A Ride through Mexico City
Day 1, Thursday afternoon, first explorations
We arrived in Mexico City without much of a plan - we just knew we wanted to explore a few neighborhoods and see the Frida Kahlo museum and street art. And of course, Julie had a list of foods she wanted to eat since Ciudad de Mexico, is considered a foodie destination.
On our first afternoon we took an Uber to the "zocalo", the historic center of the city where the Spanish colonial government installed numerous ornate buildings on top of the Aztec's structures, which they covered up after taking over their land in the early 1500s. Now the main square throngs with people and vendors, and this was a bit of an overload for us after having spent so much time recently in Mexico's least populated state. So we escaped down the first street in front of us and when we saw an open door in an interesting looking church we stepped in. The space was actually filled with a spiraling wooden ramp, shaped to represent the inner ear, and lead people into an exhibit on acoustic art. It was our first art discovery in the city, and that probably allowed us to give it a little too much of our time, as it was mostly very weird and full of unpleasant sounds.
More wide-eyed wandering led us into another free museum, where in one room we learned about representations of death and in another room about dance in the city in the 20th century. There was plenty more to see, but only so much we could absorb at once - so we continued our ramble.
Having been quickly bombarded with so many new ideas, we walked some more until finding ourselves under what was Latin America's first skyscraper in the 1950s, the Torre Latinoamericano. We paid the fee to ride the elevator to the 44th floor for a view of the city just in time for sunset. There were few people and plenty of space to sit and watch the storm clouds over the surrounding mountains light up in the setting sun and the megalopolis around us go dark and twinkly. Below us the Palacio de Bellas Artes and park of the Alameda Central were especially magical under their golden evening lights.
Throughout our time on the bustling streets, our gaze traveled from person to person engaged in their individual activities. At one point a street cleaner sweeping the sidewalk had the song Piano Man by Billy Joel playing from a speaker in his pocket, and just as we passed him we heard the lyrics: "Well I'm sure that I could be a movie star, if I could get out of this place".
Day 2, Friday, a walking day
The next morning we rumbled underground on the metro and emerged up a flight of smelly stairs in a new neighborhood: the Colonia Roma, or Roma Norte to be more precise. We followed our map a few blocks to a friend's recommendation for a cafe where a barista weighed coffee beans on a digital scale for each cup of coffee. Electronic music played through Bose speakers and then a mariachi band played outside the door while we savored delicious miniature breakfast cakes (when in Roma).
The rest of the day we explored the leafy streets of the popular and hipster Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, hunting down a few street art murals we had read about.
As we toured this neighborhood we admired the art deco buildings, huge trees, more tempting cafes, and the quiet leafy plazas.
All kinds of food were on offer and for our second breakfast we ate sugary churros and two varieties of amazing hot chocolate at El Moro.
We later ate the sweetest mango from a corner vendor while we peered into tastefully decorated restaurants, funky design and art shops, and Mexican cantinas. For a late lunch we chose a cool-looking poke place, enjoying the taste of Asian food again and people watching. It felt like a mix of Portland and New York City and Belem in Brazil.
At the end of the day we took the metro home where we were swept up in the Friday commute hour which was a hot, sweaty and sardine-like experience - but also easy, safe, and about a tenth of the cost of a taxi.
Day 3, Saturday, a biking day
On the third day, having explored the city by taxi, on foot and by metro, we finally rented bicycles - as always, the best way to experience a place. The day before all the bike lanes, bike sharing stations and cyclists around the city had caught our attention and we found out that visitors can easily buy a 1, 3 or 7 day pass to the city's bike share system (Ecobici), an incredible network of thousands of bikes. The website tracks the number of trips taken with their bikes, and the number is currently at an astounding 58 million!
Once on bikes, we were grinning. Over that afternoon and the next morning we followed a large loop around a small piece of the city, racking up a total of 37km overall. It was the most fun part of our trip, and we reflected that though high school geography class had taught us that Mexico City was one of the most populated and polluted cities on earth, 20 years later we were finding it green and relatively clean (for a city of 21 million people). The biking was a breeze, and turned out to be a perfect way to see many areas we would have otherwise missed. Bikes are clearly the answer - to everything! (Although Adam did develop a bad cold afterwards probably due in part to the air pollution - relatively low when were there but still enough to make our eyes sting and throats hurt by the end of the day.)
Though the route we were following on our phone had information about historical landmarks along the way, our favorite stop was an impromptu one in a small park late on Saturday afternoon. We tried to look casual as we glanced over people's shoulders to see which street food stall appealed, but a few old ladies seated on plastic stools instantly saw what we were up to and waved us over. They helped us choose what toppings to order on our "tlacoyos", a thick pancake made of blue maize, and sang along to a smiley musician who showed up just in time to complete the scene.
With stomachs full, we found ourselves drawn to a crowded area of the park, where we saw several couples dancing to music. Most of the crowd was older, but the women were well-dressed in dresses and high heeled dancing shoes - clearly this was the older generation's place to see and be seen.
As we sat and watched both the dancers and the watchers, an elderly man with a grey moustache, bright red fedora, orange shirt, pink tie and beige suit caught our attention. When he stood up to dance we were charmed - all these older people staying active and social was heartwarming. He stepped and twirled gently with his partner for a minute or so - and then his feet took off. Slides, shuffles, turns and even hops: this sprightly old man was on fire! He knew he had everyone's attention and when Julie surreptitiously filmed him from behind some onlookers he noticed and did a few solo moves just for the camera.
This open air atmosphere where locals come to soak up the music and watch dancers twirl by under tall trees is not something we would have expected of Mexico City, but the warmth, energy and style on display in that plaza - especially of 'The Salsa Man' - will definitely be the highlight of our visit.
Eventually we moved on, pedaling our way over to the zocalo once again, pushing through cobblestone intersections alive with families out for the evening. We stepped into the cathedral for a look, looked in on the partially excavated Aztec ruins called the Templo Mayor, and eventually landed on a rooftop bar for a drink, happy for a rest and yet another perspective.
We had done enough navigating to follow our route through the city and decided to see if a good dinner option would present itself. As we looked at a menu outside a busy restaurant a man eating at the bar by the entrance shouted over the heads of his fellow diners that we had to try their food! We would not be disappointed! Hungry and easily convinced, we obliged and found ourselves among dozens if not hundreds of locals, looking at a page-long list of taco options. We followed the waiter's recommendations and stuffed our faces with tacos filled with rajas con crema (some kind of non-spicy peppers with cream), pierna horneada (beef prepared in some kind of delicious way), and a chile relleno (a cheese stuffed chile, battered and fried).
After each of the day's stops we would collect new bikes from another bike stand, and did so again for our final stint home after dinner. As we rode back to our hotel we made a detour through the beautifully illuminated Alameda Central, where we awwed and ooohed at the marble-like ground.
Day 4, Sunday morning biking
Our bike passes were still valid, and we had saved the final stretch of our loop for Sunday when the city closes down its largest boulevard to cars every week. The paseo dominical (Sunday stroll) on the Avenida de la Reforma was a beautiful thing: thousands of bikers, runners, rollerbladers and wheelchair users spread their wings and took flight, rolling along the tree-lined streets, weaving in and out, some fast some slow. It was a colourful, peaceful and fantastic way to cruise along, looking up at sky scrapers and monuments to the icons of Mexico's past. Seeing the statue of Cuahtemoc, the last Aztec ruler defeated by Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, the Angel de la Independencia, and all the volunteers helping to make the weekly road closure possible, we started to get a sense of Mexico's real spirit.
a little bit of the history of
Though we may not have made it to the history museums, we sometimes read about Mexico's history as we ate, getting a general sense of all the different people who have lived in or tried to conquer this place. They had the Mayans from 2000 BC, followed by the Aztecs from about 1200 CE to 1521 CE (including Montezuma). Then the Spaniards came along - Cortez defeated Cuahtemoc and the Aztecs, turning Tenochtitlan, their city, into Mexico City. Many of the massive and ornate government buildings in the historic center date back to the 16th century, the start of the Spaniards' 300 year rule over Mexico.
Eventually, in the early 1800s, after a war of independence led by a Catholic priest called Hidalgo, Mexico became independent. In the mid 1800s the country fought the Mexican-American war, ending in 1848 and resulting in the US gaining territory that now makes up some of the southwest states. But then, just 13 years later, the French overthrew the government, though it wasn't more than six of seven years before the Mexicans expelled them on a day now celebrated as Cinco de Mayo (5th of May).
In the early 1900s the Mexican Revolution began, eventually leading to a new Mexican constitution and a party that would rule for over 70 years, until the year 2000. Some of the key revolutionary leaders are commemorated in a huge stone arch called the Monumento a la Revolucion, where we had in fact started the day's ride.
Over the last century Mexico has seen huge economic development, hosted a summer olympics, suffered a major earthquake, and of course the country is also known for violence and organized crime. We did see tent camps of people apparently displaced by organized crime, with banners protesting the lack of government support.
The current president has a reputation for being less corrupt and more progressive - and on the way back to Baja California Sur we learned that over the weekend he had denied a large mining permit for the mountains we had biked through the week before (the Sierra de la Laguna) - thankfully avoiding any potential damage to the source of water for the entire southern peninsula.
Day 4, Sunday afternoon museums
In the afternoon we returned our bikes for the last time and took an Uber to the neighbourhood of Coyoacan. This is where the famous painters Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived, and their house is now the Frida Kahlo Museum. Thanks in part to the Hollywood movie Frida, it is one of the most popular museums in the city, so we had purchased advance tickets and were slightly wary it might be over-hyped. With time to spare before our 3pm entrance, we walked through the covered food market where Frida used to shop. We ordered tostadas at the stand that we had read was a must-try for lunch at tiled counters - they were good but somewhat overrated.
At a coffee shop later, the barista told us the reason for the crowds was that on Sundays museums are free; he recommended the Museo de la Cultura Popular. That was a good place to see more beautifully curated and displayed exhibits: engravings, documentary photos about indigenous people in the southwest of Mexico, masks by a contemporary Mexican artist, and, of course, murals decorating the walls.
Frida Kahlo Museum
In a city of over 21 million individuals, each with a story of their own, it struck us as ironic to have a museum dedicated to just one person. However, after learning about who Frida Kahlo was, how she created her work and what it represents, we understood how she became such an icon. At the museum, a documentary film showing in the courtyard was particularly helpful in explaining how she not only lived joyfully despite the pain she endured due to the effects of childhood polio and a bus accident, but also had the confidence to express herself honestly. Even her clothing was carefully selected to honor different indigenous groups, but also to conceal the corsets she wore and her crippled leg.
Her paintings, many of which are self portraits (some even painted on her back to relieve the pressure from her spine) expressed her pain, her grief, her joy, icons of Mexican popular and folk culture, her explorations of sexuality (both she and Rivera had many affairs), and different versions of herself. It is easy to see how so many people can find something to relate to in her story and art, or at least draw inspiration from her triumph over pain. As she expressed in one of her final paintings: "Viva la vida!"
Tired but inspired, we relaxed at the tables in the leafy blue courtyard for some time before walking over to a quirky restaurant called Centenario 107 where our waitress made great recommendations for beers and pizza, and we spent our last meal reflecting - very positively - on all that we had seen and experienced over the last few days.