Early summer is when the rains come to Mexico's dry central valley. It is an area that was once almost filled by the emerald waters of Lake Texcoco, in the midst of which the Aztecs built their golden city of Tenochtitlan on a small group of islands.
The lake has long since dried out, and the ancient capital has been replaced by the modern urban metropolis that is Mexico City. Yet, almost as if by clockwork, the sometimes-torrential downpours fall each evening as they have for centuries.The rains have a soothing effect on today's city, cooling the air from the heat of the sun-scorched day and clearing the smog that chokes the daytime sky.
Off in the distance, the majestic volcanoes Popocateptl and Iztaccihuatl come into view, dominating the mountains that encircle the 11/2-mile-high city on three sides.
At dusk, the sprawling city bustles at a pace somewhat more relaxed than earlier in the day. The tragafuegos - firebreathers - have packed up their cans of kerosene and left the busy intersections where they spit out fire for change from motorists waiting at red lights during the daily rush hour.
In the old central square, the Zocalo, the daily gathering of Indian vendors and artisans begins to disperse as they slip down into the clean, smooth subway that costs about 10 cents a ride.
As each day ends, it is as if one large spontaneous ritual had reached its conclusion, as if the city which was once the spiritual and cultural home to this continent's predominant civilization were still governed by the ceremony of the powerful Aztecs and their mighty gods.
But modern-day Mexico is a mestizo nation, a distinctive and proud culture born from the painful blending of the Indians and Spanish.
Its heritage is evident at almost every corner. It is there in the many churches of past centuries, built in the Spanish colonial style but built with Aztec eyes and hands and the same red volcanic rock once used for Indian monuments and temples. It is there in the monuments to Cuauhtemoc and other Aztec warriors that line the wide, tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma, a boulevard that was built by the French-installed emperor Maximilian and runs down the center of the city. It is there in the public works of the renowned muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.
And it is evident in the faces of the people themselves, about 90 percent of whom are of mixed Indian and Spanish lineage.
In many ways, Mexico City is full of contradictions to the senses, overwhelming because of its sheer numbers - it is home to nearly 20 million people - and size, yet comforting because of its resplendent beauty and warmth. But to try to define it and its people compactly would be an almost futile endeavor. Adjectives and slogans that are often easily tagged to many of the world's capitals somehow seem to fall short when they are applied here.
For this city's beauty is intertwined and inseparable from its history - a history of century upon century of tales of glory followed by destruction and of hope shattered by betrayal.
Yet Mexico, as the city is known to Mexicans, refuses to give in. Even the strong earthquakes that shake its foundations, rattle its walls and sometimes bring buildings to the ground with devastating force have not broken the city.
It is almost as if in defiance of these destructive historical and natural forces that everywhere, on souvenirs, T-shirts and chalked as graffiti on many walls in the city's center is the declaration "Mexico sigue a pie" - "Mexico is still standing."
With little ceremony or buildup, my Mexican companion, civil engineer Juan Antonio Ortiz, led me into a simple 16th century church on the corner of El Salvador and Pino Suarez: El Templo de Jesus Nazaro. In a departure from the Catholic murals depicting saints, angels, virgins and images of Jesus Christ, here worshippers were confronted with violent scenes from the Apocalypse on the ceiling. "Orozco said Ortiz, voicing the artist's name in a whisper. He then pointed to a plaque on the left side of the altar. It bore the inscription: Hernan Cortes, 1485-1547.
There was nothing more to tell you that this was where the remains of the conquistador were buried.
When Cortes and his bearded army arrived at the golden city of Tenochtitlan in 1519, they encountered a metropolis of more than 100,000 people, a city less than 200 years old but larger than any European city at the time. It was built on a lake with canals instead of streets and full of pyramids, palaces, markets and temples the likes of which the awestruck Spanish soldiers had never seen.
Within two years, the city was destroyed, and in its place Cortes and his followers set about building Mexico City as the elegant Latin American capital of their empire.
Unfortunately, there is little that remains standing of Tenochtitlan - little to remind you of the advanced Aztec civilization in the way the monumental pyramids of nearby Teotihuacan entrance the visitor into daydreams of ancient days.
Much of Tenochtitlan is still buried under the Zocalo, the city's main plaza, which is surrounded by the 16th century cathedral, the National Palace - the president's residence, which ironically enough stands over Montezuma's palace - among many other colonial buildings. The remains of the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, of Tenochtitlan and the accompanying museum that houses the relics found there during the recent excavations form an indelible part of the heart and soul of the city.
But Mexico City is a place of many centuries. Despite the fact that they are slowly sinking because the city was built on the soft lake bed, the glorious 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings erected when this was the capital of all Latin America are living testimony to the architectural legacy of the Aztec descendants who built them.
The many ornate museums erected following Mexico's independence from Spain are a testament to a legacy of artistic expression that is also eloquently expressed in the abundant murals that decorate many of those buildings and museums.
And it is also a cosmopolitan city of the 20th century, as the many restaurants and clubs that line the streets of the Zona Rosa, or the clothes boutiques of the Polanco neighborhood, or the reflective glass towers along Reforma can attest.
Perhaps no urban capital has gained as bad a reputation among foreigners as Mexico City has.
Just before my departure, many of my gringo friends raised their eyebrows and gave me puzzled looks that when translated said: "Why on earth are you going there on your vacation? If you're going to Mexico, why not go to Acapulco or Cancun?"
Because you cannot possibly know Mexico without getting to know Mexico City.
Most of the bad rap - and a lot of it is justly deserved - revolves around the factories and cars that fill the air with pollution most days, sometimes irritating the eyes and throats of the unaccustomed.
It is also quite true that the city is bursting at the seams with people. And new arrivals from the Mexican countryside are still packing up and heading to la capital in the hope of finding economic improvement in an already overburdened city.
But I found that the riches the capital has to offer more than compensate for the maladies the 20th century has wrought.
And there are many places within Mexico City where you can escape from the hustle and bustle of the urban street scene.
Chapultepec Park is one of them. On any Sunday afternoon, this park, which was once the exclusive retreat for imperial nobles during the colonial era, becomes the backyard for hundreds of thousands of Mexico City's residents. By subway and by bus, families come here from throughout the city to sit on the grass and eat in the shade of the many trees, play games, go boating in the lake, visit the impressive collection of the nearby Museum of Anthropology or just relax.
And other places, such as the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco or the neighborhoods of San Angel and Coyoacan, also offer reprieves from the fast pace of the city.
AeroMexico, Mexicana, Pan Am, Delta, Continental and American Airlines fly to Mexico City from New York. Round-trip ticket prices range from $406 to $489 depending on departure dates and availability.
Forget about renting a car; they're hard to come by and driving in the city can be a real headache. It is easy to find cabs - and they are inexpensive, but settle the fare before you step inside. If you'll be spending a while in the city, take time out to get to know the subway. It costs 10 cents for a smooth, fast ride - although it can get pretty cramped during rush hour.
WHERE TO STAY:
Mexico City has a wide variety of good hotels at low prices. The Hotel de Cortes - an 18th century colonial landmark - on Avenida Hidalgo is one of the most traditionally Mexican hotels in the city. A double room costs $53 per night. The Howard Johnson Grand Hotel - done up in Belle Epoque splendor - on 16 de Septiembre near the Zocalo is one of the most elegant hotels I've seen anywhere. A double room there ranges from $55 to $70 per night. More modest accommodations are available at the Maria Cristina on Rio Lerma near the fashionable Zona Rosa or the Hotel Bamer, which faces the Alameda park in the historic district. A good - and centrally located - budget bet is the Hotel Fleming on Revillagigedo.
WHERE TO EAT;
Lunch time is around 3 p.m. and dinner is usually after 9 p.m. The Cafe Tacuba on Tacuba, in the middle of the bustling , has great enchiladas and a very pleasant, quiet atmosphere The Del Lago near Chapultepec Park is one of the city's best known dining spots and is beautifully situated overlooking a lake. There are many good restaurants in the Zona Rosa. A good meal for two averages about $50 including wine. And for a refreshing drink, try some of the tropical juice bars throughout town.
Visit the Museo de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park to see a vast collection of centuries-old relics from the Teotihuacan, Mexica (Aztec), Oaxacan and Mayan cultures. The Palacio de Bellas Artes near the Zocalo houses work from the great muralists. Murals by Diego Rivera can be seen at the Palacio Nacional on the Zocalo and at the Ministry of Public Education at Argentina, 28. The National Pr eparatory School on Justo Sierra, houses some of Jose Clemente Orozco's finest work and is a notable example of how he incorporated architecture into his murals.
No visit to Mexico City would be complete without a visit to the magnificent pyramids at Teotihuacan, just a half hour's drive north of the city. To the south, I recommend a visit to Taxco, a breathtaking silver-mining city built on a green mountainside. It is about a two-hour drive. Tour services are available through most hotels. Or you could take the bus.
A FEW TIPS:
That's right, don't drink the tap water. Hotels provide free bottled water. And be wary of asking for ice in your drinks when you go out. Many visitors feel tired for a few days after their arrival because of the city's altitude; it's normal. Guides offer their services at many popular destinations. If you want to make sure what you're hearing is accurate, hire guides who carry government photo ID cards.