Land of the Mojito and Metropolis; Part 1 – Mexico City & Around

Mexico’ is a fascinating geographical term. It is place name that can be applied at various scales and is most familiar as the country name for an incredibly dynamic piece of Earth’s continental crust. Mexico the country is the almost 2 million square kilometre tapering tract of the North American continent, feeding into the narrow land-bridge of Central America. At the next scale down the Estado de Mexico, or State of Mexico, is a horseshoe shaped-state surrounding the City of the same name. Much of this state (population approximately 16 million) is formed of contiguous urban sprawl spill-over from the capital and world megacity. Last but by no-means least, Mexico City itself or Ciudad de México (CDMX formerly the Distrito Federal) is the densely populated core and high-altitude heart of the Mexican nation, with 9 million inhabitants packed into an area of just 1500 square kilometres.

Mexico is a land of extreme geographical diversity. Geology, landscape, climate, people and wildlife are all on display at their most vibrant. It is the complex and sometimes highly chaotic ways in which all of these things coexist in Mexico that create its unique appeal.

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Mexico City sprawling away into the distance as our aircraft from Atlanta descends into the City’s airport.

My Mexican journey commenced in Mexico City, being launched into this 2250 m megacity at it’s most common international gateway, the Aeropuerto Internacional Mexico City on Saturday 14th October. The flight across the Gulf of Mexico from Atlanta provided some fine views of cumulonimbus storm clouds, towering and vapour laden into the high atmosphere and a stark reminder of the hurricane season that had devastated many parts of the Caribbean and Gulf through the early-autumn (and of course the climate-forcing link with aircraft emissions). Our post-sunset descent into Mexico City was most dramatic. With flitting views through storm clouds of the sprawling city lights, air turbulence and lightening, it was an exciting welcome to Mexico City. We were soon on the tarmac and battling Mexico City’s infamous traffic as we made our way to the Alameda in the City Centre.

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The Palicio de Bellas Artes, part of the hispanic centre of Mexico City around the Alameda Park.

The purpose of the visit was to accompany and assist with a field trip of Lancaster University Management School students led by Dr. Alison Stowell of the Department of Organisation Work and Technology. The students were guests, observers and volunteers at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) annual council member meeting in the Hilton Reforma Mexico City. The conference ran from Monday to Wednesday with fascinating insights into world-leading and practical sustainable development projects that many of the WBCSD member-companies are delivering. Largely built around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the conference provided an insight into the role of business, third sector and political collaboration in achieving progress in sustainability. WBCSD working groups collaborate on a wide-diversity of issues, from cities to packaging, logistics, transport and the circular economy. A stand out discussion for me was a session led by the WBCSD Climate and Energy group and The Nature Conservancy around Natural Climate Solutions. This featured a new report in PNAS demonstrating the extent, speed and low-cost relative to other (yet equally important) hard-engineering/energy solutions of implementing nature-preserving, enhancing or restoration based solutions in the mitigation of climate change. The report demonstrates that the conservation or restoration of forests, wetlands, grasslands and agricultural lands leading to increased carbon storage or avoided emissions from degradation can contribute up to one third of emissions reductions required to meet the Paris Climate Agreement (Ref 1: Griscom et al., 2017).

After three days at the conference centre, Thursday was the first of two one-day excursions and the first chance to get a glimpse of rural Mexico, right on the periphery of the city basin. Setting out early from central Mexico City, the group were privileged to be joined by Professor Gail Whitman and Dr Rodney Irwin from Lancaster University’s Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business and the WBCSD respectively. The destination for the day was the Centro Educativo para el Desarrollo Rural (CEDER), an ecological lifestyles education centre located in Huixquilucan, west of Mexico City in the State of Mexico at an altitude of approximately 3000 m. We were given an in-depth tour of the various buildings, water harvesting, energy and food production techniques that are demonstrated at the centre, and learnt of their significance for building sustainable communities in rural Mexico, where water scarcity is often a significant problem. We were then set to work in small groups, assisting with some of the latest tasks; building a bio-dynamic bed or a rammed earth wall.

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The Centro Educativo para el Desarrollo Rural (CEDER) sustainable development education and community centre.

For Friday’s excursion we headed approximately 40 km north of the City out into the State of Mexico once again to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Teotihuacán. This extensive archeological site pre-dates the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (current Mexico City), with very little known about the civilisation that built the great pyramids and surrounding spiritual city over a period of just over a millennium from 600 BCE. Indeed, the city was even abandoned by the time the Aztecs arrived in the great lake-filled basin that is now Mexico City. Indeed it was the Aztecs who gave the ancient city it’s name of Teotihuacán, meaning ‘the place where men became gods’ (Ref 2: Baverstock et al., 2016). The twin masterpieces of the site are the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon which can be climbed to reveal the most incredible panoramas of the site and the sheer scale and extent of earth and stone movement required in the construction Teotihuacán. Our visit included a guided tour of the archaeological site followed by the full Mexican experience over lunch at a bistro on the periphery of site; tequila and sombrero’s were in no short supply. Thanks to our guides Sahara and Jorge from Tours Aeropuerto Mexico City for organising this memorable excursion and also for shuttling us from/to Mexico City airport.

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caption about piramide de la lune

Saturday morning was departure day for Alison and the Lancaster team. We said our farewells at the Delta check-in desks at the airport, and with that marked the transition to the next phase of my Mexican journey. Before moving on from Mexico City, I had one more full day in the city as I was taking the overnight bus onwards and westwards that evening. For my last day in the city, I was very lucky to have a personal tour guide; Elena a family friend, seasoned Mexico City resident but also globally itinerant academic. Elena studied for a period at Cardiff University when I was at primary school. We had a fantastic run-around day exploring far and wide across the city. From the grand hill-top Chapultepec Castle set within the verdant Chapultepec Park to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, Elena took me to some high vantage points where the extent of Mexico’s megacity could really be appreciated. So vast is Mexico’s urban basin that on a warm Saturday afternoon the often unbroken cityscape simply merged into a horizon of pollution haze with the mountainous rim beyond obscured from view. The unaware city dweller would be forgiven for forgetting about the presence, only 60 km away to the southeast, of two 5000 m stratovolcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl. Elena really got me into the Mexican lifestyle and set the context for my week of travel ahead. We even rode a pesero (bus) and trolleybus to get that full-on Mexico City transport experience.

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An unexpectedly green view across the Mexico Cityscape. Looking west towards the Lomas de Tecamachalco where a number of new skyscrapers were being built.

Mexico City displays human development at its most chaotic and illogical. A sprawling metropolis built on unconsolidated, former lake-bed sediments in a high-altitude, arid basin within one of the most seismically and volcanically active parts of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Indeed, Mexico had been rocked by two intense earthquakes during September, with the 19th September 7.1 moment magnitude Central Mexico Earthquake bringing significant consequences to the people and structures of Mexico City. It seems like the most unlikely location for one of the worlds largest settlements. And yet, here it is, continuing to grow at an exponential rate, largely through sprawling suburbs of self-built dwellings. Meanwhile the urban infrastructure, bursting at the seams, struggles to keep pace with the overture of honking horns. But despite all these challenges, the outlook of Mexico City is of an incredibly cheerful and resourceful city with a bold ‘getting on with the job’ mentality. The city, and country as a whole as I was to discover in part 2 of this journey is in every way enjoyable, fascinating and vibrant. And somehow ‘the system’, whether transport or accommodation, ‘just works’ in a very non-conventional (to the European traveller) manner. More in part 2.

References:

1. Griscom, B.W, et al. (2017) Natural climate solutions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS); 114 (44), pp. 11645-11650.

2.  Baverstock, A., Hull, S., Keeling, S. and Meghji, S. (2016). The Rough Guide to Mexico. 10th ed. London: Rough Guides Ltd, pp. 142-147.

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