I’m a college professor in the Bay Area who’s fortunate enough to be on sabbatical this semester in Mexico. When I’m not on sabbatical, I live in Oakland, California, with my husband Brad, and I work at Chabot College, a community college in Hayward. My sabbatical project involves, among other things, finding contemporary Mexican LGBT literature that I can translate into English for use in the gay and lesbian literature class that I teach at Chabot.
On the Monday before Christmas, my husband, Brad, came to Mexico to spend the holidays with me, and we took up residence in an apartment in la Casa de las Brujas, a hundred-and-seven-year-old building in Plaza de Rio de Janeiro in Colonia Roma. Officially, the building is called Edificio Rio de Janerio, but everyone in Mexico City calls it Casa de las Brujas (the Witches’ House) or Castillo de las Brujas (the Witches’ Castle). There are several different explanations for the building’s nicknames.
One is is that the building has a turret that looks a little like a witch.
This building also has a certain literary fame, having been a “character” in several Mexican novels, among them Carlos Fuentes’s Agua Quemada, as well as the home of many artists and writers in the early 20th century. William S. Burroughs lived in this neighborhood, as did many other writers, and it remains one of the artsiest parts of Mexico City.
At the center of Plaza Rio de Janeiro is a replica of Michelangelo’s David, and surrounding David are trees and cactus gardens (and a very interesting shrine to Santa Muerte, Saint Death). In the days leading up to Christmas, there was a kind of fair in the park involving craft booths and nightly live music. The area around the plaza is overflowing with cafes and restaurants, including Cafe Toscano, which Brad and I were surprised to find open when we went for a walk on Christmas afternoon. We decided to have lunch there, thinking we would be unlikely to find any other restaurants open in the city. (When we continued our walk after lunch we discovered that the city was full of open restaurants.) We enjoyed a thin crust artichoke and green olive pizza and a couple of microbrews and then wandered around Roma for a couple of hours.
Colonia Roma was built during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, and though the neighborhood was devastated by the 1985 earthquake, it remains a showcase for the architecture of the Porfiriato, as the 35-year reign of Porfirio Diaz is called. It’s also packed with restaurants, parks, theaters, bars, cafes, bakeries, and boutique clothing stores. I’m happy to find that Brad is as enamored with the neighborhood as I am. During our walk, he expressed regret that we’ll be leaving it in a couple of days to do some traveling in other parts of Mexico (though I’m sure he’ll love these other places as much as he loves la Roma).
After our walk, we returned to the Witches’ House and made a big pot of vegetable soup, which we topped with sauteed pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and grated manchego, and ate with delicious bread we had bought at La Puerta Abierta, a nearby bakery, and some smoked salmon from the Superama, a Mexican grocery store chain. It was an untraditional Christmas dinner, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
Recently, I was talking to a couple of German tourists about their experience in Mexico City. I asked what they had seen in the historic center, and one replied, “We walked though the historic center one day. We didn’t really like it.” My husband Brad was similarly unimpressed the first time I took him to the Zócalo, the main plaza in Mexico City (and the second largest in the world after Red Square in Moscow). He complained of too much pavement and traffic, and it’s true: traffic circles through the Zócalo (though many of the streets that surround it are pedestrian-only). In First Stop in the New World, David Lida, clearly a big fan of the historic center, describes the Zócalo as “an austere, thirteen-acre concrete plaza.”
I admit to having been intimidated by the historic center the first few times I visited it. The crowds can be overwhelming. According to Lida, only 200,000 people live there, but an additional 1,200,000 make a daily commute to the historic center for work, and then of course there are the many visitors who come to see the Mexican capital’s most famous tourist attractions. But the historic center has grown on me over time, and it also seems to me that the local government has recently spent some money sprucing the place up. The Alameda Central, the oldest park in the city (dating from 1592), has been given a makeover, for instance. But more importantly, on this visit to Mexico City, I’ve had the great good fortune to have some locals act as tour guides in the historic center. I have thus seen some lovely places that I would not have seen had I just relied on guidebooks.
The historic center covers about three-and-a-half square miles, occupying the space that was once the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. There’s much more to it than the Zócalo, though I happen to think that the Zócalo, despite all the concrete, has a certain grandeur, and there always seems to be something interesting happening there. Because of its odd mix of architectural styles, the whole neighborhood is wonderfully atmospheric. Lida describes it thus: “The buildings in the Zócalo were built between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. As such, the architecture is something of a hodgepodge; within a block or two you might find facades with Corinthian columns, Moorish arches, Gothic spires, lion gargoyles, placid statues of Minerva and Pan, or Art Deco curves and angles. Some structures are in great shape, while others look like they would fall down if someone sneezed in their direction. Yet even in the decadent sections it is impossible to walk through the neighborhood without sensing its majesty.” Along Calle Moneda, to the northeast of the Zócalo, a half dozen church domes are visible on the horizon, leaning this way or that as the churches sink into the soft soil of a city built on a lake. Organ grinders and their assistants hold out their hats to passersby, hoping for a tip. Vendores ambulantes (literally walking sellers, or street vendors) loudly and illegally hawk their wares, displayed on blankets in the streets. The corners of these blankets have been tied in just such a way as to facilitate a quick escape should the police show up.
Though some fairly affluent people have been moving into the area recently, it remains largely a working class neighborhood, not nearly as hip and gentrified as Roma Norte or Condesa. If you wander away from the tourist sites, you’ll observe ordinary people leading ordinary lives in a rather extraordinary environment. In parts of the historic center, entire blocks are devoted to the same kind of merchandise: jewelry, bridal gowns, stationery. When I was looking for a small bag to take on a weekend trip to visit my friends Ceci and Pilar, my Spanish teacher Ernesto recommended that I go to Calle Corregidora, the luggage street.
It’s thanks to Ernesto, and some other people I’ve met here, that I’ve gotten to know this neighborhood better. Here’s my guide to places worth visiting in the historic center. (Most of the places I mention here are tourist attractions, though as I’ve already said, it’s also a good experience to leave the tourist attractions behind and get lost in the neighborhood.)
Around the Zócalo:
What is now the Zócalo was once the heart of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, but the only place you’ll find any real evidence of this fact is the Museo del Templo Mayor. The Spaniards destroyed and built over Tenochtitlan, but in 1978, a lineman laying cables discovered remnants of the Templo Mayor, the main religious site and largest pyramid in the Aztec capital. In the 80s, the site was turned into a museum. The museum contains not just the ruins of the Templo Mayor but also Aztec artifacts that have been discovered all over the historic center. One of the pleasures of the museum is walking through it and seeing these pre-Hispanic ruins juxtaposed with the Spanish colonial buildings rising in the background. One truly feels a sense of the two cultures that have merged in modern Mexico.
It’s no coincidence that this museum is located next to the Catedral Municipal. The Spaniards always built churches and cathedrals atop indigenous religious sites in order to establish the superiority of their religion. But these churches also contain evidence of the syncretization of Catholicism and traditional indigenous beliefs. As Ernesto pointed out to me, there are snake motifs in the Cathedral’s baroque exterior (and in many other buildings in the historic center as well), a reference to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. I’m not entirely sure whether these motifs were intended by Catholics to help ease the natives into Catholicism or whether they are subversive attempts of indigenous builders to insert their beliefs into Catholicism.
Across from the cathedral is the Palacio Nacional, a building worth a couple of hours of your time. It contains some magnificent Diego Rivera murals and the living quarters of Benito Juarez, Mexico’s most beloved president (described to me by my friend Mauricio as the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico).
There are many restaurants offering lovely views of the Zócalo. I’ve eaten several times at the always crowded El Balcón, where the views are stunning, the food is not bad, and the service is spotty at best. But it’s worth putting up with the bad service to enjoy the views.
West of the Zocalo
There are several pedestrian streets surrounding the Zócalo. The most crowded is always Avenida Madero, which leads to the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Alameda Central. It’s a chaotic place, packed with costumed street performers and overflowing with touts trying to get you into the many optometry shops on the street. (Sometimes there are touts in costume. During Day of the Dead celebrations, a drag queen dressed as Frida Kahlo tried to lure passersby into a restaurant on Madero.) But despite the chaos, Madero’s churches and other historic buildings make it worth exploring.
At the corner of Madero and Isabel La Catolica is El Templo San Felipe Neri “La Profesa,” built by Jesuits in the 16th century. As I learned from Ernesto, the statue of the Virgin to the left of the main alter is a portrait of an important figure in Mexican history, La Güera Rodriguez (which roughly translates as the White Lady Rodriguez, or perhaps more accurately, the Fair Skinned Rodriguez). Considered one of the great beauties of her day, she had an affair with Agustin de Iturbide, a general loyal at the time to the Spanish crown, and convinced him to support Mexican independence. He went on to become one of the great heroes of the Mexican War of Independence (and was briefly, after independence was achieved, named Emperor of Mexico). La Güera Rodriguez lived in a house just across Madero from this church.
Catty-corner from the church is the Museo del Estanquillo, which houses photos and letters collected by the openly gay writer and intellectual Carlos Monsiváis.
A little farther up Madero is the Palacio de Cultura Banamex, a beautiful colonial mansion that has been turned into a private art museum by one of Mexico’s biggest banks. Admission is free. When I was there with my friend Mauricio, we saw an exhibit of modern sculpture that was surprisingly erotic, but the real draw was the house itself.
A little further up is the Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles), another colonial mansion, this one famous for the blue tile work of its exterior. It’s now a Sanborns–a department store with a restaurant. It makes for a lovely lunch spot.
At the end of Madero is the Torre Latinoamericana, one of the most reviled buildings in Mexico City. Though it was once the tallest building in the country, every Mexican I have talked to hates it. The reason, perhaps, is that its construction involved the partial destruction of the Church of San Francisco, one of the oldest and most beloved churches in the city, the remnants of which are located right next to the tower. You can pay a few pesos to take an elevator to the top floor of la Torre, where the views of the city and surrounding mountains, on a clear day, are spectacular.
If you cross Eje Central from Madero, you’ll find yourself in front of the Palacio de BellasArtes, one of the most iconic structures in Mexico City. Built during the Porfiriato, the thirty-five year reign of President Porfirio Diaz, this neoclassical theatre also features decorative details that link it to indigenous Mexican culture, as Ernesto informed me one afternoon while we drank coffee at the 8th floor terrace cafe in the Sears building across the street. He urged me to go examine the building’s arches more carefully in order to see both the snake and dog motifs that Mexicanize this otherwise very European-looking structure.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is primarily a theater, but its upper floors have been turned into a museum dedicated to Mexico’s most famous muralists, including Siqueiros, Orozco, Tamayo and Rivera. Its most famous work is Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads, originally intended for Rockefeller Center in New York, but torn down because it featured a sympathetic portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Later, Rivera reconstructed the mural here. On one of my visits to this building, I saw an elementary school teacher explaining the painting to a group of rapt students.
To see another of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals, you can simply walk through the Alameda Central to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, a museum that houses only one mural, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park). This mural could not be in a more perfect location, for it gives us a peek at the history of the park that lies just outside the museum’s doors. In the mural, you can see wealthy white Mexicans (and foreigners) enjoying the park while police officers prevent poor and indigenous people from entering. This park eventually became a popular cruising ground for closeted gay men, though today, among the crowds enjoying the newly renovated park, you will see many hand-holding same-sex couples.
Across the Eje Central from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a couple of blocks to the north, is the Palacio de Correos (palace of mail), sometimes simply called the Edificio de Correos (the mail building). Also built during the Porfiriato, this building still functions as a post office. It was heavily damaged in the 1985 earthquake but has since been restored. It’s a magnificent (and beloved) building, definitely worth a few minutes of your time. It’s still a post office, so there’s not much to see here other than the building itself, though there is a small art gallery on the first floor.
Across Calle de Tacuba from the Palacio de Correos is the Museo Nacional de Arte (National Museum of Art), located in another glorious building from the Porfiriato, this one originally intended to be the Palace of Communications. The museum houses many treasures of Mexican art, and also features temporary exhibits, such as the current exhibit giving an overview of modern art during the 20th century.
A few steps away is a wonderful place to have lunch, Café de Tacuba. Located in a house built in the early 17th century, the restaurant serves traditional Mexican cuisine which you will eat while being serenaded by mariachis. The house has quite a history. Diego Rivera married his first wife there; in 1936, a politician who had just been elected governor of Veracruz was assassinated there. Its walls are adorned with some masterpieces of Mexican art (including an excellent portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz).
Looking west from Avenida Madero, you can see the Monumento a la Revolución (Monument to the Revolution). It lies outside of the historic center, across Paseo de la Reforma, but it’s well worth the walk. This building, begun during the Porfiato, was intended to be a new Congress for Mexico, but its construction was halted by the revolution and never resumed. It was just a skeletal dome for several decades until an architect presented the government with a plan to turn it into a monument to the Mexican Revolution. Underneath the monument, there is a fascinating museum that tells the story of the revolution, Museo Nacional de la Revolución (though it might be somewhat less interesting to those who don’t read Spanish).
North of the Zócalo
A few blocks north of the Zócalo is Plaza Santo Domingo, which is lined with print shops. Under its porticoes, men known as escritores publicos (public writers) sit at desks and type on electric typewriters. They write letters and fill out forms for people who are either illiterate or have no computer or typewriter.
Right off of the Plaza Santo Domingo, on Calle República de Cuba, is the Secretaria de Educación Publica (SEP), where Diego Rivera painted his very first murals. The building is open to the public on weekdays, and it’s well worth a look.
I’m told that Calle República de Cuba is the site of Mexico City’s hippest gay bars, the ones frequented by queers who are too cool for the Zona Rosa. I’m a little too old for nightlife these days, but I’m curious about these places. Time Out Mexico recently publishedan article about these bars. Perhaps I’ll check some of them out before leaving town.
Not far from the SEP building is the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, another grand colonial building filled with murals. The most famous ones in this building are by Jose Clemente Orozco.
Several blocks north of the Zócalo on Calle Republica de Bolivia is the Museo de la Mujer (the Women’s Museum), which tells the story of Mexican history from the perspective of women. I went there one afternoon to see a documentary about the Brontë sisters that was playing as part of MICGenero, an annual Mexico City film festival with a gender focus. After the film, I wandered around the museum for a while, and it seemed like a fascinating place. I keep meaning to go back and spend more time there.
South of the Zócalo:
One afternoon after our class, Ernesto suggested that I check out the Calle de Regina, a pedestrian street several blocks south of the Zócalo.This street was officially designated a “corridor peatonal cultural” (cultural pedestrian corridor) in 2008. Linedwith cafes, bars and restaurants, Calle de Regina is also known for its murals, vertical gardens, and cultural activities, including the exhibit of traditional and contemporary Day of the Day altars I saw here in November. It’s not a touristy place. It draws crowds, but they’re Mexican crowds, and its inexpensive restaurants tend to serve tacos, pizza, and beer.
Around the block from Calle de Regina, on San Jeronimo, another pedestrian street, is a funky bar/restaurant called Hosteria La Bota. It’s located near the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, and it seems mainly to attract university students. This is another place I visited on Ernesto’s recommendation, and I’m so glad I did. Its eccentric ambiance was described by Chilango magazine as follows: “Parece taberna española y al mismo tiempo el desván de tus abuelos” (“It seems like a Spanish tavern and at the same time your grandparents’ attic”). Its décor could be characterized as curated clutter. Every inch of the walls is covered with some kind of odd object: animal heads, old posters, vinyl records, curios, knick-knacks, hanging bicycles. Both times I ate there, I had the torta de pulpo (octopus sandwich), and it was surprisingly delicious.
There’s so much of the historic center that I have yet to see, despite having spent several months this year in Mexico City. It contains dozens and dozens of museums, for instance, and I’ve only visited a fraction of them. In fact, there’s so much in the city as a whole that I haven’t seen. It’s such a vast place that I’m beginning to think I could spend the rest of my life here without taking advantage of all it has to offer. I guess it’s good to know that there will be plenty of new things for me to see on my next visit.
I love reading books that are set in the place that I’m traveling, especially when I’m traveling alone. The book can be my dinner companion, and it can make me feel more connected to the place I’m exploring. On this trip, I’ve mainly been reading Mexican LGBT short stories, most of which are set in Mexico. But no piece of Mexican fiction I’ve read has evoked Mexico as strongly as has Barbara Kingsolver’s novelThe Lacuna. It was recommended to me earlier this year by a fellow student at Calle 55 in Merida, an excellent Spanish language school. A historical novel set largely in Mexico during the early 20th Century (although a big chunk of it takes place in Asheville, North Carolina), The Lacuna gives us a peek at the daily lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky. When my classmate told me about it, I was intrigued, so I bought it for my iPad. But I waited until I was living in Mexico City to start reading it.
The novel is narrated by Harrison Shepherd, a gay American-Mexican, born to a Mexican mother and American father in the US but raised in Mexico. As a young man, he works as a cook and a secretary, first for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and later for Leon Trotsky. Harrison is like a smart, gay Forrest Gump, witness to an extraordinary number of historical events. Even when visiting his father in Washington, DC, for instance, he’s present for General Douglas MacArthur’s 1932 assault on the Bonus Army encampment. But The Lacuna also bears a resemblance to The Book of Salt, Monique Truong’s novel about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s gay Vietnamese chef. In both books, a celebrated circle of artists and writers is seen through the eyes of the lonely gay man who cooks for them.
When I got to the part of the book that took place in Trotsky’s house, I found myself wanting to revisit the Museo Casa Leon Trotsky. I had been there once before, years ago, on my first visit to Mexico City, just after visiting the Frida Kahlo Museum. I found it to be a fascinating place, one that tells a story I’d long wanted to better understand.
I first heard the name Trotsky as a teenager: after Vanessa Redgrave gave her infamous acceptance speech at the 1978 Academy Awards, she was described in the press as a Trotskyite. I had no idea what that meant, and it wasn’t easy to find out in 1978. There was no Internet, and encyclopedias and other reference materials at the time simply said that Trotsky was a figure in the Bolshevik Revolution who fled Russia after Stalin came to power and was later assassinated in Mexico. But there was no indication of what a Trotskyite might be, what political philosophy Trotsky espoused, how it differed from Stalin’s. In 1978, in the US, communists were the enemy. There was nothing else to know.
Barbara Kingsolver paints a much more detailed portrait of Trotsky. He comes across as a kind and honorable man who really wanted to create a democratic form of socialism, not just in the Soviet Union but around the world. In her telling, he was intended to be Lenin’s successor, but in a plot twist worthy of a telenovela, Stalin tricked him. Trotsky (known as Lev in the book–apparently his real nickname) had fallen ill and was convalescing in the Russian countryside when Lenin died. In a letter, Stalin informed him of Lenin’s death and convinced him not to return to Moscow just yet. The state funeral had been delayed, Stalin said, and Lev needed to rest and recover his strength for the tasks that lay ahead. By the time Lev returned to Moscow, the state funeral had already taken place and Stalin had used the occasion to persuade the entire country that Trotsky had betrayed Lenin and the revolution. I have no idea if this is historically accurate.
It definitely is historically accurate that Diego Rivera and several other Mexican communists urged Mexican President Cardenas to offer Trotsky asylum in Mexico. For a while, Trotsky lived in Frida’s blue house in Coyoacan. He and Frida wound up having an affair, leading to a rift between him and Diego, though not as much of a rift as one would expect. In Kingsolver’s version of the story, Trotsky moved away from Frida’s blue house to a nearby house on la Calle Viena not because of his affair with Frida–Diego and Frida both had plenty of affairs and neither considered infidelity an especially big deal–but because Trotsky read a letter Diego had sent to a mutual friend which characterized him as a stick-in-the-mud who couldn’t “let the revolution rest for a night and get drunk with a friend.”
The falling out between these two men creates an enormous dilemma for Harrison, who is forced to choose between Rivera and Trotsky. He chooses Trotsky, and he remains at Trotsky’s side until the end. Trotsky is a father figure for this young man, who has had so little interaction with his own father, and Trotsky’s assassination, which he witnesses, continues to haunt him for years.
But before I got to that passage in the book, I hopped into an Uber car and headed to Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky. I wandered through the rooms of the house, which have been preserved as they were when Trotsky lived there: the kitchen and the offices which were used in Kingsolver’s book by Harrison, who both cooked and typed for Trotsky; the bedroom Trotsky shared with his wife, Natalya; the bedroom of their grandson Seva, who was wounded in an assassination attempt organized by the great Mexican painter David Siqueiros, a Communist Party member loyal to Stalin; and the office where Trotsky wrote and was eventually assassinated. I strolled through the cactus gardens that were one of Trotsky’s great passions. He went on expeditions to the Mexican countryside, where he dug up cacti to replant in his garden. Trotsky believed that in an ideal state every person would do both physical and intellectual work every day. While living in this house, he spent part of every day writing and part of every day tending his chickens and rabbits and cacti. The rabbit hutches are still on the grounds of the museum, and supposedly descendants of his rabbits still survive (though they don’t live at the museum).
His gardens are a peaceful place. I sat on a bench in them and continued reading Kingsolver’s book, including her account of Trotsky’s assassination.
It’s terribly sad story. Even before Lev and Natalya arrived in Mexico, Stalin had gunned down many of their friends and family members, and every month seemed to bring them more bad news. During his exile in Mexico, Trotsky knew that he could be killed any day. His belief in the revolution kept him going, kept him writing, despite all the personal grief he and his wife had endured. After his assassination, 200,000 people followed his coffin through the streets of Mexico City. The Mexican government bought the house from Natalya in order to give her some financial independence. She moved to France, where she died in 1962. And today, this museum is the only site in the world that pays tribute to Trotsky and his ideas.
Although virtually every tourist in Mexico City makes it to the Frida Kahlo Museum, many skip the Trotsky Museum. But if you’re spending a day in Coyoacan, you should visit both. If you know anything about Frida Kahlo’s life (even if you’ve just seen the movie Frida), you know about her involvement with Trotsky. These museums complement each other in a wonderful way, and one is just a short walk from the other. And if you’re looking for some interesting fiction to read on a trip to Mexico City, I recommend The Lacuna.
Soon after I arrived in Peru, I began to regret not having planned to spend more time there. I was instantly enchanted by the country–by its beauty, its charming people, its delicious food, its magical archaeological sites. I tried to cram as much activity as I could into my nine days there, and my nonstop exertion, combined with the altitude and the strong sun, wound up wearing me out. Nevertheless, I was spellbound by Peru and I can’t wait to go back.
I began and ended my Peruvian adventures in Lima, spending my first two nights in the Bohemian neighborhood Barranco, which had been recommended to me by my friend Caty. While in Barranco, I dedicated myself mainly to the enjoyment of ceviche and pisco sours–an activity to which I would gladly have devoted much more time.
For the following day, I had booked an early flight to Cusco, but I was bumped from my flight and wound up spending most of the day in the Lima airport. (This was my second bad experience with LAN Airlines.) I was grumpy when I arrived in Cusco late that afternoon, but the beautiful countryside in the Sacred Valley and the amiable driver my hotel had sent to collect me quickly put me in a better mood.
My driver, a native Quechua speaker, spoke slow, formal Spanish, free of slang and very easy for me to understand. On the two-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, he tried to teach me a little Quechua (though I’ve forgotten every word he taught me), and he asked me to teach him a few words in English. He was the first of several native Quechua speakers that I hired as drivers or guides during my nine days in Peru, and they were all warm, friendly men.
Cusco, capital of the Inca empire and one of the longest continually inhabited cities in the Americas, has an altitude of over 11,000 feet, causing many visitors to experience altitude sickness. There’s a debate in the guidebooks over whether it’s better to adjust to the altitude in Cusco before going to Machu Picchu and other sites in the Sacred Valley or whether it’s better to adjust to the slightly lower altitude in the Sacred Valley before going to Cusco. I opted for the latter, deciding to go immediately to Ollantaytambo, a town with its own celebrated ruins about an hour and a half from Machu Picchu. I spent two nights in El Albergue, a hotel inside the Ollantaytambo train station. All of the good things I had read about this hotel turned out to be accurate. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and many of them have lovely views of Ollantaytambo’s ruins and the surrounding mountains. The hotel’s restaurant serves organic produce from its nearby farm. Best of all, it serves breakfast beginning at 5:30 a.m. to guests who are planning to board the 6:00 a.m. train for Machu Picchu, and after they’ve finished their breakfast, the train is waiting for them just outside the restaurant.
Many people had told me that Machu Picchu is one of the few “must see” tourist destinations that really lives up to the hype, and they were right. It’s a breathtaking place, and its story (to the extent to which we know its story) is fascinating. I arrived early, before the site had become too crowded, and hired a guide named Jose, who escorted me about and explained the mysteries and wonders of the place. He told me all about Inca cosmology, Inca construction methods, and Inca engineering. He also propounded a wacky theory that has been disputed by nearly everyone to whom I have repeated it: that the Incas and the Quechuas were two entirely different races of people, the Quechua being a servant race ruled by the Incas, who were unusually tall. The chief evidence for this is Inca door frames, whose height indicates that they were meant for people much taller than the typical Peruvian of today. The Inca race, he claims, was completely killed off by the Spanish, and because the Quechua people venerated them even after death, the Spaniards burned their bodies, making any investigation of his theory impossible. I tried googling this idea and turned up nothing, so he may be the theory’s lone proponent.
When I bought my ticket to Machu Picchu, I paid extra to hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain seen just behind the ruins in most photos of the world’s most famous archaeological site. I had read several articles that said that this hike was absolutely not to be missed, so I paid the 50 extra bucks it costs to have access to the Huayna Picchu. And then I began to read articles that said that the hike was dangerous and terrifying, that the descent was particularly perilous, involving narrow stone steps, no railing, and a precipitous drop down the side of the mountain should you misjudge your step. On the train to Machu Picchu, I sat next to a Japanese tour guide who had led several expeditions to Machu Picchu but had never climbed Huayna Picchu. She told me, in barely comprehensible English, that a Japanese tourist had once fallen to his death on the hike and that now no Japanese tourist would dare climb that mountain. (She was wrong. I saw several Japanese tourists making their way up the mountain.) Jose assured me I would be fine, and I when I saw several middle-aged and older hikers doing the climb, including a woman who I would guess was about 70, I figured there was nothing to worry about.
The ascent took about an hour, and though I had to stop and catch my breath frequently, it wasn’t until I got almost to the top that I encountered any difficulties. Not too far from the summit, there’s a nice terraced area with lovely views–views that are every bit as impressive as the ones from the top. I now think this would be a good place to call it quits. But I didn’t know any better at the time, so I pushed on. A little ways ahead, I saw that the 70ish woman had turned around and was heading back. She had apparently run into a challenge she was unprepared for, and I soon discovered what it was: a narrow tunnel with wet, muddy floors that one has to crawl through. I crawled through it, and when I came out the other side, I noticed that my backpack had come open. I thought nothing of it at the time, but when I got to the summit and wanted to take a photo, my camera was missing. In a panic, I headed back toward the tunnel, only to run into a park employee who told me I wasn’t allowed to go back in that direction. When I explained to him that I had lost my camera, he calmly pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to me. The case was muddy, but the camera worked fine. I thanked him profusely, then returned to the summit, and soon afterward, began to descend those narrow, terrifying steps I had read about. I held on to the side of the mountain and edged down the steps, taking the advice that the man behind me was giving to his wife: “Don’t look down. Just face the mountain and go down slowly.”
I obviously made it back to Ollantaytambo in one piece. That night I had quinoa and pisco sours in a restaurant overlooking the town square while all the town’s residents, including the restaurant’s employees, were glued to a soccer match between Brazil and Peru. I was utterly charmed by Ollantaytambo, a pretty little town surrounded by soaring mountains. The nearest mountains are home to the ruins for which the town is famous. There’s a crafts market next to the entrance to the ruins, and there are numerous cafes and restaurants catering to the hippie backpacker types who are drawn to the town. On the evening I arrived, I went to a funky bakery on the plaza and had a chocolate banana muffin and mug of coca tea, which is said to help tourists cope with the altitude. (I wanted to bring a bag of this tea back home with me, but I read online that it’s illegal in the U.S.)
The day after I visited Machu Picchu, I hired a guide to show me around the Ollantaytambo ruins—another affable man, one who was as interested in hearing about my life in California as he was in telling me about Ollantaytambo. Then I hired a driver to take me first to Pisaq, another town with famous ruins, and finally to Cusco, where I was planning to spend four nights. The entrance to the ruins at Pisaq is at the top of a mountain, and the ruins spill down the mountain, leading eventually to the modern town of Pisaq, located in the valley. When we got to the Pisaq ruins, I hired another guide and then agreed to meet my driver in Pisaq’s Plaza de Armas. The guide played an Andean flute as he led me around the Pisaq ruins. After an hour-long tour, he pointed out the path that I would follow to reach the plaza and told me I should hurry because it would take me about an hour to get there. It was another nerve-wracking descent, this time because I was often not sure I was going the right way.
By the time I reached Cusco late that afternoon, I was exhausted and sunburned. I had done much more hiking in the past two days than I am accustomed to, and my knees were really upset with me. And the mild temperatures in the Sacred Valley had fooled me into thinking that the sun was nothing to worry about. The altitude may moderate temperatures, but it also intensifies the impact of the sun. I was shocked by how red I was when I looked in the mirror that evening. But at dinner that night, when I glanced around the restaurant and noticed that it was packed with beet-red gringos, I felt a little less foolish.
Cusco is a lovely city, but the first couple of days I was there, I was so tired I didn’t want to do much. I did wander around a bit with the other sunburned tourists, visiting churches and museums. On my third day there, I was fortunate to befriend Christiam, a Chilean art student who acted as my guide for a couple of days, taking me to the Templo del Sol and to some good restaurants.
As is to be expected in a tourist town in a poor country, the streets of Cusco are full of people looking to make a quick buck. Indigenous women wander around in traditional dress with baby llamas (and fully grown llamas), offering to have their photos taken with tourists for a tip. Several young men sidled up to me and asked, in surprisingly good English, “Wanna smoke weed?” And on almost every street corner, there are young women offering massages to male passersby. “They’re not really massages,” Christiam explained to me, though I had already come to the same conclusion myself.
On my final night in Peru, my husband’s hotel points got me a suite in the Sheraton in central Lima, only a short walk to the Plaza de Armas. I spent my final afternoon in Peru exploring the museums there. My favorite was the Casa de la Literatura Peruana, a fun literary museum that made me want to read more Peruvian literature. (I found the exhibit on feminist poetry in Peru to be especially interesting.)
I was already a little travel weary when I arrived in Peru, and by the time I left, I was completely exhausted. Nevertheless, I really didn’t want to leave. I wanted more time in Peru. And I’m sure I’ll be back.
Twelve days ago, I left Mexico to do some traveling in South America, starting in Colombia, where I just spent a week and a half. A violent reputation steered tourists away from Colombia for years, but the country’s security situation has improved dramatically, and recently it has been getting a lot of positive press in travel publications. It’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit, so when I found an amazingly cheap ticket to Bogotá on Interjet, one of my favorite discount airlines, I snapped it up.
Here, in no particular order, are six of the things I enjoyed most in Colombia.
Street Art in Bogota
La Candelaria, the oldest part of Bogota, is home to several universities and most of Bogotá’s tourist attractions. During the drug war, it was a dangerous place, but it’s been experiencing a revival in recent years. The neighborhood’s colonial buildings, in addition to housing some hip bars and restaurants, are often covered with colorful and imaginative murals. On a Bogotá Bike Tour, I learned that the local government is paying artists to produce street art not only in la Candaleria but in other parts of town as well. This street art certainly makes walking through Bogotá’s chilly, drizzly–and often grimy–streets a more pleasant experience.
Social Urbanism in Medellin
Medellin, once the most violent city in the world, has made a remarkable turnaround over the past two decades. In 2013, it was named the planet’s most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute. Many people give the credit for Medellin’s transformation to former mayor Sergio Fajardo, a political independent who dubbed his policies “social urbanism.” Social urbanism involves public investments in infrastructure and education in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which in Medellin tend to be at the tops of the steep hillsides that surround the city. (They remind me of the ironically named neighborhood the Bottom in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.) The local government has connected these neighborhoods to the rest of the city with creative public transportation projects, mainly el metrocable, a kind of ski lift that carries people from the light rail train to the hillside slums. In the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhood, there are now escalators that climb the sides of the mountain so that residents no longer have to trudge up flight after flight of stairs to reach their homes. The city has also invested in schools, community centers, and “library parks,” combinations of green space and libraries. The most famous one, Parque Biblioteca España Santo Domingo, features an award-winning architectural design that is attracting tourists to the neighborhood that was once ruled by Pablo Escobar.
The art of Fernando Botero is everywhere in Colombia, not just in museums. I saw his sculptures in plazas in all three of the cities I visited in Colombia, and I also saw street vendors and souvenir shops selling replicas of his most famous paintings. The Botero Museum in Bogotá and the Antioquia Museum in Medellin are the best places to see his work, but both museums also exhibit hundreds of modern masterpieces by other artists that Botero donated from his private collection. According to Botero, his famously oversized figures are not fat: they just have volume. Nevertheless, the word I heard most frequently from other museum-goers was “gordo,” or fat. Botero’s paintings and sculptures are often quite funny, and they contain wry social commentary. Maybe I’m overreaching, but his art seems to share a sensibility with the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez. In the work of both men, reality is depicted in a distorted way that manages to reveal something essential about Colombian society–and about humanity.
La Ciudad Antigua in Cartagena
Cartagena is Colombia’s biggest tourist attraction for a good reason. The Caribbean port city contains a beautiful walled “ciudad vieja,” or old town, that is full of color and music and fabulous restaurants. I’m not a fan of heat, and walking around in Cartagena is a little like walking around in a sauna. But I still enjoyed wandering its narrow streets and taking photos of its colonial mansions. I saw dance performances in plazas, heard the sounds of salsa emanating from bars, and ate in wonderful restaurants. (My two favorites were Restaurante Donjuán, where I had a tasty quinoa salad with shrimp and chipotle Caesar dressing, and El Boliche Cebicheria, where I had a couple of craft beers and a spicy ceviche with fresh coconut.)
Quite by accident, I arranged to visit during the Cartagena Independence Day celebration. On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared its independence before any of the rest of what was then known as the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. This led to a standoff with the Spanish military in which 4,000 people died, prompting Simon Bolivar to give the city its enduring nickname, La Heroica. Today, Cartagena’s Independence Day is celebrated with parades of beauty queens, loud firecrackers, and the entire populous running around with huge cans of shaving cream and spraying everyone in sight.
Because of the holiday, many tourist sites were closed for the week, including several of Cartagena’s museums. I wound up going to a museum that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have visited–just because it was the only one that was open–and I’m glad I did. The Museum of the Inquisition, predictably, gives an overview of the Spanish Inquisition, both in Spain and in the Americas, displaying some grisly torture implements that were used to extract confessions from people accused of blasphemy, heresy, witchcraft, and sodomy. (One of the most horrifying ones was used to crush the breasts of women accused of witchcraft.) But the Inquisition turns out to be only part of the museum’s focus. The top floor is devoted to local history, including Cartagena’s 1811 Declaration of Independence. For me, the most fascinating rooms were the ones that told the story of nearby San Basilio de Palenque, the first settlement in the Americas populated entirely by former slaves. In 1603, a group of escaped slaves, led by the legendary Benkos Biohó, built a fortified village in the mountains about 30 miles from Cartagena. San Basilio withstood attacks by the Spaniards for over 100 years. It occasionally sent expeditions to Cartagena to attack incoming slave ships and liberate the captives. When the Spanish government grew weary of trying to conquer San Basilio, it officially granted the town’s residents freedom and a large degree of sovereignty. San Basilio de Palenque even has its own language, Palenquero, a Spanish-Bantú creole. It’s the only Spanish-based creole that is still spoken in Latin America. Communities of escaped slaves sprang up all over the Americas, including the US, though American history books rarely talk about them. In Cartagena, which has a large Afro-Colombian population, the founding of San Basilio de Palenque is a celebrated part of local history. Palenqueras, colorfully dressed women who come to Cartagena from San Basilio to sell fruit, are iconic in Cartegena. (Tourists pay to take their photos.) They’re such an important part of the city’s identity that they were heavily featured in the Independence Day parades, alongside the contestants for Miss Colombia.
Okay, I’m not really sure that Tejo was one of my favorite Colombian experiences, but it was certainly one of the most interesting ones. Tejo is a popular Colombian game that involves throwing rocks at little triangles of gunpowder in order to cause an explosion. It’s played in bars, and apparently one of the rules of the game is that you have to drink lots of beer while playing it. I found it a little unnerving. It sounded like someone was getting shot every couple of minutes.
There’s no explosion in the following video. (The group I was with wasn’t very good at the game.) But it gives an idea of how the game is played.
I doubt I would have ever gone to a Tejo bar if it hadn’t been a stop on the Bogota Bike Tour, and I probably will never go again. Still, I’m glad I got to experience this weird game. It was an unforgettable experience even if it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant one.
Dancing in the Streets
In Colombia, I kept running across dance troupes performing in parks and plazas. As someone who can’t dance, I’ve always been fascinated by people who can. And Colombia is full of skilled dancers.
This year, for the first time, I found myself in Mexico for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and I was excited to witness this most Mexican of occasions here in Mexico, though I wasn’t sure that Mexico City would necessarily be the best place. For Day of the Dead activities, tourists tend to flock to Pátzcuaro or Oaxaca or some other smaller Mexican town. Mixquic, a small community in the Tláhuac delegation of the federal district, attracts many tourists wanting to experience Day of the Dead celebrations, so I considered going there, but a number of Chilangos warned me that it would be an uncomfortably overcrowded place on Day of the Dead. It turned out that I was able to see plenty of Day of the Dead activities in Mexico City without going to Mixquic, largely thanks to the efforts of my private Spanish tutor, Ernesto.
Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration, the first and second of November, and of course it follows Halloween, which many people in Mexico City do celebrate. Several houses in La Condesa were decked out for Halloween this year, and on October 31st, I saw a few children trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. But mainly Halloween is just an excuse for more Day of the Dead activities. I saw people in Halloween costumes, but a huge majority of them were dressed as Catrinas or Catrines, the name Diego Rivera gave to the Mexican skeleton figure created in the early 20th Century by José Guadalupe Posada that has since become an emblem of Day of the Dead.
There were several Day of the Dead events on Halloween, including a nighttime bike ride (with riders dressed as Catrina or Catrin) and a desfile (parade) of Catrinas and Catrines in the Historic Center. I went to the zócalo on Halloween night, where the city had erected a huge stage (on which nothing seemed to be happening) and several enormous ofrendas (altars with offerings). There was a fascinating indigenous dance performance in one corner of the Zócalo, and lots of people in costumes were wandering about.
On November 1st, the first Day of the Dead, I participated in the ciclovía (as I always do), but this time many of the other cyclists had skeleton face paint. I biked to the historic center and then wandered around looking at ofrendas. La Calle de Regina, a pedestrian street full of cafes and restaurants, had been turned into an open air gallery of ofrendas, both ofrendas tradicionales and ofrendas contemporáneas. The ofrendas usually feature skeletons, often dressed in traditional Mexican garb and doing things one doesn’t expect a skeleton to do–playing guitar, riding a bicycle, surfing. The more traditional ones display photos of deceased loved ones, or deceased historical figures, and offerings of bread, fruits, vegetables, and beverages. There’s often copal being burned in a censer, and there are nearly always marigolds and/or interesting arrangements of marigold petals. According to Ernesto, the scent of marigolds is believed to help the dead find their way to Day of the Dead celebrations.
On Saturday night, Ernesto arranged an excursion for his students (and several of their friends) to the Megaofrenda at the UNAM. Every year, UNAM faculty and students create an enormous display of artistic ofrendas, and each year, the university chooses a Mexican historical figure to dedicate the ofrendas to. This year it was José María Morelos, a hero in the Mexican War of Independence. Many of the skeletons in the ofrendas were dressed like Morelos, with his signature headscarf, or were acting out historical scenes in which Morelos was involved.
On Monday, November 2nd, Ernesto met me in a subway station and took me to Xochimilco, the southernmost delegation of el DF and a part of the city known for traditional Mexican culture. We first went to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which is famous for its collection of art by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, though on Day of the Dead, the main attraction is a huge ofrenda constructed by artists from around the country. This ofrenda is so popular that we had to stand in line for an hour just to get into the building that housed it. This year, the exhibition highlighted the link between Mexico’s biodiversity and the different kinds of arts and crafts that exist throughout the country. It also featured pieces from the Museum of Popular Art and the Dolores Olmedo Museum’s collection of popular art.
After we had seen the ofrenda at the museum, we took a microbus to the center of Xochimilco and had a lunch of tlocoyos and quesadillas de huitlacoche in the mercado there. (Ernesto told me that these two activities–riding a microbus and eating in the mercado–were probably the most authentically Mexican things I’d ever done.) We tried to go to the panteón (cemetery) behind the cathedral in Xochimilco, only to be told that it was closed and that there were no Day of the Dead activities there. We were advised to go instead to the Panteon de Xilotepec, in La Noria, just a few miles away, so we boarded another microbus and headed in that direction.
There was a festive atmosphere in the Panteón de Xilotepec. Food and drink were being sold at the entrance to the cemetery. Inside, graves had been cleaned up and decorated, mainly with marigold petals and candles. Ernesto told me that the graves of people who died young are typically adorned with balloons. Families were seated around graves, “visitando a sus muertos,” as Ernesto explained, visiting their dead. They drank and talked and laughed. I felt like I was intruding on private family gatherings as I meandered about with my camera, but as I walked past one family, a man reached out and affectionately patted me on the shoulder. Wandering mariachis went from grave to grave, playing the favorite songs of the deceased. Vendedores ambulantes roamed around selling snacks. Many people spend the night in the cemetery, I was told. Mostly I saw groups of people camped out by graves, but there were also a few solitary figures keeping lonely vigils beside tombstones.
I find myself charmed and moved by this tradition–remembering, honoring, and communing with the dead, contemplating our connection to them and our own mortality. These days, Day of the Dead is celebrated in the United States in areas with large Mexican/Mexican-American populations, including the Bay Area–and it’s just one example of the many ways that immigration from Latin America is enriching life in the US.
Every time I’ve come to Mexico City, I’ve happened upon a protest. In fact, I run across at least one almost every day, sometimes more than one. (Today, as I was bicycling to my Spanish lesson, I passed two.) Mexicans love to protest almost as much as the French, though it’s not at all clear that they’re getting the same results as the French. On this trip to Mexico, I’ve noticed something that I never noticed before: the use of entertainment in protests. Maybe song and dance have always been features of Mexican protests, and I’m just noticing it now. Or maybe it’s a new strategy for capturing the attention of Chilango passersby who are so accustomed to protests that they hardly notice them.
A few weeks ago, for instance, I was walking around in the Historic Center, and I stumbled upon a few dozen nearly naked men dancing to cumbia music in front of the Torre Latinoamericana (the tower in the Historic Center that was once the tallest building in Mexico). Then I noticed that there were a half a dozen topless women dancing in the middle of the street. It was causing quite a traffic jam, mainly because pedestrians were taking over el Eje Central (the main thoroughfare through the Historic Center) in order to get a better look and take pictures. The men had photos of two allegedly corrupt officials attached to their crotches, and behind them were huge banners denouncing the malfeasance of Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Angel Yunes Linares. The former is accused of illegally expropriating land to build a subway line when he was mayor of Mexico City, and the latter of embezzling tens of millions of pesos meant for social services.
Just last week, as I was walking around in the Historic Center, I noticed a ballet folklorico being staged in front of the Palace of Fine Arts. As I got closer, I saw that this too was a protest organized by Antorcha Campesina (Rural Torch—or Peasant Torch—I’m not sure which is the best translation), demanding justice for a man they claim was kidnapped and killed by the government. (When I asked my friend Mauricio about the protests, he was familiar with both groups and said that they had been holding protests in Mexico City for years. So maybe this isn’t a new tactic after all.)
No topic inspires more protests these days than the fate of forty-three protesters in the Mexican state of Guerrero. A little more than a year ago, two busloads of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were traveling to the town of Iguala, where they intended to disrupt a conference being held by the mayor’s wife. On orders from the mayor, the local police intercepted the students, shot three of them, kidnapped forty-three others, and then turned them over to a drug cartel that allegedly murdered them and incinerated their bodies in the town dump in nearby Cocula. This is, at any rate, what the federal government claims happened, but it’s a story that few Mexicans believe. The Mexican publication El Proceso published an article arguing that the federal police and army were also involved in the kidnapping of the students, and a recent article in the New Yorker makes a similar argument. Teams of forensics experts from the UNAM and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights investigated the incident and claimed that the government’s explanation was physically impossible. Later, when forensics experts from the University of Innsbrook in Austria identified the remains of three students in material collected from the Cocula town dump, the IACHR’s experts cast doubt on the origins of the samples that the Austrian team had studied. The families of the identified students have said that they don’t believe the government’s explanation, and every Mexican I have talked to about this topic is equally dubious. Graffiti and protests signs throughout el DF say, “Fue el Estado” (“It was the state”) and “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” (“Alive they took them, alive we want them”).
On September 26th of this year, the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping, I was in Puebla, where I joined protesters in the town square who were commemorating the anniversary and demanding government accountability. As with so many other protests that I have witnessed recently, there was entertainment: music, spoken word poetry, and stirring speeches. (The city government sponsored a concert in the town square that day, much to the annoyance of the protesters, who believed it was a deliberate attempt to distract attention from their protest.) The performances all took place on a small stage, in front of which were arranged forty-three empty chairs, each labeled with the image and name of one of the missing students. At the end of the event, the names of the forty-three students were all read aloud. Each name was accompanied by chants of “Vivo se lo llevaron, vivo lo queremos” and the release of one black helium balloon.
As Francisco Goldman explains in his excellent series of articles in The New Yorker, these kidnappings hit a nerve in Mexico not because they were isolated incidents but because they epitomize the link between organized crime and corrupt government officials that has been plaguing Mexico for so long. In his words, “Mexicans know that the murder of the forty-three students, like so many other Mexican atrocities, wasn’t a local crime but rather a manifestation of the political corruption and impunity that have been tormenting the country for years.”
During the protest in Puebla, one speaker decried the lack of accountability for government officials in Mexico. If just one corrupt politician were to be punished, he said, the country might begin to change for the better. He spoke of the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose work recently led to the jailing of the country’s president and vice-president, and called for a similar independent, international commission in Mexico. Many in Mexico have called for an independent investigation of the events in Iguala, including both the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the right-leaning Party of National Action (PAN), but the current PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) dominated government of President Enrique Peña Nieto continues to insist that an independent investigation would be a waste of money.
When I was studying Spanish at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, my teacher recommended that I see the recent film La Dictadura Perfecta, a political satire about the link between corrupt politicians and the Mexican media. In the film, a state governor caught accepting bribes on camera negotiates a deal with a major TV network to clean up his image and help him win the next presidential election. When this governor is involved in a second scandal, the TV network arranges the kidnapping of two adorable little girls and covers the story non-stop in order to distract the public’s attention from the scandal. The movie seems like an improbable political farce. But after I watched it, I googled it and learned that every outrageous event in the film was based on something that had actually happened in Mexico. The British publication The Guardian, for instance, somehow got its hands on contracts between the Peña Nieto campaign and Televisa, the largest Mexican television network, and published photos of them. When I read about this, I recalled the protests I had seen in Mexico City a few years ago, just after Peña Nieto’s election. Many people carried picket signs bearing images of Peña Nieto with thought bubbles saying, “Televisa made me president.”
With Mexico’s largest TV network in bed with corrupt politicians, the burden to investigate them falls on the shoulders of print journalists. But print journalists investigating corruption are killed at an astounding rate in Mexico. More than a hundred journalists have been killed in Mexico in last fifteen years, and twenty-five others have gone missing. Mexico is the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world, after Iraq. It’s even more dangerous for journalists than Syria.
Many of the Mexicans I’ve talked to are pessimistic about the chances for real reform in Mexico. But the protesters have not given up. A group of them are camped out in tents on Paseo de la Reforma. I cycle past them every day, and they’re making a lot of noise.
Given the madness of the auto traffic in Mexico City, bicycling here might seem slightly suicidal. But more people do it than you would expect, and every time I come to el DF I see even more people getting around on two wheels. The city encourages it with an excellent bike-sharing program called Ecobici, and many streets now have bike lanes, including Paseo de la Reforma, where bicyclists are separated from vehicles by metal and cement barriers. On Sundays, many of the major roads in the city are closed for the ciclovía —an event that allows bicyclists (and roller skaters and pedestrians) to take over the streets. These events are convincing more and more people that the bicycle is a viable form of transportation in Mexico City.
Four years ago, when I spent five days here en route to Buenos Aires, I first noticed the Ecobici stations that are ubiquitous in la Condesa, la Roma, Zona Rosa, and Centro Historico. I was dying to hop on a bike, but when I googled Ecobici, I learned that it was pretty much just for Mexicans. A local address and a Mexican credit card are required in order to get an Ecobici account, or at least they were at the time. Several weeks ago, on a fantastic Mexico City Bike Tour, led by an UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) professor of landscape architecture, I learned that these bikes are now available to tourists and that all one has to do is go to one of the stands and swipe a credit card in order to get a temporary account. Well, in theory, anyway. When I tried to sign up, I kept getting an error message. I told my Spanish teacher at the International House about my experience, and she urged me to go directly to the Ecobici office and try to get one of the cards that will allow me to use Ecobici for a whole year. They’re supposedly only for residents of Mexico City, but she told me that previous students of hers had managed to get them anyway.
So I headed to the Ecobici office and spent two solid hours getting signed up. It was surprisingly complicated. First, I had to walk around the block to a branch of Bancomer and open an “express” Mexican bank account. Then, I had to call to activate my new express debit card (and be grilled in Spanish for about 20 minutes about what I was doing in Mexico). Once I had paid with my new card, I was given a small pamphlet about bike safety and Mexican biking laws, and after I read the pamphlet, I had to take a written test to prove that I had read it. Finally, I had to walk to a copy shop and make a photocopy of my passport. (When I told my Spanish teacher about my experience, she was incredulous. According to her, a written test isn’t even necessary to get a driver’s license in Mexico.)
But as they say in Spanish, valió la pena. It was totally worth it. Now that I have Ecobici card, I can just walk up to one of the bike stations, swipe my card, and pick up a bike. I have to return it within 45 minutes to another Ecobici station, but Ecobici stations are not hard to find (and I was also given a handy map that shows me exactly where they are). Then after waiting about five minutes, I can get a new bike. The bikes are all in good condition, with adjustable seats, both front and rear lights, and a small storage space (with a bungee cord) that you can use for a backpack or whatever else you might be carrying. I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth already. It’s only $30 US for the whole year. That’s about what I’d pay to rent a bike for one day in almost any American or European city! And I’ve used these bikes every day since signing up—including on Sundays for the ciclovía.
Ciclovías, or ciclovías recreativas, originated in Bogota, but now they’re gaining popularity all over the world. The basic concept is that, for a period of several hours, major city streets are shut down to auto traffic so that people can bike in a safe, car-free space. It’s a great way to introduce people to urban bicycling. San Francisco’s version, called Sunday Streets, happens once a month, and Oakland’s version, Oaklavía, occurs three times a year. But in Mexico City it’s a weekly event, every Sunday. From my apartment, I can walk just one block to Calle Mazatlan, pick up an Ecobici, and ride it through car-free streets all the way to the historic center. Riding along Paseo de la Reforma, normally choked with auto traffic, with hundreds of other bicyclists, is an exhilarating experience.
This past Sunday’s ciclovía took me past a temporary art exhibit on Paseo de la Reforma, between the Angel of Independence and Diana the Huntress. Sponsored by the Museum of Popular Art, it featured brightly colored papier-mâché fantasy creatures that attracted hundreds of families with children and quite a few bicyclists. I stopped and took a few photos and then headed on my way. At the next intersection, a woman approached me and asked if she could give me a hug. I was a little skeptical. I had recently read something about a pick-pocketing scheme in Bogota that involves hugging people and then stealing their wallets. But then I noticed that there were about a dozen people there offering hugs to everyone. I received about ten hugs before the light turned green, and my wallet, cell phone, and camera were still with me when I pedaled away.
In the waiting room of the Ecobici office, a video on constant loop boasts about the degree to which Ecobici has helped reduce air pollution in Mexico City. It’s undoubtedly true. Since I’ve been here, I’ve talked to several people who have told me that the air quality in el DF is dramatically better than it was 20 years ago. In fact, they tell me that almost every aspect of life here is better now than it was 20 years ago, and it’s all because of good public policy. In addition to encouraging bicycling, the city has improved public transportation, removed smoke-spewing factories, and regulated the content of gasoline. According to Corydon Ireland’s article “The Makeover of Mexico City,” in 1992 the UN declared that Mexico City had the worst air quality in the world, “so bad that flying birds, overwhelmed, would fall dead from the sky. . . . Air quality in Mexico City now resembles that in Los Angeles: not wonderful, but not catastrophic.” These days, Los Angeles is following the lead of Mexico City. In 2014, after a trip to Mexico City, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti recommended that his city try to imitate the Ecobici program, and in August of this year, the Los Angeles City Council approved the idea.
When I tell people that I’m spending the bulk of my sabbatical in Mexico City, they usually say something like “Oh, cool!” but they look at me as if they think I’ve lost my mind.
I understand why they’re so perplexed. I visited Mexico several times before daring to go to its capital. Much of what I had read about the city made it seem a daunting place—polluted and crime-ridden—that is perhaps best avoided. On my visits to Mexico, I met several Mexicans who had never been to Mexico City and had no intention of ever going. But I also met people who had visited or lived in Mexico City and loved it, who described it as the New York of Mexico, a cosmopolitan megalopolis that offers everything a great city can offer. When I finally worked up the nerve to visit, I fell in love with the place. I have since visited so many times that I’ve lost count.
This is apparently a common experience. In his book First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, David Lida describes being similarly intimidated by Mexico City (also known as elDF–pronounced “day efay”—for Distrito Federal) before visiting it, then immediately falling so hard for the place that he rearranged his life so that he could live here. Lida’s book is a kind of love letter to the city, and it is just one of several that I have come across recently, including Daniel Hernandez’s Down and Delirious in Mexico City and John Ross’s El Monstruo.
Mexico City’s admirers are not unaware of its problems: crime, pollution, poverty, income inequality. It’s a sinking city that is running out of water. In Down and Delirious in Mexico City, Daniel Hernandez explains that “the weight of 20 million people and 4 million cars and skyscrapers and tunnels and elevated highways presses the ground year after year into what was once a vast bed of interlocking lakes, a sinking that is accelerated by depleting groundwater. Buildings in the old center lean this way or that in the soft earth. Steps are added at the bottom of outdoor staircases to level the land for pedestrians.”
But the city’s approach to coping with its challenges—both on an individual and a collective level—makes it an exciting place for many. As Lida says, “Part of what makes a city dynamic is the way that its citizens deal with its problems, and the people here are nothing if not imaginative at problem solving. Indeed, the Mexicans and their ingenuity are very much a part of what gives Mexico City its dynamic energy.” Lida details the creative strategies that Mexico City’s poor use to survive in an economy that doesn’t offer them many good job opportunities. And the government of Mexico City, whatever its flaws, has managed to make the city a better place to live in the past couple of decades. Crime is not nearly as bad as it once was (and according to Lida, even at its worst it wasn’t as bad as the American press made it seem). The per capita homicide rate in Mexico City is lower than that of Washington, D.C., Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Phoenix, Dallas or Las Vegas. In an interview with Amy Goodman, the late John Ross pointed out that Mexico City has been ruled by the left-leaning PRD (the Party of the Democratic Revolution) since 1997, when the citizens of the city were finally allowed to elect their own government. As he explains, “No other megalopolis in the Americas, and perhaps in the world, has been run by a left party for so long. It’s been an interesting experiment. . . . A lot of things have changed. There were a lot of things to change. . . . [I]n terms of social amenities, [after] thirteen years of a left party, [we have] things like abortion on demand during the first twelve weeks of gestation, free abortion on demand; same-sex marriage, as of March 4th [of 2009], and now every week we’re having collective marriages; a right-to-die bill, with dignity; bicycling every Sunday, two days a week without cars — the air has gotten better, the gas been reformulated; [there’s] a commitment to recycling. Mexico puts out about 20,000 tons of garbage every day, and that’s a lot of recycling to be done. All of these social amenities, I think they’re very distinct from the rest of Mexico and very distinct from the rest of Latin America. And sometimes it feels like Mexico City is San Francisco, you know?”
Mexico City certainly looks nothing like San Francisco, but I get Ross’s point. While traveling in Quintano Roo, I heard a Spanish tourist say that although Mexico City is not beautiful, it is full of life and energy. I actually do find el DF beautiful, but I understand her point. Large swaths of the city are quite ugly, and when people talk about what they love about Mexico City, few mention its beauty. And yet, parts of the city are lovely. The historic center contains block after block of majestic buildings—some dating from the 16th Century. Paseo de la Reforma, often called the Champs Elysees of Mexico, is a broad boulevard with modern skyscrapers and grand monuments. It’s no Champs Elysees, but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless. The glitzy Zona Rosa, popular with American tourists, has a lot of trees and some handsome historic buildings. (Given that it’s also Mexico City’s gay neighborhood, you’d think I’d like it more, but it has far too many American chain restaurants for me. For some reason, I’m never happy when I’m on a block that has a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Burger King, a Wendy’s, and a Starbucks, even if it also has several gay bars.)
The bohemian central neighborhoods Colonia Roma and la Condesa, in addition to being hipster paradises, are home to peaceful parks and Art Deco and Art Nouveau architectural gems. As Amber Bravo says in an article about Herman Miller’s decision to locate its Latin American headquarters in la Condesa, these neighborhoods “paint a picturesque rebuttal to the notoriously frenetic image of Mexico’s capital. Leafy, residential, and almost European in flavor, the boulevards, parks, plazas, and cafés that punctuate the area’s colonias beg to be ambled and discovered on foot or bicycle.” These neighborhoods are my favorites. Although they resemble many hipster enclaves in the United States and Europe (Soho, Chueca, Fort Greene, Greenwich Village, the Mission, Uptown Oakland, Silver Lake), they’re also unmistakably Mexican. I see things here that I would never see in the U.S., mostly things connected to Mexico’s vast informal economy: wandering street musicians, vendedores ambulantes (i.e., people selling stuff on the street), food stands, news stands (which have almost disappeared in the US but are everywhere here) and young men selling tamales from bicycle carts, announcing their presence with a loud recording that urges everyone to “acérquese y pidasus ricos tamales oaxaqueños.” There are also shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe (la Virgencita) on almost every block, as well as a few shrines to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), a folk saint that, despite the objections of the Catholic Church, has a huge cult following in Mexico City.
Mexico City is the largest city in the Spanish-speaking world, and it is one of the most important—if not the most important—cultural capitals of Latin America. Lida says that, culturally speaking, Mexico City has “offerings more along the lines of First World cities than any other in Latin America.” He adds that “on any given night there is an extensive selection of theater (classical, contemporary, experimental), film (mostly from Hollywood, but also from France, Japan, Romania, or Argentina), music (from the local symphony orchestra, to an avant-garde jazz combo from New York, to touring rappers from Beirut), and public presentations of just-published books.” Mexico City also has a vibrant gay scene. People say it has some of the best gay bars in the world, and I see public displays of affection between same-sex couples everywhere I go. (In this sense, it truly is like San Francisco.) For this reason, when I decided to research Latin American LGBT literature as my sabbatical project, Mexico City seemed like the best place to go. There’s even a queer book store here (Voces en Tinta), something San Francisco no longer has.
So here I am, sharing an apartment with strangers in la Condesa, trying to improve my Spanish, reading queer fiction, and wandering the streets of this fascinating city. I’m hoping to use this blog to share some of what I learn about Mexican culture—and to recount my adventures here.