example going from Temple Mayor, in the Zocolo, to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a 30 – 40 minute ride for 5 Pesos. It’s a bargain whatever currency you may be accustomed to.

Why visit the Basilica? If you want a sense of why the Virgin of Guadalupe is beloved countrywide by the Mexican people, look to the story of her appearance to a poor shepherd, Juan Diego twice in 1531. She asked that a church be built for her on a hillside in Tepayac, now a suburb of Mexico City. It was and repeatedly.

Basilica of the Virgin de Guadalupe is part of Mexico City off the beaten path.

The Basilica of the Virgin de Guadalupe and adjacent churches are part of Mexico City off the beaten path.

The cloak with her visage is displayed in the new Basilica but after I took that in, I followed crowds who were reverently entering one of the other churches on the mount (there are several.) The Indian Chapel (Capela de Indios) was built on the site where Juan Diego had his visions and where he was buried. Standing in the space, much more modest than the Basilica, it’s easy to feel the love of the people for ‘their’ Virgin.

By all means see the main attractions across the capital city with its scores of museums, parks, and wonderful eateries but do yourself a favor and dig a bit deeper, avoid the usual tourist throngs, and I hope you can use these suggestions for a more personal tour of Mexico City off the beaten path.

*This post was partially sponsored but reflects my experiences, opinions, and lifetime of traveling to Mexico.

Photo Credits for the Basilica pictures Left to Right: New Cathedral: Karolja, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Guadalupe in the cathedral: CC Wikimedia photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net); CC Wikimedia, New Cathedral: Karolja, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons