Saturday, May 13, 2017

Green Spaces | Chapúltepec Woods: From Bustle to Tranquility, Present to Past


A Shift in Perspective

Up until now, our focus in Mexico City Ambles has been on how the cityscape embodies the city's long and complex history. We have concentrated on whole neighborhoods (called colonias, pueblos or barrios depending on their origins) and the buildings and other features that give them their unique character and identify their place in the development of the city's narrative. Where those features include plazas, parks or other forms of "green space", such as tree-lined boulevards, like Paseo de la Reforma, we have presented them, but we have not looked at them from a generic perspective.

Occasionally, we have written posts about generic qualities of the city, such as its efforts to communicate grandeza (grandeur)
, its Baroque and "California" Neo-colonial architecture, the range of markets and street commerce and the role of ritual in maintaining communal identity. So it occurred to us that looking at the city's wide variety of green spaces as a topic in and of itself would be not merely interesting, but perhaps even revealing of another aspect of the city's character. 

From that perspective, we reviewed the posts we have published over the past two years to see which included presentations of some form of green space: plazas, parks, boulevards, gardens, interior courtyards (patios). Only one, on Chapultepec Woods, the huge park west of Centro, is solely about such a space. However, a dozen or so other posts include such green spaces as a significant part of their urban character. The colonias developed during the Porfirato (dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911) and the first decades after the Revolution (1911-17), such as La Roma and Condesa, sought to imitate Parisian elegance, including arboladas (tree-filled) plazas, parks and boulevards. 

Other colonias, such as Villa CoyoacánMixcoac and San Ángel, which have maintained their Spanish Colonial design, centered around central plazas and large church atrios (atriums), thereby also contain significant green space. Xochimilco, with its indigenous chinampas, man-made islands, and its evergreen-covered foothills, is particularly green. 

So we begin our new perspective on the City's green spaces, and a new series of posts, by republishing the one on Chapúltepec Woods.

Chapúltepec Woods

Two things drew us to the Bosque de Chapúltepec (Chapúltepec Woods): one was our ongoing search for a tranquil retreat within the bullicio, the bustle of the city. The other was to see how chilangos, Mexico City residents, spend their leisure time on a Sunday afternoon. Interestingly, we found that tranquillity and leisure time don't necessarily go together in Mexican culture.

Exiting the Chapúltepec Metro Station on Line 1, the Pink Line, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we are caught up in a stream of families headed for the park. It is rush hour for relaxation. Typical of many Metro stations, the street level is thick wtih vendors selling food, caps, binoculars, bottled water and any number of other items. As elsewhere, we have to wend our way through this labyrinthian mercado to reach our destination.

Entering Chapúltepec Park

Inside, families are headed for a wide pedestrian bridge across a major expressway to enter the main part of the park. This promenade was originally the route of the Paseo de la Reforma which Emperor Maximilian had built during his brief and conflictual reign (1864-67) to connect his chosen residence, Chapúltepec Castle, with the city center, now the Centro Histórico, to the northeast. Reforma has been re-routed along the north side of the park and extended west to the city's boundary with the State of Mexico.

Chapúltepec Castle
above the Monument to the Niños Héroes, the Boy Heroes,
military cadets who fought to their deaths against U.S. forces
taking Mexico City in the Mexican-American, War 1847.

Paseo de la Reforma
seen from Chapúltepec Castle.
Six White Columns are the
Monument to the Boy Heroes
Photo by Carlos Cortés

Family relaxing in the shade of the park's many trees.

The Bosque de Chapúltepec (Chapúltepec Woods) is one of the largest city parks in the Western Hemisphere, measuring in total just over 1,695 acres (686 hectares) (Central Park in New York City is half its size, with 843 acres, 341 hectares). The name "Chapúltepec" means "grasshopper hill" in Nahuatl and designates a volcanic formation called Chapúltepec Hill.

Aztec glyph of Chapúltepec,
in Capúltepec Castle

Perhaps the America's Oldest Continuously Used Park

The park area has been inhabited and held apart as special since the Mesoamerican era. Remains of Teotihuacan (500 BCE to 500 CE) and Toltec (800 to 1000 CE) cultures have been uncovered. When the Mexicas/Aztecs arrived in the Valley, then called Anáhuac, in the mid-thirteenth century, they settled here first, until they were kicked out by the Tepanec lord of Azcapotzalco, just to the north.

When the Mexicas/Aztecs became established in their island city of Tenochtitlán and defeated Azcapotzalco in the 15th century, they turned Chapultepec into a royal retreat. One notable site, of which there are some ruins, is the Baths of Moctezuma, a system of cisterns, reservoirs, canals and waterfalls. Because of its springs, the Mexicas built aqueducts across the saline lake to supply Tenochtitlán with fresh water. A temple sat atop Chapúltepec Hill.

After the Conquest in 1521, the Spanish King declared that it should remain a natural space for Spanish residents of the new city. It was not open to its original indigenous peoples or to any mestizo, mixed-race offspring of the two razas, races.

Fountain that marked the beginning of the aqueduct built by the Spanish
to carry fresh water from Chapúltepec's springs to the city on the island.

Today Chapúltepec is every chilango's backyard, one of the few constants in a city that has otherwise changed dramatically over nearly five centuries. Immediately to the west of the park, along Reforma, are the upper-middle class colonias, neighborhoods of Cuauhtémoc and Benito Juárez. To the south are La Roma and Condesa, the colonias developed at the end of the Porfiriato period (1876-1911) and after the Mexican Revolution. We have spent considerable time exploring and comparing them. To the northwest are wealthy colonias built in the mid-20th century: Polanco and the various Las Lomas, part of the Delegación, Borough, of Miguel Hidalgo, to which the park also belongs.

Today, the park is divided into three sections. The first section is the original. Still the most visited, it contains most of the park's attractions including a zoo, the Museum of Anthropology, the Rufino Tamayo Museum and the Museum of Modern Art along Reforma.  Chapúltepec Castle, about which we´ve written, now serves as the National History Museum (its website provides a virtual tour).

Un Paseo ... Stroll Through the Park

Following the crowd along the former Reforma, we turn right past the Monument to the Niños Héroes and come to a wide promenade, la Gran Avenida, Grand Avenue, an oval that circles through the first section of the park. In earlier days, carriages could be driven around it; later, automobiles traveled on it during Sunday drives, but today it is reserved for pedestrians. It is lined with puestos, stalls selling various kinds of souvenirs. 

3 T's for 150 pesos, about $9

Lucha Libre, Free Wrestling masks

Payaso, Street Clown

Farther along the Avenida, we come to Chapúltepec Lake, or is it Central Park Lake?

Past the lake is the Zoo. At this point, the park's ambience changes dramatically. The promenade of families reaches its destination and virtually disappears. Beyond this point lies the tranquility that we are seeking. The park becomes a quiet wooded retreat, an almost private space. La Gran Avenida becomes a path for a quiet stroll.

Tranquillity Amidst Millions


Yes, this is Mexico City with its 8 million people, in a metropolitan area of 21 million. By the way, when we visited it was December!

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