I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; getting lost is by far the most effective way of discovering a new city. Luckily for me, that’s not particularly difficult given my directional incompetence. That, coupled with my disdain for that smug Google Maps woman, who always seems to provide directions after I’ve clearly gone too far off route, means that I’m never short of a new adventure.
On this occasion, it was the result of a blazing row with my sister in the middle of the bustling Mercado de la Merced. Each of us too proud to apologise, ventured separately into the bustle. Unbeknown to her, I couldn’t have been happier. Finally, some alone time.
Mexico City had never been high on my list of places to visit, the clichéd combination of free roaming drug lords, gridlocked roads, smog galore and because I’ve never dealt so well with tequila, had kept me at bay. Having been born and bred in London, I am usually desperate to escape big city life, but spending some time in Mexico, visiting my younger brother meant that a few days in the belly of the beast were necessary.
I visited over the Dia de los Muertos period (the day of the dead), a huge celebration all across Mexico where locals pay tribute to their dead ancestors. Since 2008, the festival has been recognised by UNESCO as part of the ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’. This was more than evident walking through the city both day and night, with freshly graffiti-ed skull murals covering derelict walls and shrines erected all over the city with flowers and edible treats to celebrate the lives of those passed. Mexico City is an overflowing cauldron of tricks and treats for all who visit.
Despite getting lost, I still managed to stumble across some expected attractions as well as lesser known gems woven inside the labyrinth of Mexico City, and here I share my favourite finds with you:
Mercado de la Merced
As Pablo Neruda wrote in his memoirs, ‘Lo recorrí por años enteros, de mercado a mercado, porque México está en los mercados’ – I went from market to market for years, because Mexico is in its markets.
Nothing could be truer. Market trading is a huge part of Mexican culture, dating back to pre-Hispanic times. With over 300 mercados (permanent markets) in Mexico city alone, and over a thousand tianguis (open air, mobile markets), they are no doubt the best way to immerse yourself in the daily lives, traditions and cultures of native Mexicans. By far my favourite was Mercado de la Merced. As a wholesale market, it is divided into seven specific zones, each dedicated to a different type of product. In each, you will find shop after shop selling exactly the same thing; luminous confectionary; stationery, crockery, hair products, fabric and being the Día de los Muertos period, there were rows of shops selling nothing less than Halloween decorations!
This place is truly amazing, though it’s beyond me how the vendors manage to make any money. No doubt excellent customer service and loyalty as opposed to product differentiation keeps them each in business! Regardless this area is worth walking through if only to acclimatise yourself to the city’s vibrant nature.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Nestled in the historical district of the city, the Palace of fine arts, also known as the “Cathedral of Art in Mexico” is one of the city’s focal points. A central meeting place for lovers and friends around the city, it was declared an artistic monument in 1987 by UNESCO. The Palace is a mix of art nouveau on the marble exterior, with the interior consisting of sculptures demonstrating “Harmony”, surrounded by “Pain”, “Rage”, “Happiness”, “Peace” and “Love”. Another section of the facade contains cherubs and sculptures representing music and inspiration. What amazed me was how seamlessly the architecture and interior fitted together despite the different influences. Murals and art work inside from the likes of Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco and Alfaro Siqueiros are a wonderful bonus, as the building itself is spectacularly beautiful in its own right, even for philistines amongst us.
La Casa Agul (Museo Frida Kahlo)
It’s hard to visit Mexico without having some Frida branded merchandise thrust in front of you by street vendors. Even more ironic given Kahlo’s communist stance, is that that her life-long home in the Del Carmen area of the city, was turned into a museum. Regardless, I put aside my feelings towards the commoditisation of tragedy, and went to see what all the hype was about. Despite the lengthy queues to get in (I advise you beat them and book online), I was really impressed by my visit, with the rooms and the family’s possessions being very well preserved.
Home to some of her most famous works (A Few Small Nips ( Passionately in Love), my personal favourite, The two Fridas and Viva La Vida, Watermelons), La Casa Agul takes you on a journey through the stages of Frida’s life. Through her childhood, her post-accident recovery years, her role in the Mexican Communist Party, her marriage to Diego and relationship with Leon Trotsky, right the way through to her death. Her paintings scattered throughout the house really take the visitor on Frida’s lifelong emotional and physical battles. I opted for the audio tour, which I tend to avoid when visiting most museums, but it was a wise investment, really helping to bring Frida’s story and other characters to life.
La Casa Agul is no doubt a must when in Mexico City, if only to better understand one of the most inspirational women of all time. I mean, who else can claim to have bedded a Marxist revolutionary and Mexican Muralist (not to mention a good few women) all in her spare time?
Mexico City’s Neighbourhoods
The city is divided into neighbourhoods, all with their own distinct style. You could easily spend days exploring each one, meaning that Mexico City has established a growing ex-pat community and is thriving as a cosmopolitan city. Ranging from the bourgeois area of Condesa with its upscale shops and buzzing nightlife; Zona Rosa, home to the city’s gay community and the chic Polanco which is often compared to the villages of New York City and areas of Paris with its cosy eateries and coffee shops. Spend some time roaming Coyoacán, a colonial township, housing many of the city’s galleries. This alone could take weeks.
Mexico’s DIY Gaming Stations
I stumbled across a few of these DIY/rogue gaming stations in Mexico City, and though I didn’t dabble in one myself, there’s something very appealing in how these ‘establishments’ are set up – basic describes it best. A little bit like walking inside a hole-in-the-wall, or peeling back the curtain and catching a glimpse into Mexican youth culture. Video games are very expensive to buy in Mexico and the internet is still not commonplace in every household so you can see how places like these sprout up to reach an alternative demand. Without the games, these are nothing like your typical arcade – they just have the bare essentials, like someone has converted their living room… no peripheral enticements. Just gaming.
Directly translating as ‘A Grasshopper Hill’, this 1,655 acre urban retreat rivals Bois de Boulogne in Paris as well as New York’s Central Park offering a place for relaxation and calm for the majority of the city’s workers who often cannot afford to venture further out. It’s big enough to have something for everyone, with markets and attractions on the weekends, it also boasts 10 museums, a zoo, paddle boats and a great space for runners. Whilst Chapultepec Hill, the rock formation, is often recognised as the greatest attraction, the park’s flora and fauna cannot be overlooked, with over 60 species of bird and trees dating back to the Aztec age. A cheap day out for adults and children alike, this space is embedded in the history and culture of the city.
Since my visit, ‘DF’ (as Mexico City is often termed by locals), has since made its way to the top of my ‘favourite cities’ list, having smugly fought off competition from its European peers, Budapest, St Petersburg and Porto in recent times. I only had only a few days there, but will definitely be going back next year as I round off my 6 month stint across South and Central America.
Hopefully you’ll find my list of things to see useful, but, most of all, I encourage you to put away your map for a while, relax, and enjoy getting lost in Mexico City’s sprawling passages.
About the author
Ruchi Malhotra lives and works in London but can be found in far-flung corners of the world when she’s not sitting at her desk. Her appetite for travel recently encouraged her to ask her boss for a 6-month sabbatical. Luckily the answer was yes, so she’ll be grabbing her backpack and heading to South America after Christmas. I’m sure we’ll hear more from Ruchi again…