Chapultepec (which means Grasshopper Hill in nahuatl) is one of my favourite places for cycling, even though I've never seen any grasshoppers around, at least not yet. Frankly, I don't know what Mexico City would do without this enormous park, its much-needed lungs, which from the air looks like a vast green landlocked sea surrounded by buildings. Asphyxiate itself, I suppose. But it's more than just a mega clump of trees pumping oxygen into the air and helping us breathe. With over 686 hectares or 1,600 acres, (either way, that's an enormous green area inside a city), it's the largest urban park in Latin America and it's got a bit of everything. Thick wooded areas, lakes, bird life, monuments, nine museums, picnic tables, food stalls, restuarants, fountains, a zoo, a funfair, and the only royal castle in the Americas. Not all together, of course, but spread out. The Bosque de Chapultepec, as it's known here, is divided into three sections. The first one, where I do most of my cycling, is the oldest and most visited. A big chunk of it is fenced-in behind wrought-iron fences and gates, off-limits to vehicles and dogs, and is shut at night.
Part of Section 1 of Chapultepec Park seen from the plane. You can see the Museo Nacional de Antropología in the bottom left corner, Chapultepec Lake in the centre and the Castle to the right.
Trees everywhere.. looking towards Polanco from the hill where the Castle stands
Chapultepec Park has at least a hundred different faces. At different times of the day and depending on the day of the week, it can be uninhabited except for the squirrels, ducks and birds, or awash with families picknicking or boating on the lakes. It also has a thousand hidden corners, waiting to surprise you. My favourite time to visit is early on Saturday morning. This is when I like to go cycling there. When it's just me and the squirrels and rustling trees. When I can hear the water splashing in the fountains, and the lakes are like mirrors. When the soft light begins to tinge the upper layers of the wood a warm colour and solid shafts beam down through the trees to wake up the dark forest floor. It's a magical time. Early in the morning, it's easy to forget you're in one of the largest, most-populated cities on this planet. In fact, if anyone were to remind you of that fact, you'd most likely think they were hatching a far-fetched tale to see how gullible you were. It's so spotlessly clean there couldn't possibly have been anyone around the day before.
I arrive on my two wheels to discover other like-minded souls, cycling, running, or striding purposely. Some early-risers have brought their mats, find one of the those shafts of light beaming down and set about doing their yoga exercises there, enlightened. I've also seen tree-huggers, absorbing energy I suppose. And small, multi-aged groups practising martial arts. Even grandmas in curlers and baggy tracksuits, jogging along healthily. There's always so much to see. The colours of the leaves change before my eyes, the flowers rub their eyes, yawn and open up. Dewdrops like sparkling diamond necklaces adorn the bamboo thickets. Squirrels scamper around or hang upside down, motionless, on the tree trunks by their long fingernails.
As I cycle around, the park slowly begins to stir and wake up. Vendors start setting up their stalls, candyfloss sellers whip up bright pink, purple or blue clouds of the fluffy stuff, and I can smell the sweetness in the air as I ride past. A few wisps escape and waft away in the sky. The ice-man pedals around with mammoth-sized ice blocks on his tricycle, cutting it into half-metre-long lumps for his clients to put with their refrescos to keep them cold. When the crowds arrive, they are going to need sustenance. They come in their thousands, whole families, youngsters, older people. This park belongs to the chilangos, the residents of Mexico City. They come here to breathe, find shade, have fun, wander around, forget they live in the middle of so much concrete and traffic. Few foreign visitors see much of this place except for when they go on their cultural visits to the museums and castle. And maybe a boat ride.
But anyway, I will be long gone by the time everyone arrives. The secret to having Chapultepec all to myself is getting there early... and leaving early.
Join me and my bike in a photographic tour of one of our early-morning cycles around Chapultepec
We start off in Polanco, after parking the car free-of-charge, and set off for the Monumento a Gandhi by Parque Gandhi, an area specially laid out for doing sport.
Next we cross over Calzada Mahatma Gandhi and pedal through the woods, which are usually empty early in the morning...
...except maybe for some squirrels and people walking their dogs.
We come to the contemporary art museum, Museo de Rufino Tamayo, hidden among the trees.
After that, we head for the tall blue pole which towers above us, just opposite the Museo de Antropología. This is where you can see the Voladores de Papantla "flying" at certain times during the day. (See my blog post Flying men of 26 May 2011)
We cycle on to the Museo Nacional de Antropología, which contains the world's largest collection of ancient Mexican art and exhibits about Mexico's indigenous groups. You can easily spend days there and still not see everything. This massive monolith my bike is in front of weighs 168 tons, and is a representation of Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god. Apparently, it lay for centuries in a dry stream bed 50 km from Mexico City until it was brought here in 1964 on a specially made trailer which crossed through the city at night. 25,000 people were waiting in the Zócalo for it to arrive and welcomed it with a big fiesta.
Here we stop to look at three giant head sculptures lying in front of the museum, the work of Mexican artist, Javier Marin.
You can see also this poster outside, inviting you to come and watch the Ballet Folklórico de México in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It reminds me that I must go one day, but it will have to be an excursion without my bike.
If it's March-April, many jacaranda trees are in bloom along this stretch, turning the area a beautiful purple colour.
Next we cross over to the central part of Paseo de la Reforma, and stop to take our photo at the famous Alas de la Ciudad (Wings of the city), also by Javier Marin.
Opposite the Wings are some more interesting sculptures by Javier Marin.
We have plenty of time to look at all the winged statues displayed down the centre of Reforma.
Some Sunday mornings, Paseo de la Reforma is closed off to traffic for marathons and other races and we can cycle down it with no traffic to be seen, like today.
This isn't a language school, but the Museo de Arte Moderno, also located in Chapultepec, worth a visit especially if you enjoy modern art.
Next we come to the Jardin Botánico which has a small cactus garden.
On the same side of Reforma is an interesting outdoor gallery, with a series of large photographs which changes every couple of months. It's an interesting way to find out a lot about Mexico and other places as you drive, walk or cycle along. Yes, sometimes the traffic is so thick you have lots of time to look out of your car window and learn new things.
This one was a series of photos showing the marine wildlife of Mexico, with stunning colours.
The current series is on Mexican dance and ballet.
We enter the gates of Chapultepec Park near the Librería Porrúa, a glass-walled bookshop, in keeping with the tree-filled park. It has a couple of trees inside, whose branches protude through the wall and ceiling. No cars are allowed in this part of the park. We cycle past the Lago de Chapultepec, calm and peaceful at this time in the morning. Later on, it will be filled with hundreds of people boating and having picnics.
The buildings of Polanco can be seen in the background.
Very close by is another lake which is where they stage the outdoor ballet El Lago de los Cisnes (Swan Lake) in February and March. This event, famous here in DF, is into its 36th year. Last Saturday, we watched them setting up the scenery and stage.
A white swan on the lake. The green colour of the water is due to the algae.
We then pedal through the picnic area near this lake.
Soon, many stalls along the paths will be opening, ready to sell food, snacks, souvenirs etc. All is quiet at the moment, though.
We come across some candyfloss sellers preparing for the day ahead, making the bright blue, pink and purple candyfloss.
One of the oldest trees in the park, this ahuehuete or Montezuma cypress, El Viejo del Agua, is over 500 years and must have seen many things in its lifetime. My bike is dwarfed by it.
We cycle on towards the Castle, looking up at it perched on top of Chapultepec Hill. Emperor Maximilian I lived here with his wife Carlota during the Second Mexican Empire in 1864. It is also famous for being the only royal castle in the Americas.
The castle looks down on the Monumento a los Niños Heroes de Chapultepec, honouring the six young Mexican cadets who died defending the castle during the war between Mexico and the United States, in 1847.
A bit further along, on the way down towards El Ángel, we come to the base of the Estela de Luz which was recently inaugurated in January 2012. It was supposed to be ready in time to commemorate the Bicentenial of Independence in September 2010 but was only finished last month. Costing far more than originally planned and dogged by corruption, maybe it should change its name to Monumento a la Corrupción...
This is the view when looking down from the Estela de Luz towards the Monumento a los Niños Heroes and the Castle.
We turn back towards the Castle and then skirt it to the left, coming to another old tree, known as El Sargento.
Just around the corner, tucked out of sight is an unusual place, the Audiorama, where you can listen to music surrounded by nature in a beautiful peaceful setting. Each day they have different music playing. Of course, there is no music playing at this time in the morning or we would stop here for a while.
This side of the park is quieter, without any market stalls, and is a lovely place to cycle through in the autumn.
Next we pedal along till we come to this fountain, visited by squirrels. I sometimes watch them drink from the water.
Inside the park, there are lots of paths and trails to cycle along. For runners or cyclists wishing to do exercise, there is a 3-km circular route complete with signs telling you how many metres you've done...and how far you still have to go!
A bit further along are the Baños de Moctezuma where the Aztec ruler and Emperor Maximilian used to swim. They were restored last year although there is no water in the baths now.
We turn off the road and take a path cutting through the middle of the park where we come across a statue of Don Quijote.
The park has some water channels in this part and is very peaceful on Saturday mornings.
The paths are well-kept and easy to cycle along, although you can go off through the woods whenever you want.
As we cycle around the park, we can see some unusual trees like this one, with a huge base. Names and hearts have been carved into the bark.
Nearby is an area for kids which also has some interesting facts about Mexico and its history. Did you know that chewing gum, chicle in Spanish, comes from the sap of a Mexican tree called chicozapote?
We pedal through the woods and watch the early morning light beaming down through the trees. It really doesn't feel like we're in the middle of one of the world's largest cities.
Here we stop for a while and watch the squirrels scampering around and some even come up close to investigate.
As we head down towards the far end of the park, we arrive at the Totem Pole donated to the Mexican people by Canada in 1960.
Cycling on, we soon see the imposing statue of Nezahualcoyotl, ruler and poet and nature-lover, who preserved the large wooded areas of Chapultepec and its springs, made pools in the rocks, planted flowers, introduced animal species into the forest and ordered the construction of a zoo and botanical garden. No wonder they've honoured him with this statue and enormous system of fountains.
Here's the long line of fountains, the perfect place to come when it gets hot.
Water gushes out of the mouth of a wolf-like creature.
All around are colourful displays of flowers.
Green and shady, just what you need when cycling in the heat.
Here we turn back up towards the main walkway and come to the so-called Frog Fountain or the Fuente de las Ranas where I often see groups of people practising martial arts early on Saturday.
By now the stalls are beginning to open and get ready for the crowds of people.
We turn left and arrive at the zoo, a favourite place for families, and completely free-of-charge
This is the largest zoo in Mexico. (See my blog post If animals could talk... of 17 October 2011)
A bit further on, we leave through the park gates and cycle along the wide pavement bordering Reforma until we arrive at the Auditorio Nacional, a large concert complex.
We cycle back down the centre of Reforma. Around the time of Dia de Muertos, in October and November, the flower beds are planted with thousands of orange cempasuchils. This statue is near the military complex at Campo Marte.
Finally, we cross over the other side to the Museo de Antropologia again. Part of it is surrounded by a metal fence respresenting calaveras or skulls. We make our way around the back part towards Calzado Gandhi again.
Crossing over this street, we find ourselves in part of Parque Gandhi with trees and a running track. It is a popular place to walk dogs and I've even seen people practising bull fighting. One man holds some metal horns and charges, while the other one waves his red cape. There's never a dull moment around here.
To end our route, we make our way back to Polanco to where we've parked the car. There used to be a big advertisement along the way and my bike always wanted to stop there. I think I know where it wants to go some day!
And a last photo to show you what the park is like at the weekends during the day!