Travel Story - Mexico City 

Beneath the smog a vibrant megalopolis preserves the art and culture of Latin America

As we started our descent into Mexico City the crescent moon off our starboard wing-tip changed from brilliant white to yellow and finally to dull bronze before being eclipsed by the blanket of smog that hangs like a shroud over the world's second largest city. Below us a galaxy of lights extends as far as we can see in every direction. The dim glow of distant suburbs, like star-clusters at the edge of the universe, is barely visible through the haze. Officially this is home to 22 million people, but no one is sure how many more have settled in the darkness around its edges – beyond the glow of lights we see from the air.

Perched at an elevation of 2,200 metres above sea level Mexico City sprawls across 2,000 square kilometres of the Valle de Mexico. The seething megalopolis, with its estimated 4 million automobiles, is surrounded by a ring of mountains that inhibit air circulation and trap an unsavory brew of pollutants and ozone. Combined with the high elevation and consequent lack of oxygen, Mexico City's contaminated air is notoriously bad.

We were simply here to change planes and I was prepared for the brown fog that kept our jet on the runway for more than an hour. But I was also determined to come back and spend some time – to see for myself what it is about Mexico City that makes it such a magnet not only for visitors, but also for new residents who, despite the crowding and pollution, continue to pour into the city and swell its already burgeoning population.

It was a Friday when we returned and Carlos, the cab driver who picked us up at the airport, warned that it was also payday. As soon as we left the airport we were gridlocked in a maze of horn-blowing cars and taxis. Traffic cops stood helplessly at intersections jammed with cars, among them police cruisers with flashing red and blue lights going nowhere. The usual 20 minute trip to Zona Rosa took over 2 hours – plenty of time for Carlos, a voluble native of Mexico City who had spent time as a soccer coach in Montreal, to give us his take on Mexican society:

On politics: "Things are getting better" he told us. "Yesterday Mexico was the most corrupt country in the world but today we are second – our politicians bribed the statistics guy to give us a better spot."

On religion: "Ninety per cent of Mexicans are Catholic – the other 10 per cent are pickpockets."

On staying out of trouble: "Be careful on the metro and never use the green taxis."


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