Nat’s Travels – Mexico, A Country of Contrast
No amount of research could have prepared me for my first month in Mexico. It is truly a country of contrasts. I have not yet travelled far and wide in this immense country, but the differences were evident from my first day here.
The first stop was Mexico City, where I stayed for about a week and a half. There’s so much to see and do here, I feel I barely scratched the surface. I stayed in the Condesa area, with extended family. Condesa is a ‘hipster’ area and so it’s hard to believe that you are in a developing country here. It’s probably one of the safer areas in the city and more definitely upmarket, with a variety of restaurants lining the streets.
Nearby is Chupultepec Park, with the Anthropology museum and Chupultepec Castle nearby. All of which are great to visit. The Anthropology Museum is definitely a must-see. It’s cheap to get in (70 pesos) and can easily take up a whole day (in fact, I would have been happy with two days in there). This museum gives a general insight to the Mexican natives and goes into detail about the cultures and histories of the people of the different states.
In contrast, in Coyoacan, I visited the Frieda Kahlo House (the Blue House). Which cost a staggering 220 pesos and I had seen everything in less than two hours. Don’t get me wrong, it was well worth the visit, but the pricing structures in Mexico are a complete mystery to me.
Heading to the centre of the city, to the Zocalo and the contrasts become more apparent. The rich-poor divide is extremely evident. You can even see the divide in the stray dogs. And here it’s easy to know which streets to stay on. You step of the main tourist streets and it is suddenly much quieter. With every step away from the Zocalo you notice more rubbish and more taxis will try to pick you up. Like with any big city, it’s important to keep your wits about you, but as you move away from the centre, off the tourist streets this feeling becomes more apparent.
In the Zocalo itself there is a contrast between old and new. Templo Mayor can be found beside the cathedral. The ruins are all that is left of the chief temple of the city, before the Spanish conquest. The cathedral, on the other hand, was completed in 1813. These two sites of worship , one ancient, one modern are an amazing sight together.
As I have already mentioned, the pricing in Mexico is confusing. Most museums, no matter how big, that I visited was just 70 pesos, except Frieda Kahlo’s House, which was triple the price. The Anthropology Museum was well worth the money and compared to it the Blue House seemed like a bit of a rip off.
But nothing could prepare me for the differences in the pricing of food. There’s a great Basket Taco place, just off the Zocalo., where tacos are 6 pesos each, so you can have a good meal of three tacos for just 18 pesos. There are also sauces and pickles on the tables. Or you can go to a restaurant a little further away and pay over 200 pesos just for a starter. I expected a difference between the cheap eats and the more upmarket places, but the difference just seems ridiculous! Especially being in the same city.
By all accounts, Patzcuaro is a quiet little town, by the lake of the same name. It is a pretty little town to see and a great base to see other towns around the lake. But once a year this quiet place becomes rammed with tourists. That time is Dia de los Muertos.
Paztcuaro has become the ‘go to place’ for this festival of contrasts. The festival is not a sombre affair, but neither is it a big celebration and yet is both. Locals go to the graves of their relatives and keep vigil all night. They make alters for the deceased, which includes their favourite foods and drinks, sing in the graveyard and chat. It is their belief hat the deceased come back to the land of the living for one night and so they spend time with them.
Staying at Patzcuaro for this festival, I was led to believe that the best place to go is Janitzio – a small island on the lake. I spent all night there and saw so much contrast in just the one night.
Firstly, I went to the small graveyard at about 9:30pm. It was busy, but easy enough to explore. People were getting ready for their nightlong vigil. It was quiet and seemed respectful. This is what I had expected from Day of the Dead.
After some time, I went to explore the island a little more. It really isn’t a big island. Passing the vast amounts of tat shops and restaurants, battling the crowds, it wasn’t long before I reached the top of the island (it is a conical shape). Here there is a statue, of José María Morelos, to get into the statue grounds there was a 10 peso entrance fee.
Around the statue was only what could be called a festival. I had wondered where all the people were, as I had been told to expect crowds. Turns out they were all here at this massive party. There were bars set up, food stalls and more. The young and drunk had found there way here, obviously some weren’t planning to sleep at all. Some had tents and sleeping bags among their backpacks. This is the complete opposite of my Day of the Dead expectations.
At about 1am I headed down to the graveyard again. This time there was a queue to get in. And once in, moving was not easy. This felt disrespectful to those keeping vigil. Especially as a few drunks from the party had come down and were being loud and leery, leaving their rubbish and even trampling over graves and altars to get some space. So it didn’t take long for me to leave.
I went back to the graveyard at about 4:30am and this time I had more of the experience that I had expected. This time it was mostly quiet, but with Mexican singing. People were talking but not being loud. It was nice.
I found it amazing that there could be so much difference in just one small cemetery in one night. And it looks like I have much more to discover in this amazing country.