Fear & Loathing in Mexico City – The Adventurers Return

You don’t want to go anywhere near the place. It’s so very dangerous. People get mugged, robbed, raped, murdered or any combination of the above you care to chose from. Taxi crime. Only take cars from licensed taxi stands, otherwise you might be another victim dropped off dead or alive down a dark alley in one of the city shantytowns. 25% of the population of the entire country live there in an area over 2000 square kilometres. Over 25 million people in one huge concentration. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world vying with Tokyo for the title of Megalopolis number one. It’s noisy all the time. It’s filthy. Poorest air quality anywhere. It lies in a bowl surrounded by hills that trap and hold in all the carbon monoxide and other heavy gases. When it gets too bad they send the kids home from school. They tried to reduce air pollution by banning cars with odd/even number plates on consecutive days but people just bought more cars with the different license plate so they could drive any day they chose. Mexico City – sounds good eh?

Our problem; we were back in Puebla, back with our beloved bikes, now with expired import permits (permisos) and stern warnings not to drive without the correct paperwork or the bikes would be liable to permanent confiscation. You can get new permisos but only at the frontier provided you, the vehicle owner, turn up with the bike and its registration documents. The nearest border was 1000km away so we had a Catch 22 situation – we had to take the bikes to the border to renew the permits but we couldn’t drive them there as they had expired permisos. It was a dilemma that annoyed us for the whole year when we were in Belfast and repeated emails with the Mexican authorities failed to resolve the issue to any real degree of clarification. We did gain a contact number for the Aduanas in Mexico City but according to the above stories and legends we didn’t want to go there! The key to the problem was a document called a ‘Retorno Seguro’, a transit permit allowing us 5 days to get to the frontier where we could then either cancel our expired permisos and leave the country or renew them to stay. Permisos are only issued at the borders and Retorno Seguros are only issued in Mexico City. So a trip into dangerland was on the cards. In the event it was a fantastic journey.

We were both filled with more than a little apprehension as we took the bus from Puebla to Mexico City Airport (leaving most of our valuables in Puebla) and then a ‘secure’ taxi from the airport into the historic centre, where we found the amiable Hotel Rioja on Avenida Cinco de Mayo, a main drag linking the Zocalo with the Parque Alameda. It was noisy; it was dirty but no more so than any other big city. The hotel room was cosy with a little balcony view of the proceedings in the street below. We dumped our bags and took a walk on a sunny afternoon – way to sunny to get mugged – isn’t it? Judging from the numbers of tourist police around, they were doing something to clamp down on the street crime, at least during the daytime and we soon relaxed and settled into the easy pace of life around the Zocalo, one of the biggest city squares anywhere in the world. Over the weekend it was full of performing artists including the spectacular Concheras – ‘shell’ dancers attired in splendid Aztec garb of Jaguar skins and bird feathers all dancing to a chest-felt drum-line beat from tall bongos thumped by drum masters equally resplendent in gold and silver chest ornamentations, enhanced by eagle feathers and ferocious birdman head masks. The dancers sported wrist and ankle bands covered in bells made from conch shells as well as various rattles and janglers that combined with the drum beat to create a mesmerising syncopation. Multiply this noise by the 4 or 5 dance troupes performing around the Zocalo all set against the backdrop of the Catedral Metropolitana and the Palacio Nacional and you had a very colourful scene indeed.

By Sunday we still hadn’t been mugged and a real treat awaited. The Palacio Nacional is host to a series of huge wall murals painted by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. If you come to Mexico at all, come here first and take a guided tour of the murals – it’s a must. They depict the story of Mexico from pre-Aztec times, through Spanish colonisation into independence and the wars fought with the US (remember the Alamo!) and France and on into the 1910 Zapatista revolution. The murals are quite simply stunning. They are some of the most vibrant and colourful works of art we have ever seen. The main mural on the stairway up to the first floor has over 1000 characters on it and took Diego over 6 years to paint. He was trying to tie all the roots of Mexican culture and civilisation – Aztec, Olmec, Spanish, European and American – into the one unified nation that is Mexico today. Smaller murals around the Palacio courtyard show various aspects of Aztec life – gold work, dyeing materials, farming & fishing etc. Our guide was a colourful character himself; Señor Castro could have just stepped out of one of the murals himself. To be honest without our guide we would probably have uttered a few wows and moved on quickly past the murals without really gaining any appreciation of what they were about. Tiny eyes glistened and beamed at us from behind gold-rimmed glasses and his droopy grey moustache partly hid a mischievous grin as he opened his tour with a few one-liners about his relationship with the more famous ‘Uncle’ Castro the Cuban. His knowledge of the details the paintings was impeccable and he had us totally enthralled as he proceeded to unravel the details of each of the individual murals, pointing out the various self-portraits of Diego himself within the murals, which also included depictions of Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s 3rd wife. Diego Rivera is a fascinating character. He first came to our attention in the recent movie ‘Frida’ which tells the story of the turbulent relationship between Diego and his 3rd wife Frida Kahlo. It is a superb movie – beautifully filmed and a story well told. Diego was a socialist and he was one of the main instigators of Social Artistry in the interwar years. He painted huge murals with hundreds of characters in them depicting aspects of Mexican and human history. One of his most famous works was titled ‘Man – Controller of the Universe’. It was commissioned in the early 1930’s for the Rockefeller Centre in New York and is a huge tableau depicting an astronaut type figure sat in a chair with buttons and levers on its arms from which he controls the universe. It shows advances in medicine, science, industry and technology all emanating from this central figure in the driving seat. However the backgrounds are the most interesting aspects of the picture. On one side it shows youth with learning and education all tying in to create progress. Behind this are depictions of Marx and Lenin as forefathers of the great way forward, showing eager youth the way ahead through social revolution. On the other side are depictions of the 1929 New York Food Riots with the NYPD baton-charging starving workers. In the background are the capitalists, including Rockefeller himself, shown leading corrupt and opulent lifestyles. Rivera was an atheist and he constantly denounced the church establishment in his murals, showing priests slavering over prostitutes and other worldly possessions. So here they are hand in hand with the capitalists, milking the produce of the hard working people for their own ends. Industry can be seen creating armaments for future wars and the mural is incredible as it depicts a domed city skyline silhouetted by a burning red sky with fleets of bomber aircraft overhead, predicting the horrors of aerial warfare to come in WW2. The mural also alludes to the splitting of the atom years before this was done. It is a fantastic piece of art, regardless of its politics. Rivera was a comfortable socialist – he mingled in affluent left-wing art circles, which included people like Trotsky then on exile in Mexico before Stalinist agents assassinated him there in the early 1930’s. The Rockefeller Mural was originally painted en-situ in New York, in private before a public unveiling. When Rockefeller saw it he went ballistic! This guy had the audacity to paint goddamn commies dong saintly deeds right in the foyer of the Rockefeller Plaza at the very heart of capitalism!!! They pleaded with Rivera to change it but he refused and so it was destroyed. Rivera returned to Mexico where he re-created it in the Palacio de Bellas Artes and where you can see it today.

Come Monday morning we were ready to tackle the Aduanas. The city was decidedly quiet after the weekend – we decided if you are coming here it’s got to be on a weekend. At the Aduanas, it all took about 20 minutes and we still hadn’t been mugged! We produced all the paperwork required. It was copied and we walked out with our 5-day transit permits. No fuss, no cost. Just kind, sympathetic, polite people doing their job and helping us through their customs procedures. We took the bus back to Puebla having spent a totally relaxing weekend in a place where by all accounts this should not have been the case. We loved Mexico City and the historic centre is easily the most impressive Latin American city centre we visited. Don’t miss it!

Back in Puebla everything was ready for the road once more and here we must stop for a while to both declare a great big thank-you to Joaquin de Uriarte, our Mexican friend, who so graciously took us in when we had problems and had to get home last September. The crows-feet around Joaquin’s eyes are there not through any ageing effect, but are statements that this guy likes to smile a lot. He is a man who makes light of the world and is clearly enjoying his time here. He refuses to take life seriously and we could not have had a better guide in our times through troubled waters. At his home, we took the Mexican greeting ‘Mi casa es su casa’ (my home is your home) literally and never once felt like strangers with his family and friends. Our bikes were well cared for and he helped us prepare them once more for the road ahead. Thank you Joaquin. We can never repay your kindness. From Puebla, Joaquin guided us out onto the road to Veracruz and we stopped outside town to say a final farewell. Then we were back in the saddle and headed north to the coast, from where we planned to ride up the Caribbean coast to the US border at Matamoros / Brownsville. The toll road from Puebla to Veracruz was expensive and once again we felt we were riding with a hole in our wallet. Bikes pay the same rate as cars and it cost 626 pesos to cover less than 200 miles – that’s $62 or over £30. To put it in perspective, this is the same as we pay in road tax in the UK for 6 months! Fortunately there were few tolls on the quieter roads on from Veracruz to Matamoros. The ride along the Caribbean was quiet and mostly uninteresting. One area – the Costa Esmerelda did offer some lovely palm fringed sea views and the opportunity to eat some amazing seafood – but otherwise it was a quiet uneventful ride and we appreciated the opportunity to settle into touring mode again, getting used to life on the bikes after our 12 month absence. The last 100 miles into Matamoros itself saw the terrain turn from pretty rolling hill country to flat boring farmland, vast tracts of it with ramrod straight roads that had us yearning for an auto pilot or even a train to take us across them quickly.

Matamoros was a lively place and we knew from the strip malls and abundant US chain stores that we were near the border. The town centre is quite beautiful with a quaint plaza and we had the good fortune to stumble across the Hotel Colonial, probably the best hotel we stayed in all of Mexico. We met the owner, Francisco Galvan, a Harley rider and an ever so friendly and helpful guy who made us feel ever so welcome in our short stay at his hotel. Also worthy of a mention is the Café Bar Aroma, just round the corner from the hotel, specialising in a strange combination of French – Mexican cuisine that was absolutely superb. If you are a US reader and have always fancied a trip south of the border but are maybe intimidated by all the silly stories of Mexican Banditos etc then we’d suggest coming to Matamoros for a gentle exposure to Mexico – it’s a lovely place and not too unlike home. The border out was ever so easy. In less than half an hour we had finally cancelled our expired permisos and were on our way across the Rio Grande to Texas, USA. We had decided that instead of renewing the permisos and returning to Mexico immediately, we would make a short tour of Southwest Texas. We felt in need of a little vacation after our hassled past year at home and chances are we may never come this way again. So Texas here we come…

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