Touring Mexico City By Canoe, Bike As It Marks 500 Years Since Spanish Conquest There is a lot to see around the Mexican capital. NPR's correspondent recommends canoeing and biking along some of Mexico City's tucked-away sites.

Taking In Mexico City's History By Canoe And Bike

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These days, a top spot for travelers eager to emerge from COVID lockdowns is Mexico City. The city has long lured tourists with its mix of modern and ancient. And this summer, there's even more history to entice. Five hundred years ago, Spanish conquistadors and their Indigenous allies laid siege on the city, leading to the downfall of the Aztec empire. And the city is looking back at this pivotal anniversary. So is NPR. In a travel series we're calling Wish You Were Here, NPR's international reporters have been exploring the countries they cover. And in our latest installment, NPR's Carrie Kahn takes us by boat and bike back in time to Mexico City's less-visited historical sites.


CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Five hundred years ago, this valley high in the mountains was teeming with water, and a great civilization was thriving atop the myriad of lakes. It was known as Tenochtitlan.

SANTIAGO SOSA-SALAZAR: This is how Mexico City used to look like.

KAHN: Historian Santiago Sosa-Salazar and I are crouched in a canoe, paddling through narrow canals on one of the only bodies of those waters left in the city today.


KAHN: We're in Xochimilco. It's in the far south of Mexico City in a 400-acre ecological park. We slowly wind our way around slender islands covered in thick grasses and native ahuejote willow trees. Tall, white egrets, stout, brown hawks and other waterfowl perch on the banks.

Beautiful. What is that?

SOSA-SALAZAR: I don't know. It's pretty.

KAHN: It's just - this is Mexico City? It doesn't feel like Mexico City.

SOSA-SALAZAR: Not at all - no, not at all.

KAHN: It's a perfect place to imagine how the Aztecs lived before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. By the early 16th century, their city on the water was home to more than 200,000 people. And to feed them all, the Aztecs built these artificial islands with the fertile soils of the lakebed.


KAHN: The islands, called chinampas, are still producing, says 58-year-old Martin Cabrera as he works a slender row of crops on one of the thin strips of land.

MARTIN CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This is where our ancestors farmed, and pretty much we're doing it the same way, he says as he stretches back a bit before bending over again. Cabrera works with Humedalia, a group fighting to preserve Xochimilco's farms.


KAHN: Not only did these waters feed and fuel the Aztec empire; they were also a natural barrier to enemies. And the Aztecs had many. Indigenous groups resented paying tributes to the rulers. Historian Sosa says when the conquistador Hernan Cortes came over the mountains just in front of us in 1519, he took full advantage of the Aztecs' disrepute.

SOSA-SALAZAR: The impressive thing about Cortes is that he didn't speak a word of Maya or Nahuatl. He was a Spaniard. He speaks Spanish. And he managed to convince all these groups to fight against the Mexica and the Aztecs.

KAHN: Montezuma, the Aztec ruler at the time of Cortes' first foray into the city, was no fool, either, says Sosa. He thought diplomacy was a better bet over war, and he let Cortes in. Montezuma was eventually killed. Just how is a big debate, but in the end, the Aztecs succeeded in driving Cortes and his army out. However, Cortes' army would regroup and fight the Aztecs, whose numbers were severely reduced by smallpox brought by the Spanish. The two sides would meet up again in the biggest battle to come in the summer of 1521 not far from modern-day downtown and easily reached on a bike.


KAHN: I'm on my bike right now. On Sundays, they close down miles and miles of the city. And you can ride your bike, especially down the great Reforma Boulevard.


KAHN: We pause at a busy intersection in a small plaza surrounded by the racing traffic. A huge stone pedestal sits in the middle. Sosa points to the statue of a warrior wearing a ceremonial robe, holding a spear and towering over the busy street below.

SOSA-SALAZAR: That is Cuauhtemoc. You can see the copilli, which is the crown. It resembles the eagle feathers. So Cuauhtemoc means in Nahuatl falling eagle.

KAHN: Cuauhtemoc was the last Aztec emperor to battle Cortes.

SOSA-SALAZAR: Let's go to the last battle of the conquest.

KAHN: It was fought just two miles from the statue in what is now known as the Plaza of the Three Cultures (ph), filled with three structures symbolizing Mexico's past and present - a modern office building, the ruins of the Aztec temple still there and a Spanish colonial church.


KAHN: Historian Sosa says Cortes pledged to his patron saint, Santiago, that he would build a church on the site if he won the battle.

SOSA-SALAZAR: He kept his promise, and here we have the Church of Santiago.


KAHN: But what gets lost in many versions of Cortes' conquest is that Spaniards made up only 1% of the conquering army. Most were Indigenous rivals of the Aztecs. Muddying that history even more, a plaque at the site declares this final battle of the conquest 500 years ago a pivotal point in Mexico's destiny and its identity. I read it out loud.

It wasn't a triumph, nor was it a defeat. It was the painful birth of the mestizo, the mixed race people. That is what Mexico is today. Do you agree with that?


KAHN: He says the history is more complicated. Mexicans are not all of mixed race - half-Spanish, half-Indigenous. Passersby like Luisa Munoz take offense at that whitewashed version of history, which minimizes present-day native cultures.

LUISA MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: They're overly romanticizing our history, says Munoz. In fact, the conquest set in motion centuries of subjugation and discrimination for the country's Indigenous. This makes commemorating the 500th anniversary of that last battle painful to many. Attempting to reckon with that turbulent past, city leaders have spent the summer removing conquistador names from roadways and other sites. Like many other places in the world these days, Mexico is still wrestling with its history.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tenochtitlan, Mexico City.


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