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Ups and Downs In and Around Mexico City

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In Plaza de la Constitucion, Mexico City

Before we left for our Pan-American trip, my dad asked me: “Are you going to Mexico City?”

I told him that we weren’t planning to go because we heard that the traffic is absolutely terrible. There are over 21 million people in Greater Mexico City. That’s 21 times the population of Calgary. The traffic in Calgary can be pretty bad, so we figured that navigating through Mexico’s largest metropolis would be a nightmare.

“Papa, I don’t think it would be safe for us to drive there,” I said.

“Oh, ok,” my dad replied. Then he paused, looking pensive. When my dad has this pensive look, I know that he has something else to say.

I prompted him to share his thoughts: “Did you hear something about Mexico City that we should know about?”

He explained that there is a famous pilgrimage site in Mexico City called the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe).

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Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City

Next to The Vatican, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Roman Catholic destination in the world. Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (an incarnation of the Virgin Mary) is Mexico’s patron saint and her image can be seen in restaurants, hotels, shops, and homes all over the country.

“I was wondering if you could bring back a souvenir of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” my dad said.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to my dad’s request. He never asks me for anything. And here he was, asking for a souvenir from a world-renowned pilgrimage site. But I was genuinely afraid about driving through such an enormous city. Selfishly, I said: “I don’t think we’ll be able to make it there.”

My dad was okay with my reply, but I regretted it as soon as it came out of my mouth. When I told Gregor about my conversation with Papa, he said, “Well, we can’t skip Mexico City now. We need to get that souvenir.”

Two months later, Gregor and I came up with a way to get to the Basilica…

We drove from Patzcuaro to San Juan Teotihuacan, a town about 50 km northeast of Mexico City. Our plan was to camp at the trailer park in town and take a bus into Mexico City for a day trip. It was the perfect plan – we could see Our Lady of Guadalupe without driving into Mexico City, and Lucky would be safe in the campground while we were sightseeing.

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Camping in San Juan Teotihuacan

When we pulled into Teotihuacan Trailer Park, it was packed wall-to-wall with huge RVs. The owner told us that we could set up camp if we didn’t mind being a little crowded. There was no other campground in the area, so we stayed.

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Our red van nestled in a sea of RVs at Teotihuacan Trailer Park. The camper behind us belongs to Colin and Carrie (and their dog Sprite), whom we met twice before: first in San Diego before we crossed the Mexican border and again in San Quintin on the Baja peninsula.

The trailer park was so full because a caravan of 21 RVs carrying American and Canadian retirees had arrived a few days earlier. The campground is a popular destination because of its proximity to Mexico City and to the Teotihuacan ruins, which contain spectacular pyramids built by the pre-Hispanic Teotihuacan civilization.

The tiny campground clearly wasn’t meant to handle so many motor homes. The electrical demands from the huge campers kept blowing fuses for the hookups. The water usage was so high that the showers had no hot water and no water pressure. And since everyone was Skyping with the grandkids back home, the WiFi slowed to a crawl.

That said, we met lots of really friendly people at Teotihuacan Trailer Park and shared some good chuckles about our awkward predicament. We also enjoyed exploring the shops and markets of San Juan Teotihuacan. After an uneventful work day in the trailer park, we headed into Mexico City.

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Day Trip to Mexico City

The bus ride from San Juan Teotihuacan to Mexico City took about an hour. As we approached the outskirts, we marvelled at the thick smog that obscured the surrounding hills. As we walked the three blocks from the bus stop to the basilica, we felt a burning sensation in our eyes and throat from the city’s air pollution. Despite the poor air quality, we felt the excitement of being in a buzzing, vibrant metropolis. In the end, our pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe was a fulfilling experience.

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Old Basilica on the right, New Basilica on the left. The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is in the New Basilica.

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The golden painting on the wall behind the altar is the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe. There is a moving sidewalk under the altar that allows visitors to look up to her image without disturbing the mass in progress.

The souvenir that I mailed to my parents. They received it in early April.
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The souvenir that I mailed to my parents – it’s a small picture frame for the bedstand. They received it in early April.

We completed our mission at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the morning, so we toured Mexico City’s historical downtown in the afternoon. We had a great time strolling through the streets, plazas, and galleries in the Centro Historico.

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Palacio Nacional
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Palacio Nacional

Diego Rivera mural in the Palacio Nacional
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Diego Rivera mural in the Palacio Nacional

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Plaza de la Constitucion
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Plaza de la Constitucion

Taking the metro back to the bus station
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Taking the metro back to the bus station

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Teotihuacan Pyramids

After four nights in San Juan Teotihuacan, it was time to move on. Gregor and I decided to see the Teotihuacan Pyramids first thing in the morning on our way out of town. We heard that it’s best to get to the ruins before 9:00 am to avoid the tour bus crowds. We also heard that foreign-plated vehicles aren’t allowed to drive in and around Greater Mexico City between 5:00 am and 11:00 am on weekdays (due to new pollution control laws). This meant that a morning visit to the Teotihuacan ruins would kill two birds with one stone: we could avoid the tourist crowds AND avoid stiff highway fines.

We left the trailer park at 8:30 am and headed for the ruins. These were the first pyramids we have ever seen in Mexico, and we were very fortunate to see these amazing structures without hordes of people crawling all over them.

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Teotihuacan ruins. Looking down the Avenue of the Dead (Calzada de los Meurtos) towards Pyramid of the Moon.

We like the patterns in the mortar
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We like the patterns in the mortar

Restored carvings and frescoes
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Restored carvings and frescoes

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Pyramid of the Moon

Gregor on Pyramid of the Moon
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Gregor on Pyramid of the Moon

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Pyramid of the Sun in the distance

Steep stairs!
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Steep stairs!

Summit shot on Pyramid of the Sun. We were pretty sore afterwards.
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Summit shot on Pyramid of the Sun. Our legs were pretty sore afterwards.

Happy pyramid climbers
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Happy pyramid climbers

Gregor and I really enjoyed the Teotihuacan ruins. Both of us felt like we were in our element climbing up and down those pyramids – we experienced the same kind of natural high that we often feel after hiking or scrambling up a mountain. The ancient Teotihuacan people probably knew that climbing to the top of a few pyramids can induce an oxygen-deprived state of bliss.

In our case, climbing those pyramids also induced an oxygen-deprived state of forgetfulness because we ended up driving away from the ruins and into Mexico City’s ‘no-driving zone’ before 11:00 am. At 10:55 am, a cop pulled us over for driving a foreign-plated vehicle five minutes too early. We were fined 4000 pesos ($345 CAD).

Two weeks earlier, we almost spent that money on an all-inclusive getaway in Bucerias. When things don’t go as we expect, we now believe that the universe is just balancing the ups and downs on our journey.

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