YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Destination: Mexico City : Central Park South : Rejuvenated Chapultepec, the Soul of the Capital, May Now Be One of the World's Finest Urban Parks

August 28, 1994|ROBERT REINHOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Reinhold is an editorial writer for The Times

MEXICO CITY — This is the capital and heart of Mexico. But to find the core and soul of Mexico City, one must visit Chapultepec Park on a Sunday.

In a city of magnificent public spaces and public art, Chapultepec is the ultimate open space, green and egalitarian, open to all for free. Nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park, the 1,561-acre Chapultepec is probably the world's busiest and, arguably, finest urban park.

To Chilangos , as Mexico City residents call themselves, it serves as a prime source of recreation and surcease from urban chaos and pollution, a verdant refuge in what is now the world's most populous metropolis with nearly 20 million people, and growing rapidly.

They visit the park at a rate of more than a million and a half a week, mainly on weekends and holidays, when the crush nearly rivals the Mexico City subway in rush hour. They picnic, cycle, stroll, boat, and drink in Mexican history, art and culture in the park's eight superb museums.

Though I am a regular visitor to Mexico, I had not been to the capital for more than 10 years. I recall the park then as run-down and scarred by litter, with many of its trees dying from pollution. On a return visit this August, I found the park still very crowded, but transformed and vastly more attractive.

In recent years the Mexico City government has poured more than $70 million into renovating and updating the park, or the bosque (forest), as it is called locally. They planted thousands of new trees, intensified the long-standing war on rats, shut down and remodeled run-down restaurants and cafes, and built a dazzling new museum for children, Museo del Nino el Papalote, which opened nine months ago.

They also brought in a private company to remodel a decrepit, 30-year-old amusement park, La Feria. After an $18-million, three-month face-lift, it reopened last December with 49 new rides and has quickly become a major national attraction. Little wonder: For only $6 total, a family of four can spend the whole day, with 30 free rides per person.


But nothing has energized Chapultepec quite so much as the reopening of its 60-year-old Zoologico (zoo) on Aug. 1 after a two-year, $71-million renovation. The zoo was designed by the renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta, who also redesigned Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. It reflects his stark planar style, with bright yellows and purples, and drew such crushing crowds--150,000 people--on its first day that the authorities had to shut it down for a few days to revamp security arrangements.

The reincarnation is part of Mexico City's attempt to redefine itself and make itself more attractive to visitors, both foreign and Mexican.

I was impressed with the changes: The once-clogged streets in the historic city center near the cathedral and national palace have been cleared of street vendors in a complex political arrangement whereby thousands of them were relocated to small stalls in newly built malls.

Bicycle-drawn taxis have been introduced downtown to reduce air pollution and congestion. And efforts are being made to upgrade the traditional tourist center in the Zona Rosa, which has become somewhat seedy in recent years.

Chapultepec is steeped in Mexican history. It was an Aztec ceremonial site more than 700 years ago, and later an aqueduct was built to carry water from its spring to Tenochtitlan, the great pyramid city 25 miles northeast of downtown Mexico City. Legend has it that the profligate Montezuma II kept an aviary in Chapultepec and maintained a human-relay system of 900 people to bring fresh fish to feed the birds every day from Veracruz 240 miles away.

With the Spanish invasion by Hernando Cortes, the forest became a site for bloody battles in 1521, and the Spanish built a castle on Chapultepec Hill in the 18th Century.

With Mexico's declaration of independence from Spain in 1810, Chapultepec was declared public property and served an important role in the century-long interim between liberty and democracy. The castle was the home for Emperor Maximilian and, later, for Mexican presidents. It is now a museum of Mexican history; the current president still lives in the park, in a mansion just behind the Russian Mountain roller coaster.


I stayed at the Hotel Nikko on the northern edge of the park, adjoining the fashionable Polanco residential area. That area is becoming a new tourist destination, with luxury hotels and restaurants. In addition to the Nikko, there is the Presidente Inter-Continental Mexico City and, to open later this year, the 300-room Mandarin Oriental Mexico.

From these hotels, it is an easy walk to the famed Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology), the zoo and botanical gardens.

Los Angeles Times Articles