By Jim Ferri
“It’s a still-elegant lifeline in Mexico City,” a former resident described Paseo de la Reforma to me. “It connects the best parts of the city from downtown with the sophisticated residential and business area of Las Lomas.”
Remembering my walk along la Reforma I knew what she meant. Despite the almost claustrophobic sea of autos and taxis in Mexico City, Reforma is a ribbon of serenity, its calmness nurtured by the extensive green space that flows along the boulevard as much as by the beautiful monuments that adorn it.
The good news is that you needn’t go all the way out to tony Las Lomas on the far side of Chapultepec Park to see the best of Reforma. You can see some of the nicest parts of the boulevard starting where it winds its way out of Chapultepec into downtown.
Start near Torre Mayor, the tallest skyscraper in Latin America, where Reforma doglegs northeast and makes a straight run towards the center of the city. This two-mile stretch remains the most famous and beautiful part of the avenue that is still one of the most beautiful urban thoroughfares in the world, despite the fact that offices and hotels have replaced the stately houses that once lined it.
Paseo de la Reforma was originally built to link the center of the city with Chapultepec Park and if it looks a bit like the Champs-Élysées, it’s because it was originally modeled after the famous Parisian boulevard during the French occupation of Mexico in the mid-19th century.
Today la Reforma continues to live up to its elegant aspirations, at the same time tipping its hat to the multicultural character of both the mega-metropolis and of Mexico itself, as seen in the numerous statues along its length. The most beloved of these statues by the locals are the ones that rise above the glorietas, or traffic circles, which have been set about every three blocks along its downtown length.
The first you come to is Diana, the huntress, whose nude body was once covered up by city officials who thought it was an affront to public decency. The next, and the most popular, is the golden Monumento a la Independencia, known as the Angel of Independence, at the intersection with Florencia, not far from the U.S. Embassy. Erected in 1910 to commemorate the heroes in the fight against Spanish colonial rule, it’s become the symbol of the city.
Walk further along, past the futuristic glass building of the Mexico City Stock Exchange, to Avenida Insurgentes and you’ll come upon another statue honoring the struggle against the Spanish invaders, the statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor. Ironically, the next glorieta, at the intersection of Morelos, has a statue of Columbus, the one responsible for bringing the Spaniards to Mexico in the first place, rising above it.
Planting statues on la Reforma seems to be a way of life for bureaucrats in Mexico City, and there are a lot of them. In the upscale neighborhood of Polanco I saw statues of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King but missed Mohandas Gandhi just a few blocks away. The most recently erected – that of Heydar Aliyev, the late dictator of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan – has caused quite a political stir among the residents of the neighborhood, one of whom likened it to putting a memorial for Idi Amin on the National Mall in Washington.
In addition to statues you also find a lot of benches along Reforma, especially along the stretch between the Angel of Independence and the Aztec Cuauhtémoc. I was amazed at the number of unique, benches and seats along the avenue there are, one looking like playing cards, another a hippo, others like undulating couches or chairs, all one-of-a-kind whimsical pieces. Each was another small element that made the boulevard so inviting and comfortable, all perfect little spots to relax amid the hubbub of urban congestion.
While we were in Mexico City for only a few days, my wife and I stayed at a hotel off Reforma near Chapultepec Park. One morning when she had an appointment I set off on a walk along the boulevard into the park. It was a bit before eight o’clock and the sun was filtering through the trees, birds were singing, a beautiful time of day.
Shoeshine men at large stands along the sidewalk were already busy with businessmen on their way to work. A little way further along buses parked bumper-to-bumper were being boarded by crowds on the sidewalk. The far side of the sidewalk was lined with little food stands all doing a brisk business with the commuters. It was reminiscent of all the little food stands that sell coffee, bagels, and doughnuts to the morning crowds on street corners all over New York City, with all the hustle and bustle of a mini-outdoor Grand Central Station.
I walked past this crowd on the edge of Chapultepec and followed Reforma further into the park. All along the way falling purple blossoms of jacaranda trees covered the sidewalk, looking like little flower girls had been sprinkling petals ahead of me.
Street sweepers with brooms of bundled twigs were hard at work although obviously losing the battle with the falling petals. I soon learned, however, not to look at the flowers and trees but rather at the sidewalk instead, which had holes and unstable sections in it all along the way.
After just 10 minutes or so I came to the National Museum of Anthropology, where there were dozens of buses with hundreds of kids charging from their doors, many jumping off with their cameras to take photos of the fountains outside. Interestingly there were lockers outside for you to leave your belongings in, something you rarely, if ever, see in a large city anymore.
The museum was vast, and it was a place I had ignored during visits here decades ago, but now I found it fascinating. I’ve never been one to relish archeological artifacts, which is probably why I was really caught off-guard by the whole place. And the way the museum was laid out also made it more comfortable for me to visit.
The ground floor of the museum contained a dozen galleries that surrounded the central courtyard where you entered, allowing you to begin your tour wherever you’d like, a bonus to someone like me who enjoys just ambling about. Some of the galleries were dedicated to the various regions of Mexico, others were in chronological order showing the history of the country.
I became fascinated with the exhibits on the Toltecs and the Maya and was captivated by the Aztec Hall, which showed the everyday culture of the people who ruled Mexico when the Spaniards arrived. The upper floor of the museum was equally as fascinating, with displays relating to the surviving 56 indigenous cultures of modern Mexico including their festivals, religions and societies.
Later on, when I met up with my wife, I told her that when we returned to Mexico City I would certainly like to visit the museum again.
And, of course, sit on another one of those benches along Reforma to watch the traffic and the world go by.
If you go:
Mexico Tourism Board
400 Madison Ave, Suite 11C
New York NY, 10017
Tel: (212) 308-2110
Museo Nacional de Antropología
av. Paseo de la Reforma y Calzada Gandhi
Tel: 55 53 6381
Entrance fee: adults 51 pesos