A Travellerspoint blog

March 2012

Condesa, Mexico City's colourful bohemian quarter

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The first few times you walk or cycle around the colonia of Condesa, it has a way of bewildering you. Firstly, you can't help feeling that you're in some kind of small town which surpises you with its somewhat European-plus-Mexican flavour and its wide leafy streets lined with Art Deco architecture. Surely you can't be in the middle of that mighty megapolis called Mexico City? Something isn't quite right. Its airy pavement cafés, potpurri of ethnic restaurants, thickly vegetated parks, hip boutiques and its air of decadence and distinctly bohemian feel may convince you that DF has its own type of Parisian Latin Quarter.

Secondly, if you find yourself going round and round in circles, don't worry. Calle Amsterdam follows the oval layout of the area's former horse racetrack (Hipodromo in Spanish) which only adds to your confusion. Keep going and you'll eventually land back up where you started. Down the centre of this street runs a leafy, bike-friendly, walkway while the street on either side is flanked by restaurants, cafés and boutiques. Despite this, Condesa is essentially a residential area and definitely one of Mexico City's most charming, character-filled colonias.

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Map showing the oval layout of Calle Amsterdam, former horse racetrack

La Condesa (meaning "Countess" and named after the Countess of Miravalle who owned this land and the former racetrack) dates back to the beginning of the 20th Century, hence the profusion of Art Deco and Art Nouveau-style buildings. It was home to many artistic middle and upper-class residents and foreigners, including Askenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Spanish refugees fleeing from the Spanish Civil War. In the 1970s, the younger generations began to leave Condesa for other more fashionable areas. The 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, which severely damaged the neighbouring Roma district, hastened the continuing process of abandonment as residents began to move out to more up-market areas like Polanco. With prices falling and attracted by its unusual architecture, a new type of resident moved in: young businessmen, artists, musicians and others. Restaurants began to open, and chairs and tables which were set out on the pavements became an instant success with the city's mild climate. Today, it's a more relaxed community with its own pace of life, featuring the bright colours of Mexico in a bohemian setting. And a lively night life scene.

Central to this district are the two parks, Parque México and Parque España, which are not only the vital lungs of this area but an essential part of its character. In fact, this is probably the colonia with the most trees, the most dogs and maybe even the most eating places. All in all, it's a great place to wander around or have a coffee or meal, with surprises down most streets and some quirky finds waiting to be discovered on most visits. Street art, amusing posters, dogs in stripy jumpers, roundabouts with fountains, ancient vehicles which look as if they haven't been moved since I was born, colour-drenched buildings, original doors and windows with wrought-iron railings... you won't get bored. I would just love to get rid of all the ugly tangles of black spaghetti everywhere, supposedly electric wires, which disfigure the streets and façades and threaten to behead tourists on the open-topped Turibus as it passes through.

Snapshots of Condesa

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Leafy streets

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Bright colours

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One of the many pavement cafés

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Colourful façade

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Tables set outside

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Dog training in Parque México

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Wall art

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Coffee, food, books and live music at El Péndulo

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Typical architectural features

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A man relaxing in Parque México

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Blue and red

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The Green Corner

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Blue is a popular colour

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A fancy doorway

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Life-sized animals climbing up the side of a building

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Crêperie de la Paix with Calvin Klein underwear advert above

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Decorated façade

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Eco-bicis, Mexico City's bike-sharing scheme

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Ducks on the pond

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Car leftover from the last century

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Eye-catching colour scheme

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Exercising in the park

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Purple building in Calle Tampico

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Amusing sign: "Pedestrians have preference... preferably alive, please!"

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A waiter waiting for some customers

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"Anyone for breakfast?"

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Looking inside a café-bar

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Two men in suits by their red VW Beetle

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Lake and fountain in the park

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Adding a touch of colour to a drab building

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Wallace Whisky Bar - with over 500 gallons of whisky in stock!

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Detail of multi-coloured old trolley bus

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Old car outside the Hotel Condesa DF - notice the key to wind it up with!

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Another old Japanese trolley bus converted into a place to eat - with rooftop terrace included! The staircase is made of skateboards and the railings on the top with old bicycles

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Mague pasteleria and café

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Ferns peeping through window railings

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Handwritten sign saying: "Please don't destroy my leaves. They provide the city with oxygen. Thank you."

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Mexican colours

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Vegetarian food

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Still don't know what this large figure is on top of this building

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Ornate windows

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All-blue café

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Cool shady park with water

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Artwork on a house

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Beautiful gardens and flowers

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Different coloured houses

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A bit of grafitti

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Large mansion in Calle Durango

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Sign seen outside a restaurant

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Early morning in Parque México

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Mexican food at La Flautería

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Literary centre

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He won't get bored with so many magazines to read!

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Wide street in Condesa

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A whole building used as an advertisement

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A health food shop

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Interesting sign seen in a shop window

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Boutique in one of the streets

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Bright red building

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Artwork by a petrol station

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Another popular colour combination - red and blue

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Hanging trumpet flowers

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An old delivery truck

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Not walking the dogs, but taking them for a ride

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Relaxing by a fountain

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Iglesia de Santa Rosa de Lima in Condesa

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Priest outside the church

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Nuns at their stall and woman selling artichokes

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Matching colours

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Lombardi restaurant - I suppose the wine bottles are empty?

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"Transform your world
Transform your city
Transform yourself
Don't throw litter."

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Small balcony

Posted by margaretm 05:13 Archived in Mexico Comments (11)

Hiking up to see the Monarch butterflies

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Monarch butterfly

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A couple of weeks ago, a group of us went to see the amazing sight of millions of Monarch butterflies wintering in the high-altitude forests near Valle de Bravo. These tiny fragile creatures are about to set off again on their long journey back up to the USA and Canada. They usually fly down in the fall, arriving in the mountain ranges near Mexico City at the beginning of November and stay until March. So impressive is this feat of nature that in 2008 UNESCO designated a mountainous area in the states of Michoacán and Estado de México as a World Heritage Site to protect the butterflies and their migration. We wanted to see them before they flew off again.

Our trip to the Valle de Bravo took a bit longer than expected with severe difficulties extracting ourselves from the traffic on the way out of DF, adding an extra one and a half hours to our anticipated journey time. We finally arrived at the Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary near Valle de Bravo, relishing the thought of getting out of the microbus and being in the fresh mountain air, far from the 3 big "Cs" of the city - concrete, congestion and contamination.

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The volcano Nevado de Toluca, Mexico's fourth highest mountain

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Countryside near Valle de Bravo

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The Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site

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The entrance fee helps conserve the butterfly sanctuary and gives work to local people

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Horses waiting to carry people up the mountain

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Some small huts at the site

Five of us decided to sweat our way along the steep dusty path making its way up the mountainside, while the rest borrowed an extra four legs to help them up, riding horseback. Our legs and lungs were stretched by the climb and the rarefied air and we found ourselves surrounded by thick vegetation and trees soaring high into the sky around us. Red, blue, yellow and white flowers dotted the path and as we climbed up, we began to see our first Monarchs resting on bushes at the side or in the tree branches overhead. Near the top, Jaime, our guide, led us to a small clearing at the edge of the steep hillside and there behind him, was a mass of orangey-coloured trees. Hundreds of thousands of butterflies had congregated in huge clumps on the branches while thousands more were flitting around in the clear mountain sky above us.

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It's more fun when there are two of you!

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A group of schoolchildren coming down singing

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Looking up at the tall trees

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Hiking up the mountainside

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Lots of moss covering the tree trunks

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Some of the wildflowers we saw along the way

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The horses wait near the top to bring the people down again

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Beautiful chestnut-coloured horse

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A lone butterfly soaking up the sun's warmth

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Thick vegetation

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We began to see more and more butterflies as we climbed higher

Jaime picked up two dead butterflies, one male and the other female, to show us the differences and told us their story, how they navigate their way down to Mexico and return. This is one of nature's most spectacular feats, a journey of thousands of kilometers, in which special butterflies four generations later are able to make their way to the very trees in Mexico where their great-grandparents had spent the winter the year before. We sat in silence, watching the mariposas monarca and listening to the wings of thousands, maybe millions, of butterflies beating together. It was an awesome moment.

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Looking towards the trees in the distance covered in butterflies

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The trees turn an orangey colour

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Huge clumps of butterflies

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Jaime, our guide, explaining the differences between the male and female butterflies

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The air was full of monarchs fluttering around in the sunshine

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Sunbathing on a branch

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Not orange flowers, but butterflies

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Me with the heavily-laden trees behind

I had visited the Butterfly Sanctuary in Angangueo, Michoacán, in December 2010 (see my blog post "The long way down - an epic journey" of 9th December 2011) at the beginning of their wintering season and now here I was mesmerised by the hundreds of beautiful orangey-black creatures flitting around in the warm spring sunshine over my head. They were fattening themselves up ready for the long journey back. It was time to say goodbye to them... and wish them well on their way. The next lot of Monarchs will be arriving here around the beginning of November, when Mexicans celebraet the Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. According to a traditional belief, the monarchs are the souls of ancestors who are returning to earth for their annual visit. They must be welcomed and treated with great care.

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The air was thick with orange smudges

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Observing a monarch flying overhead

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How many butterflies on these branches, I wonder?

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Enjoying the sunshine

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Thick vegetation

It was far easier coming down the mountain on foot than on horseback judging by the sound of some of the riders' voices and we all met at the bottom for lunch and to buy a few souvenirs handmade by Mazahua ladies, an essential and much-needed source of income for these poor communities. Stray dogs with cute faces waited patiently for the crumbs of our sandwiches and then it was time to leave these beautiful forests and fresh mountain air and get back home. Back to city life.

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Going back to get the horses

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Walking down through the trees

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All the guides are trained and know all about the butterflies

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Pottery souvenirs

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Monarch butterfly fridge magnets

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A Mazahua lady embroidering

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This little dog was hoping to get some crumbs from us

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Blue skies behind the truck

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On our way back, we passed a field of nopales or edible cactus plants

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One of the many churches we passed along the way

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Big fluffy clouds over the mountains

Posted by margaretm 05:28 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains nature hiking mexico_city outdoors butterflies Comments (5)

Reeling from an earthquake

Mexico City shakes again

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Earthquake damage to the train lines in DF (Photo taken from El Universal)

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That's the thing about earthquakes. You can't predict them or really get ready for them. You wake up in the morning and it never crosses your mind that there might be a strong earth tremor a bit later on. It just happens and takes you by surprise.

And that's what happened on Tuesday, 20th March, at mid-day, 12:02 to be exact. I was up in Santa Fe shopping, pushing the trolley down the aisle to get some cartons of milk and juice when, all of a sudden, some small cartons started jumping off the shelf and landing on the floor. The man just in front of me leapt out of the way a bit taken aback and then I saw the entire fully-stacked shelf moving. "Those shelf-stackers on the other side are getting a bit rough!" was my first thought. You see, I'm not really an expert at earthquake detection and therefore the idea that it could have been a terremoto didn't make the top 10 probable causes for kamikaze juice cartons, at least not at that moment. But then I noticed that the shelves were shaking more violently, not just back and forth, but a bit like a wave. People started looking up and pointing to the lights overhead which were swinging crazily and by now the ground was shaking noticeably. I felt a bit queasy and dizzy.

A voice was calling us to evacuate the building in an orderly fashion and I have to say that I was impressed. No-one was screaming or running. We all left our shopping trolleys half- or quarter-full right where they were and made our way out outside. Most of the customers and staff were trying to use their phones but of course the lines were down. I didn't even try. My cell phone had run out of tiempo aire, as they say here, and I was waiting to get to the cash desk to top it up. Messages started popping up on my cell phone three hours later. "Did you feel it?" "Are you OK?" By then, it was all over.

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People evacuated from the supermarket in Santa Fe

Later, when we were informed that we could go back inside, I decided that if there were any replicas, they probably wouldn't be as strong as the main one so I was probably safe. Others obviously didn't think the same. I saw quite a few shopping trolleys marooned in the middle of the supermercado, abandoned to their fate. With my shopping done, I went down to my car. Finding yourself in the bowels of a building in semi-darkness, underneath tons of shelving and products and customers which could crush the breath out of you in an instant, is not a particularly pleasant experience when you've just been shaken up by a temblor. The lady parked by me had her escape plan all worked out. Her trolley literally flew down between the parked cars, she emptied the food into the car boot with a speed reserved only for someone whose life depended on it, and screeched off up the ramp into the distance in search of a safer location.

It took me one hour to get home which gave me plenty of time to hear the news on the radio. There had been a strong earthquake, 7.4 in magnitude, sending shockwaves over most of southern Mexico. By yesterday afternoon, 56 replicas registering magnitudes of between 4 and 5.3 had been felt. And amazingly, Mexico City had survived with surprisingly little damage and no lives lost. It was the strongest terremoto since the tragic one in 1985 (see my blog post "The earth quakes in Mexico City" of 12 December 2011) which is still uppermost in many people's minds when the ground beneath them begins to shake. Along with thousands of other people, I was stuck in my car in a massive traffic jam, watching how skyscrapers and office blocks had coughed out hundreds of people onto the pavements and streets outside. An hour later, some buildings remained empty as the aftershocks continued. No-one wants to be trapped on the 13th floor in such circumstances.

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Stuck in the traffic jam inside the tunnel

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People standing outside the buildings in Santa Fe

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A couple of the tall buildings which resisted the earthquake well

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Workers outside the offices

The end balance was that Mexico City got off lightly. The city has definitely learned from the tragedy in 1985. New buildings may sway a lot but are now built to withstand shocks of up to almost 9 on the Richter scale and the population regularly has simulacros to remind them of what to do in the event of a quake. However, in the states of Guerrero (where the epicentre was located) and Oaxaca over 30,000 houses were damaged and the people are still reeling from the sismo which took them by surprise on Tuesday.

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People outside in Paseo de la Reforma

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A microbus was flattened by a concrete bridge. Fortunately it was empty except for the driver who was slightly injured.

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Side view of the microbus

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Damage to a bridge

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A transformer crushes a taxi

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A road sign fallen down

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The headlines on Wednesday 21st March

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El Universal newspaper

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The following photos taken from the newspaper show some of the damage in the state of Guerrero, S. Mexico

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Posted by margaretm 07:23 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico_city earthquake Comments (4)

The Basilica de Guadalupe, mirror of Mexican faith

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The old and new Basilicas

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Last Sunday, I decided to cycle up to the Basílica de Guadalupe in the north of Mexico City. This is Latin America's most important Catholic shrine and the second most visited one in the world after the Vatican. Millions of pilgrims arrive here every year, especially on December 12th which is the Feast Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

I guessed it would be better to visit it when it wasn't so packed so I left early in the morning and pedalled up there, arriving just after 8 o'clock to find that others had beat me to it. They allowed me to wheel my bike into the complex but as I didn't have a chain to lock it up, it accompanied me everywhere on my visit. This meant I couldn't go inside any of the buildings or up to the top of Teyepac Hill so I'll have to wait till another day to do that.

I read somewhere that the Virgen de Guadalupe is the symbol of a unified Mexican identity and that certainly is backed up by the people I saw at the Basilica. Old and young, families and youths, people from all walks of life... they were all rubbing shoulders together. I could easily pick out the city-ites from the villagers and the country folk. Groups of indigenous people dressed in colourful outfits brought splashes of colour to the scene. Among the crowd were well-dressed men in suits, tramps, the healthy and happy, the sick and infirm, some in wheelchairs, contrite souls approaching painfully on their knees, others in a holiday mood. They were all represented. In fact, in general, there was a festive atmosphere and it seemed like los fieles were out on a family excursion.

The Plaza Mariana is huge, big enough to squeeze in 50,000 pilgrims and 10,000 can fit in the new Basilica. Everywhere I looked I saw churches, chapels, shrines, monuments and statues, so many it was hard to count them. A unique Mexican combination of faith and superstition filled the air. Images, candles, flowers, wishing wells, good fortune birds, blessing modules... a bit of everything to keep everyone happy, I suppose.

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Approaching the Atrio de las Americas, more popularly known as La Villa, now clear of stalls after the area was remodelled. Straight ahead is the Old Basilica with its yellow domes.

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Construction of the Old Basilica began in 1531 and wasn't completed until 1709. It was slowing sinking down into the soft ground and became too dangerous to use so a new basilica was built. The old one was closed for many years but is now re-opened following repairs to shore it up and make it safe. To its right is the Templo de Capuchinos, initially a convent for Capuchin nuns and then used as a hospital before becoming a parish church in 1929.

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The New Basilica is a spectacular bold design, built by Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, who was also responsible for the Aztec Stadium and the Museo Nacional de Antropología. It is a circular building to allow for maximum visibility of the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe inside. The Basilica can hold up to 10,000 people and has nine chapels.

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The whole complex is huge

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A big poster welcoming the Pope to Mexico when he comes to Guanajuato later in the month.

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A devoted Catholic approaching the Basilica on his knees.

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A floral representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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A bronze statue of Pope John Paul II who beatified Juan Diego, the Indian to whom the Virgen appeared.

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A priest standing at one of the doors.

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A view inside the Basilica where you can see the original image of the Virgen de Guadalupe hanging up behind the crucifix. Moving walkways transport visitors past the image helping to avoid agglomerations.

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The decorative designs on the doors.

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Looking up at the windows above.

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People waiting to go inside.

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A group of boys from the state of Puebla dressed in special clothes.

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Proud of his outfit

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Two boys show me their clothes

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Detail of the Virgen de Guadalupe embroidered by his mother

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This boy's aunt embroidered a cross and heart

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Pilgrims gather outside the new Basilica

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This shrine attracts people from all walks of life.

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An indigenous lady wears a specially embroidered shawl

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Waiting to go inside the church

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The Carrillón, a kind of modern bell-tower, has bells that ring every hour and four different ways of telling time. There is a modern clock, an astronomical clock, a sun dial and an Aztec calendar clock with 18 months of 20 days. It is said to resemble a pre-Hispanic god, but is also in the shape of a huge cross.

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The Templo del Pocito (Little Well) was built on the site where the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego at a spring.

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A statue showing Juan Diego opening his cloak with roses tumbling out and the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe miraculously impressed on the garment.

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The Capilla de Juramentos where people wanting to give up smoking, drinking, drugs and other vices come to take an oath promising not to do these things for a certain length of time.

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Small monument to the Fourth Apparition of the Virgin to Juan Diego, where the Parroquia de los Indios stands.

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The Templo del Pocito

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The blue and white tiles on the Templo de Pocito, a Baroque-style church

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Visitors enjoying the gardens and ponds

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Statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe in her blue cloak

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Aztecs and Indians worshipping the Virgen de Guadalupe

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A lady throwing a coin into the waters and making a wish

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The Good fortune man with his small birds who pick out a little piece of paper with your fortune on it.

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By-standers watching the small orange bird telling their fortune

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A place to have your photograph taken on a horse wearing a Mexican cloth and a mariachi hat, along with the Virgen de Guadalupe and the Pope!

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A skyline of colourful church domes

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A group of dancers performing in the Plaza

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Young dancer learning the steps

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An energetic dance accompanied by drum beats

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A general view of the plaza

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A girl on her knees

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Stalls outside selling religious articles

If you want more information on the Basilica de Guadalupe and the Virgen de Guadalupe, you can read my blog post "Squeezing 7 million pilgrims into DF" of 14 December 2011.

The following blog posts by Lynda Martinez del Campo are also excellent readable explanations of Mexico's most important shrine:
http://mexicanmuseumsandmavens.wordpress.com/category/religious/.

Posted by margaretm 07:54 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches religion shrine faith mexico_city indigenous catholic Comments (0)

Early morning at the lake

Birds and mist

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Early this morning, as I was walking by the lake, I was reminded that even in the heart of an enormous congested city, wildlife and nature live side by side with concrete and traffic. It was a stunning sight this morning. As the sun's rays began to tickle the sleepy lake awake, the mist was clinging to the water and refusing to let go, and the birds were preparing for a new day, preening their feathers, singing, catching the first rays of the sun. Great egrets, grackles, ducks, coots and moorhens were my company this morning.

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Cyclists and runners getting exercise

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Ducks preening their feathers

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"Brrr... I need a bit of sunshine to warm up"

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"That's better..."

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"Who's that sneaking up behind me?"

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"Mmm, maybe I should move to the island over there."

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"Off we go!"

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"Good, some more sun!"

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"Wakey wakey, everyone!"

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"Romeo, Romeo..."

Posted by margaretm 11:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged birds lake sunrise mist early_morning Comments (3)

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