This article is from the July 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
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El Castillo de Chapultepec

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributor from Maine who lived in Cuernevaca as a child and would prefer to be living in Mexico now. Thus, she spends every possible moment studying, exploring and visiting friends there. She teaches courses in The History of Mexico and Popular Arts of Mexico at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, and is also a published travel photographer. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures.  

It totally boggles my mind, but all the times I have been to Mexico City, no one ever asks me if I have seen Chapultepec Castle. The Anthropology Museum, yes, the Museum of Modern Art, yes, Belles Artes, oh yes. But not one driver, tour guide or friend has ever suggested that the Castle would be something interesting to see.  

Fortunately, on my second trip to the Big City, I found it myself. Standing at the entrance to Chapultepec Park, I noticed the stone structure on the hill peeking through the trees with the Mexican flag flying from it and asked a cop what it was. He explained about the castle being the one-time home of Mexican presidents – and added that it housed the President’s throne that Pancho Villa had once sat in and a large Juan O’Gorman mural – and I decided it was worth taking a look.  

Because it was late in the day and I was afraid the museum would close, I ran up the hill to get to the entrance, but every ten minutes or so, there is a little open train that takes viewers to the top of the hill and back down again. Since then, I make it a point to go back whenever I can, and I never get tired of it. Once through the large stone gates, the castle lies to the left and to the right are several manicured half-circle gardens designed by the Empress Carlotta overlooking a panoramic view of downtown Mexico City. To be honest, most days the smog is thick and the view is partially obscured, but early this spring, my husband and I went back for maybe the tenth time and we had a sunny and absolutely clear (if you can believe it) day, where everything was shining and clean and you could see all the way to the zocalo and beyond.  

The first entrance into the castle leads to an open room that houses the carriage that the ill-fated Emperor Maximillian brought with him when he was sent by Napoleon III to rule Mexico. It is a large baroque carriage that totally reflects the ostentatious character of Maximillan’s era, especially when you notice the simple small black vehicle beside it that brought Benito Juarez to the castle when he became Mexico’s president. From this room, you round the corner and proceed to a long hall exhibiting objects from Mexico’s long and varied history. At the end of the hall, encased in glass, is the large wooden throne upholstered in red velvet that we’ve all seen in the famous photograph of Pancho Villa with Emiliano Zapata next to him on the sole occasion when they met during the Mexican Revolution.  

From there, it’s outdoors again to the spacious balconies that overlook the extraordinary green of Chapultepec Park with the lake in the center and the massive amusement park off to the left. Walking along the balconies, one can turn to the right and see into the carefully restored rooms of the castle that housed, in their time, Carlotta and Maximilian, Porfirio Diaz during his 34-year-presidency, and several presidents after him. Before the advent of Maximilian, the castle was a military school and fort, and in the year 1938, then-President Lazaro Cardenas deeded it to the city as a historical museum and moved to the Governor’s Palace fronting the zocalo. As you pass around the front of the castle, you are treated to a breathtaking view of the length of Paseo de la Reforma, constructed by Maximillan to ease his daily trip to work on the zocalo. On a clear day, Alameda Park and Belles Artes gleam in the sun.  

After you traverse the pristine formal gardens in the center of the castle, you enter the museum rooms that exhibit the clothes, weapons, personal possessions, furnishings, coins and other belongings of all of the former occupants of the building, as well as some of the most important historical art of Mexico. Also, there are rooms that house temporary exhibitions – this last time, a mixed exhibit of Mexico’s Mestizo heritage that included a striking Diego Rivera painting that I had never seen before. The last room is home to Juan O’Gorman’s interpretation of Mexico’s political and social history, a long curving mural with benches placed along its length for comfortable viewing. Upon leaving this room, it is outdoors again to the Garden of the Pergolas, with its fountains, statuary, and, again, striking view of the park.  

This museum is one of the most enjoyable I have visited throughout Mexico, but I rarely encounter another American there. If you go on a weekday, you will most likely be joined by, conservatively, 50,000 Mexican school children, but this is not a problem. They are so well-behaved that it is a pleasure to watch them absorb their own heritage. Occasionally I have met a lost European tourist, and once, two California college girls who had been sent by a Mexican boy they met in a disco. On the weekends, Mexican families by the hundreds tour the rooms and balconies and enjoy picnic lunches in the gardens, as entrance fees to all historical sites in Mexico are free on Sundays.  

I will never understand why no one seems to think this site to be of interest to Americans, or why Americans do not seem to visit it. On the top of this historic hill is a remarkable window into a critical period in Mexico’s chaotic modern history, and there is much to be found there that provides important insight into the influences that have formed the Mexico we find today in many of the cities we visit the most. For example, looking at the objects in the museum and the furnishings of the rooms helps in great measure to understand the French influence found so often throughout the central and Gulf areas of the country. Next time you’re in Mexico City, for about $4.50 a person, and $1 for the train, you can peek through this remarkable window into Mexico’s history – I know you won’t be sorry.