Back to Bedlam - Mexico City and Michoacan, Mexico

Wed, Jan 16, 2008 7-minute read

In case you were wondering, one of the hardest parts of writing this blog, is picking a good title for each post. I’m absolutely aware that the title of this post shares the same name as British warbler James Blunt’s first album, which is unfortunate at the very least. However, as I prepared to venture back to Mexico and in to Mexico City, I was equally aware of the reputation of the city - absolutely enormous, jam packed full of people and chaotic beyond imagination. Bedlam seems like a good word to describe my expectation. As it turns out, however, it is not an apt moniker nor is the reputation particularly deserved.

Yes, the city is gigantic and yes, it sprawls endlessly, with some of the thickest traffic I have ever witnessed. But for the mostpart, it’s a well organised chaos that is a cynch to navigate. The metro system is the best I have ever used, far better than New York City or even Barcelona. It’s a flat rate of 2 pesos (around 10 pence / 20 US cents) for any journey and the trains run frequently (to such an extent that “on-time” would be meaningless, as you never have to wait more than a couple of minutes.) The Zacalo is the center of the city and where you would reasonably expect to find the hub of activity. And up until 2000 or so every day, that’s absolutely true - the street market is massive[^1] - with street after street selling every imaginable product. The various types of product cluster together - clothes, food, wedding dresses - such that you can walk an entire block and see 20 different stalls selling, moreorless, the same thing. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is how determined the various vendors are to make a sale by means of to how low you can bargain the price. (In the end, I opted not to buy the wedding dress, despite the bueno precio I was promised.)

The ability to bargain and haggle is a valuable skill that any traveller needs to acquire. With the exception perhaps of a restaurant menu, virtually any price is up for negotiation. The locals here are no mugs and see a couple of gringos coming a mile away. Taxis, accomodation and especially street goods are all valid items for discussion and you can be assured that the first price you hear will be ridiculously inflated, that they will never sell you something for less they can afford, and despite any haggling, you’ll likely still pay over the odds. In this case, it’s important to maintain a sense of value, that is, provided you pay the amount that the item is worth to you, a price that represents good value to you, then you won’t go far wrong. Never feel bad about haggling over the price and never feel like you might offend them with a low offer as it is simply the way things are done. And the strongest weapon in your arsenal is always the “I’m not interested hand wave” combined with the “I ain’t bovvered walkaway” - if they want to sell it to you then they will chase you - at which point you have them over a barrel. If you’re genuinely not interested, then it’s best to avoid engaging them in the first place as a determined street vendor is often hard to shake off.

There is plenty for the tourist to do, the usual selection of beautiful colonial buildings, the Cathedral, governmental buildings and perhaps the most unexpected - an ice rink. Evidence of Mexico sinking is everywhere - pavements are twisted and buckled and formerly horizontal stone work now slope in a variety of directions. It’s a peculiar phenomenon which is sure to only get worse over time.

During the day, the police presence in Mexico City is inescapable. Two or three cops are stationed on virtually every corner of every street, with more standing outside the bigger shops and hordes of them in popular areas such as the Cathedral. The police wage bill here must be a Mexico City part of the national economy. All of them are armoured up to the max, ranging from jumpsuits, stab vests and handguns to full body armour and semi-automatic machine guns. Fully laden vans of police roam about the streets endlessly. Come 2000, the center of Mexico City is a totally different place. All the stalls are dismantled and taken away, metal shutters adorning the front of shops are slammed shut and padlocked and the streets become starved of people, save for the ubiquitous police, of course, whom if anything, multiply yet further in number. Bars and restaurants are generally shut by 2100 and apart from the odd 7/11, there is little going on. I haven’t been able to work out why this is the case and nobody I’ve asked knows why either. Even sat in a fantastic Mexican bar (in a plaza out of the Zacalo where thankfully it is possible to get a drink past 2100) where the tequila was flowing and where we were receiving some of the best Mexican hospitality yet, the local men who have lived here all their lives were at a loss to explain it.

The obvious suggestion is crime and the inordinate number of police must serve as an almost heavy-handed preventative measure. If that is the case, then the initiative must be working, as I’ve yet to witness anything unbecoming of a large capital city that is eager to entice tourist money in to their coffers. With that said, the police presence is at times overbearing and since there is so little for them to do, they often seem to be used as nothing more than glorified tourist information for directions to nearby attractions. Tourist information, that is, with guns[^2].

I hooked up with my Cancun and Tulum travel buddy Steve. Considering his dwindling time left in Mexico, we elected to head out of the city. Our collective guidebooks recommended a visit to the Michoacan province, foremost for the attraction of colonies of migrating Monarch butterflies. The region is around 3 hours to the east of Mexico City and indications were that we should aim for Morelia, where we expected to find a small town as a suitable jumping off point for the various sanctuaries. If you get a chance to travel by coach in Mexico, then the carrier of choice is unquestionably ETN. I’ve never experienced anything like it before - it’s a full-sized coach which has no more than 30 seats (as opposed to 50 or 60 ordinarily.) The seats recline to near enough horizontal which enough leg room to swing a moderately sized feline. Complimentary snacks are provided, the toilets put long distance aircrafts to shame and the air conditioned comfort was augmented by a personal entertainment system, with 3 radio channels and a selection of films. Although it might seem a peculiar thing to get excited about, any amount of time on a coach is never a great deal of fun, yet this single trip did wonders to dispel the myth that backpackers must be forced to endure hours of cramped torture in overcrowded chicken buses.

Morelia itself is a big metropolitan city which seems to have escaped the clutches of tourism. In the day and a half we were there, we encountered no more than half a dozen other Western tourists, yet the place was vibrant and alive, well in to the night. There is one main plaza, with a Cathedral and botanical gardens, lined with bars and restaurants. It’s an expensive place to stay - no hostels - and only mid to upper range hotels are available. Albeit with awesome TVs on a switch.

But it’s a beautiful city set in the lower ranges of the generally mountainous state, so the backdrops are beautiful, and a massive contrast to Mexico City. Had it not been so expensive[^3], we might have stayed longer, but we were off in search of the butterflies, which meant yet another change of location, to the small town of Zitacuaro, about 1.5 hours north.


[^1] I’m running out of superlatives for “big.” Maybe I should invent a new one - if something is gigantic / enormous / huge, then it’s “absolutely Mexico City
[^2] “Guns, lots of guns. Also, I think knives are a good idea. Big, fuck-off shiny ones.” Name that film… answers in the comments, please.
[^3] Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. A double hotel room split between two people is only a few more dollars than a room in a hostel. But we had slightly misjudged the location of Morelia in relation to the butterflies, and the timing of the whole shindig meant we needed to get closer to the action.

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