Mexico City tours: Explore historic sites before they sink and disappear

Steady on there, Venice. Sure, your city is slowly sinking into the canals, but at a paltry rate of a few millimetres each year. By comparison, Mexico City is in freefall, diving up to one metre annually in some parts. Many experts reckon it won't see the 22nd century.

I'm hearing this sobering news in the Metropolitan Cathedral, the oldest and largest cathedral in all of Latin America. The devoted are taking Mass, as the organist pounds out theatrical notes. From where I'm standing, stage left of the massive altar, the floor is clearly tilting down to the right. Sunday morning worshippers might wonder if they drank a bit too much tequila the night before. In truth, the cathedral has been sinking since construction began, almost 500 years ago. Call it a case of shaky foundations, a failure to heed the age-old wisdom of location, location, location.

I've joined an Urban Adventures private tour of Mexico City, a wide-ranging walk-and-talk fest that offers a solid introduction to a destination currently enjoying a tourism boom. We'll be ticking off some major sites, eating tacos for lunch and getting a crash course on Mexico City's history.

The Aztec empire settled in this place close to 700 years ago, building a city, Tenochtitlan, in the middle of a lake formed by a volcanic crater. A city built on a lake, you say? Sounds like a kind of Latin American Venice. It was all because of an auspicious sign from above.

"Wherever the gods led them to find an eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus, that was where they would settle," tour guide Julio says. "And this is where they found it."

Today, the fearsome eagle atop a prickly pear cactus with a rattlesnake clenched in its beak is featured on the Mexican flag and on peso coins. It's a reminder of a proud and mighty indigenous empire, eventually conquered by the Spaniards in 1521.

We meet in the downtown historical district, at the spot where the main temple of the ancient city was uncovered in 1978. The way Julio tells it, the ground was being dug up for underground cables when workmen struck an enormous monolith, weighing more than eight tonnes. Work was stopped, as the realisation dawned that the site was of inestimable archaeological value. They had found the tip of the iceberg buried underneath the current metropolis: Templo Mayor, a mighty temple that had once been at the centre of the Aztec world.

"It was a surprise to find it here, because it had always been assumed the temple was underneath the cathedral," Julio says. "During the conquest, all the original documents and plans had been lost, because victors write history. They wanted this incredible civilisation to be forgotten by the native people, but thanks to the excavations it resurfaced."

With the Europeans came rapid construction, as they filled in the lake and began a long, difficult process to destroy the original city, replacing it with Spanish-style architecture and that enormous cathedral.

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Add on top of that almost 500 years of urban development in a city that now houses nine million people, many of them in high-rise buildings, and you get a sinking feeling. Architects and engineers are working hard on solutions, in a race against time, as the city slowly sinks back into the lake from which it sprang.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/mexico

visitmexico.com

FLY

Virgin Australia flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles. Onwards, take a direct flight to Mexico City (about 3.5 hours) on Aeromexico. See virginaustralia.com; aeromexico.com

STAY

Hotel Ritz Ciudad de Mexico is located on a pedestrian shopping street in the historic downtown district of Mexico City. See hotelritz.mx

TOUR

Urban Adventures' Private Mexico City: Hidden Mexico tour runs for seven hours and includes a local guide, entrance fees, public transportation and food samples. It is priced for a minimum group size of two at $US198. Solo travellers may still book but will be charged the base rate for two travellers. See urbanadventures.com

Kristie Kellahan travelled to Mexico as a guest of Los Cabos Tourism and took the tour as a guest of Urban Adventures.