Mexico City - a place of pilgrimage

  • Julia Gregory

Forget a certain politician's plans to build a wall along the Mexican border, the capital Mexico City is a place of pilgrimage and vibrant culture. It's just been listed as one of this year's travel hot spots, to boot, as Julia Gregory discovers.

You hear the singing first. It draws you towards the place of pilgrimage. Then you round the corner and spot a copy of the image of the Virgin Mary which attracts millions of pilgrims to a church on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Choirs gather to sing to pilgrims from all the country Mexico who visit a very special place dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

There's been a place of worship here since the Virgin Mary appeared to the Indian Saint Juan Diego in 1531. She told the peasant to build a church there. But the construction very nearly didn't happen.

At first the surprised bishop was unwilling to believe Juan without a sign. Then the peasant was distracted by his uncle's illness. It was in the depths of winter when Mary appeared to him a third time and told him to pick flowers - roses which did not grow in the country at the time. Juan gathered them in his shirt and the blooms dropped out when he met the bishop - revealing the image of Mary imprinted on his shirt.

Once visitors filed by to get a glimpse of the miraculous images. "These days, "said our guide " pilgrims queue up to stand on a travellator to view the image - armed with their smartphones."

It's a far cry from the 1938 trip Graham Greene made to discover how Catholicism was persecuted by the government, a journey described in his travelogue The Lawless Roads.

There are several churches in the complex, including the stunning eighteenth century baroque Capilla del Pocito and the older, simpler Capilla de Indios, said to be Juan's last home. Pilgrims leave prayer ribbons there and tokens of legs and hearts to give thanks afterwards.

Climb up to the top of the hill to view a mural which describes the Virgin's appearances to Juan.

The basilica is very busy on December 12 - the anniversary of the miracle. Some three to six million people visit the site that week, filling the square as they wait to file inside.

If music is important at Santa Maria Guadalupe, it is also a prominent part of a day out on the canals in Xochimilco. Families visit the plant market at weekends and hire the brightly coloured trajinera boats for a jaunt on the water. Boatmen can provide food or there are craft plying the water with maize, drinks and snacks for sale. Mariachi bands glide towards you on flat bottomed barges and perform for a fee.

It's a fun afternoon and if you get a taste for the jaunty sound of the mariachi bands a trip to Garibaldi Square is a must. It used to be a no go zone, but business is looking good at the Restaurant Tenampa. Decked out in their finery, with silver studs edging their uniforms the musicians tour the room and play favourites such as El Rey. Groups of friends sing along to the tunes which originated in farming communities. There's a party atmosphere and murals celebrate some of the great mariachi singers and will give you a flavour of Mexican culture.

Murals are also important in Mexico's history.

Diego Rivera is one of the country's foremost artists. He was commissioned to depict the country's history in a monumental mural on the grand staircase at the Palacio National. He worked for six years to take the viewer through the story of the Aztec, the Spanish conquest, right through to the 1910 revolution. It is unmissable and it is worth taking time to explore the story. Look closely to spot peasant hero Zapata, the last Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc wielding a spear and Rivera's wife Frida Kahlo.

The couple's work feature at several other spots in the city.

Museo Dolores Olmedo is housed in a beautiful mansion in Xochimilco with at least ten peacocks strutting in the grounds. It houses some of Rivera's most famous paintings including The Mathematician and the sunsets he painted in the twilight of his days in 1957. (Frida's work is currently away until April 17 2017.)

The Blue House where Frida Kahlo lived is much smaller and gets busy. Her story is inspiring, she overcame both polio and a horrific bus accident which left her in near constant pain. However she was determined to paint, sometimes lying prone in bed, using the mirror above it to help her. Whilst her illness limited the size of her work her artistic reach was not diminished. Her full body corsets are display amongst the beautiful traditional Mexican outfits she favoured and serve as a reminder of the obstacles she overcame as the country's preeminent artist.

Kahlo and Rivera had a tempestuous relationship but for a time worked together at a house designed by Juan O' Gorman on 1929. The modernist studio aimed to shock and still looks more like a factory than a home.

Fit in a visit to the Anthropological Museum to get so much more out of a visit to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, a city built between the first and seventh centuries AD.

Traffic is challenging in Mexico City to say the least, so allow plenty of time for the 25 mile trip. You'll feel it if you climb to the top of the 216 feet tall
Pyramid of the Sun - the tallest building at the largely reconstructed site. Half the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt it's the centrepiece of the city which was once home to 75,000 people, before its destruction

500 years later. The Spanish conquerors knew about it, and in 1557 Franciscan writer Geronimo de Mendieta described how an 18 foot idol was removed on the orders of Archbishop Zumarraga.

Highlights include the Pyramid of the Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. It lay hidden in the undergrowth, until rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1860s.

It was a place of pilgrimage for the Aztecs who thought the city was built by gods and called it "the place where men become gods" and repays the effort of making your own journey there today.

For more images visit ICN's Facebook page:

Visit the official site of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe here:

(Travel Facts)

Stay: Hotel Geneve, Zona Rosa

Eating out: Restaurante Zefiro, (Izazaga, Centro Historico) run as a training culinary school for students, excellent food, beautifully presented in a former cloister. For more traditional food try Corazon de Maguey (Plaza Centenario, Corazon) or El Nopalito (Insurgentes Norte).

Shopping: handicrafts from the Ciudadela market, mole (sauce) from the food market San Juan, good buys include embroidered blouses, chocolate.

How to get there: British Airways and AeroMexico both fly to Mexico City.

Tags: Julia Gregory, Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe

We Need Your Support

ICN aims to provide speedy and accurate news coverage of all subjects of interest to Catholics and the wider Christian community. As our audience increases - so do our costs. We need your help to continue this work.

Please support our journalism by donating today.