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The most important and significant educational body in the whole of Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot

During our visit to Mexico City, we travelled to the quaint suburb of Coyoacan, which as well as having a delightful centre is also the home of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or UNAM). Getting there from the heart of Mexico City is a little challenging but a combination of the metro, bus or Uber will get you there. We did this as part of a tour to Coyoacan and Frida Kahlo’s Blue House.

UNAM’s campus is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was designed by some of Mexico’s best-known architects of the 20th century. Murals in the main campus were painted by some of the most recognized artists in Mexican history, such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The award of UNESCO status to the Central University City Campus of UNAM was a result of it being:

“a unique example of 20th-century modernism, exhibiting the integration of urbanism, architecture, engineering, landscape design and fine arts, combined with references to local traditions”

The History 

Founded in its modern form in September 1910 it obtained independence from government control in 1929, leaving it free to determine its own direction and define its own curriculum. It has developed strong research programmes across a diverse range of topics including robotics, computer science, mathematics, physics, human-computer interaction, history, philosophy, among others. All Mexican Nobel laureates are either alumni or faculty of UNAM.

The campus is vast and is more akin to a city. The main campus alone covers nearly 3 square miles and is home to more than 350,000 students.

Prospective students need only a high school diploma, proof of residency and a little luck. Applicants are assigned a number that is fed into a computer, which randomly selects the new freshman class.  In 2016, it had an acceptance rate of only 8%. There are no entrance exams at the Autonomous University of Mexico City. No checking of school records. No interviews. No financial aid forms, since attendance is free.

The university and its system of 16 feeder high schools were launched in 2001 by then-Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (now President of Mexico).

The Murals 

My real interest in visiting UNAM was to see the murals. There are 10 murals in total spread throughout the main campus – sadly we only had time to see a handful.

Originally opened in 1956, the library building is the most prominent of the murals and is the work of renowned artist Juan O’Gorman. Though the building’s architecture is blocky, windowless, and monolithic, the artist created colourful designs that cover the entire surface of all four sides. The designs were inspired by a quartet of historical epochs, with the north wall representing the pre-Hispanic period; the south wall, the colonial period; the east wall, the modern era; and the west wall, the university’s history.

The Juan O'Gorman Murals on the UNAM Central Library

A highly symbolic mural covers the side of a Faculty of Medicine building at the UNAM. The mural is encircled by a rattlesnake, its forked tongue flickering between its fangs. The midsection of this gigantic serpent is shown to have burst into flames, from which rise tendrils of smoke.

Artwork created by Francisco Eppens in 1951 on Medicine Faculty
La conquista de la energía, José Chávez Morado. (The conquest of energy)

One of my favourite murals is painted in relief on the entrance to UNAM’s rectory. “The people to the University, the University to the people” is an impressive three dimensional mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros and depicts five students climbing stairs, carrying in their hands’ representative objects of the knowledge acquired in the university.

Mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros

In summary … 

I was somewhat dubious as to why this University might have been awarded its status by UNESCO but having visited the murals alone convinced me it was deserved. I am not a big fan of modernist architecture – it is a bit too square and blocky for my taste – but the concept of developing this University as a central pillar in an urban community is very impressive and it is clear to see how this establishment has made a major contribution to Mexico’s culture, academia and societal development.

Planning your visit

The best place to head for is the library on the UNAM campus, which is located in Coyoacán. We did this visit as part of a tour that included visiting the Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo museum.

Alternatively, you can get there by public transport or taxi. Beware this is a huge campus and you could easily get lost!

Best time to visit Mexico City

The best time to visit Mexico City is between March and May, even though the streets are pretty crowded this time of year. Your trade-off is beautiful weather, especially considering the city’s winters can be chilly and the summers can be rainy. You’ll want to prepare yourself for the high elevation – Mexico City sits about 7,382 feet above sea level – by drinking plenty of water, slathering on sunscreen and taking it easy (and limiting alcohol intake) your first few days. Another thing to keep in mind: Mexico City’s air pollution is notoriously poor, so on days when the pollution is the worst you’ll likely want to travel with a mask and relegate yourself to indoor activities.

Where to stay in Mexico City

1. CITY CENTRO CUIDAD DE MEXICO

During our stay in Mexico City we stayed at the City Centro Cuidad de Mexico. The outside of the hotel looks typically colonial but the inside is modern. Our room was comfortable, the only drawback being there were no windows. If you want those you’ll need to get a room at the front of the hotel which might be a little noisy.

The best thing about this hotel is its location. It is only a short walk to Plaza del Zócalo, the main shopping areas and the Palais de Bellas Artes. 

It is also close to many restaurants and bars as well as the metro stations.

2. HOTEL VILLA CONDESA

Located in the bohemian neighbourhood of La Condesa, this accommodation is surrounded by stylish bars, restaurants and unique shops. Paseo de La Reforma Avenue is 10 minutes’ walk.

Featuring classic décor in warm colours, Hotel Villa Condesa offers modern rooms with a flat-screen TV and free Wi-Fi. Each has a private bathroom with hairdryer and free toiletries, while some of them have a balcony.

Common areas of Villa Condesa include a charming terrace with tables and chairs, as well as a dining room. Guests can enjoy international cuisine and traditional Mexican coffee. A laundry service is available for an extra cost.

3. HOTEL MX ROMA

Attractively set in the Roma district of Mexico City, Hotel MX roma is situated 1.2 miles from The Angel of Independence, 1.4 miles from United States Embassy and 1.7 miles from Chapultepec Castle. Boasting family rooms, this property also provides guests with a terrace. The property has a fitness centre, free WiFi throughout the property and a 24-hour front desk.

The hotel will provide guests with air-conditioned rooms offering a wardrobe, a safety deposit box, a TV and a private bathroom with a shower. At Hotel MX roma rooms are fitted with bed linen and towels.

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