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Day 208 – Hidden Mexico City

May 6, 2011

Location: Mexico City, Mexico

Date: Friday, May 6, 2011

Mexico City (D.F. pronounced “Deh Effeh” to the locals) is huge. A population of over 21 million in its metropolitan area makes it the largest city in the western hemisphere. Here, size matters.

But buried in all the bustle and hubbub, behind the tiendas and tucked into alleyways, are thousands of details. Like the good clubs in Los Angeles or the most lenient marijuana clinics in San Francisco, finding these hidden gems is easiest with the help of a local. Or a hired guide.

Ours was a chilango with an outsized personality, an eye for women (if it had legs/boobs, it was worthy of his attention), and a very loose definition of the word “tip” (“I work for tips, minimum of 50 pesos, but if you want to pay more is fine.”)

First stop was an obvious one: a visit to the National Palace (i.e. the offices of the President) to see Diego Rivera’s giant murals that depict the history of Mexico. Rivera was one of Mexico’s most important artists of the 20th century up until Salma Hayek portrayed his wife/ex-wife/lover Frida Kahlo in a 2002 movie. Nowadays he’s known as the guy who loved that unibrowed girl with the mustache.

His most famous work at the National Palace covers the walls above the palace’s main staircase and depicts Mexico’s history from the mid-1500s to the mid-20th century. His mural, like Mexico City itself, is overwhelming at first, but a closer look reveals many hidden treasures. There’s Rivera painted as a famous Mexican liberation hero. There’s a native warrior helping the Spanish fight the Aztecs, their hated enemies. There are two priests feeling up a prostitute who’s wearing a symbol of the Virgin Mary to symbolize the church’s use of the virgin to manipulate the people. There’s an upside down sun, showing the world flipped upon the arrival of the Spanish. You could probably spend all day just on the main mural.

Walking outside, our guide takes us to a corner and shows as a makeshift tribute to Santa de Muerte, the skull-faced saint of the dead that’s been condemned by the Catholic church but has a strong following in Mexico.

He shivers. “Gangsters. Evil. Bad.” Apparently this is the edge of a bad part of town. Drug dealers take the skull-headed one as their patron, offering her apples and glasses of water. According to our guide, the apples shrivel up and the water disappears faster than it should. We hustle out before any of the thugs tattooed with her likeness get us.

Next up, one of my favorite stops of the day: the studio of Mexican impressionist painter Joaquin Clausell (El Estudio de Joaquin Clausell). Located at Jose Maria Pino Suarez 30 in the Museum of Mexico City just south of the Zocalo, this place is a true hidden gem. Without a tourist in sight, we paid an 11 peso entrance fee and made our way up to Clausell’s old studio. On his walls, using paint left over from his other projects, he painted a tableau of images. It’s gorgeous. No pictures are allowed, so I can’t show you why. He spent decades adding little images to the sprawling work. It’s like watching someone’s subconscious splayed out on the walls.

There are images of angels, demons, sharks, trees, sky, hints of beastiality, iconic Mexican landscape, most not larger than a postcard. The man was apparently quite the looker so the wall’s got images of his wife and at least one of his lovers. These images, unlike most on the walls, are quite large. I think it says something of the role women play in the life of artists (and I think guys like Van Gogh might agree). It is a unique work, yet we walked out without seeing another visitor. This piece should be much more famous.

Around the way, embedded in a corner is a large carved stone of a grinning mouth. Ancient Mexico City used to have hundreds of these, but the Spanish and time have taken their toll. This one’s the only one left and if you weren’t looking for it, you’d walk right by.

In Mexico City’s first hospital, founded by Hernan Cortes in 1524, we found a peaceful courtyard and another mural of Mexico’s history. Painted 25 years ago it’s a fascinating, detailed work. Tucked about it, a strip painted in the 16th century. The old is hidden in plain sight next to the new.

Last stop, a pulqueria. A throwback place where we sampled pulque, the thick, viscous traditional drink of Mexico. Made from maguey, a type of agave, the sacred alcoholic beverage was once reserved for the upper classes in Pre-Hispanic Mexico. Nowadays, it’s mostly an old-timer drink that’s just making a resurgence amongst the young.

Heading south on 5 de Febrero from the Zocalo, we made a right on Mesones. Pulqueria La Risa doesn’t look like much. The makeshift swinging doors make it look like a service entrance. Inside, though, young people drank pulque flavored with guava, pineapple, walnut, and oat.

The best? A surprise: the oat (avena). Delicious, not overly sweet, but hearty.

Pulque is meant to be savored. We were in a rush, though, and that meant wolfing down a drink that should be a meal. Guinness ain’t got nothin’ on pulque. I walked out feeling 5 pounds heavier. Pulque is said to be the Mexican Viagra; I can’t say I felt strong like bull, but I did feel a little friendlier.

A visit to the Mercado de La Merced was more of the same—overwhelming, but rich in detail. The city’s largest food market in the city is a jumble of stalls selling everything under the sun. Bags of Cheetos the size of small horses, firecrackers that could take down a building, mounds of candy, acres of nuts, miles of fruit, and baby chicks dyed the colors of the rainbow (“No pictures!”).

Mexico City has so much to offer between its pre-Hispanic roots, its colonial buildings, its should-be-more-famous artists, its saint worshipping gangsters, its sacredly potent beverages, and its everything’s for sale markets. Like a giant mural there’s too much detail to digest in one sitting. Like pulque it’s best taken one small sip at a time.

GALLERY: Click through to see bonus pictures of more of Rivera’s work.

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