Architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez's outsanding design provides the proper home for one of the finest archaeological collections in the world. Each salon on the museum's two floors displays artifacts from a particular geographic region or culture. The collection is so extensive that you could easily spend a day here, and that might be barely adequate. Explanatory labels have been updated, some with English translations, and free tours are available at set times between 3 and 6, with a reservation. You can reserve a special tour with an English-speaking guide by calling the museum two weeks in advance, or opt for an English audio guide (MX$75) or the English-language museum guide for sale in the bookshop (you'll need to leave a driver's license for the audio guide).
Start in the Orientation Room, where a film is shown in Spanish nearly every hour on the hour weekdays and every two hours on weekends—note that it can be overcrowded if you don't arrive early. The film traces the course
of Mexican prehistory and the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica. The 12 ground-floor rooms treat pre-Hispanic cultures by region, in the Sala Teotihuacána, Sala Tolteca, Sala Oaxaca (Zapotec and Mixtec peoples), and so on. Objects both precious and pedestrian, including statuary, jewelry, weapons, figurines, and pottery, evoke the intriguing, complex, and frequently bloodthirsty civilizations that peopled Mesoamerica for the 3,000 years preceding the Spanish invasion.
A copy of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma's feathered headdress (the original is now in Vienna); a stela from Tula, near Mexico City; massive Olmec heads from Veracruz; and vivid reproductions of Mayan murals in a reconstructed temple are other highlights. Be sure to see the magnificent reconstruction of the tomb of 7th-century Mayan ruler Pakal, which was discovered in the ruins of Palenque. The perfectly preserved skeletal remains lie in an immense stone chamber, and the stairwell walls leading to it are splendidly decorated with bas-relief scenes of the underworld. Pakal's jade death mask is on display nearby.
The nine rooms on the upper floor contain faithful ethnographic displays of current indigenous peoples, using maps, photographs, household objects, folk art, clothing, and religious articles. When leaving the museum, take a rest and watch the famous Voladores de Papantla (flyers of Papantla) as they swing by their feet down an incredibly high maypolelike structure just outside the museum entrance.