Mexico! Part VI: Cuernavaca

Reading this week:

  • Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams

So far on our adventure in Mexico everything had gone perfectly smoothly. Astonishingly smooth. We swung big and hit it out of the park on every attempt. However on this day when we were off to Cuernavaca things got a little shaky. We were off to Cuernavaca because that is where our friends’ wedding was going to be and the wedding was the whole reason we were in Mexico. So we woke up early and had breakfast and packed and called a ride and head off to the World Trade Center very early. Good thing we head out early too because we did not accurately predict how long the traffic would take. But with our buffer, we were fine. Or so we thought.

I had thought the World Trade Center was going to have a bus-stop looking thing but it did not. We talked to our driver about this and he said the busses were in the back, which confirmed my impression from looking at the map and stuff. So there we waited and no bus ever arrived and we were very confused. I tried to find the bus office and failed and we missed our bus. This was very frustrating but eventually we went around the front of the building and with me watching our stuff my super amazing wife finally found the bus office and got us new tickets and figured out where to go. Meanwhile I stewed at my own incompetence. We had Starbucks sandwiches for lunch (surprisingly good) and caught the noon bus and had a perfectly pleasant and scenic ride to Cuernavaca, where we arrived at around 2:30 in the afternoon. From the bus stop we took another ride to the Holiday Inn Cuernavaca, which frankly I can’t recommend enough. Beautiful pool, colorful greenery all around the grounds, and slightly confounding windows lodged in spacious and comfy rooms.

Severely behind my mental schedule, I convinced my super amazing wife that we should try to accomplish in the remaining two hours or so of the day everything I had wanted to do with a full day in Cuernavaca. This we largely pulled off! The first place we were off to was Museo Morelense de Arte Popular, or MMAPO. I had seen MMAPO in the travel guide and thought it was going to be a little rinky-dink place, but it was in fact fantastic. It was pretty small but had a great selection of local art. We of course loved the textiles and I was also drawn to several different versions of a granary which was apparently a local style. When we visited they had a photo series of traditional crafts which included some ceramics. This was nice because my super amazing wife is into ceramics, which is the reason we were at MMAPO. One of the big draws of the place is its gift shop, which features actual local handicrafts. By this point we had been to a couple different markets in Mexico City, and frankly a lot of the stuff was same-same and clearly meant for the tourist trade (we were of course tourists looking to buy tourist things, so this isn’t a criticism). But MMAPO had much more unique stuff and while she got a cool little pot I got a nifty little clay jug. Fun!

From there we went to the Robert Brady house which, wow, talk about gorgeous. Oh to be rich and have artist friends. I think his house is about how I would decorate if I had unlimited funds and also if I could get it all done while my super amazing wife was gone for a week or two. Just jam-packed with different art pieces from around the globe arranged into different thematic rooms with different colors where he housed various visiting friends. Sunken bars overlooking pools and airy bedrooms that were cool and inviting on a hot day. Works by Frida Khalo crammed into corners and recesses filled with statues and tile bathtubs to die for, all surrounding a garden courtyard thing. Ugh fantastic. Well worth the price of admission and if only I could live there. But I could not so next we went around the block to Jardin Borda. More just fantastical and fantastically laid out gardens in picturesque pathways and the tree nurseries of my dreams. If you climbed the back wall you got a fantastic view over the town and across to the mountains that lined the valley, providing a backdrop to the jacaranda trees blooming while we were there. I also almost got attacked like a duck and had to dance like in an old western movie to avoid being nipped until I could run away. We sought refuge in the art display they also had in the grounds and then head out.

Robert Brady’s poolside lounge.

We were off to take a glance at the Palacio Cortes but then noticed the Cathedral was actually open so I dragged us in there. There were some murals I had wanted to look at but as we were wandering around we were accosted by a tour guide. I did actually want someone to show me around so I took him up on the offer, thinking he would ask like 20 pesos afterwards and I would kindly give him 50. The actual price was 300 pesos, but I have spent more money on dumber stuff. It was an alright tour. I think he was a little drunk but he was enthusiastic about the place and it was very cool to see the indigenous influences on the Cathedral (and other associated churches? Very confused about how they are all related, seems like a colleges/university thing, but I dunno, religion is weird, and hoo boy did the Spanish like putting up churches) and also they had some sheep there mostly as a display but we always like sheep. So that was a nice time.

Jardin Borda

After exiting the Cathedral we finally glanced at the Palacio Cortes and after much effort got a ride back to the hotel where we recovered from a very interesting day. There was great food at the hotel and we collapsed asleep. The next day would bring more wonderful if trying adventures.

Mexico! Part V: Communists

Reading this week:

  • The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng

And on the fifth day, we went to go see some commies. After a lovely and quiet early morning, my super amazing wife and I called up a ride and went down to see the beautiful neighborhood of Coyoacán. The main draw was being loyal liberals, i.e. doing what the New York Times told us to do. We were dropped off at our first destination, the Trotsky Museum, but we got there before it opened so we walked around the block of leafy trees and colorful houses.

The Trotsky Museum is an interesting little place. It is definitely a pro-Trotsky institution. Going there felt like closing a particular loop because we had been to the Spy Museum which houses the ice pick that Ramón Mercader used to kill him. When you enter there is a little museum and then it spits you out into Trotsky’s yard from whence you can tour the rather fortified house. There is also a cafeteria but we were there too early for it to be open so I didn’t get to check out the menu. Whatever the cafeteria serves, Trotsky had excellent metaphorical taste at least in his choice of location because the yard is beautiful. It is tropical and manicured and well-kept. This is fitting because the Trotsky presented by the museum was a lovely old man who wore sweater-vests and liked to tend to his chickens in and amongst some political writing. Although the museum has a few pictures of Trotsky leading the Red Army they mostly come across as aghast that anyone would have it out for the kind of dude who liked to go fishing with some Greek guys he met. I don’t actually know a lot about Trotsky, but I was a little incredulous they couldn’t you know get it even if they didn’t condone it. But what do I know? On the way out we stopped by the gift shop where I only got a pin and turned down the chance to get a Trotsky t-shirt or Trotsky box of matches for my communist friends.

Our next stop was Casa Azul, which was the opposite of Trotsky’s journey. As the New York Times laments however Casa Azul is very popular and our timed tickets weren’t for a bit, so we talked the fairly short distance to downtown Coyoacán to enjoy the neighborhood. It is easy to enjoy! There is a beautiful park and a fountain with some coyotes and a market we wandered through and we couldn’t have spent a nicer hour or so until it was ticket time. While wandering down there we also saw an industrial tortilla machine in action and I want one now. But off we were to Casa Azul.

I know I keep describing things as “lovely” but they all deserve it, including Casa Azul. The museum is really well done and you walk through the house and see all of Frida Khalo’s things and her paintings and her garden, but the whole time I was wondering if Khalo would have liked the way she was presented. In the Trotsky Museum he is a pottering if respected old man and in the Khalo Museum she is an artist and a woman and a bisexual and several other things all helpfully outlined on a sign but what isn’t emphasized is that she was a COMMUNIST! This was an important part of her identity! She had an affair with Trotsky! Her art wasn’t about painting pretty pictures or just about expressing her physical pain but she infused her art with her politics and supported these causes and this whole intellectual, political side of her is, from my viewing, just kinda swept aside in the presentation of her in the museum. They don’t hide her politics; they have up the roster of communist leaders she hung at the foot of her bed and they have a picture of her in one of her plaster corsets upon which she has painted proudly the hammer and sickle, but they just kind of elide over it. My best guest is that when you become a tourist attraction you don’t really want to say anything controversial (though maybe I should give them credit for “bisexual”). But would Khalo approve of having her edges sanded off? Great gift shop though.

But that brings us to our final destination for the day, Museo Anahuacalli. There are no edges sanded off of that place. It is a taxi ride away from Casa Azul and out of the leafy center of Coyoacán. Anahuacalli is Diego Rivera’s monument to himself and it is monumental. You enter the gate and it spits you out onto a black stone courtyard in the blazing sun devoid of green and loomed over by the pyramid of volcanic rock that is Anahuacalli. Rivera built it with a very particular vision and as you enter you are thrust into darkness, with the light filtered through translucent stone. The pyramid is filled with Rivera’s collection of Mesoamerican art and artifacts. The collection is huge and impressive but sad for being ripped from its context. There is little in the way of explanation for any of the objects. You can descend a level into Rivera’s temple underworld but then as you start to climb up the pyramid things get brighter. There is a huge room (with gigantic pictures of communists, and throughout the pyramid mosaics of communist symbols; these people we visited today really liked communism) and at the top you can go outside to beautiful vistas of the Mexico City landscape. Well worth the visit for that alone.

Mexico! Part IV: City Center

Reading this week:

  • Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara
  • The Making of the African Queen by Katharine Hepburn

Our big day in the city center began with some pastries. For these we walked down to a shop near the place where we were staying and indecisive about which to pick we just got a bunch and somehow ate all of them. Mexico City has excellent pastries, can recommend. Fortified, we got ready, called a Didi, and head in.

Per our request, our Didi dropped us off at the Templo Mayor, except (per our unfortunate instructions) we were at I think the back of the complex, right on a very very busy street full of shops. I know I wax and wane about the everyday commerce of ancient cities, but Mexico City is an ancient city and people must have been doing their shopping on this very spot for centuries and centuries. This is a thought I shared with my super amazing wife, and she appreciated it for what it was, but did not appreciate it for what it wasn’t, in that it wasn’t me trying to figure out how to get us off this busy city street and to our intended destination. So we walked and saw the backs of more impressive buildings, such as the Palacio Nacional. Our attempts to see the fronts of these buildings were thwarted for quite some time due to all the streets that were closed on account of recent and pending protests, but finally we stumbled out onto the Plaza de la Constitución.

This let us get our bearings and at long last we wound our way to the Templo Mayor. The neat thing, or at least one of the many neat things, and also tragic things while I am thinking about it, about the Templo Mayor is that it has been more or less razed, with its building materials recycled into the various buildings that surround it. But because it has been razed as you walk along the pathways over it you go deeper and deeper into the temple and can see the iterations of the temples that came before and were built over to construct a larger and larger pyramid. There are also scattered around the temple signs of the colonial structures that were built on the spot, including even the wooden foundations of houses and a sewer. There are a few displays right when you enter the temple complex but after you walk around the temple there is a big museum full of artifacts and history that is really well done. They had a lot of types of artifacts I hadn’t seen before in relation to Aztec and pre-Aztec art, such as these cute little sacrificial knife dudes:


After we emerged blinking into the sun from the temple complex, it was time for lunch. That didn’t stop us from perusing the Catedral Metropolitana but it did prevent me from enjoying it much because I was getting hangry. So we stumbled through a Chinatown we hadn’t known existed and got ourselves some fish tacos. Fortified, we took a look at some other sites, such as the House of Tiles and a beleaguered Alexander Von Humboldt, and then explored a street we had spotted on our Didi ride that was just chock-a-block with used bookstores. Our dream! Of course neither of us read Spanish but it was cool to see a whole street of used bookstores, something that the less-literary (apparently) society of the United States just does not support anymore. One of the stores had three gigantic cats napping on a couch, which drew us right in. This is the power of marketing.

Bookstore and bookstore street.

From there we tried to figure out what to do next and while wandering around stumbled into the Museo Nacional de Arte, which we hadn’t realized was there. So of course we had to check it out. It is in a gigantic gorgeous building with the sort of inside-outside architecture that I really like, not to mention a bunch of beautiful art. The only downside is that a lot of the galleries had an entrance and an exit which you had to use in accordance with their designated purpose, and while we were adept at finding exits the instructions to the entrances were always confusing (that lack of Spanish again) but we managed to make it eventually via trial and (much) error. I liked best the 19th century landscapes of Mexico, which were large and intricate and detailed. José María Velasco was well represented. In other art items, there was a statue by Rómulo Rozo that I found alluring along with some magnificent skateboards by Dario Escobar:

It’s called “Sin Título,” whatever that means.

We wrapped the day up by visiting some markets on the hunt for souvenirs, and my super amazing wife walked away with a mug and I walked away with two dearly priced mangos. After our now customary shower we went out for traditional Mexican food, found the place closed, and got sushi and tempura instead. We returned and drifted off asleep, dreaming of a mango breakfast.

Mexico! Part III: Teotihuacán

Temple of the Sun

Reading this week:

  • The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  • Used and Rare by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (antiheroes)

Having filled up our cultural bucket the day before with the history presented in museums, on our third day in Mexico we decided to go see the real thing: Teotihuacán. The day went astonishingly smoothly. Thankfully for our limited Spanish there are many travel blogs on the internet that described in detail exactly how to get to the pyramids, and we simply followed those instructions and got there no problem. The bus that goes to the pyramids first goes through the town of San Juan Teotihuacán before it finally winds itself to the archeological site, and as we bumped over the last few potholes I was getting very impatient but it was well worth the trip. Plus as the bus rode along it was interesting to watch the landscape go from Mexico City to Mexico Rural with farm fields and a glimpse of a shepherd tending his flock.

Pyramid of the Moon framed by the mountain. My sun and moon is in the foreground.

We were dropped off at Gate 2 for the site and as soon as you step off the bus you are greeted with the sight of the absolutely massive Pyramid of the Sun simply dominating the skyline. It is huge. Gigantic. Stupendous. An impressive feat for any civilization at any time. Overawed, we bought our tickets and entered the archeological zone. One of the things I liked best about our visit were all the people. I like my ancient cities to feel like cities and this one did. The crowds were light when we first arrived but more and more people came, but what set Teotihuacán apart from my last visit to an ancient city, Tikal, was that there were people everywhere selling souvenirs. That’s what made it feel more like a city to me. Tons of buskers were around peddling whistles and masks and statuettes. Teotihuacán was built by a pre-Aztec civilization, and even the Aztecs would make pilgrimages to the city to be in awe of what they did. I assume they too wanted something to remember their trip by and I liked to think how by visiting we were part of that very same tradition in our own way. And from one of the stands at the end of the day I bought a very cute little clay chihuahua with a piece of maize in its mouth.

Caldaza de los Muertos filled with los Vivos.

The part of the city on display is arranged along a long rode that the Aztecs decided was a road of the dead, Caldaza de los Muertos, having assumed the smaller temples were all tombs. Gate 2 spits you out towards the end that terminates at a plaza at the foot of the Temple of the Moon. The plaza was magnificent and there you could see how the city was arranged. From various points around the plaza, as you look up at the Pyramids of the Moon and Sun are framed and mirror the mountains that surround the site, I think communicating how the city builders were connected to the world around them. At Tikal, you are immersed in jungle and so the city comes to you in pieces, but Teotihuacán was surrounded by scrub which put the city in the context of its valley.

After taking in our fill of the Pyramid of the Moon’s plaza, we then hiked all the way down the Caldaza de los Muertos to arrive at the other end of the city, passing many many smaller temples and apparently residential districts along the way. You also pass over the San Juan river, which a criminally under-highlighted sign explains that one of the things the Teotihuacán builders did was divert the river in order to make it cross the city perpendicularly. That’s really cool! Geoengineering to make your city better reflect the cosmos! Think of all the digging. Just thinking about all that hard work, not to mention our relatively lengthy hike on an increasingly warm and dry day had us very tired and thirsty. Luckily at the far end of the Caldaza the archeological site has a very uncrowded restaurant that serves surprisingly delicious food alongside a necessarily refreshing beer. If you get a window table you overlook the Quetzalcoatl temple complex. As we ate a dust devil picked up in its own small homage to the storm god.

After lunch we checked out the Quetzalcoatl temple for ourselves. It has some of the most impressive decorations on the site, because the pyramid has been deconstructed. The Mesoamerican civilizations would build pyramid on top of pyramid, burying the last one to create something bigger. Since the Quetzalcoatl pyramid was no longer intact, decorations from its younger days are now on display and visible and cool to see. Also on the day we visited the Quetzalcoatl pyramid was the only one you could climb up, with the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon closed for repairs. This is probably a good thing though because we were tuckered out just climbing that one, so who knows if we would have survived the Pyramid of the Sun.

The final part of our visit was the museum on site, where they had lots of cool stuff. The most stunning part of the museum was a room where they had a scale model of the whole city with the Pyramid of the Sun itself serving as a backdrop thanks to a gigantic window. Whoever designed this setup deserves an award, it was awesome. Hot and tired, from there we decided to head back into town where we were finally revived with showers and some time to chill. We eventually head out for dinner. On the way I was impressed to see a man playing the accordion for tips, one of many talented musicians we saw earning their keep by entertaining sidewalk diners. The working musician is alive and well in Mexico City. For dinner we went to Pato Manila, a place that serves verifiably delicious duck tacos, and for dessert went to the Churreria El Moro where there was quite a crowd. We finally went back to our place to gird ourselves for going for the next day’s adventure into the beating heart of a modern city.

A temple still covered in scrub.

Mexico! Part II: Museos Nacionales

Reading this week:

  • Tippu Tip and the East African Slave Trade by Leda Farrant

What with the red-eye flight we took to get to Mexico we had collapsed asleep in the beautiful apartment we were staying at and therefore arose on our first full day peppy and ready to absorb some culture. The plan for the day was to explore the environs of Chapultepec Park. We had a leisurely morning, ate pastries for breakfast, and set out walking to see the sights of the day.

We entered the park via the Estela de Luz. It was Sunday, and despite the relatively early hour the park was already filling with people. One thing we had noticed right away is that Mexico City, at least in the neighborhood we were staying, is very much a dog town. There were tons of people walking their well-behaved off-leash dogs in the gorgeous early morning air and people already strolling the paths of the park. Our first destination was the Museo Nacional de Antropología, and as we made our way there we watched the many, many vendors that line the paths set up their many, many booths. I regret not buying for my brother a t-shirt that featured Darth Vader in as a stylized Aztec god.

We got to the anthropology museum fairly early but it was quickly brimming with people. After the entryway it opens up into a massive sunny courtyard anchored by a gigantic fountain, though with the water spilling from above the effect was (for the better) more mountain waterfall or perpetual rain. The place was fairly overwhelming, a sense which was ameliorated by the fact we couldn’t read most of the signs. It separates itself into different sections based around separate cultures, and we were glad to see a whole section on Teotihuacán, which we had planned to visit the next day. The museum is really well put together, and you can weave inside and outside the building to see artifacts and recreations of temples and sights. That made these cultures feel more alive than if it was just pots in display cases. The museum is also where you will find some of the more famous icons of Mexican culture, as experienced from the United States anyway.

I like museums best when they can really give you a sense of what life was actually like for the people they are telling you about. The monumental is cool but I try to focus on the objects that feel touched by people. Throughout our trip to Mexico City we saw a great number of ancient pottery stamps (below), which I hadn’t seen before in any anthropology museum. That speaks to people making sure the everyday was still beautiful. And although I just poo-poo’d the monumental, some of the most stunning displays were full-sized recreations of what some of the temples would have looked like in their heyday (as you can see above), with their decorations intact and new-looking. Extremely cool to see!

We had lunch in the museum’s excellent and airy café and then exited via the gift shop. An observation on the gift shop culture we witnessed in Mexico City: I collect lapel pins and my super amazing wife collects bookmarks. In the places we’ve been to in the United States, we are far more likely to find a lapel pin than a bookmark. However in Mexico she was deluged with bookmarks while the lapel pins available left me very much wanting. We also saw throughout our trip a veritable riot of bookstores, which leads me to conclude the Chilangos are a much more bookish culture than anywhere I’ve seen back home. If only I read Spanish.

A sunny Sunday in Chapultepec park.

After the anthropology museum we were off to Chapultepec Castle, home of the Museo Nacional de Historia. It is perched on the top of the tallest hill in the park, which caused me to comment to my super amazing wife about how it is always men that want to live on top of hills because they don’t do all the work of hauling water and food up there every day. She has heard me say this many times before and is slightly tired of it. But what the site lacks in practically it rewards with views in spades. It was mid-afternoon by this point, so we were a bit hot and flustered as we trudged up to the castle, but it was awfully pretty. It was also very crowded, as admission is free for residents on Sundays, but I like it when public spaces are full of the public. The park itself was full to the brim as we made our way to the castle and I wasn’t quite sure how the place fit all the people we saw walking up the hill. The castle itself has been home to various Mexican presidents and emperors, and much of the museum is sumptuous rooms where these autocrats/democrats slept and/or held meetings. On the roof was a very tidy garden. It’s good to be king I suppose (until the firing squad gets to you).

Finally the day was wrapping up and to refresh ourselves we went to a Cafebrería. There I had a flotado which consisted of lime ice cream in coke and has a fair shot of being the original recipe for ambrosia. That night, fortified with a shower, we went to Taquería Orinoco for dinner and tried to eat everything. We got most of the way to everything and had to burn it off with a rousing game of Scrabble when we returned to the apartment. Exhausted, we once again collapsed asleep dreaming of even greater adventure the next day.