Mexico | Calaveras

It’s been another busy week where I fall behind on writing – Mexico City has been a laaaat.

After the goth bar evening with Lauren, we planned to hang out again the next day and explore the city. Lauren got up early to go and exercise in the park nearby, and I went out for breakfast in a fancy café with an English girl I met the evening before, Lilly. We sat in a ray of sunlight under big leafy trees in a hipster place off a roundabout, and I ordered something called chilaquiles without any idea what it was. Even though I’ve picked up enough Spanish to know the names of a few ingredients, I’m missing the vocab for things like ‘pulped’, ‘fried’ or ‘toasted’, which means although I know broadly what foodstuffs I’ll be consuming, I never know in what form they’ll appear in front of me. More than once I’ve ordered what I thought was a nice crunchy wrap and been served a steaming vat of broth.

My breakfast was an odd one, then: a small dish of refried beans beside a large bowl containing shards of hard taco shells, strips of chicken, onions, and half an avocado sitting on a bed of some mysterious tangy sauce. It was tasty but extraordinarily rich, and my IQ dropped a solid 20 points after consuming it as all the blood rushed to my stomach.

I met up with Lauren at the hostel at midday, and together we hopped away to explore the city without any real idea where we were going. I’d read something about the ‘Zocalo’ – a large square and supposedly the centre of the great impossible behemoth of Mexico City. We had no idea what we’d find there, but it felt like a sensible destination.

We left the quiet neighbourhood of Roma Norte and made our way to a gigantic road which we’d heard would lead us all the way to the main square. We’d not been walking ten minutes, however, before we found something amazing. Turning onto the enormous road named Avenue Paseo de la Reforma – which sweeps around the towering Angel of Independence monument – we discovered the pavement was punctuated with hundreds of alebrijes – fantastical animals from Mexican folklore which act as spirit guides through the underworld. The alebrijes on display were huge papier mache concoctions, each one the size of a car, each painted in a hundred colours. Some were composed of mad combinations of recognisable animals – a lion with the body of an octopus, a deer with a crocodile’s head – and others were completely alien creations straight out of a psychedelic comedown fever dream, like Jackson Pollock and Picasso teamed up for an absinthe bender.

We drifted among the strange animals and took photos of our favourites, and picked out which one we’d like to be our own spirit guide in the afterlife. Despite the care and talent they’d clearly been created with, I ignored the more badass malevolent creatures and instead chose a lame, fat, jolly-looking bear thing; I couldn’t be doing with having to hang out with a spindly slithering squinty-eyed nonce monster for the rest of eternity.

The streets were thick with people, their faces decorated to look like colourful, flowery skulls. In between the alebrijes were hundreds of stalls with people sitting to be painted. Skeletal couples swept past in dresses and suits from the last century, the men with canes in pinstripe trousers and suspenders, the women in black gloves and flowing gowns with black lace across the chest. I got emotional as we wove through them all: I’ve wanted to see this for years. It was only the 23rd of October, with the Day of the Dead still still a week away, but in the days leading up to the occasion there parades galore, and everybody loves to get all skulled-up.

The avenue goes on forever, and for an hour we walked past giant skulls, bright displays of marigolds, taco stands, and all manner of Halloween monsters. The Halloween stuff isn’t part of the Dia de Muertos tradition – I think it’s a little US influence seeping in. I watched Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger skank to reggaeton as people queued up for photos with them, while on the opposite street corner Mama Coco from the Disney film stood waving at passersby.

Lauren fell over about fifteen times during this walk, which of course I found very very funny. The streets in Mexico City – in Mexico in general, to be honest – are craggy and uneven; the trees that grow out from between the flagstones have over the decades twisted them loose, meaning that sometimes walking along a straight pavement feels like running up and down the ramps of a skatepark. And sometimes, no idea why, there are just giant foot-sized holes in the pavement, ready to send the flip flops of the unwary down to the sewer beneath. Naturally I quite was torn between wanting to look at the million delights around me and not wanting to whoosh out of existence down an open manhole.

We watched kids playing in the fountain in the Alemeda Central park, and we reached the giant orange dome of the Palacio de Bellas Artes at the hottest part of the day. We didn’t know exactly what the palace was, but it was open to the public, so we headed inside to explore. It was a Sunday, which meant free entry, and we were treated to colossal murals by famous Mexican artists, documenting the history of the country, as well as the troubles that plague it – civil unrest, corruption, poverty, and, if the mural is to be believed, naked boozy women.

By this point we were feeling a little woozy from the heat, so we sought refuge in the Torre Latino – one of the tallest buildings in the city. A girl back in Oaxaca gave me a tiny tip for the tower: don’t trouble to take a ticket to the top. Instead, ask to visit the bar. It’s not advertised anywhere, so you won’t know unless someone tells you, but the bar is only one level below the paid viewing area. Instead of paying 160 pesos for a ticket, you can get the same view for free, from an armchair with a cocktail in hand. We sat there for an hour, watching the enormity of the 20-million-person city below, asking questions like:

“How many people out there do you think are wanking right this second?”

And:

“In the whole of this city, who do you think is having the best day?”

We both got a little scared after a while, because we couldn’t remember whether Mexico City is built on a fault line, and the idea of an earthquake juddering up the skyscraper while we were perched at the top of it was somewhat unsettling.

Back on terra firma we visited the Museo Nacional de Arte – also free – and spent an hour or two alternately laughing at the weird muscular cherubs and floppy tits of the classical religious paintings, and feeling annoyed by the lacklustre splatter of modern art. There were some cool ones though: I really enjoyed a couple of rooms with gorgeous rendition of Mexican landscapes showing the development of the capital city of the centuries.

The fun part was that we’d planned none of it – we were just breezing around discovering cool stuff. After the art museum we finally hit the Zocalo, one of the largest city squares in the world, which we found was undergoing a lot of construction for Dia de Muertos. We ducked inside the cathedral that sits at the head of the square, but were soon lured back outside by the sound of drumming. Lauren told me what an adventurous friend had once told her about travelling:

“Always follow the sound of a commotion. You’ll always find something unique.”

Her friend was right: around the side of the cathedral we found a hundred half-naked jaguar warriors banging drums and hopping and hooting in rowdy tribal dances. Their headdresses were so large that when they danced through the crowd, the feathers swept across people’s faces making them sneeze. Mexicans stood in the street receiving shaman blessings with incense and what appeared to be bushels of coriander, and I looked in bewilderment from the cathedral – with its solemn towers and muted golden interior and its stern benches – to the whooping, pounding warrior dance outside its walls.

We watched a Mexican flag the size of a tennis court flap above the square, then dodged between soldiers and werewolves and cigarette men to leave the Zocalo and make our way homeward; we’d walked around 15 kilometres already and our energy was flagging. On returning to the main drag, however, we found it packed: hundreds of thousands of local Mexicans, all eating snacks and chatting, lining both sides of the street. We asked a young student type if he spoke English, and he explained to us that people were awaiting the parade of the Catrinas: the old-fashioned, flower-patterned skeletons we’d had a taste of earlier in the day.

Well, slap my knob, this was sensational news. Elated, giddy, dizzy, we went to join the waiting crowd. The parade was due to march up the suddenly-pedestrianised avenue to finish with a party at the Zocalo. We waited 30 minutes near the Torres Latino, then got bored because we are impatient foreigners and set off towards the Angel of Independence, where the parade begins, to speed things up.

The sun had long gone down, and every street and sidestreet was electric with activity. Kids clustered around candyfloss carts adorned with LED lights, leaping to catch the stray sugary wisps that escaped the machine and floated away on the breeze. There were devils and demons and streetside ofrendas – the altars on which Mexicans place offerings to their deceased loved ones. Halfway down the endless avenue, we stopped: we could hear music.

A crowd formed up at either side of the road as the parade finally arrived, heralded by drumming and whoops and jubilant brass band toots. From the warm darkness a legion of skeletons emerged, waving to the cheering crowd. The Catrinas moved with slow elegance, nodding to us and waving like deceased royalty returning once again to gaze fondly on their subjects; their mannerisms elevated the paint and the costumes to the point I could almost believe I was witnessing a procession of departed souls, returning from the underworld for one night only.

The parade was composed of several dozen sections – each with its own genre of skeleton. We watched as each Mexican state paraded its own cadavers in their traditional dress, followed by greaser skeletons driving 1950s cars, then salsa skeletons and disco skeletons. There were doctor skeletons, boy-scout and girl-guide skeletons, rock n roll skeletons, and magnificent Pride skeletons in drag. We laughed with joy to watch a rollerblading skeleton cohort pass us by, followed by guitar-wielding mariachi skeletons, then Star Wars skeletons, K-pop skeletons, and skeletons with huge dresses made entirely from colourful balloons. There were steampunk skeletons with canes and monocles and tophats adorned with rusted cogs, saxophonist skeletons, newly-wedded skeleton pairs, and fearsome half-naked warrior skeletons from the Aztecs and Mayans. And the biggest cheer of all: dog skeletons, being pushed along in prams like bewildered little babies.

I took a few photos of the parade, but mostly I just stared, agape, feeling insane: I am here. I am in Mexico City watching a parade for the Day of the Dead. It barely made sense.

All the way home, Lauren and I fizzed and buzzed about the cool things we’d seen on our day out. And when we went for a quiet drink near the hostel before bed, we realised we finally had an answer to our earlier question, asked at the top of the Torres Latino gazing down on the greatest metropolis in the Americas: who do you think is having the best day in this whole mad city?

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