Down Memory Lane in Mexico, part I

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Some of Toluca’s coloufrul barrios

Three days after my 20th birthday I boarded a plane at Arlanda airport in Stockholm, Sweden to move to the Mexican city of Toluca, an hour or so west of capital Mexico City. I’d never been to Mexico before. In fact, I’d never been outside of Europe and I didn’t know anyone in Toluca, the city that was to be my new home for the next year. A tad optimistic perhaps, but at 20 this just felt like one great, big adventure and Mexico did not disappoint – it was an adventurous year in lots of ways, not least because I hardly spoke a word of Spanish when I arrived!

Fast-forward to my mid-40s and, Spanish much improved, I had by now revisited Mexico regularly, as a travel and guidebook writer on assignment. That said I had spent precious little time back in Toluca and Mexico City, my “old haunts”, as it were. It was high time to return and see how these cities had changed, for better or for worse.

Arriving in Mexico City on a Saturday night I was astounded to find the streets almost empty. Traffic here had been an issue for as long as I could remember. Could it be that stricter measures were finally working? Had government stepped in and cleared the streets? Alas, no. The following Monday was a bank holiday and most chilangos (as people living here are known) had already left town that morning or the evening before.

After a day of getting my bearings in Mexico City, I made my way to the western bus station, known as Observatorio, for the hour-long journey to Toluca. Buses in Mexico are something else. Sure, on some local routes you can still get “the chicken bus”, but on the whole, buses are plush, modern, comfortable, frequent and competitively priced. Safely installed in my reclining window seat with accompanying footrest, complimentary water and snacks, I sat back to take in the views.

Arbol de la vida in Metepec

Good Lord, was that a skyscraper? And not just the one, but a whole “forest” of them. If you’ve spent time in Latin America, you’ll know that the vicinity around bus stations isn’t usually the most salubrious. I could still spot plenty of shacks posing as houses, but gone were the sprawling shantytowns of the 1990s, replaced by modern high-rises and all things chrome and concrete. I’d rather feared that Mexico City and Toluca would simply merge into a mega-city of frightening proportions, but luckily the forested, mountainous areas between the two are at least partly protected and construction therefore restricted.

Not only had the landscape remained largely intact outside the city limits, the roads had also very much improved. Now undertaken on a toll road, the journey was far swifter than I remembered, with little of the tedious, slow-moving traffic from the past. Toluca has grown tremendously over the last few decades and it’s now the fifth largest metropolitan area in the country. It’s the highest, and usually coldest, city in the country as well at 2,660 m (8,730 ft) and despite being home to a variety of sights and attractions, it receives very few foreign visitors.

Toluca, past and present, is mostly known as a city of industry and vast industrial parks populate the outskirts, but the centre is a different story. At first glance, I found it largely unchanged – the colossal cathedral dating from the 1860s, towering over Plaza de los Mártires, the town hall and the Morelos Theatre; Los Portales, reputedly the largest, old-fashioned shopping arcades in the country, still going strong; the Cosmovitral indoor botanical garden still there in all its stained-glass glory – but upon closer inspection everything was looking decidedly spruced up. Churches had had a fresh lick of paint, new portales had been added along the main streets and the botanical garden had recently been replanted.

Los Portales and the cathedral behind it

More spruced up than most though, was the barrio visible just north of the centre, clinging to the hillsides. For a second I felt myself transported to Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, one of the most colourful neighbourhoods in the world. Here also, the houses were painted all the colours of the rainbow and I immediately tried to find out about visiting said area, but was promptly told it was not very safe. I guess it takes more than painting the surface to really improve a barrio

Giving up my barrio-hopping plans, I spent the morning walking down memory lane instead – taking a stroll around Los Portales, where vendors were starting to pile up the tortas (tasty rolls with all sorts of fillings) and tamales, before I ventured into the Cosmovitral, open to the public for a small fee. This incredible building is encircled by stained glass on all sides and the glass murals even encompass the ceiling. Some 500,000 pieces of glass from all over the world were used to create this “you-must-see-it-to-believe-it” piece of architectural art.

a detailed view of part of the Cosmovitral

The centre of Toluca is well-worth a visit for the above sights, among others, but the surrounding areas also deserve some exploration. A short drive out of town and you’re in the Xinantecatl (Nevado de Toluca) national park, home to the 4th highest volcano in the country (last eruption was apparently 1350 BC, so no need to worry). Then there is a whole host of pretty, outlying villages that are interesting and I opted to spend my afternoon in one of those. After an excellent, slap-up taco lunch, I got the bus over to the nearby village of Metepec, designated as one of Mexico’s 111 pueblos mágicos, or “magical towns” (the website is only in Spanish). Essentially these are towns and villages of particular interest culturally and historically, often with an abundance of well-preserved colonial buildings.

I always feel at home on local buses, they remind me of the Mexico I used to know and love. Loud ranchera music, impromptu stops everywhere, cheap fares, and narrow, hard seats – that’s Mexico as I remember it. Metepec is a well-known centre for handicrafts and many artisans have their cubbyhole shops in the centre, part of which is pedestrianised. The hill of Espíritu Santo, complete with a small chapel on top, overlooks most of the town with its colourful houses, tiled rooftops, main zócalo (square) and numerous churches. I was catching up with an old friend, Fabio, who lives in Metepec and he took me on a grand tour of town and the handicraft shops, selling the clay sculptures the town is most famed for; árbol de la vida (tree of life). These sculptures, often depicting scenes from the Bible, although more modern designs are now emerging, are incredibly detailed and intricate, part of a long-standing tradition of pottery and ceramic art in the area.

inside the Cosmovitral

Although I’m all for supporting local traditions, said trees were too large to carry back to the UK, but luckily my friend found me another local speciality. Bar 2 de Abril (commemorating an infamous bar fight?), a spit and sawdust establishment, makes its own unique tipple, the garañona. Bright green and rather vicious-looking, it’s made from sugarcane, lemon, aniseed and several secret herbs and it’s something of an acquired taste. Come back tequila, all’s forgiven.

To be continued…

For further information about the state of Mexico click here.

Getting there: Aeromexico and British Airways fly direct from London to Mexico City. Toluca has an international airport, mostly used as a low-cost carrier airport for Mexico City.

Story and images © Anna Maria Espsäter

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