Down Memory Lane in Mexico, part II

By | Category: Travel destinations

a mural in the Calle la Moneda

From the very beginning, I got to know Mexico City with the help of local Mexicans and consequently it never came across as too daunting or scary to me. Huge and almost overwhelming at times, but likeable. Infinitely fascinating, always varied and always open to new arrivals, even if some “newbies” were seemingly swallowed whole and then spat back out into the streets again, where they had to eke out an existence as street vendors, shoe shiners or petty thieves. Mexicans, though, are an enterprising lot, and most firmly emphasise making a living, not so much stealing one.

Even though my first real visit to Mexico City took place on Independence Day, 16th September and therefore involved a large-scale military parade, not the plumes and bikinis à la Rio Carnival that I had anticipated, I still quickly warmed to the city. During my stint living in nearby Toluca in the 1990s, I frequently returned to D.F. (Distrito Federal) as it was affectionately called back then (now it’s become a state in its own right, the 33rd in the country, and, no longer a federal district, it’s losing its nickname) to explore the centre and the different barrios.

the centre of Coyoacán

The largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, Mexico City could probably be explored day in and day out for months and you’d still always find something new to discover. Despite my numerous visits in the 90s and later on, as a travel writer, there were areas I either had not been to at all, or visited only fleetingly. On this return journey I was determined to strike a balance between nostalgic “memory lane moments” and first time visits to places.

One sight of much renown that I had thus far failed to visit was the canals and gardens of Xochimilco in the far south of town. For once I decided to opt for an organised tour and this proved to be a rather good option, taking in as it did, not just Xochimilco, but also another lovely part of the city, Coyoacán. Colourful, quaint and pretty, Coyoacán has the feel of a bohemian and rather well-off country village. The buildings are old-style colonial, beautifully kept and often brightly painted. It’s also home to La Casa Azul, painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home, now an interesting museum.

Xochimilco trajinera boat

Having visited the museum before, I instead took a stroll to the zócalo, bought myself a creamy cajeta-flavoured (similar to toffee) ice cream and simply wandered, soaking up the sunshine and the lively atmosphere, dropping by a couple of markets and buying several presents to take back home. From Coyoacán, it was only a short hop to Xochimilco, famed for its colourful boats, trajineras, plying the waters of numerous canals, and much to my delight, it lived up to the hype, even exceeding my expectations. I’d heard plenty of rumours about the quality of the water and the amount of rubbish that could be seen floating around. Either these had been much exaggerated, or Xochimilco has cleaned up its act, as the canals seemed quite alive and well, with precious little rubbish. That said, though, the real issue is not rubbish, but the fact that a lot of the canals are disappearing altogether, due to decreasing water levels and other environmental problems, despite gaining UNESCO status in 1987.

the cathedral

We boarded one of the trajineras, all of which are named after women, for an hour’s scenic and jolly voyaging. Our guide, Jorge, whose English was truly atrocious, was quite a character and encouraged his tour group to join him in sampling local food and drink (drinking on the job is clearly not that frowned upon in the Mexican tour guiding business). Said specialities were cooked for us on a smaller canoe-like boat, rather like a “floating takeaway cantina”. Before long I was tucking into fresh quesadillas stuffed with courgette flowers and huitlacoche, or “corn fungus”, much tastier than it sounds (and looks), washed down with pulque de mamey, an alcoholic tipple made from fermented maguey agave plant and, in this case, flavoured with mamey fruit.

Calle la Moneda

Numerous boats were plying the canals and apparently during holidays and fiestas there can be long queues of up to a hundred, a boat traffic jam in other words, but luckily our trip took place on a quieter day. Instead our tour bus got stuck in a real Mexico City traffic jam on the way back to the centre and much as I’d enjoyed my day, this did swing things in favour of independent exploring again, the following day.

I was staying in a quaint, colonial hotel called Casa González, on the outskirts of what used to be one of the poshest areas in Mexico City – La Zona Rosa. These days it’s somewhat dilapidated, most hip and trendy bars and restaurants having moved to nearby Colonia Roma or La Condesa. Still, it’s worth a little amble to admire the many, slightly crumbling mansions and it was also the quickest way to my nearest metro station, Insurgentes. Unfortunately there were a bit of an insurgency going on at Insurgentes that morning – Mexico is a very centralised country and with all important governmental and union offices in one place, it does attract its fair share of demonstrations, usually peaceful – and I had to keep walking to the next metro before I could get on, and travel to the Centro Histórico, the old part of town.

This was firmly a walk down memory lane. It was in the heart of the old town that I’d first come to experience the vibe and buzz of this mega-metropolis. I walked up to the Zócalo and the imposing cathedral, taking in the hustle and bustle of street life. It seemed as vivid as before, but less “poor” somehow. There were fewer beggars and street vendors, although that said, most shops and eateries had someone in the street outside touting for business, adding to the endless cacophony of city life – the sirens, the hooting of taxis, the slightly hoarse and tuneless calls of the touts; I was definitely back in the city.

Plaza Santo Domingo

It was only when walking through the human throng of the old centre that it dawned on me just how peaceful Coyoacán and Xochimilco had been by comparison. Busy, without being intimidating, everyone going about their daily business, Mexico City is used to visitors from near and far and there was precious little hassle from anyone as I indulged in two of my favourite pursuits; strolling and people-watching. My feet eventually took me to Calle Moneda, a fantastic street I had downright forgotten, with plenty of cool and interesting museums, but I fancied the great outdoors, so strolled the length of the street. All across town I had spotted excellent modern murals and some of the most vivid and colourful can be found in Moneda.

The old town is replete with churches, convents and beautiful colonial residences, quaint, old squares, museums and markets. My day-long amble was barely enough to scratch the surface, but I was dead on my feet by the afternoon, despite my lunchtime stop in quiet Plaza Santo Domingo. Mexico is still Mexico – so much has changed, but so much is still the same. It’s less chaotic, but no less alive. Some problems remain, some new ones have sprung up, many things have changed for the better, many have not. Would I live here again? Well, let’s see what happens with Brexit…

For further information about Mexico City, click here.

Getting there: Aermexico and British Airways fly direct from London to Mexico City.

Images and story © Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights



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