The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known as the UNAM, is the biggest and most important public university in Mexico, known for the quality and breadth of its research and programs. There are campuses and research centers around the country but the main campus is in Mexico City, in the delegation of Coyoacán. A truly public university, students pay fifty cents to study there, creating a level playing field that promotes social mobility in Mexico.
Apart from the academics, the UNAM also serves as a cultural hub for Mexico City, its campus named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can see a wide variety of high-quality performances or concerts here and the campus is open to the community. On a Sunday afternoon you will see groups of people running along the paths, playing touch football or frisbee, throwing balls to their dogs, or student groups practicing traditional dances or even aerial silks. In a city with little green space, the giant campus filled with trees and grass serves as a lung for the city and a lovely spot for exercising or hanging out. If you need more specific reasons to visit the UNAM though, here are six reasons that you should visit the campus, even if your trip is relatively short.
1. The Murals
There are many murals on or near Las Islas, the main quad on campus (as well as many more all over campus), each representing an important time for the UNAM and for Mexico. The most impressive, by Juan O’Gorman, completely covers the Biblioteca Central, made up of colorful rocks put together to tell the history of the country and the UNAM’s place in it (aptly titled Representación histórica de la cultura).
Another famous Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, left his mark on the UNAM on the Torre de Rectoría with three murals. One of them, titled El pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al pueblo, depicts students bringing the knowledge they have gained at university to their towns of origin. It’s currently being restored so it’s covered in scaffolding but when it’s done the colors should be back to almost their former glory. Another, called Las fechas en la historia de México show the most important dates in Mexican history: the Spanish conquest in 1520, Independence in 1810, the reform laws in 1857, and the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Siqueiros leaves another date open with question marks, implying that there will be another great moment in Mexican history in the 1900s. The third is called Nuevo Símbolo de la Universidad which shows two birds, a condor and an eagle (representing Mexico) biting the sun, which represents knowledge.
Perhaps the most well-known of the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, famous for his tumultuous relationship with Frida Kahlo in addition to his Communist-leaning art, also has a mural at the UNAM. La Universidad, la familia y el deporte en México decorates the Estadio Olímpico, right below the Olympic torch. The mural shows the mixing of pre-hispanic and Western cultures.
José Chávez Morado’s La conquista de la energía is found at the Auditorio Alfonso Caso and depicts the paradigm shift that resulted from the discovery of fire by humankind and the search since then for something that will change the world as much as the discovery of fire.
2. The Espacio Escultórico
The sculpture space at the UNAM is a lovely spot to wander around for a few hours, perhaps getting lost on the little paths and stumbling upon giant sculptures the size of a football field. Their immense size makes them very easy to interact with, crawling through or on top of them. Seeing their colorful shapes in the distance almost makes it feel like you’re on a search for dinosaur remains. All in all, a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
Hours: 8am – 6pm Monday – Friday
3. The Botanic Garden
Another delightful place for wandering is the botanic garden, featuring succulents, the plants that tend to thrive in this environment. There are greenhouses that feature other environments and types of plants and there is even a store where you can adopt plants that are endemic to Mexico.
Hours: 9am – 5pm Monday – Friday
9am – 3am Saturday
4. Azul y Oro
The restaurant run by distinguished chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita lets you sample classic well-done Mexican food from all around the country at a reasonable price. Presentation here is impeccable and even “simple” dishes like tamales are dressed up, though done in a way that doesn’t overshadow the flavors that make them delicious. I especially love the Jamaica enchiladas, the sweet flowers that are normally featured in agua de Jamaica make a nice tangy sweet contrast to the crema and cheese.
Hours: 10am – 6pm Monday and Tuesday
10am – 8pm Wednesday – Saturday
10am – 7pm Sunday
5. The MUAC
The Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporaneo is a low-cost thoughtfully-designed museum where you can see an interesting variety of contemporary art. The simple modern building design beautifully houses colorful exhibits where even the transitions from space to space are an experience (tunnels ending in glass turn at the last minute into a new room and giant doors covered in art open right as you near the end). There are impressive temporary exhibits that come through but the mainstays are interesting enough to be worth the visit, I especially enjoy the sound room and if you get hungry during your visit there is a glass-walled cafe tucked in amongst the volcanic rock that forms the sturdy base of the UNAM. The MUAC is located within the Centro Cultural so once you’ve had your fill of the museum you can go over to see a dance performance, concert or a play to round out your cultural experience.
Hours: 10am – 6pm Wednesday, Friday and Sunday
10am – 8pm Thursday and Saturday
6. The Olympic Stadium
The site of Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic games, the stadium is still in use today as the home base for the UNAM fútbol (soccer) team, the Pumas. During the season, games are played every other Sunday and even if you’re not a huge soccer fan the atmosphere in the stadium is a lot of fun. There are special cheers, huge servings of beer and so much team spirit that rival fans are separated from Puma fans by multiple layers of riot police.
However you choose to spend your day at the UNAM, it’s definitely worth the visit. Wear good walking shoes and slather on the sunscreen so you can can walk around the huge campus, enjoying yourself and learning more about Mexican culture along the way.