A Travellerspoint blog

November 2011

Mexico shivers

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Kids playing in the snow in the Ajusco area, close to Mexico City (Photo: Jorge Alvarado)

Winter has made an early entrance.... Despite it still being November, Cold Front Nº 15 sent temperatures plummeting to below zero yesterday and today. Contrary to what many people think, winter can be very cold in Mexico. Ask the people who live in the State of Durango, further north in Mexico. Yesterday they suffered temperatures of -22 °C in a place called Santa Bárbara and -18º in Guanacevi. In Zacatecas they reached -13 °C.

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Kids warming up at school in Guanacevi in temperatures of -18 °C (Photo: Rosa Esperanza Gaucín)

Although here in Mexico City the cold has been more moderate, temperatures have dropped to below zero and snow fell yesterday in the Ajusco region. The volcanoes around the city have turned white too. Brrrrr... we got out our jumpers and scarves and gloves to walk to catch the school bus this morning at 6.30 am. As I walked Ozzy, I passed the two guards who stand outside a house in Reforma. They were stamping their feet. They greeted me with a cheerful, "¿Cómo estás?" and I commented something about the cold. What about them? They spent all night sitting in the car, freezing. It reminded me of those cold winters in England. Yet at midday, temperatures soared to 20 °C. Just to warm us up a bit.

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The two volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl, with snow (Photo: Fernando Ramirez)

Griselda came down from Cuajimalpa today wearing several thick jumpers. Actually, she lives even further out, on the way to La Marquesa, alone with her four children. She said it was freezing up there. Their small rented place has no heating and frost and ice are quite common. According to her, this year and last year the cold weather came much earlier than usual. We sat and warmed ourselves up with steaming cups of tea and coffee. She thinks it's quite warm down here. I can't imagine what it's like for so many people like her.

How thankful I am for warm clothing, heating and hot water. Yes, even in Mexico it gets cold.

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The volcano, Nevado de Toluca, not far from Mexico City, covered with snow (Photo: Ramon Chiu)

Posted by margaretm 18:26 Archived in Mexico Tagged snow winter mexico weather Comments (0)

Feathers, mantras and vibes in the park

Yesterday the woods of Chapultepec were abuzz with vibrations. I discovered they came from a couple of events I had no idea were going to happen there.

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I stumbled on the first one just after I started my early morning cycle ride in Chapultepec Park. An insistent throbbing of drums sent the low-frequency wavelength receptors of my eardrums vibrating. A bit further on, the distinctive smell of incense, wafting in white wisps in the air, began to tickle my nose and clog up my throat. Following the drum beats and aromas, I found they were coming from Los Baños de Moctezuma. Although they are called Moctezuma's Baths, they were actually built in the 15th Century by a rather interesting ruler-poet-architect-designer-warrior with an intimidating-looking name to prounounce, Nezahualcoyotl, who was as well known for his poetry as for his aqueducts and water systems. Apparently, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma enjoyed swimming in this pool, hence the name. Recently, the pool has been restored but kept waterless. Shame.

Anyway, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to investigate. I wasn't the only one. A Mexican cyclist, an older man on a rather rickety contraption, motioned excitedly for me to bring my bike up to where he was. I got off and carried it up some steps and looked down over the low wall. There, congregated around the dry pool was a group of people, some of whom were dressed as Aztec dancers, sporting visually impressive headdresses with long feathers. Others were in robes. "Es un ritual Azteca muy antiguo", the cyclist informed me. An ancient Aztec ritual. "What is it called?" I asked him. He shook his head and said he didn't know the name.

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The group congregating around Los Baños de Moctezuma

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Many were wearing feather headdresses and robes

By now the participants had encircled the Baños de Moctezuma and had fallen silent as one of the men began to speak. "Gracias por venir. Estamos aqui para celebrar el ritual de ...". He was thanking them for coming to celebrate this ritual. I couldn't quite hear the name but I'm sure it began with an "X" like so many Mexican names around here. "Es un ritual Azteca muy antiguo...", one they have been celebrating for over 1200 years (or maybe it was 1500 years... I couldn't quite catch the number either). At this point, the Mexican cyclist picked up his bicycle, and pushed it down into the enclosure, propping it up by the gate. He beckoned me to do the same. Seeing his enthusiasm, I could hardly refuse.

The ceremonial leader continued talking about fuego (fire) and paz (peace) and some other things. He thanked the abuelo and abuela (the old man and woman standing nearby) for coming and representing the elders with their wisdom and knowledge. Then it was time to blow the conchas or large seashells. Anyone who had a musical instrument also began playing. Plaintive notes emerged from a flute, whistles blew out different animal sounds, a long stick with seeds inside rushed like a waterfall, and of course, a series of drums provided a background rhythm. Those who had small bowls with incense stoked the embers, releasing clouds of white smoke, and held them up.

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The abuelo and abuela

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Blowing the concha

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Girl holding incense and whistle

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Drummers

I watched on, fascinated by this unusual group. Some were obviously Mexican, others seemed to be New Age participants tagging along, and there were also a few normally-attired people. The ritual involved raising their hands and incense burners in the four directions and chanting something. Then from the opposite side of the pool a very loud, life-like jaguar growl caught me unawares and I looked around, half-expecting a wild spotted feline creature to appear out of the woods. The jaguar has long been a symbol of power and strength in pre-Hispanic cultures and, in Aztec civilisations, represents rulers and warriors. Next they repeated the action looking towards heaven and then bowed down towards the earth. When the ritual had finished, the abuela led the group out of the Baños de Moctezuma and I watched as they wound their way through the trees, accoumpanied by the very deep boom of a huge drum which one man carried on his shoulder. A second man walked behind with the drumsticks, beating rhythmically. A group of four or five young Aztec dancers with seed pods shaking around their ankles followed on solemnly while a youngster carried a banner proclaiming they were the Dancers of Teotihuacán.

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Performing the ancient ritual

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Bowing down to the ground

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Leaving Los Baños de Moctezuma

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Striding off into the park

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Man wearing typical huichol clothes and hat

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Banner of the Teotihuacán dancers

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Drum carried on shoulder with the man beating it from behind

Off I cycled to the other end of the park and this time was intrigued to hear strains of a musical mantra being loud-speakered out to the whole park. At the Fuente de Nezahualcoyotl, I came across "Xicome, la primera festival de musica sanadora" (the 1st Festival of Healing Music). Enveloped in more incense, gurus, spiritual leaders, yoga practisers, New Age participants... sat on mats in front of the giant statue of Nezahualcoyotl, and with one hand held up, eyes closed, scarves over their heads, were singing a slow mantra of eight notes, hundreds of times over. In fact, over an hour later, I could still hear the same song being broadcast to the four corners of the park and outside. Three television cameras were set up, as were offerings and incense. One of the workers came over to me and gave me a leaflet and invited me to take part in their workshops and other activities. They were here to bring peace and light to Mexico, and experience harmony with Mother Earth and nature.

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Xicome Festival teepee

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Chanting mantras and music in front of the large statue of Nezahualcoyotl

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Man preparing fire

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Corn cobs spread out at the base of a tree

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Decorating an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe

After sitting on the edge of the fountain for a while, I left in search of my own peace and quiet. I stopped in the middle of the woods, propped my bike up against a tree and soon my friends, the squirrels, came scampering over to me. This time I'd remembered to bring them some small nuts and I was soon surrounded by a group of small, twitching creatures who darted around me, scrabbled up and down the trees and chattered away in their squirrel language of tackatackatacka. One in particular became very bold and, taking a nut from my hand, sat on my leg, crunching it. Others investigated my bike and did acrobatics along the handlebars. Now THIS is peace and harmony with nature, I thought to myself.

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My bicycle in the middle of the wood

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A squirrel taking a nut from my hand

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Friendly squirrel sitting on my leg

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A curious squirrel checking out my bicycle

Just then, the ceremonial ritual group passed along the nearby path, piping and drumming and incensing the trees, the woods and nature. The squirrels stopped dead in their tracks for a minute, then scampered up the trees for a better viewpoint. The spell had been broken. I realised it was time to get going.

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Ceremonial group passing nearby

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Walking through the park

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Making their way around Chapultepec

I cycled back to Polanco, thinking about what I'd seen that morning. I don't know about the others but I'd definitely felt some good vibes and peace while playing with the squirrels in their habitat.

Posted by margaretm 06:00 Archived in Mexico Tagged nature indians events tradition cycling mexico_city aztec squirrels ceremonies rituals chapultepec_park Comments (0)

Exploring Cuernavaca, "City of Eternal Spring"

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Chapel of the Tercera Orden

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One of the places I'd been hoping to visit one day was Cuernavaca, a city 85 kms (53 miles) south of Mexico City, so when I heard Lynda Martinez was organising a trip there, I signed up straightaway. A comment of hers got me raring to go: "You are going to go crazy with your camera there!" And that's exactly what happened.... I'll let my photos tell the story of our day out.

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We drove to Cuernavaca along the excellent D-95 highway, passing lots of wooded areas. The original name of the city in Nahuatl was Cuauhnáhuac (which looks a mouthful but is more or less pronounced "Kwownáwac") meaning "surrounded by or close to trees", but since the Spanish conquistadores couldn't pronounce it, they named the city Cuernavaca. The volcano Popocatépetl lies quite close too.

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At this point, we passed into the State of Morelos. Cuernavaca is the capital and largest city of Morelos and now has a population of more than 600,000.

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A sign seen as we came down into the city. This place is famous for its Revolutionary fighters, especially Emiliano Zapata who was born in Morelos, but was also where the Aztec Emperors and Spanish rulers had their summer palaces. Wealthy residents of Mexico City built mansions here due to the pleasant climate. Today many foreigners come here to learn Spanish.

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Our first stop was at the fortified Palacio de Cortés, built by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1526 on the site of a former Aztec pyramid, to be used as his residence and administrative offices. It is the oldest civil building still standing in New Spain, with battlements and thick walls. Apparently it has also been a warehouse, a prison, military barracks and a State Government Palace. Today it is a museum recounting the history of the Sate of Morelos and Mexico.

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Lynda giving us a few explanations before we went in. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were very few people around.

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Arches at the back and front of the museum give wonderful views of the surrounding city.

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Some of the pre-Hispanic exhibits

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When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, among other animals, they brought the horse.

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In the inner courtyard you can see some of the pre-Hispanic remains

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An Aztec codex with the names of different towns and villages using symbols.

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View of Cuernavaca Cathedral from the museum

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The Palacio de Cortés also has some interesting murals painted by Diego Rivera which narrate the history of the Conquest and the Revolution.

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Section of the mural - on the left you can see the sugar cane production at the haciendas, set up by the Spanish.

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Looking down over the square outside. As it was mid-week, it was very quiet. Weekends are particularly busy when many people come from Mexico City to enjoy clear skies and a smaller city!

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Our coffee stop where Lynda began to tell us a bit of background information about the next place we were about to visit.

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As we walked to the next place, we saw colourful buildings and trees everywhere.

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A peppermint green building

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With its sunny tropical climate, Cuernavaca is famous for its luxuriant vegetation and flora.

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Our second visit was to the Robert Brady Museum, a real feast for the eyes!

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Robert Brady was an American artist from Iowa, who settled here in Cuernavaca in 1962. He spent his life collecting art and other artifacts from all around the world and when he died in 1986, he bequeathed his house to the city as long as they didn't change anything.

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The entrance to the museum-house, Casa de la Torre, left exactly as when Brady lived in it.

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The colours, decoration and collections are exquisite... you can tell he was an artist!

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The house and its grounds were originally part of the Franciscan monastery and back onto the walled Cathedral.

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Lynda, our guide, in pink and the other five girls on the tour

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A tastefully-decorated sitting room

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Brady had bright cushions everywhere in the house

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One of his collections of masks

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The beautiful garden and pool

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A shady porch area seen from the dining room

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The bright cheerful kitchen

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Brady's bedroom

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A yellow-coloured sitting room with an original painting by Frida Kahlo on the walls

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The so-called "Oriental Room" for guests

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A group picture outside in the gardens

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View of the street outside with brightly coloured buildings

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We passed a school where there were lots of vendors waiting to sell food to the children when they came out

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A big red building opposite the Cathedral

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Our third visit was to Cuernava's Cathedral complex, a fortified walled compound enclosing the main Cathedral and three other chapels, one at each corner. In the middle of the atrium are beautiful gardens and shady walkways.

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Sign which reads: "Cathedral of Cuernavaca. Founded by Franciscan monks in the 16th Century. Begun in 1529. Finished in 1552. Named "La Asunción de Maria". The frescos on the side walls of the nave depict the martyrdom of the Mexican saint Philip of Jesus. It became the Cathedral Of Cuernavaca in 1891."

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Beautiful flowering trees in the gardens

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The Cathedral, once the Monastery of La Asunción, was the fifth monastery/church in New Spain. It was built by Hernán Cortés to double up as a fortress.

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Getting some interesting perspectives!

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Lynda telling our group about the Cathedral at the bottom of the tower

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An unusual feature is the "Open Chapel" or Capilla Abierta, one of the oldest parts, where they could say mass for hundreds of natives who were accustomed to worshipping outdoors, never inside.

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The enormous buttresses of the "Open Chapel"

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The top part of the tower was rebuilt after being toppled by an earthquake in 1882.

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One of the wooden doors

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The interior of the Cathedral underwent several restoration and renovation processes

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Frescos along the side walls, discovered during the renovation work in the 1960s, depicting the martyrdom of St Philip of Jesus in Japan.

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Learning about the history of this Cathedral

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Looking out towards the gardens

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The interior is now fairly modern

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More frescos on the other side wall

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The pink and white façade of the Chapel of the Tercera Orden, standing inside the walled compound

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Side view of the chapel, with its concave façade, built in 1694.

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Detail of the figures on the façade

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The very ornate gold altar, quite a surprise for such a small chapel

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A quiet place for explanations

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Another chapel, the Chapel of Santa Cruz, with a different architectural style, also in the grounds

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We had a quick look around the rather bare inside.

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Looking out towards the Chapel of the Tercera Orden standing opposite this chapel and right next to the main entrance,

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More church buildings can be seen up the street

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There are many gardens in the City of Eternal Spring, nickname given to Cuernavaca by Alexander von Humboldt, the German explorer and naturalist in the 19th Century.

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Heading back towards Mexico City, along the pine-forested highway.

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We went past lots of fields with hay drying in the sun

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The open skies are much clearer here, something missing from DF - a picturesque way to end our very interesting tour.

Now I'm looking forward to the next trip to Cuernavaca to discover a bit more about this city and visit its markets!

Posted by margaretm 04:04 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches museums history mexico trips colours colonial cuernavaca pre-hispanic Comments (1)

The rustle of autumn

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Autumn has arrived in Mexico City. You can see it, hear it, smell it. The Master Artist has got out his palette again, like every year, and has started adding touches of gold and copper and, in places, a few brushstrokes of fiery red to the normally homogenous green foliage. The dull concrete pavements have become mosaics, with leaf-patterned carpets.

Early Saturday morning I clearly saw otoño, heard it, smelled it, felt it as I cycled through the woods in Chapultepec. Russet-coloured carpets had been rolled out under the trees. Park benches sat ankle deep in drifts of fallen leaves. One by one, or in twos and threes, tired leaves tumbled and twirled silently down from above me, unable to cling to the branches any longer. It felt like an autumnal snowfall, with leaves instead of flakes. They joined the crisp, crinkly rug under my wheels, producing a crackling soundtrack to my ride. Small squirrels scampered around collecting nuts and berries, just in case no-one feeds them this winter, highly improbable with the sheer number of visitors to the park, but they don't know that. Autumn fruit dangled and gleamed on trees and bushes, shiny blue and red. I half expected to smell wood fires and roast chestnuts. Yes, autumn is here.

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Carpets of leaves

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Autumn colours

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Benches ankle deep in leaves

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Bright-coloured leaves

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A squirrel out foraging for food

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Red berries

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Early morning by one of the lakes in Chapultepec Park

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Boat on the lake

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Reflection of trees and rocks in lake

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A squirrel with a nut in its mouth

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Dark blue berries

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Cycling through rustling leaves

There's a crisp chill in the early mornings that wasn't there before. My breath emerges like a whitened ghost, or maybe it's Jack Frost who's been in hiding since last year. As I cycle through the clumps of trees, my eye is drawn to the sight of a few golden leaves still dangling from almost bare branches. They catch a ray of sunlight and look like tear-shaped drops of amber, about to drip down on the ground. The needles on the huge ahuehuetes or Montezuma cypresses, whose crowns disappear far above me, are changing colour before my eyes. It's a lovely time to be out, enjoying nature's display in the heart of this city. I'm grateful that even chilangos, residents of Mexico City, can appreciate the changing seasons around them.

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Yellow foliage

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Autumn reds

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One of the lakes in Chapultepec Park

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Reflection of tree in water

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Coloured needles of the Montezuma cypress

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Brushstrokes of fiery red

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Cycling in Chapultepec Park

Elsewhere, the sound of pavements being swept accompanies autumnal days. Swish, swish, swish. Some streets are swept clean, probably several times a day. The leaves barely get a chance to land when they are whisked off and packed down in bags. In other streets, drifts of dry leaves clog up under cars and crumble when you walk over them on the paving. A good autumnal wind is rare but the other day, it blew and dumped centimetres of crispy hojas secas everywhere. A downpour stripped the trees a little more. Now in the mornings woolly hats and gloves are sometimes seen. Although it warms up during the day, this city sprawls in a high-altitude basin and early morning hours at 2300 m (7500 ft) can be chilly. Ten days ago, temperatures sunk to 2 °C (36 °F).

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Pavement covered in leaves

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Crinkly, dry leaves

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Morning light turns leaves bright red

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Dry flower head

Yes, autumn is definitely here. The Mexican pear tree in our back garden is beginning its transformation from green to bright red and orange and the street outside is carpeted with weary leaves. Even Mexico City gets a colourful face-lift for a few short weeks.

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Leaves on our pear tree turning bright red

Posted by margaretm 05:57 Archived in Mexico Tagged nature autumn colours mexico_city squirrels chapultepec_park Comments (0)

Silent statues and colourful beasts in the Zócalo

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Mexico City's Zócalo, the enormous public square in the heart of its Centro Histórico, is rarely empty. When it isn't the venue for celebrations, political rallies, protest marches or other events, it's showcasing sculptures or hosting fairs. And at Christmas it turns into a huge winter sports arena with the world's largest ice-skating rink, among other things.

Lately, over the past two weeks, it has housed a series of sculptures called Nuestros Silencios ("Our Silences"), by the Mexican sculptor Rivelino, which have circled the globe over the last two years, visiting cities such as London, Madrid, Brussels, Paris, Shanghai, Moscow.... The exhibition consists of 10 giant figures cast in bronze and a Tactile Box specially for the blind which contains four smaller replicas inside which can be felt by putting your hands through two small holes. These giant sculptures were installed in the centre of the Zócalo on the 26th October and will be standing there in silence until the 18th November.

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The exhibition "Nuestros Silencios" is installed in a circle around the flagpole in the centre of the Zócalo

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People visiting the exhibition

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Each of the 10 giant figures is cast in bronze and has tactile decorations on it

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A side view

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People queueing to experience the Tactile Box

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One of the big figures

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Looking towards the Palacio Nacional

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The day I went, there was a group of schoolchildren performing Aztec dances in the square

For a week or so, these giant figures were joined by the alebrije creatures who were moved from Paseo de la Reforma to make room for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. The creatures clearly enjoyed having more space to move around in and the visitors were able to observe them from every angle. Here's a bird's eye view and a worm's view of them!

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Looking down on the Zócalo

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Latin America's largest cathedral, la Catedral Metropolitana, stands on one side of the square

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The group of 10 bronze figures making up the exhibition, Nuestros Silencios, seen from above

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The enormous square with the colourful alebrijes dotted around it

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Looking down on one of the alebrijes

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One of the creatures threatening the Cathedral

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Looking the Cathedral square in the eye

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Looks like this alebrije is drinking through a straw!

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Detail of mermaids... one has been eating a bit more than the other?

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Is it a slide?

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A swooping bird

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A dragon-like creature with the Palacio Nacional in the background

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A brightly coloured feline creature with a snake in its mouth

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Looking down towards the Torre Latino

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A defiant prehistoric monster?

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Lots of tongues

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Three-headed creature

Posted by margaretm 13:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged sculptures down mexico_city zocalo looking alebrijes Comments (0)

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