For our second day in Mexico City, we decided to take the metro to the southern-most part of the city. The voyage involved a transfer to the overground Tren Ligero to visit Xochimilco, the ancient canal and chinampa system that allegedly gives a taste of what life was like in the Pre-Hispanic era. When people ask me about my biggest surprise in Mexico, I often mention the excellent metro system. Guidebooks unfairly cast the city’s subway as a dark and dangerous place, full of pickpockets and molesters. I personally never had anyone even touch me on the trains, which were so efficient, we never had to wait more than a minute or two for a ride which, incidentally cost about $.17 — truly a bargain. There were even Aztec ruins in the metro tunnels as we discovered when we transfered at the Pino Suarez station. There on display in a protected enclosure was a small temple dedicated to the Aztec deity Ehecatl — the god of Wind and another incarnation of Quetzalcoatl. The temple was apparently discovered in the early ’70s when they were building the first metro lines.
The neighborhood of Xochimilco was more like the crumbling historic villages many people associate with Mexico as opposed to the modern metropolis of the central city. Narrow cobblestone streets wound their way between brightly colored buildings while small fondas and cafes selling tortas and tacos marked the way. Not knowing exactly what to expect, we followed street signs directing us to the Embarcadero where I had read we could rent a trajinera or Mexican gondola and tour the canals for an hour or two. Spotted as gringos we were quickly hustled onto the dock where I negotiated a ride for two hours for about $25. Our guide loaded a bucket full of Coronas onto the skiffle and we left port, gliding past junkyards and under small bridges into the canal system.
The canals were actually created almost 2000 years ago by the locals who bundled together wood and mud to create islands or chinampas where they grew food and flowers in the middle of Lake Xochimilco. The idea was so popular with the Aztecs that they decided to build their entire island city of Tenochtitlan utilizing the chinampa method. Xochimilco is probably more popular with Mexicans than it is tourists. While floating down the canals, surrounded by quaint homes in various states of disrepair, one can be serenaded (for a small fee) by floating bands of mariachis who will pull their flotilla up to yours and perform. One can also buy various snacks and trinkets from floating vendors. If you need to go to the restroom — no problem. Just tell your trajinera operator who will take you to one of the chinampas displaying a “WC” sign. Mexicans have figured out how to profit from a basic human function. You’ll never pay less than $2 pesos anywhere in Mexico to go wee wee. Still, when you gotta go, it’s a small price to pay. After all those Coronas I had to go about three times during our two hours out.
There is a lot more to see in the canals than what we took in during our tour. Entire sections of the canal system are effectively off limits to tourists, protected as an ecologically sensitive zone. Unfortunately one of the more famous chinampas, the surreal La Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls) is now in the protected territory. Some forward thinking person, however, decided to recreate the island — featuring various parts of children’s dolls displayed in a rather macabre fashion — on one of the canals we visited.
Two hours on the water was not enough, but there was more for us to see. I was interested in heading to the Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum which was a few stops north on the Tren Ligero. The museo was famous for its collection of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera works as well as its well-manicured gardens that were inhabited by roaming gangs of xoloitzcuintle — Mexican hairless dogs.
The museo was contained within a walled, colonial-era house. It’s neighborhood of La Noria seemed like a dense urban wasteland but once we stepped into the walled compound it was like we entered another world. While one of Mexico City’s frequent afternoon rainstorms threated us with another unscheduled shower, we made our way from the ticket counter to the main building. Along the way we encountered a old man who seemed to take an interest in our visit. He seemed to follow us almost everywhere we went and made a point of speaking to us in Spanish, although I couldn’t follow everything he said. He was very taken by the strutting peacocks who roamed the estate. The collection of Diego Rivera’s early works was pretty fascinating and the home’s collection of Frida Kahlo was said to best that of the Frida Kahlo Museum in nearby Coyoacan but unfortunately a 100 year Kahlo retrospective was taking place at the Palacio de Bellas Artes and Dolores’ works were loaned out.
The full day had worn us out but we were starving. Once we got back to our hotel and cleaned up we decided to take a cab to the Centro Histórico for dinner at the famous Cafe Tacuba. Tiffany and I were very surprised at the place’s comfortable ambiance and great food. A roving band (I think there’s a roving band everywhere you go in Mexico) provided the soundtrack and Tacuba provided the food and drinks. I downed a few tequilas backed by a sangrita chaser — a spicy shot of Clamato and pepper. Totally addictive. After the satisfying meal we made our way south to famous Bar Opera. This 19th century watering hole offered a dark wood bar and handcarved booths (yes, there was also a roving band here) as well as a preserved hole in the ceiling allegedly made by Pancho Villa himself. Bar Opera is my kind of place and although I felt a bit out of my element with the laughing and chatting locals (my poor Spanish prevented me from actually engaging in many conversations) the atmosphere won me over. If you’re in Mexico you gotta try it out.
After all the food and beer we retired back to our hotel for our third day which would consist of a daytrip to ancient ruins of Teotihuacan.
TO BE CONTINUED…