Mexico City – a vast, sprawling cultural melting pot, all blaring-horns, shimmering energy, ablaze with a typically Mexican riot of color and noise. But underneath the thriving and thrusting of a modern city, many visitors may fail to hear the subtle tremors of a more ancient civilization. Listen carefully enough, though, and you may just be able to hear the whispered chants from the ancient city before Mexico City – the whispers of Tenochtitlan, as the Aztecs called their capital city on the lake.
Truly a wonder of its age, the archaeology site of Tenochtitlan was a floating mirage in the middle of Lake Texcoco, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519. It was also one of the largest cities in the world at that time, rivaling Paris and Venice. Dikes fed fresh spring water to the city's streets, floating gardens encircled the island, and temples to the gods of the Sun and Moon towered over the plazas of a city that was home to as many as 200,000 people. But all of that glory was lost when the Spanish razed the city to the ground in 1521.
Or has it? The lake that protected Tenochtitlan may be long gone, the pyramid temples may not pierce the city's skyline, but the bones of the 800-year old Aztec city are to be found just under your feet. More than that, a vibrant echo of the Aztecs is very much alive in the color and spectacle of Mexico City's modern inhabitants. Because the Aztecs didn't disappear with their city – they are still here, in the smiles and chatter of the people you meet on the avenues of this fascinating city.
For those wishing to discover that long-shrouded Aztec culture, the most obvious starting point is the Museo del Temple Mayor. There, the hidden bones of Tenochtitlan have been bought back into the light, and made accessible to all. The unearthing, in 1978, of the 10-foot stone disk inscribed with the distorted form of the Moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui, kicked off the digging for the city's history. It hasn't stopped since.
Only a few years ago, another major find was made when archaeologists dug out the 11-foot statue of the Rain god, Tlaloc. The museum hosts an amazing array of these, and other archaeological treasures, all unearthed from around the biggest Aztec temple, the Temple Mayor. It also has walkways stringing over the exposed ruins, allowing an unparalleled vista of the streets, temple-steps and statues of the original city. But the visitor to Mexico City shouldn't leave their quest for the real Aztec city at the museum doors – the old city shows up elsewhere too, in some unexpected places.
The Temple Mayor may be long gone, but it still lives on in spirit in the Zócalo plaza – the vast and dramatic 'lung' at the heart of the modern city. The plaza was created by Spaniard Alonso Garcia Bravo, shortly after the Conquest, but it was paved with the hefty Aztec-era stones of the Temple Mayor. And the Catholic Cathedral was also built from the stones of that pagan temple. Even the baroque splendor of National Palace is fashioned from the stones of the palace of Aztec ruler Moctezuma II.
But away from these dead relics of Tenochtitlan, you can also breathe something of the original spirit of Aztec times. In the south of the modern city, there are still fragments of the original lake, in the area called Xochimilco. Here, some of the original Aztec canals frame the floating gardens, called chinampas, which fed the city of Tenochtitlan in precolonial times. Some of these are still being farmed in the traditional way. You can hire gaudily-colored canal boats, or trajineras, to glide your way around them, just as happened in Tenochtitlan's heyday.
You can also see echoes of Aztec times in the sweat-lodges, or temazcalli, which are becoming increasingly popular again around the city. Like a Mexican interpretation of the sauna, the idea of the temazcal is to purify mind, spirit and body with steam generated from hot volcanic rocks. Once just archaeological curiosities, a resurgence of interest in the old ways has seen modern temazcalli open their steam-rooms to visitors.
So whether you want to rediscover the splendor of the Aztec city, or immerse yourself in the experience passed on through the generations, Mexico City can offer it all. All you need do is listen out for call of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan beneath the thrum of Mexico City's traffic.
This guest post is contributed by Wozniacki, a fitness instructor who owns a website offering fitness tips & workout plans at BuildMuscle.org