Some words, said in the same breath, fit comfortably together like a long-standing married couple and have a smooth sound as they roll off your tongue. "Bread and butter", "knife and fork", "peace and love".... Not so "Mexico City" and "cycling". When said, the speaker has the vague idea that he or she has forced two incompatible concepts to rub shoulders together. Let's be honest, when you say "Mexico City", the idea of cycling is not the first thought that comes to your mind, is it? It probably wouldn't even make the Top 100. "Armoured car" would probably beat it. Yet I've discovered that bicycles CAN be ridden in this city and cycling can be tons of fun.... if you choose your time and place carefully.
Just over a year ago, with my birthday speeding up on the calendar, Josep asked me what I wanted for a present. "Are you sure you want to hear this?" I cautioned him. "A mountain bike!" Funny enough, the mention of a two-wheeler didn't even faze him. He knows me too well. "Ok. But you'll just have to be careful in this traffic!"
I didn't want a bike to ride in the traffic. That would probably be the most painful, life-threatening activity I could take up at this moment in time. Who wants to have the life choked out of them in the deathly python-like embrace of Mexico City's savage traffic? Or suffer lead poisoning from breakfasting and lunching on the obnoxious fumes spouted centimetres from your face? No, my idea was to pedal through the enormous wooded Bosque de Chapultepec in the middle of the city and renew my contact with nature on a weekly basis. And have the run of the Centro Histórico to myself without being threatened by motorised vehicles on Sunday mornings. This is when certain roads in the centre are off-limits to cars, buses, taxis and trucks and from 8 am to 2 pm become the rightful kingdom of cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, skaters and pedestrians, out to enjoy their city in a healthier way. With more than 20 kms of cycling routes to be enjoyed every week, who can blame them. What's more, on the last Sunday of the month, a Ciclotón is held with an extra 32-km route to pedal around. Last month, 42,000 cyclists participated, some of them using Ecobicis, Mexico City's shared biking system which has become very popular in the two years it's been around.
My brand new bike arrived at the end of January 2011, just over a year ago. I went for a quick ride around the nearby streets to check it out and to my delight, discovered that my Yaris, small on the outside but remarkably big inside, could comfortably hold me, a passenger, my bike in the back and even Ozzy! I wouldn't have to cycle downhill all the way to the centre and, better still, all the way uphill home. I could drive down to Polanco, park, take out my bike and get pedalling.
The following Sunday I got up early and made my way down to where it was all happening with my brand new bike. Dozens of cyclists were already sprinting up and down between El Ángel and the Alameda. It seemed strangely exhilarating to be cycling in the middle of the road where I normally get stuck in snarled-up traffic. A group of cyclists of all ages, riding bikes in all stages of evolution, were pedalling in a determined kind of way so I joined them. We sped past all the monuments and sights I had only seen from a car or on foot and were soon shuddering over the cobbles of the Centro Histórico where whole streetfuls of colonial churches and old buildings looked more like sinking ships floundering in a concrete sea. Leaning at odd angles, they are literally subsiding into the former lake-bed that the city is built on.
Before I knew it, I saw signs to the Airport. What were we doing right over here?, I began to wonder. That's when I realised I had inadvertently joined the Ciclotón and would be cycling right around the long route. I didn't even have a bottle of water on me. My cell phone came in handy and about half-way around the city, when the high-rise buildings of Reforma had become mere pins on the horizon, I phoned my family. "Um, I'll be back a little bit later than I originally thought..... NO, everything's fine. The bike's great! Actually, I've gone halfway around the Ciclotón route.... No, I hadn't planned to do it. I just got carried along and before I knew it, it was too late to turn back.... No, I'm not sure what time I'll arrive back. By the way, I can see the skyscrapers in Santa Fe a long long long way off in the distance." That first ride was an eye-opener, and 32 kms later, I arrived back at El Ángel in a flurry of wheels, dogs and music along with several thousand more participants. My bike had just done its first long urban ride on its maiden voyage.
Ever since then, I've spent early Saturday mornings cycling around Chapultepec Park when it is almost devoid of any human chatter and Sunday mornings exploring the Centro Histórico. I go on my own, with my camera, and have never felt unsafe. Thanks to my bicycle, I've discovered a side to Mexico City that most people don't see or even know about. A quiet, cyclable version of this mega city.
I'll let my bike show you the sights from its point of view. I'd better warn you now that it likes to be in all of the photos!
Around the Zócalo
In the Zócalo, looking towards the Catedral Metropolitano and the huge flag that often flies there.
Two of the hundreds of policemen you can see all around the city. I think they were amused to see us there.
The Palacio Nacional lines one side of the Zócalo and there are some very interesting murals by Diego Rivera inside which you can see free-of-charge. Unfortunately, they don't allow bicycles inside.
The symbol of Mexico City in tiles... an eagle with a snake in its mouth perching on top of a cactus....an interesting legend.
Looking through the arches at the Cathedral.
Around the streets of the Centro Histórico
Riding down one of the old streets in the Centro Histórico lined with old colonial buildings.
There are still loads of VW Beetles everwhere in the city.
There are so many churches in the Centro Histórico that it's hard to remember all their names!
I'm glad I've got a mountain bike as it makes it easier to ride down the cobbled streets.
Another mottled Beetle which has been repainted several times.
We came across this church one day, freshly painted.
Two of the many taxis which make cycling so hazardous in the old centre. It's best to keep out of their way!
A lot of the buildings in the Centro Histórico are made from volcanic rock like this one.
The walls and tower of this church lean different ways.
There are fountains everywhere. The small chapel behind is sinking down in the ground like many old buildings around here.
The Arcades of the Scribes, in Plaza Santo Domingo, where people still go to get letters written for them.
A small chapel in Plaza Santo Domingo.
The blue-and-white tiled walls of the Casa de Azulejos, a mansion built in the 16th Century, but now a Sanborns shop. It's also a good place to have breakfast or lunch.
This isn't a scene from a science fiction movie, with roots springing up all over the place and taking over the city. It's a new public exhibit by Rivelino, called "Raices" or "Roots" designed to provoke reflection about the nation's past. These white roots are outside the Museo Nacional de Arte.
One of thousands of colonial-style buildings in the Centro Histórico.
Around the Alameda
One of Mexico City's most elegant buildings, the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was built in 1934 and is the city's main theatre and cultural centre.
Looking up at the Torre Latinoamericano, 188 metres high, and once the highest building in Mexico City. It became doubly famous when it withstood the big earthquake in 1985.
Looking towards the cupula of the Palacio de Bellas Artes from near the Casa de Azulejos.
The beautiful Palacio de Correos building (Post Office) which is spectacular inside.
A trolley bus passes by.
The Hemiciclo a Juárez is a monument in honour of Benito Juárez, ex-president of Mexico.
Contrast between the old and new in Plaza Juarez.
Stopping outside the Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia, a tought-provoking museum with exhibits about the Holocaust and other genocides, and cultural diversity.
Old historic buildings surrounded by modern buildings.
The Alameda is a leafy park which during the day fills with market stalls.
At this centre, you can learn some of the indigenous languages, like Náhuatl which was the language of the Aztecs.
This monument in the Plaza de la Solidaridad conmemorates the victims of the tragic 1985 earthquake, on the site where many people lost their lives when the Hotel Regis collapsed.
Looking towards the church of San Juan de Dios from the Alameda Park.
The colonial-style church towers
The silhouette of the Torre Latinoamericana in the distance seen through the spokes.
Along Paseo de la Reforma
El Caballito, the famous yellow horse of Mexico City, was designed by Mexican sculptor, Sebastián and I recently discovered that it also serves as a chimney!
Riding along the special cycle lanes down Paseo de la Reforma.
This is the Loteria Nacional building which they had just re-painted.
There are often military parades at the bottom of the Monumento a la Revolución on Sunday mornings.
Christopher Columbus watches over the traffic in Paseo de la Reforma.
Doing an impersonation of the statue.
Cuauhtémoc ("Swooping Eagle") was the Aztec ruler of the city when it was called Tenochtitlan. Today he stands in the middle of the traffic and modern buildings.
Some feline creatures at the bottom of Cuautémoc's statue along with an inscription reading, "In memory of Quautemoc and his warriors who battled heroically in defence of their country" against the Spanish.
The tall thin modern building housing the Stock Exchange.
El Ángel de la Independencia is one of the most famous landmarks in Mexico City. Originally there were just nine steps leading up to the base but another 14 were added due to the sinking down of the ground. The Angel is made of bronze, covered in 24k gold.
El Ángel was built to commemorate the centennial of Mexico's War of Independence and it was later made into a mausoleum for the most important heroes of that war.
There are some very interesting benches along Paseo de la Reforma, like this one. Another one looks like two giant sofas!
One morning we went to see the Alebrijes set up along Reforma.
The Ecobici bikes, Mexico City's shared biking system. They've been around for two years now and have been so successful that more routes and stations will be set up in other areas too.
La Fuente de Diana la Cazadora with the Torre Mayor behind. Until 2010, this skyscraper was the tallest building in Latin America, with 55 floors.
In Part 2 - Photos around Chapultepec Park.