The city sprawls itself haphazardly across storm capped mountains, for as far as the eye can see. The plane hits a wave of misty turbulence as we approach the runway; thunder and the roar of the engines become indistinguishable. I have just landed in Mexico City, and I’ve no idea what lies ahead.
Reunited with my brother in mischief, El Capo, and recurring travel pal (3 countries, 3 years), K-Dawg McArthur, I spent one of the most intensely colourful, chaotic, and beautiful weeks of the trip in what I’ve concluded to be one of my favourite cities in the world: La Ciudad de Mexico.
When I went touring Scottish cities, to determine where I’d be happiest going to University, I floundered round Edinburgh and Aberdeen, just not quite feeling it, before arriving in Glasgow one sunny Spring morning. As soon as I was in the city, I could tell there was something different about it, some tangible energy which I couldn’t quite explain, nor knew the origin of, but which I knew I dug. My mind was made up, and it was in Glasgow I spend many a happy year thereafter.
The very same thing happened with Mexico City. That place visibly pulses with energy. And that’s not to say it’s wild and full on – far from it. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, the energy is a tranquil one, in which you can spend your days sipping coffee in a little hipster cafe, or strolling through one of the city’s hundreds of huge, luscious parks. Mexico City is probably the greenest city I’ve been to, with endless avenues draped in hanging trees, fountains and little roundabout gardens decorating the roads, the city centered around Parque Chapultepec – not only the western hemisphere’s biggest public park, but also the home of the only royal Spanish castle in Latin America: the very same in which Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet was filmed. (Needless to say Katie and I spent our last morning there, swanning around, doing our best Danes and DiCaprio impressions).
Heading into the city centre is like what this guy I once knew’s mum used to say: it’s like a boax ae chocolates, ee niver ken wit yer goannae get.
Seriously though. Aside from an abundance of the best street food in the world (I don’t award that accolade lightly; though more on this later), aside from a mix of incredible colonial v modern architecture – churches being sucked back down into the earth on sinking foundations – aside from every kind of museum imaginable (Mexico City has the most museums of any other city in the world, or so I heard), aside from all this there is something crazy and different occurring there every day.
Our first full day, hungover and crusty-eyed from a third ae a bottle of tequila each, and more, we stumbled upon the final day of a huge festival celebrating the cultures and peoples of all the different indigenous groups that make up Mexico.
It was a rainy day, which was doing little to raise our spirits, and yet amidst all the gloom we found ourselves walking past ritual ceremonies conducted in the street, enshrined in the enchanting beat of drums, to which danced men and women in the most incredible dress. Luke and I took part too in a cleansing ritual conducted with a sweet smelling smoke, and involving many a chant hurled at us. My dude told me (as far as my Spanish could deduct) that I had brought bad omens in the form of the tattoo flash-art devils on my tshirt. Glad I didn’t enlighten him as to a couple of my other sins.
Needless to say our hangovers were soon forgotten, as we marvelled at all around us. (Maybe the smoke cleanse helped too, who knows). And we capped off the day with a couple cheap purchases in one of the many many cool as hell bookshops the city lays claim to.
Our second day in the centre proved no less interesting. After all, it’s not so often you become part of a couple thousand people strong funeral procession for a national hero.
RIP Juan Gabriel.
Of course we had no real idea what was going on at first, but after some questions fired off to punters around us, and some first class detective work (there were, to be fair, placards and posters everywhere), we deduced that we were at the procession leading Mexican-singer Juan Gabriel’s ashes to the Bellas Artes concert hall. Regardless of the fact we ain’t never heard of this lad, and that a funeral procession is not usually the cheeriest place to find yourself, in fact the crowd was electric – news helicopters flying low overhead, motorbike crews tearing up the streets, and seemingly all of Mexico City pushing back and forth for a glimpse of Juan’s material legacy, cheering merrily and holding their homemade signs up to the heavens.
A weird day, but yet more proof of how unpredictable and oddly exciting the centre can be.
Okay, the food. Holy freaking shit. Puta madre. La puta comida. When I’ve talked with people here about it, I’ve really struggled to maintain that Japanese food is still the best in the world (a part of my brain is still resilient in its defence of this opinion). But it’s hard, because honestly, wow. And what’s more is, whilst the restaurant food here is also typically fantastic, really the least classy you go, the tastier (and more varied) the food. By this I mean, street vendors and local hole-in-the-wall dive cantinas and cafes are your best best for some primo rica scran. As I experienced in Japan with ramen, I think I could eat tacos literally three meals a day erry day, and want for nothing more. Be they the classic al pastor (sort of like schwarma meat, but done with pork), bisteck (beef), chorizo (uhuh), chicken, fish, prawns, squid, flores de calabaza (cactus flowers), or mushrooms and cheese, I have yet to try a taco I haven’t enjoyed. What’s more is not only are they tasty as hell – simply done with some onion, cilantro, and all the lime you could want – but they’re also the cheapest option around, averaging out at 9 pesos (or, 30p/40¢) a taco. The ingredients are so fresh, so well cooked, and seasoned to die for. My mouth waters at the thought.
I won’t go into great detail on other options, else we’d be here all day, but for some quick examples: I particularly remember, with aching longing, a grilled fish burrito with red rice, avacado, and peppers; and all the huevos rancheros I had for breakfast in that city. Hot fucking damn.
Addendum: this is not particular to MXC, of course. The food all across the country has proved insanely tasty. You ain’t lived till you’ve had squid tacos by the Caribbean sea.
It’s really quite hard to narrow down all the things I want to talk about, because genuinely we packed out every day (and most evenings) in Mexico City, and at the end of the day I came away thinking I could spend another week there and still not be satisfied.
If I had to pick my real, real highlights though, then I can keep this blog to just three more things: markets, pop culture, and pyramids.
When Luke and I were kicking it in the south, our very favourite pastime was to hit up all the crappy tourist markets we could. This comes from a genuine love of finding cool little bits and pieces you might not find elsewhere. However, South America has caught on so to the backpacker trail, that unless you go to a local market, like Shaunster and I did at Otavalo, then you’re gonna be stuck with the same stuff at every single stall, for however long you’re on the continent.
How refreshing it was then to visit the markets of Mexico City. The first, a recommendation Katie had been given, was straight away the best market I’d been to in Latin America (for souvenirs, at least – I’ll never forget Doña Rina’s juice stand in Peru). Every store/stall/person-with-chair had something genuinely unique for sale. Almost always handcrafted, or at least peculiar to their wares. We spent a very pleasant morning working through its maze like passages, eventually each of us settling on a different traditional Dia de los Muertos skull. I spend ten minutes chatting with the lady who sold me mine about her Uncle’s job in the local government, and about her indigenous/Spanish family heritage. She even let me run off with my purchase to try find Luke and Katie and skin the remaining pesos off them, before returning to her.
In another market, further out of the way – in a gorgeous neighbourhood called Coyoacán – Katie and I took a cheap and delicious lunch of veggie quesadillas and fresh juice, before indulging in candied fruits (like, whole pears and whole huge pineapple slices). That market had everything, and whilst we limited our spending, I did pick myself up a ‘surprise’ home-packaged pokemon cards: one shiny fearow, one regular magikarp.
He giveth and he taketh away.
These were but two of the numerous markets found in old warehouses, plazas, and on street corners, or indeed closing off whole streets. It’s a part of Latin culture I will sorely miss when I get home. We just don’t have it – everything’s bought online or in chain stores. Gone will be the days of picking up some fresh mango & chilli sweets for £1, or a juice to go, freshly squeezed for just 60p, or stumbling across a dumb nick-nack or piece of art what you defs don’t need, but defs really want.
For a wee break from the bustle of the city, Katie and I took a day and ventured out to the ruins of Teotihuacan: a pre-Hispanic city, and the centre of commerce, religious, social and political undertakings for a relatively huge expanse of territory.
Side Note: Will hold on to the priceless expression on Katie’s face when the guy came on the bus to videocamera everyone in case we got kidnapped. It reminded me how I’d felt the first time it happened to me back in Bolivia.
I’m not gonna dwell on this one, pictures will do it more justice than words. Nevertheless, for those of you who know me, you’ll can appreciate how much I geek out over ancient rubble, let alone a giant, beautiful, ancient city, complete with ridiculously impressive pyramids.
Spending our time indulging a little in the historic facts, and more in our own imagined reconstruction of the sight, Katie and I got very very sunburned, and had a very very nice day. A well earned break from the city, though one that seemed important to include here, given its proximity and accessibility. It is in a sense an extension of Mexico City – tied to it geographically, and historically.
Saving the best for last, here’s what really, really hammered the final nail in my belief that Mexico City is one of the coolest cities in the world.
In the same neighbourhood as a park full of aggresively friendly squirrels, and one of the markets I’ve already talked about, in Coyoacán, can be found the house of feminist/surrealist/(neither of the above according to the lady herself) painter and artist, Frida Kahlo. Then, just two blocks over, the house of Leon Trotsky – a revolutionary in most every sense of the word, and the only man who should ever have led Russia’s communist state – in which Trotsky saw out his Mexican years, until an assassin armed with an icepick killed him, right there.
Trotsky I knew a lot about, Frida I did not (only that as a young lad, I’d thought her ugly, if not scary, because in my mum’s books of her she had a monobrow (the horror!), and a hairy upper lip (the shock!)).
This was for the best, as Trotsky’s house had been kept quite as it was, with little more to see than there would be in any other normal house. Thus my having studied him was what made it super cool to me. To see where he used to feed his chickens; the boarded and bricked up windows, and heavy duty bedroom doors put in for security; to stand in the very spot he was working when Ramón Mercader put an icepick through his skull. Very surreal, and with many photo’s and some information about how almost his entire family were thusly murdered before him, very empowering.
Plus I found the coolest fan-made tattoo flash what I need to get when I get home.
Frida Kahlo was not someone I knew a great deal about, despite having bought a pair of socks plastered with her face, back in Buenos Aires, Argentina. All I knew was that she was a pretty rad lady, who did good paintings what my mum really liked.
Her house had been kept so perfectly curated, with important spaces preserved exactly as they had been (her and her hubbie Diego Riviera’s tastes had been a little more colourful, whacky, and joyous than Trotsky’s), with other areas set up as galleries for her work and her incredible wardrobe, and her garden still there to walk through.
I came to learn a whole lot more about Frida – how she was a die hard and committed commie, with portraits of Lenin, Marx, Engels, Stalin, and Mao hung at the foot of her bed, their books in her library, and of course her kitchen (if we could have transported ourselves back to the forties/fifties) filled with communist sorts (including Trotsky, of course). I learned too how she had been impaled during a bus crash as a youngster, which tore through her rib cage an uterus, rendering her unable to have children, and in an excruciating physical condition for the rest of her life.
Katie and I smoked fags in her garden, marvelled at her dresses and shoes, felt very strongly the duality of sadness and beauty in each of her paintings, and generally fell very deeply, madly in love with that lady.
Down with the patriarchy that says women aren’t beautiful unless they’re monobrow-less. Down with the capitalist state that turns communist houses into profitable museums.
I’m writing this as I sit on a bus to Bacalar, I don’t know much about where I’m going, I’m just following some new pals. I’m not far enough removed yet to feel nostalgic for La Ciudad de Mexico, but I’m not far off. Though the Caribbean coast should theoretically be impossible to top, and as much as I want to write about the people I’ve met here, it’s testament to the awesomeness of Mexico City that I should rank it up there with one of the best weeks of the trip, and take pleasure in sticking to this blog’s chronology, rather than jumping past MXC to write about all of where I am now.
Viva Mexico! Viva las Mujeres! Viva la Revolución! Viva Tacos de Pescados!
With, as always, all my love, to all my family, blood and extended. Keep looking after your wonderful selves.
Until next time,