Down in Mexico, Day 2.5: A Quest Fulfilled and a Dalliance with the Dead

Flash Forward: Day of the Dead Festivities

October 30, 2013, Mexico City: I was back at my hotel around 4 p.m. after my tour ended without the scheduled visit to the historic city center. My guide claimed he could not take me there because protests were preventing traffic from getting through, but I didn’t want to leave Mexico City without visiting the excavation site of the Templo Mayor, the great dual pyramid of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, so I decided to make the long walk to the city center myself. It appeared that it would take about an hour to reach the Templo Mayor, though in reality it would be closer to 90 minutes after factoring in stops for sightseeing.

I didn’t have access to a map or a data plan on my phone, so I mapped a route out on my wifi tablet, committed it to memory, and then snapped photos of the important turns with my phone so I could reference them when necessary. Rather than walking along the main highway, I chose a back way that looked a bit more direct and would enable me to see more of the city.

A monument I passed during my walk.

As I approached the city center I began to notice police lined up in the streets dressed in riot gear. However, traffic appeared to be getting by fine, so I was annoyed that my guide didn’t even try to take me there. On the other hand, if he had, I would never have seen all of the things I did on my walk that afternoon and evening, so I guess it worked out.

You can see some leftover protesters and the police presence in front of this monument.
A large contingent of police dressed in riot gear.
The Palace of Fine Arts

The very center of the city is a pedestrian area (i.e., no cars) which reminded me of some cities in Europe.

Interesting building in the pedestrian section.

I meandered about the main square (known as the Zócalo), soaking in the atmosphere, taking time to appreciate the architecture of the historic buildings, and watching the locals set up for Day of the Dead.

Locals setting up for Day of the Dead.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
National Palace of Mexico

At one point a military squad armed with rifles marched into the square, which can be somewhat unnerving when you’re a visitor in a foreign country, especially after hearing about the protests and seeing the riot police earlier, but I was more fascinated than anything.

The military marching out from the palace.

I turned my attention back to the task for which I had originally set out: finding the excavation site of the Templo Mayor. A few more minutes of walking and I arrived. There’s not a lot to see (I think most people would walk by without much of a second glance), but I found it amazing to be standing on the site of what was once the great pyramid at the heart of the Aztec empire. I’ve always been fascinated with Mesoamerican culture (I even incorporated the Aztecs into my novel, complete with a sequence that takes place inside the Templo Mayor), so to be standing here among its ruins was sort of a Holy Grail moment for me. Unfortunately, the museum was closed, so there wasn’t much more to do than snap a couple of photos.

The ruin of the Templo Mayor.
This model in the Museum of Anthropology shows what the Templo Mayor looked like in its glory days.
The background painting depicts the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan as it would have appeared to Cortes.

My quest fulfilled, it was time for dinner. I walked around looking for a place where I could try tacos al pastor, which had been recommended by a fellow blogger. It’s basically meat (usually pork) cooked on a spit, similar to how a gyro or doener is made. I eventually found a place and sat down. I was the only non-local in there so that was a good sign. The tacos did not disappoint. Delicious.

By the time I left the restaurant it was dark.

The pedestrian area at night.

I walked around the pedestrian area and indulged in some gelato before coming across street performers dressed in costume. Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees stalking the streets of Mexico City was an interesting sight.

One-two, Freddy’s coming for you…
You can see Jason and his big machete in the background.
Some demons I saw earlier in the day.

A little later I stumbled onto an early Day of the Dead celebration.

Day of the Dead Entry Gate

I wasn’t sure I could enter so I watched from outside for a little bit, but when I saw other people coming and going, I decided to head in. It was pretty cool, there were decorations, dancers, and people dressed in traditional Catrina costumes. It was a small event, but a nice prelude to the full-blown festivities I thought I would be experiencing later that week in Merida (which was not to be, but more on that later). Here are some photos:

A Catrina poses for a photo.

The Day of the Dead event was being held in the shadow of one of Mexico City’s tallest buildings, the Torre Latinoamericana. On the advice of another fellow blogger, who told me I could save money and avoid the crowds by bypassing the observation deck and heading straight to the bar (the blogging community sure came in handy on this trip), I took the elevator up to the bar.

The blue-lit bar had a noirish feel to it, and the man in this photo had the perfect outfit for the atmosphere.

Looks like something out of a detective story.

It was mostly empty, so I grabbed a table by the window and ordered a corona while enjoying a spectacular view of Mexico City. It was strange to hear American music blasting on the stereo, especially of the 80’s hair metal variety (I can’t remember the last time I heard Europe’s The Final Countdown.). I called my wife while I was there to check in, but a combination of loud music and a bad connection forced me to keep the conversation short.

My table.
Mexico City
More Mexico City

After finishing my beer I headed down for the long walk back to my hotel. I decided to take the main road home rather than returning the way I had come since I didn’t want to walk down unfamiliar back streets in the dark. I hadn’t mapped this way out ahead of time, but I knew that the main road ran close to my hotel, and I was confident in my sense of direction.

It began lightly raining during my walk, but not enough to pull my poncho out of my backpack, so I just wore my windbreaker. I was surprised to discover how warm it was–I had brought layers for mornings and evenings based on the average temperature in Mexico City for late October, but I never really needed them.

On the way home I found a churro stand (whoohoo!). Although I had already indulged in gelato, there was no way I was missing out on a fresh churro, this one filled with chocolate. Besides, pigging out on good food is what vacation is all about, at least for me. 🙂

I eventually found my way back to the hotel and turned in, exhausted from all of the walking I had done, and hoping I would not be too sore the following day when I reached the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Lots of climbing lay ahead of me.

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Down in Mexico, Day 2: Floating Gardens, Ancient Artifacts, and Traffic Jams

Flash Forward: The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco

October 30, 2013, Mexico City: The second day of my trip got off to a late start when I apparently missed my wake-up call (I was wearing earplugs and didn’t realize that the phone’s ringer was set to low). I awoke to someone from the staff knocking lightly on my door to try and wake me—I have no idea how long he had been knocking—that’ll teach me to check the ringer level on my phone.  I quickly got ready and headed down to breakfast with about five minutes to shove some food down my throat and get outside for my pickup.

A driver arrived and took me to a garage near the center of the city, where I waited for my tour to begin. Since I was the only person waiting for a tour, I must confess to a fleeting bout of uneasiness over waiting by myself in this dark garage with a bunch of strangers. Of course I knew this was completely irrational, but human fear is rarely rational, like when you’re downstairs in your house by yourself and you shut the lights out to go to bed—you know there’s nothing hiding in the dark but you still hop upstairs a little faster into the safety of the light. 😉

Eventually my guide showed up and we were off in a little sedan. As the only person on this tour, I had my own private driver and guide for the day—one of the advantages to traveling outside of peak season. For our first stop, the guide claimed he was taking me to a silver museum not listed on the itinerary that the average tourist doesn’t get to see. In actuality, it was a tiny silver shop in a part of the city that, according to the guide, you don’t want to walk around at night. He took me into the back where a jeweler briefly showed me how he makes silver jewelry. Afterward, the guide walked me around the shop and it quickly became clear that this entire detour was nothing more than a ploy to get me to buy something here. Given how much time we would later spend sitting in traffic, I could really have done without this stop taking time away from the tour for which I had actually paid.

When they realized I wasn’t going to buy anything, we got back in the car and headed out. Our next stop was the Olympic Stadium for a quick photo.

Olympic Stadium

We then headed for Xochimilco on the other side of the city, where we were scheduled to go for a boat ride on the Floating Gardens. Traffic was horrendous; it took us about two hours to drive roughly 18 miles. There was a raised expressway for a large portion of this drive, but according to the guide, nobody uses it because the tolls are too expensive—I should have offered to pay the tolls myself to avoid that mess. 🙂

We finally arrived and embarked on one of the boats, which are called trajineras.

We walked across this line of boats to get to ours in front.

As with the car ride, I had the boat to myself along with my guide and the boatman.

Me on my boat.

There are tons of these boats on the canals, but there weren’t too many in operation on this day, so it was a nice relaxing ride, though I imagine that during peak season and on weekends the canals must be absolutely crammed with boats. As I floated down the canal, I thought of Apocalypse Now and began to hear The Doors’ The End in my head.

“This is the end…”

At one point a guy from another boat hopped onto ours with a case full of jewelry. I politely declined to purchase anything and he eventually hopped on to another boat. After that, some food merchants attached their boat to ours and cooked us lunch.  I ordered quesadillas and they threw in rice, tasty hot salsa, and guacamole (I’m not a big guac guy, but I had some and gave the rest to my guide). The quesadillas were not the grilled cheesy kind to which we are accustomed in the U.S.; these were essentially fried tacos. I ordered pork quesadillas, but only one of them was pork. The second was some sort of dark vegetable (which I think might have been cactus, though it could have been mushroom), and the third was just cheese (fresh and melted). The pork and cheese ones were good, and since I was hungry, I devoured the dark vegetable one as quickly as I could before I had a chance to taste it too much—I’m not the most adventurous of eaters but I have gotten better as I’ve traveled more.

The people on this boat cooked lunch for us.

Among the other boats in the water was a party boat with a Mariachi band, boats full of the orange flowers for Day of the Dead festivities, and people cooking various food items such as corn.

A local feeding the ducks.
Another cooking corn.
Flowers for the Day of the Dead.

At one point we passed by a creepy display of dolls hanging from trees that reminded me of a sequence from a horror show that was on TV last year called The River. The dolls were hung by a resident named Julián Santana Barrera, supposedly to keep away evil spirits and appease the spirit of a girl who had drowned nearby. According to legend the dolls come alive at night.

The creepy dolls.
I think I just saw that one turn its head!
One final look at the Floating Gardens.

After the Floating Gardens we made our way back toward the center of the city for a visit to the Museum of Anthropology.

The Museum of Anthropology

It was very cool to see all of the ancient Aztec artifacts (and those of other civilizations). You could spend an entire day in that museum and not see everything. I won’t bore you with too many photos because I know that photos of museum artifacts don’t exactly have the same impact as seeing them live, but here are a few:

Sacrificial stone with a groove for the blood to run down.
Crystal Skull (cue the Indiana Jones music)
Statue with Aztec calendar in background.
My guide insisted on taking a bunch of silly pose pictures like this.
My first thought when seeing this: Quentin Tarantino!
Even the Mesoamericans worshiped his films. 😉

The tour was also supposed to include a visit to the historic center of Mexico City, but there were protests going on and my guide claimed that traffic was not being allowed through, so they ended up dropping me back at my hotel a couple of hours early around 4 p.m. I knew this would be my last chance to see the city center because my entire day tomorrow would be spent at the pyramids of Teotihuacan and then I’d have to pack for my flight to Merida, and I would have kicked myself if I left Mexico City without visiting the excavation site of the Templo Mayor, the great dual pyramid of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, so I decided to make the long walk.

However, this post is getting a little on the long side, so I will be following in the footsteps of Tarantino by splitting it in two, a la Kill Bill.  Stay tuned for the next installment, which will cover my journey to the Templo Mayor as well as my first encounter with Day of the Dead festivities.  Until then…

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One final photo:
The inner courtyard of the anthropological museum.