The trek back to Acatenango was exhausting – our ninth consecutive hour of slogged vertical hiking – but I felt lighter. The worst was done. Whatever came next, in the night or the next day, would be milder. A mist swept over the mountains and buried us as we hiked back to camp, deadening the red glow of the volcano and muting our tramping footsteps. We passed other backpackers who had set off too late and would reach the ridge of Fuego to find the summit obscured by cloud; they would see nothing but an orange haze. We had been very lucky.Continue reading
I left Palenque on the 7th of November and took a shuttle bus to the Guatemalan border. The bus’s suspension was bollocksed, so every little dint in the road was translated into a monstrous metallic shutter that jangled my poor bum bones to dust.Continue reading
I’m not in Mexico anymore; I am in Guatemala. I wasn’t planning on going to Guatemala, but then I thought: hey – that looks nice. So now I’m here. But before I write about the big G, I need to wrap up Mexico like a cosy little quesadilla. Vamonos.
After the Day of the Dead, the rest of my time in Mexico City was very chilled. With Liv and Mari gone to San Cristobal, I hung out for my two remaining evenings with Luuk, Bas, Nienke and a few other Dutchies, and on our final night together we went out for tacos, then to a bar with pool tables and Nirvana playing. When it got late we went to the same pulqueria Paola took me to previously. Luuk and I ordered a large fresa pulque, not realising a ‘large’ in this instance was an entire litre of fermented-cactus milkshake. By the time I’d polished it off my IQ had been reduced to single digits and my limbs were made of sponge.
We found a dancefloor downstairs, some trendy queer reggaeton party. Everybody was Mexican, and all had piercings and shaved heads and purple eyebrows or stuff. And you should have seen their dancing: dropping down to inches from the floor, spherical bum cheeks bouncing everywhere, hips winding, pairs on the periphery grinding against one another so aggressively that I had to look away, blushing. We looked incredibly white and touristy by comparison, but nobody seemed arsed in the slightest. It felt very free and chilled.
We danced until 2am, and it was the perfect goodbye to my old travel gang. I hugged them all goodbye as we got the taxi back to our hostels, and we promised to meet in Amsterdam in 2023 sometime. It was a blast.
It was weird being in Mexico City on my last day and realising that all my friends had now left – that I no longer knew anybody in the vast city; that all the fun was finished. Feeling a little melancholy, at 9pm I took a taxi to the Mexico Norte bus station in the rain. There I boarded a 15-hour night bus to Palenque, from where I could cross the border into Guatemala.
It was strange watching the environment change once more as I headed back to Palenque. For the previous two months I’d watched jungle turn to mountain, mountain crumble to beach, beach sweep up into lush valley, and valley drift into desert. Seeing jungle creeping back into the picture made me monstrously nostalgic for the beginning of my trip – for the naïve excitement of those early discoveries. I still remember my first taco: I bought it from a street food stall in Holbox. I ate it with a knife and fork, lol.
The last time I was in Palenque I was still with Luuk and Bas and Nienke and Olatz. My Spanish was non-existent back then. I remember being uncertain of my safety and the order of things, scared of night buses and collectivos and the jungle and dark streets. It’s funny how acclimatised you can grow in just a few weeks.
Liv and Mari were coincidentally in Palenque when I was, so I spent my two evenings there with them, while leaving them to explore the ruins and waterfalls during the day. It was funny to sit and chat on the stools in the kitchen at Casa Janaab, thinking about how six weeks before, Luuk and Bas and Olatz and Nienke had sat exactly where Liv and Mari were now. Spins me out a little bit.
I spent my last day painstakingly arranging the paperwork for the Guatemalan border crossing, and in the evening I cooked with Liv and Mari and shared a bottle of wine. The next morning I got up early, hopped aboard my bus, and said adios to Mexico.
So: how to summarise two months in Mexico?
It’s quite hard, actually.
You see, to be honest, I don’t feel I was privy to any particularly deep Mexican secrets; I never gained any real insight into the culture. In an ideal world, I’d have left the country after such a hefty chunk of time with a sound understanding of its society and the general thoughts and attitudes and outlook of its citizens. But… well, there are two factors in Mexico that you’ll have to contend with if you want to discover anything truly ‘authentic’.
The first is the language: I never learned Spanish in school, and most people outside of Mexico City (and a great many within) don’t speak a word of English. Even many people in the service industry don’t speak it; I was surprised to find many of the hostel receptionists through Yucatan, Chiapas and Oaxaca never uttered an English syllable. This means that everything rode on my lacklustre Spanish. I’ve learned enough in two months to get from A to B, to order in cafes and restaurants with a bit of flair, to ask simple questions and more-or-less understand their answers. But I can’t chit-chat, and I certainly can’t get down to brass tacks with the locals.
Not being able to actually speak to local people really cements you as a tourist: you can look, you can snap, but you can’t engage in any meaningful way. In India, because English is so widely spoken, I was able to get a real feel for the Indian experience – to ask local people what they felt about their country, about life, about the rest of the world, and through this, I was able to gain new perspectives on issues I’d never properly considered. In Mexico – and in Latin America as a whole – you can’t do that unless you speak Spanish.
Another benefit to learning Spanish, of course, is that by chatting to locals in their own tongue, you will pay less for just about everything, and unforeseen doors will open to you: invitations to dinner, insider tips, perhaps even romance. In other words: the sort of things that can make your trip truly unique. I’ve no interest in cookie-cutter experiences: in being ferried along on the same backpacker conveyor belt, taking the same photos as everybody else, buying the same souvenirs, regaling distant family and friends with the same stories. I want to see something genuine – I want to have a real adventure, something you can’t buy a ticket for. And for those adventures, you need a solid working knowledge of Spanish.
The second factor that stifled my potential discovery of ‘real’ Mexico is safety. On other trips I’ve always done as I pleased: stumbling through Hiroshima off my tits at 1am, giggling like a loon; sauntering home from a night shift in Melbourne at 4am; exploring a dark warren of ancient buildings in Varanasi in search of my hostel, phone out of charge. In Mexico, you’ve got to be more vigilant – and more than that, you’ve got to take preventative measures. Preventative measures like just not fucking going outside after 10pm.
I met a lot of people who’d been victims of crime in Mexico. And not just hapless drunken backpackers either – locals. The receptionist at my hostel in San Cristobal told me he’d moved to the mountain town after being kidnapped twice by gangsters in his home city in the north. One of the staff at my Oaxaca hostel told me she’d had a gun pointed at her head while walking home one night in the city, and had her handbag stolen. Paloma in Holbox told me how she’d had a knife pulled on her by three kids in San Cristobal. In short: it happens a lot, and the second you leave the tourist areas, the odds of it happening to you shoot up. It would have been lovely to simply wander off into Mexico’s less frequented neighbourhoods, to saunter around the sidestreets as the hour grows late, to have one too many and stumble jovially in the wrong direction in search of the hostel – but in Mexico you are not afforded the liberty of stupidity.
In short, then: if you’re going to travel to Mexico and you want an authentic experience, my best advice to you is to learn Spanish, and always carry a big fucking knife.
But do learn Spanish.
Alright – so with the rather meaty caveat that I didn’t see much of ‘real’ Mexico – how to summarise my two months?
Well, upon reflection, I think my mushroom trip in San Jose del Pacifico sort of sums it up. When I’ve tripped in the past (and I’m speaking both drug trips and backpacking trips here), I’ve usually sought to learn something – to reflect and grow and all that jazz. When I took the shrooms in San Jose, however, I wasn’t particularly bothered about transcending or learning. I just wanted to gobble some mushies and have a silly old time – and that’s exactly what happened. Zooming out, Mexico was a similar experience. I didn’t go there looking for anything in particular, nor was I hoping to learn anything. I just… well, I like Mexican food and I like bright colours so… yeah?
I may not have had any wondrous revelations, and I may not have broken through the thick hide of the country to discover the truths of Mexican daily life, but I still had a blast. I said it a dozen times to a dozen people while I was there, but what a culture man?!
There’s one thing you can say about Mexico with absolute certainty: they’ve no interest in subtlety. The fiery food heaped in vast portions, the breathless coalescence of a packed salsa dancefloor, the bellow of the mariachi bands and the pounding bass of reggaeton, the corner shop shelves crammed with teeth-meltingly sugary drinks and tongue-swellingly salty snacks, streets bursting with effortless pastel colours and murals of bone-white Catrinas and muscular Aztec warriors, and out in the jungle and the sea beyond, the toucans and whale sharks, the howler monkeys and jaguars: it’s all so intense.
There’s a Latin American phrase you could use to sum it all up, actually. I learned it a few weeks ago as a way to praise a tasty meal, and it pretty concisely says what I’ve been trying to say for the last 1800 words about Mexico.
Muy fuckin’ rico.
The 2nd of November arrived, and with it, finally, the Day of the Dead.Continue reading
Hokay a lot’s happened since I last wrote anything, and I don’t want to skip any days as I know what I’m like and if I’m not careful whatever I’ve been up to here will be lost to the pungent landfill of my memory. So!
27th of October
I left my lovely Roma hostel, as due to crowds arriving for the Day of the Dead, beds were scarce. In the late afternoon I met up with an old friend I knew from Australia: Paola. Last time I saw her was 2019, in Melbourne. Paola’s born and raised Mexico City, and she was amazed to hear I was in her city. She invited me to join her friends for a birthday party, and in the afternoon she picked me up and we drove to Anzures, an affluent neighbourhood where her friends live. It was interesting to see the other side of the coin after witnessing so much poverty in other parts of the country: clean streets, fancy cars, palm tree mansions, perfume on the breeze. It was odd to think that just across town the cigarette men and sweetcorn stalls and shoe-shiners still lined the streets.
Paola introduced me to her friends, Matt, Pablo and Danny, the birthday boy. The guys were very accommodating, and they spoke English to include me in their conversations, bless them. They live together in a large house that Matt inherited from his late grandparents. I saw my first genuine ofrenda in the house: Matt and his mum had put up an altar for the Day of the Dead, and decorated it with lights and little skulls and marigolds and photos of family members who’ve moved on. It was very sad and pretty.
In the evening we went across town to Roma, to a bar that, ironically enough for this gigantic metropolis, I’d been in with Lauren a couple of days before. I sat on the rooftop terrace with the Mexican gang and we drank pulque, a drink indigenous Mexicans have been quaffing for thousands of years. It’s mostly fermented cactus juice, but they mix it with strawberries and cream to render it a sort of slimy strawberry milkshake. It has an intoxicating effect, but it’s more like being high than drunk. I got very slow and relaxed and stoned, and Paola drove me home when it got late.
We got stuck in traffic on the way home, and it was only on crossing a junction that we found the source of the mess: random breathalyser tests taking place in the street. Paolo swore under her breath; she’d had three bottles of beer over the day and was concerned she’d be over the limit. When the officer bade her to wind down her window, she nodded and smiled and leaned out to blow in the little gadget. Her score was zero.
“Oh my god,” she said as we drove away, “I blew into it wrong on purpose. If I did it right I would have been fucked.”
I’ve no idea what the penalty would be in Mexico, but I’ve a feeling it wouldn’t have been light.
The next day I slept late and spent the morning in a café writing articles for the wonderful blog you are presently perusing. I met up with Eline, a Dutch girl I met in Puerto Escondido, to go for a coffee in Roma Norte. This coffee eventually turned into food, which turned into beers, and we stayed up chatting and laughing in the vampire goth bar until 3am. Banging music, loved it.
I got some wild news two weeks ago: Liv, one of my favourite friends from the UK, got in touch after a silence of a couple of months to let me know she would soon be coming to Mexico City. She didn’t know I was even in the country. I was thrilled, and for the following two weeks I was giddy for her arrival.
Liv and her friend Mari arrived late on the 28th, so I met them at their hostel the next morning. It surreal stepping away from the petrol firework hubbub of a Mexico City street and into a colourful courtyard to find an old pal waving amiably.
We didn’t waste time: the 29th was the day of the city’s main parade; the James Bond parade, as everyone seems to call it here. The city has always had parades around Dia de Muertos, but after 2016’s Spectre, in which Daniel Craig weaves through a sepia, bustling Mexico City parade dressed in a skeleton costume, the city has decided to up their game and put on a spectacle to match the one depicted in the film.
Liv, Mari and I wandered through Alameda park, and when we heard the sounds of a parade we hurried over to the road to get a good view: I’d been looking forward to this for years. Imagine my confusion, then, to witness a loose gaggle of skeletons and lackadaisical maidens pootle their way down the high street without any backing music. They had a brass band, sure, but the musicians were very Mexican about it and only seemed to give their instruments a toot when they felt like it, and rarely in time with the other musicians.
“I sort of thought… it would be bigger than this,” I murmured to nobody in particular.
Well, happily, it turns out we are tits: this wasn’t the James Bond parade at all, but a parade to celebrate each district of Mexico City. The Bond one was later that evening. The first parade wasn’t bad per se – it just wasn’t quite the packed-streets bone-bonanza I’d been envisioning.
We had lunch in a pleasant leafy restaurant in Roma Norte, then hurried back to Reforma for the final parade. At first we tried to watch the thing down near Chapultepec Park, but the crowd was ten people deep from the barrier and we could see nothing. We walked half an hour along Reforma hoping the numbers would thin out, but they did not. In the end we found a decent vantage point: a traffic light island, which we could stand on to see above everybody else’s heads.
We ate sweets from a cart and waited, and after fifteen minutes drums filled the air. Further down the road we heard the crowd roar – and what a crowd: I read somewhere that a million people had come out to line the Reforma and watch the parade. I can’t think of an instance where I’ve ever seen such a dense army of people covering such a vast area. I felt very little.
The drums swept up and over us, and behind them came a powerful brass section in silver armor with red plumes, marching in step like soldiers, and behind them came giant floats: cigar-munching skeletons, rolling Aztec temples with dancing high priestesses, skull-dogs. People climbed onto the roofs of bus stop shelters for a better view, others climbed trees, while in the background a gaggle of endlessly inventive hustlers sold periscopes made of cardboard and mirrors to offer short people a clear view over the heads of the crowd. Behind me men yelled out from taco stands and cricket stalls, while in front of me rolled a grey carousel of the undead with a huge top-hatted skull rising from the centre. There came a blow up Catrin and Catrina couple, towering six stories tall, which briefly toppled over when some mortified steward lost their grip on their guy line, and after there loomed a giant Frido Kahlo head with a very detailed monobrow. There was also a Nescafe float too, for some reason.
After the parade we explored the Zocalo, packed with ten thousand skeletons and ghouls, and the gigantic LED Catrina that spans the main street and grins down at the living.
In the evening the girls were tired, so I met up with Eline again and we sat in this down-and-dirty bar-restaurant until 3am drinking mezcal and eating tacos and doodling in the notepad I carry with me. We drew knobs and fannies and laughed until we cried. A hoot.
Hungover and underslept, I headed to a coffee shop in distant Condessa for some fuckin reason. It was an 8km walk, and I sat there for an hour or two trying to write and failing because I was too tired and trippy. I wandered through Parque Mexico after, then met Liv and Mari for tacos in a fancy area. In the evening we found a gorgeous bar-bookshop; it smelled like home and sanity and cosy calm, and I drank a lemonade and we ate pan de muertos, or bread of the dead: a giant donut-like snack baked to resemble a sugary breadcake with a cross on top.
Next day, feeling recharged, I met up with Liv and Mari for breakfast. We waited in a Starbucks in the city centre (free Wi-Fi, very important when you don’t have a SIM card) for the latest exciting arrivals: Luuk and Bas, the jolly Dutch duo I travelled with for a week or two at the beginning of my Mexico trip.
I’d not travelled with the boys in around six weeks, but seeing them again it felt like only five minutes had passed. Since we split, I’d travelled through Chiapas and Oaxaca, while the boys had adventured their way through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, scaling volcanoes and swimming through torchlit caves and handling tarantulas. We greeted each other with big hugs.
I was very happy to see that Luuk/Bas and Liv/Mari took a shine to one another instantly. I was nervous they wouldn’t get on, but I’d forgotten: it’s impossible not to like the Dutch boys. We decided to visit the famous Aztec canals at Xochimilco for the day’s activity, and we took a bastard-long Uber out of the city, stopping off on the way to each take a thundering whaz in a Pizza Hut.
The canals were expensive and too brief, but very colourful and unique: sitting on a large, flat wooden boat, the five of us sailed for an hour around waterways busy with mariachi bands floating on wooden platforms. They paddled over to tourist boats and attached themselves to bellow their romantic songs. The whole river was alive with music and laughter with boats daubed in vibrant yellows, reds and greens, and we drank Coronas from an ice-cold bucket as we were punted upstream, waving to local people in their gardens and watching the storks that tiptoed through the reeds on the shore.
In the evening we went to a rooftop party near the Zocalo, where we bumped in Nienke – the old gang back together again. There were many other faces I recognised there too; all backpackers heading north seem to end their trips in Mexico City. We finished the evening in a rooftop club with a beautiful view of the Palacio de Bella Artes, lit up in gold against the night sky.
We showed Luuk and Bas the Zocalo in the daytime, winding through zombies and werewolves and demons, past the many ofrendas that line the square from each Mexican state. I went to the Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park with Liv, but since I’d already been I sat and had a coffee while she explored. I saw an interesting sight in the park: a giant totem pole, with four men in traditional Mexican clothing sitting at the top, thirty metres up. As I watched, they flopped themselves over the edge and dangled upside down by ropes around their feet. They swirled around the totem like conkers on strings, playing pan pipes and drums as they span around and slowly lowered down to the earth. A curious sight. Very cool, very weird, and slightly hypnotizing to watch. We went to Lucha Libre again in the evening, and once more cheered and heckled the beefy wrestlers wanging each other about.
All in all, a bonkers week.
It knew it wouldn’t be easy to top the alebrijes/two museums/skyscraper/dead parade day, so I didn’t bother trying: I spent much of my third day in Mexico City lying around the hostel reading and vaping.*
*A note on vaping: it is actually banned in Mexico, it turns out. I have been vaping recently as a substitute for smoking cigarettes, and while it is certainly working, finding vapes in this country has proven difficult. You can sometimes buy them off weird people in the street who carry them around and show them off like watches in overcoats. Or you can go to dodgy shops, like I did in Oaxaca City: not realised it was banned, one morning I typed ‘vape’ into Google Maps and followed it way out of the city into some distant favela, where my map led me down an alleyway to a door with a doorbell that read simply ‘smoke’. I pressed the button and two minutes later a large man opened the door and said ‘come in’. I followed him inside thinking ‘shit’, and in some weird shop-room in his house he showed me a menu. I chose a device, then he went into another room – I suppose he didn’t want me to discover where his secret stash was – and came back with a black bin liner filled with vapes. He handed me mine and I paid him £20 and he said goodbye and I went into the street feeling like I’d just bought fucking black tar heroin, and then took my little toy pipe out of the box and puffed on it and enjoyed the blueberry flavoured mist.
Lauren came back in the evening. She’d been to explore some ruins outside the city with local guides, and she was all abuzz with information on Teotihuacán history and pre-hispanic foods, drinks and customs. After a couple of big days and nights neither of us had the funds to do anything outrageous with our evenings, so we went to a seafood place nearby and had ceviche – the lip-smackingly eye-rollingly delicious fish-cooked-in-the-acid-of-lemon-juice dish.
We talked about our lives as we wandered around the neighbourhood after, and in the evening we bought a couple of drinks and changed into PJs to watch Coco on my laptop in the hostel common room. Lauren guessed the twist about 15 minutes into the film – bitch – but she still cried at the end so I was happy. Went to bed early and feeling grounded and cosy.
The next day I spent the morning lying in various locations around the hostel, honking on my vape and drinking coffee, while Lauren went outside to stroll around and enjoy the morning. She’s one of those people who does a lot of things; she’s a doer. I like to be around those people, they motivate me. Left to my own devices I usually end up glued to the spot by a potent and sticky combination of indecision, confusion, generalised anxiety and bone idleness. I like people who prod me to do stuff. I need them in my life.
By the time Lauren returned I was on the verge of weeping from nicotine nausea and a monstrous caffeine overdose, and we went out for breakfast at the leafy roundabout café. We’d not been sat one minute when a man strode over with a boombox, placed it beside our table and started singing reggae, very very shitly. This happens a lot in Mexico; restaurants are a free-for-all. In the UK if a scrawny white guy in a tank top lugged a ghetto blaster into the foyer of Pizza Express and yelled ‘BIG UP BABYLON!’ into a karaoke mic, he’d be chinned by the head chef and dragged out face-down by the waiters faster than you can say ‘iree’.
In Mexico people just do what they like. You’ll be halfway through a salad in some mid-range restaurant and an old woman will wander through the entire dining area, weaving between plate-carrying waiters, to reach your table and ask if you want to buy some marzipan. And then when you say ‘no gracias’ she will change tack and say ‘look just give me some money regardless’, and then you have to say ‘no, lo siento’ and then she walks away and probably calls you a knobhead in Spanish, and you spend the rest of your meal feeling like some bastard tyrant Caligula for not coughing up.
It happens about 50% of the time when dining out in this city – at least in the more touristic areas. If it’s not one of the marzipan grandmas it’ll be a bloke in trackies who rocks up when you’re just tucking into your chilaquiles and starts bellowing ‘My Way’ with half the words wrong, because he doesn’t speak any English, he just listens to the track over and over and approximates the words:
“And now, de end issa near, and so high face, de final cartoon…”
And he sings so loud you can’t actually hold a conversation without shrieking at the person across from you, and things get very tense. After five minutes he finishes singing and walks around to collect money, and you pay him 20 pesos just so he will fuck off and leave you to eat in peace. And then another man in a ‘ganja <3’ t-shirt bounces over and goes ‘JAAAA!’ while the waiters don’t even bat an eyelid, and you curse silently curse all that is Mexican forever.
After breakfast, by which point I was of course filled with a venomous hatred for all mankind, we went to the anthropological museum in Chapultepec park. Lots of people I’d met on my trip so far have recommended it as one of the best things to do in the city – although they’d invariably warned me to clear the rest of my schedule for the day. They were right: the place is vast.
It’s terrifyingly dense, too. The museum chronicles the history of perhaps a dozen ancient civilisations in Mexico, going as far back as the arrival of homo sapiens on the American mega-continent. We read about Mayas and Teotihuacáns and Aztecs, and we looked at lots of cool statues and mosaics and little models reconstructing what Mexico City would have looked like a thousand years ago.
One thing that struck me like a slingshot to the ballbag was the fact that the Aztec empire was founded – founded – in 1428. And that’s wild right? Six hundred years ago people were doing full moon human sacrifices and building great temples to storm gods who demanded blood, and they fought with war clubs and headdresses made from the brightest peacock feathers, and they practised insanely accurate astronomy and agriculture. And at the same moment in history… the pub in my hometown was there. It’s a thousand years old. The Aztecs were doing their thing, and over in England the Bingley Arms was sitting on its little hill, with a gaggle of scruffy-haired peasants with names like Wodgit and Gunk sitting on bar stools sharing turnips and discussing women’s knockers. Just mad.
We left the museum after two hours. We saw less than 50% of the exhibits on offer, but our brains were fried and no new information was able to penetrate. Everybody I’ve met who’s been there has said the same thing: amazing but overwhelming. I found my eyes beginning to glaze over as I read each successive placard, and before long I found myself breezing through each exhibit, leaving every pot, pan, jar and bread knife in the dust in favour of only the biggest exhibits: a giant carving of the sun god, a huge stone demon – that sort of thing.
By the time we left the museum I was ready to cry from exhaustion, and while Lauren with her eternal vigour bounded away to explore the park, I shlepped home and draped myself over my bunkbed. I had one of those naps where you don’t really fall asleep but instead lie there with your eyes closed and hallucinate for thirty minutes then wake up groggier than you were to start with. At this point Lauren came home, ready for the next entertainment: Lucha Libre.
It was our last night together and Lauren’s last night in Mexico City; she was due to fly next morning to Baja California for a wedding. All week we’d talked about going, and as we got ready we recruited a couple of others: two French guys, Chris and Jerome, and a German girl, Yanna (sp???). The French guys had landed in Mexico that morning, and I felt the Lucha Libre would be a fun initiation to the country for them.
We took an Uber to the arena – you have to take Ubers here or book cabs, you can’t hail them on the street as there are many dodgy fake cabbies around who will just instantly fleece you when you get in – and bought tickets for 300 pesos. Good seat tickets, too. 300 pesos is about 15 quid, so it was really a bargain.
The arena is massive, and I got the same rush of excitement I’ve felt whenever I’ve entered a gig venue or a theatre over the years – electricity in the air. We took our seats on the second row – I felt a brief pang of concern over being spattered with blood or clobbered by a low flying folding chair – and an usher brought us beers. I got a tostada too; a sandwich crammed full of cheese, ham, avocado and jalapenos. It was a little soggy but delicious, and as I polished it off, two men in suits stepped into the ring and said a lot of Spanish into their microphones. Everybody cheered, so I did too. Then six dwarfs in spandex ran into the ring and started battering each other.
I say ‘dwarfs’ hesitantly; I Googled to check if it’s the right term, and I think it is, but I don’t want to upset anybody. I watched the six guys chuck each other about and slap each other, drinking my beer out of ambiguity over how I was supposed to react. There were two ways this could have been intended: as an inclusive wrestling match, where people with dwarfism are given the chance to compete fairly in their favourite sport. Or it might have been intended to be comical in a Phoenix Nights sort of way, which in 2022 of course feels rather uncool. I wasn’t sure, so I glugged my beer awkwardly and resigned myself politely golf-clapping whenever somebody did a good punch.
The next round was six wrestlers of whom the youngest was probably about 65. They all had grey chest hair and liver spots and they chucked each other about and pranged each other’s heads off the floor and all that stuff. One old man got leg dropped by a morbidly obese wrestler in a black gimp suit, and he didn’t get back up until he was stretchered off. Again, I wasn’t sure if this was a genuine injury, part of the show, or just a common risk of the job. I drank another beer to shut up my brain.
By the third round Lauren and I were pretty sauced and felt far more at ease enjoying the next bout: 10 young-ish wrestlers, none of them taller than 5 foot 6. They flipped and kicked and tossed one another out of the ring, but mostly they slapped each other; I suppose it’s safer and more percussive than punching. There was one really sexy wrestler with bulging tanned muscles that Lauren fell in love with initially, until he entered the ring and got helplessly ragged about for a full thirty minutes.
The final event was six enormous men aged between 35 and 60, built like gorillas. They wore masks and gave one another a proper make-believe thrashing. It’s all very obviously fake, but it makes no difference to the fun of it all. It’s not really about the combat anyway: I realised as I watched the show that wrestling is closer to figure skating than boxing. The throwing, the slams, the flying kicks – it’s all choreographed minutely, with miniscule margins for error. It doesn’t matter if you think the spandex and the theatre and the machismo of it all is lame: watching an 18-stone man launch himself ten feet across the ring before being grabbed in mid-air by another giant and flung twirling against the crowd barrier – and then seeing him get up and walk away from it without a scratch – is objectively impressive.
By the end Lauren and I were roaring drunk and hollering abuse at the wrestlers (it’s what you’re supposed to do – the Mexican couple sitting beside us were giving them lip), and it was only when I glanced sidelong down our row that I saw the two French guys, ashen faced, eyes wide, wondering what in Christ’s holy name they’d just paid to witness.
Welcome to Mexico, guys.
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?”
“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?
Hello you. I am in Mexico City now. Hoooooooooooo! But first: we must wrap up Oaxaca.Continue reading
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