29th October – 2nd November
In pretty much the only booked and planned segment of our trip until we get to Machu Picchu in March, we had return flights for Mexico City for a few days out of the Mayan Yucatan Peninsula and something a bit different. The flight over was relatively painless (if a bit early) and the views of the mountains and gigantic city as you come in to land are stunning. I didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived, but it’s another place we’ve really loved (can Mexico do any wrong?) and there was tons to do. So much in fact that it’s a place I have to return to do everything I’d have liked, 4 nights didn’t give us nearly enough time for that and we missed out on things like Teotihuacan (impressive ruins) and the Frida Kahlo museum which would have been great if we’d had longer.
Before I try and cover vaguely what we did (we kept ourselves very busy), I should say the main thing I did expect about the trip to the capital was completely wrong. This was:
That it would be incredibly dangerous
I can’t believe how wrong this was, at least in all the areas we ended up. Reading articles about the incredibly high murder rate and generally being warned about it, we were prepared to have to be very cautious. However I can’t think of a single moment I felt remotely unsafe the entire time we were there, even though the neighbourhood we were staying in was supposedly not the best and our hotel was slightly sketchy (although much less so than we expected given that between us it cost us £24 for the whole stay). As with everywhere we’ve been in Mexico, everyone we encountered was very friendly and helpful. I’m sure there are dodgy areas, but everywhere we went was fine, even at night or on crowded subway trains.
There are a lot of signs that the city has put a lot of effort into becoming a safer and more welcoming place. There was a police officer on every single metrobus (which sounds like a really boring shift for them), and a good police presence in general, in a reassuring rather than worrying way. Posters on the metro indicated that October was a month celebrating equal treatment, and there was a special effort to make women feel safe with signs warning men to allow women their personal space, and specific subway carriages for women and children. Although I’m not sure how I feel about that as any kind of solution, it was nice to be able to use that carriage, especially when travelling back to the airport with all our stuff.
In terms of what we did do, it was so much that I’m not going to be able to list it. Some main events which occured were:
30th of October was my birthday, which I started with a Skype to Crete where my family were. I had no big plans, but we spent the first half of the day in the Bosque de Chapultepec, a seriously huge park a bit along the metro out of the centre. It’s massive, like a Mexican Central Park, and contains lakes, museums, ruins, and a free zoo. I especially enjoyed the zoo and we spent a long time wandering round it, although even that was very big and we can only have seen about a third of it.
After a lunch of ‘tortas gigantes’ (massive sandwiches) we went to the nearby National Museum of Anthropology, as we were intrigued by its incredibly high TripAdvisor rating. It was a shame our legs hurts from so much walking in the park as it was very impressive. Set over two levels, the ground floor contained archaeological exhibits about the historical groups of people who inhabited Mexico right from its early indigenous groups. The floor above was focused on the modern native groups still living in the country today. The exhibits were really well put together and we spent as long as we could there before our legs gave out.
I’d been promised birthday tequila, so we bought some on the way home and had some birthday celebrations in the hotel. This was followed by a short excursion for a couple of cocktails, before returning back for the much cheaper option of more birthday tequila, cards, and bed.
Mexicans seem to love Halloween (very much distinguished from Day of the Dead which is celebrated mainly the following evening), and it is perfectly normal to see people going about town in Halloween costumes several days before the event itself. The shops are full of costumes, sweets, and piñatas, and on the day of Halloween children run round with little buckets to collect sweets. The favourite costume by far was skeleton, either relatively plain or a figure from day of the dead such as Rosita (a female skeleton in a fancy hat and dress), or the sugar skull look which has since become popular over in the UK. It also seemed pretty popular to dress your baby up as a pumpkin.
We spent some of Halloween in Xochimilco, a suburb famous for its colourful boats on the canal ways. It took quite a long time to get to, via the metro and a light train, but since the former is 5 pesos (20p) a trip and the latter is 3 pesos (12p), it was a very cheap trip. It’s really weird when you get off the train, literally everyone in the town wants to tell you where the boats are, to the point of even if you are heading somewhere else people will stop on their motorbikes and point you towards the boats. We took a turn away from the boats and spent some time in the very busy market, before finally deciding we wanted to see them. Unfortunately we had wandered from the main road where everyone told you where the boats were and we realised why they tell you – the place is am absolute maze and one wrong road and you end up down a residential bunch of dead ends. When we did eventually find the boats it turned out to actually get the experience you had to get on a boat and go on a ride round the canals rather than just look at them. As it was a weekend we couldn’t do this colectivo style and would have to have hired a whole boat to ourselves so we gave this one a miss and headed back to the market.
In the evening there was loads going on in the Zocalo (main square by the cathedral), including lots of costumed people, some dancing, and a parade. With some pre googling we managed to find a restaurant up a few floors with a great view over the square, and somehow amazing prices given that we were in such a prime location in the capital. For a three course meal (admittedly one course was just a small plate of rice) and two beers each in our windowside seats and with live music we paid less than £15. Not even each, in total. Restaurant was called Tlatoanis and was on the corner of the Zocalo by the left hand side of the cathedral if anyone is ever in the city.
Day of the Dead
There is much less public celebration of Dia de los Muertos, as it is more of a private celebration of deceased family than a public party. However most businesses and churches have an ‘ofrenda’ (small shrine built to honour the dead) so we got to see plenty of these.
We spent the morning doing some central sightseeing including the Government Palace (free to go in, and full of exhibits and interesting things) and the Templo Mayor Aztec ruins right by the cathedral (not free to go in but visible from the outside so we made do with that). The centre of the city is very beautiful and nice to spend time just sitting in.
In the afternoon we found a road filled with ofrendas, some still being set up, dedicated to many different people and created by the local community. This was really interesting as there was such a big range. On one end of the street all of the ofrendas were traditional, with typical offerings being marigolds (these are absolutely everywhere around this time), sugar skulls, oranges, a special type of bread, and items associated with the dead person being celebrated. Everything is incredibly colourful and the creators are nearby happy to tell you the story behind their ofrenda and its subject. Even some of these traditional ofrendas had a political aspect to them. An ofrenda to a group of boys killed in an event of police brutality was covered with the words ‘fue el estado’ (the state did it), a phrase we saw all over the city in graffiti.
At the other end of the street the ofrendas became a bit more varied and wacky, as an example of contemporary ofrendas. These varied hugely, with one to Andy Warhol, one about the dangers of drinking coke which they gave you 3d glasses to look at, one with two people dressed as shotgun welding skeletons sitting inside, and tons more. We spent a long time wandering down this road and took so many photos as each one was so interesting and had a different story behind it.
As always I could go on. I’ve missed out our trip to the witches market (where you can buy herbs to cure illnesses, costumes, various tourist tat, and live animals from puppies, to hedgehogs, to peacocks, to goats, to tarantulas, to turkeys. Sadly all kept in horrible conditions 😦 ), and probably much more, but otherwise this is going to become a complete essay.
We are still really loving Mexico, hence this is all so super positive. Travelling around and not knowing what you’ll be doing a few days in the future while still not really understanding the language and not having a huge budget gets pretty stressful, but since we’re basically doing exciting things whenever we fancy it, there’s definitely no complaining yet. Or not until the next blog where I’ll complain about our trip from Mexico City to Playa del Carmen, but that won’t be for another few days at least…