A Travellerspoint blog

Early morning at the lake

Birds and mist


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.

Cyclists and runners getting exercise

Ducks preening their feathers

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

"That's better..."

"Who's that sneaking up behind me?"

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

"Off we go!"

"Good, some more sun!"

"Wakey wakey, everyone!"

"Romeo, Romeo..."

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

10 random things about Mexico City

1. Mexico City is sinking

Mexico City's Cathedral has been sinking unevenly.

When it was founded by the Aztecs in 1325, the city, then called Tenochtitlán, was built on an island in the middle of a lake. Then the Spaniards arrived on the scene, conquered the Aztecs in 1521 and started draining the lake to control the floods. One flood in 1629 left the city underwater for five years! Since then the waters of the lake have more or less disappeared and the reservoirs underground providing water for modern-day Mexico City are constantly being depleted as the population continues to expand. As a result, the city is sinking down into the soft former lake bed at a rate of between 8-37 cm (5-14 inches) a year.

If you thought Venice was sinking fast, Mexico City está hundiendo even faster. Between 1950 and 1980, it sank down 5 metres (16 feet). When the famous monument, the Ángel de la Independencia, was built in 1910, it only had 9 steps at the base but another 14 have been added since then as the ground around it has sunk down. As you walk around the old parts of the city, you can see colonial buildings visibly leaning over or well below road level, balconies at odd angles and cracked walls or pavements. The Metropolitan Cathedral still looks askew despite the restoration project undertaken. By 1989, the heavier bell-tower end had sunk almost 3 metres (8 ft) deeper than the rear part and the eastern tower had subsided 1 metre (3 ft) more than the western one. Inch by inch and year by year, engineers repositioned a church that weighs more than 127,000 tons and is more than 400 feet long. Since excavation work began in 1993, the entire cathedral has been ratcheted more than 1 metre (3 ft) toward level, nearly half the distance it had settled askew

2. It has more museums than any other city in the world

Tickets to some of Mexico City's museums

There are more than 160 museums in Mexico City, ranging from the enormous Museo Nacional de Antropología to some very tiny or obscure ones, including museums dedicated to Caricatures, Mexican Medicines or Telephony. In Chapultepec Park alone, you can visit 9 of them. Tickets cost 51 pesos per adult (about US$ 4 or €3) in the official ones which are free on Sundays for all Mexicans and residents. If you want to enjoy the museums without crowds, Sunday is a day to avoid, as is Monday when they are closed. Perhaps one of the strangest museum buildings is the one built by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, to house his personal collection of artifacts and paintings. Located in Plaza Carso in Polanco, it resembles a twisted tin can and is free of charge to everyone.

3. The city changes colour in March and April

Purple jacaranda trees

Sometime in March, the city starts undergoing a startling transformation when thousands of jacaranda trees begin blooming in the streets, covering the megalopolis in a beautiful purple cloak. At the height of the jacaranda season, if you stand still, you can hear the purple flowers drop off all around you and could be forgiven for thinking you're in the middle of a purple snowfall.

4. It is a massive city with millions of vehicles and NO driving test

Millions of vehicles but no driving test is needed

Unbelievable as it may seem, the only thing new drivers have to do to launch themselves into the hazardous, chaotic traffic of this city, joining another 4 million vehicles on the roads, is to buy a driving licence. There is NO driving test involved, neither a written one or a practical one. Except for 15-17 year olds, the vast majority of drivers have had no formal training in how to drive their vehicle or how to share the road correctly with other users. Authorities in the capital eliminated the driving test in the early 1990s in a bid to reduce corruption but anyone visiting Mexico City today will see that this has only created a different set of problems. Sigh!

5. The Aztec language lives on

A cultural centre where you can learn indigenous languages, including náhuatl

Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, has been spoken in Central Mexico since the 7th Century AD. There are still 1.45 million people who speak it today mainly in the Valle de Mexico and it is considered a lengua nacional. You may be surprised to find that some of their words have made their way into the English language via Spanish. These include "tomato" (tomatl in náhuatl), "avocado" (ahuácatl) and "chocolate" (chocolatl or xocolatl).

6. The best time of year to drive in Mexico City

Lovely empty roads!

In 2011, IBM conducted their aptly-titled Commuter Pain Study around the world and guess which city grabbed first place? Yes, Mexico City which scored three times worse than New York. Of course, it came as no surprise to those of us who live here. The traffic snarls and congestion are notoriously bad. Yet there are a few times of the year when it can be positively pleasant to drive around the city: a few days during the Christmas holidays, at Easter and to a lesser extent, July. Why? That's when thousands of people leave the metropolis for Acapulco or other places and leave the streets empty. The only problem is... that's when we want to go away too!

7. Baking cakes is hit and miss

A successful cake baked by my kids...

Baking Brownies or cakes can be a real struggle here. Nothing to do with different flour varieties or anything like that. No, it's the high-altitude factor which forces you to re-think all your normal recipes. At over 2300 m (7000 ft), you need to make adjustments such as higher oven temperatures, less baking powder, more liquid, less sugar and who know what else. It's a case of hit and miss and experimenting. So if you have successfully baked a cake or your Brownies haven't turned out like volcanic rock while living in Mexico City, you can be very proud of yourself!

8. Blankets are needed

Colourful Mexican blankets, ideal for those chilly nights

Mostly, when you say the word "Mexico" to people, they are already imagining tropical beaches and warm climes. And when you say "Mexico City" they think the same, but add a huge city to the scene. However, the weather is Mexico City is influenced by its location in a high-altitude "bowl" surrounded by mountains. This means it is COOL all year round, except for a couple of months. As many houses don't have central heating, it often gets chilly at night, especially in January and February when temperatures can drop to as low as -4 °C and chances are you may need one of those typical Mexican blankets on your bed to keep you warm. Ironically, many of us during the winter wear our jackets inside the house and take them off when we go outside.

9. Mexico City is relatively safe

Army truck patrolling in the Centro Histórico

Statistics show that the capital is becoming a refuge for people fleeing from other areas around the country which have seen an increase in violence and crime. In general, Mexico City is safe as long as you take certain precautions... like in any other big cities in the world. Some say the drug cartels have left it alone because this is where their families live, although we have had some grisly episodes recently not too far from us. Others say that the Federal Police in DF are better paid and therefore less corrupt than in other states. Who knows?

10. The city has floating gardens and canals

Canals and trajineras in Xochimilco

Down in the south of Mexico City is an area called Xochimilco, famous for its chinampas and canals. Here the Aztecs created chinampas, or floating gardens, on the shallow waters of the lake, Lago Texcoco. They did this by making rafts of juniper branches and heaping soil and mud from the lakebed on top of them. They then tied these rafts to juniper trees and used them as vegetable plots. Today, there are still around 200 of these islands which are used to grow flowers and other crops and they are part of the Xochimilco World Heritage site. You can go for rides along the canals in colourful, flat-bottomed boats called trajineras.

Posted by margaretm 13:29 Archived in Mexico Tagged traffic museums canals driving mexico_city climate safety cakes xochimilco jacarandas baking sinking lakebed aztecs spaniards floating_gardens Comments (0)

Caught in a massive hailstorm in Mexico City

Crazy weather


The sky had turned a menacing dark grey, with lightning tearing it apart. It started to spit with rain. That's not unusual as we're having a spell of wet weather at the moment. Then all of a sudden, it started to hail, furiously, copiously, so hard that the ground turned white immediately. Soon it was hard to see the road at all and we turned into a petrol station to shelter, watching as within minutes the urban landscape changed to a wintry scene before our very eyes, totally out of place here in Mexico City. The petrol station attendants had obviously never experienced anything like this before and momentarily forgot about filling up the cars. They started scraping up the hail and having a snowball fight. Marc and I watched stunned from inside the car, unable to believe our eyes. I personally have never seen so many centimetres of hail fall in such a short space of time. Car drivers were stopping and trying to remove it from their windscreens, it was so thick and heavy. With rivers of water mixing with thick slabs of hail, it was chaotic.

The chaos was even greater in Palmas and Periférico where the storm dumped 50 centimetres of hail in a few brief minutes. The roads there had to be closed. In other places, buses slid back down roads and drivers had to pull over and wait.

Marc and I will remember this afternoon for a long time. The Mexican man in the bread shop peered out of the window with an incredulous look on his face. Es la primera vez que veo algo así. "I've never seen anything like this before. Never!" He was shaking his head. I'm glad I had my small camera with me to freeze this moment in time and to prove to others that it really happened. They'd never believe us otherwise.

Caught in a heavy hailstorm

Drivers were having problems coming down the hill

Within minutes the ground had turned completely white

Vendors in their VW Beetle shelter under plastic as hail and water pour down around them


(Photos taken by Marc and Margaret)

Posted by margaretm 05:27 Archived in Mexico Tagged storm weather hail Comments (3)

"Flying jewels" and other visitors


Little did I know when we came to live in Mexico City that our garden would attract so many visitors. I'm talking specifically about members of the animal kingdom. It's not what you at first expect of an urban setting.

Of course, it goes without saying that Ozzy is King of the Garden, although this rather impressive title and his methods of ruling his kingdom are pretty dubious. He has three main modes. The first one is the Sleepily Alert mode which is his favourite. It consists of lying semi-comatose for most of the day, with an eye which occasionally opens a mere sliver whenever he hears something that could mean it's time for a walk or a treat. Sometimes it's because the large fat bumblebees which are boring holes in the beams above him have stirred him out of his coma. The second one is his Crazy Run mode. This consists of him freaking out all over the garden as if a whole swarm of those bumblebees were pursuing him. He dashes madly from one corner to the next, skidding round the corners, landing up in the bushes, his eyes desorbitados, his tongue dragging along the ground. He then comes to a sudden standstill, gets his breath back and takes off again. The third mode is the one he occasionally manifests at night, his Howling Wolf mode. When some noise, rustle or the obvious presence of an animal intruder wakes him, he stands up at the railings along the back terrace, lifts his nose to the sky and starts howling eerily like a wolf. When it continues for a prolonged period, I have to get out of my comfortable bed and investigate the cause. At my appearance, he transforms from werewolf back into a friendly dog with wagging tail.

Ozzy in his Sleepily Alert Mode

In his Crazy Run Mode

Howling Wolf posture

Then there's the family or community of field mice which live (or lived, I haven't seen them for a while) out along the back wall under the bushes. What field mice are doing in the middle of Mexico City where I haven't noticed any fields at all is a big mystery. But they have taken up residence here and make occasional forays into the cupboard where we keep Ozzy's dog biscuits. I've watched a very tiny but courageous mouse scoot full speed right under Ozzy's nose and raid the cupboard in search of tasty morsels. Ozzy looks up, momentarily distracted from eating, and then with a distinct lack of interest in his eyes, goes back to his lunch. Of course, this is during the daytime. If it's at night, it may well be the trigger for his howling.

Squirrel Nutkin pays visits to the big tree in the back garden, doing acrobatics along the branches and then along the ivy-clad wall along the side, where he disappears just before coming in through the kitchen window. And we have a whole colony of lazy lizards who think of doing nothing else but sunbathing on the tiles or concrete steps... until they see some big feet coming along. This is the equivalent of waving a magician's wand because the next second, they have disappeared into thin air. The people who lived in the house before us also told us stories of meeting the mysterious tlacuache, a Mexican animal with sharp teeth and a long rat-like tail. It gave them nightmares apparently. I myself haven't seen it but there again, it could be this animal which sends Ozzy into his werewolf mode at night.

Squirrel Nutkin

Depending on the weather, a whole collection of bright butterflies are also frequent visitors. They waltz in, flit from flower to flower on the bougainvillia bushes, have their sugary snack and then zigzag off over the top of the wall. Beautiful swallowtails, bright orange mariposas, small yellow ones and white ones too stop by for a pit-stop. And then there are the birds... house finches, sparrows, the occasional woodpecker, American robins, tiny yellowish birds which pick excitedly at the Mexican pears leaving them torn and ragged, cute cinnamon-bellied flower piercers, and many other winged creatures who have a particular liking for the huge jacaranda tree.

Beautiful Swallowtail butterfly

A House Finch gorging on our Mexican pears

But my favourite birds, without a doubt, are the hummingbirds or colibris. These are the most amazing creatures with feathers I have ever seen. God definitely fine-tuned them to do the most incredible things. They zip in and out before you know it, the humming of their wings alerting you to their presence well before you see them, and are the only birds which can hover and fly forwards, backwards, sideways, up, down and even upside down. As they hover by flowers or feeders, they resemble tiny jets re-fuelling in mid-flight. Truly amazing, I think.

The irridescent colours of a male Broad Billed Hummingbird

A streak of irridescent green as a Berylline Hummingbird flies past

Twisting and hovering

A female Broad Billed Hummingbird doing a backwards manoeuvre

Lining up to feed at the feeder

A young hummingbird re-fuelling in mid-flight

A Berylline Hummingbird hovering, treading air

A Broad Billed male caught in mid-flight

They may be some of the smallest birds on this planet but everything else about them, except their size, is big or fast or mind-boggling and their ordinary everyday activities are true feats of engineering. Hummingbirds are some of the the fastest fliers, reaching speeds of almost 100 kmh (60mph) in their dives. Watch them as they hover around the flowers or feeders and you can't see their wing movements or even imagine that their wings beat between 50-200 times per second and their heart rate is 1200 beats per minute! At rest they take an average 250 breaths a minute and they have a voracious appetite, visiting up to 1000 flowers a day. They don't suck nectar through their long bills but lick it up with fringed, forked tongues, licking 10-15 times a second. All that activity is bound to deplete their energy reserves rather quickly and they have to consume half their body weight in sugar every day, feeding 5-8 times an hour. Could you imagine a human having to do that?

A dazzling dive

A female Blue-Throated Hummingbird fanning out her tail while hovering

The male Broad Bill has a very characteristic red bill

A hummingbird with its tongue sticking out

"Where's the feeder?"

In Mexico many legends and myths have grown up around the huitzilín (náhuatl word meaning hummingbird). The huitzilín was believed to possess special powers since it could appear and disappear at whim and was admired for its vigor and energy. The Aztecs believed that the souls of warriors who died in battle first formed part of the sun's brilliant retinue and then after four years went to live forever in the bodies of hummingbirds. Such was the Aztec's respect for these tiny birds that their God of Sun and War was called Huitzilopochtli, the Hummingbird Wizard, and only Aztec royalty and religious leaders were allowed to wear hummingbird feathers.

The Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli

The Maya Indians believed that the Great God had some pieces left over after making all the other birds. As the Great God did not want to waste any pieces, he used the leftovers to create a hummingbird. To make sure the hummingbird could fly well, being so small, he gave it the gift of extraordinary flight with the ability to fly forward, backwards and even upside-down. The Great God liked this little bird so much he made another one and all the animals in the forest came to the wedding. Everything was beautiful, except for the plain grey hummingbirds. All the birds offered some of their beautiful feathers to decorate the couple and the Sun came out and married them. The Sun also promised that the hummingbirds' feathers would gleam magically as long as they looked towards the Sun.

This photo shows the special gorget feathers on a male Blue-Throat

When these feathers catch the sunlight, they gleam brightly

As I sit on the back terrace in my hammock-chair, hearing the whirr of their wings as they drop in from the sky and watching them hover in my face or in front of the feeder, the colibris never cease to amaze me. Catch them in the light and their irridiscent blues, greens, yellows, and reds leave you speechless. No wonder the Spanish Conquistadores, when the first saw them, called them Joyas voladoras or Flying Jewels. Colibris only live in the American Continents so they had never seen this kind of bird before. I know what they mean. Anyone coming from the Eastern Hemisphere is in for a surprise if they look carefully.

This hummingbird is moving his wings so fast that the camera can't register them

There are over 340 species of humming bird in the world, and 60-65 can be found in Mexico.

Hummingbirds can reach speeds of up to 100 km when diving or swooping

They feed 5 - 8 times an hour

I have to admit they aren't exactly the world's cheeriest birds, but are fiercely aggressive and quarrelsome, muttering irritably when others come to snack at their favourite feeder (in my garden). Nor can they walk or hop, but that doesn't seem to be a problem. They just launch themselves off the branches and fly off, giving me an aerobatic display. But I'll forgive them for these little weaknesses. As long as they continue to come to my garden and leave me mesmerised by their dazzling colours and acrobatics.

Thank goodness Ozzy has no interest in subduing these beautiful creatures which visit his Kingdom. I don't think he could anyway. He's much too slow for these speedy flying jewels.

While I'm left in awe at these "Joyas Voladores", Ozzy doesn't show the slightest interest in them at all!

Posted by margaretm 07:47 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Swan Lake for the 36th year running


It's dark except for the spotlights giving you enough light to climb right up to the top of the temporary tiered seating. You find your seat number and sit down, on your jacket as it's getting a bit chilly and the plastic seat is cold. The breeze ruffles your hair and rustles the leaves in the tree just next to you. The people around you are chatting, in subdued tones. No-one's shouting except the candyfloss seller below with his generator throbbing in the night. To the left, on the top of the hill, you can make out the castle lit up over the top of the trees. A plane flies over, and suddenly you see its lights reflected in the lake below at your feet.

First Call... "Ladies and gentlemen, the function will be starting soon, please find your seats." I wonder if it'll really start at 8 pm or if like most things here it will be more like 8.30 pm.

Second Call.... "No photos or video of the performance, please". Oh, that's a shame! (I was obedient though, hence no photos of mine in this post).

And then on the dot of 8 o'clock, the Third Call is issued, the lights are turned off and we're plunged into darkness. A sudden hush falls over the spectators and the expectation is almost physically palpable as everyone wonders what will happen next.

Suddenly, on the far side of the lake, dark and invisible until now, the lights go on and a knight on a horse clip-clops his way along the side of the lake in front of the trees. He is joined by another rider and they gallop off into the darkness. A deep velvety voice slices through the night and Swan Lake is underway. Now the lights come on to the near left and a glittering palace appears, with red carpets. Tchaikovsky's well-known orchestral music draws a troupe of dancers from out of the darkness, dressed in their finery for a royal ball, and soon the ballet dancers are leaping and dancing under the coloured lights. The lake, bright green by day but black by night, mirrors the colours and movements, as we watch their elegant steps and twirls reflected in the water. It's magical.




The lights dip and as darkness settles over the lake once again, all that can be heard is the quiet swish-swish of oars dipping into the water. A spotlight picks out a group of boats making their way over to an island in the middle, where the prince and his hunting friends disembark. This is the moment when the swans make their appearance and as you sit wrapping your jacket around your shoulders, your eye is drawn to a beautiful flock of swan-like ballarinas dancing under the trees in the light, their movements echoed in the still dark waters. The prince joins in. It's hard to imagine a more enchanting natural setting. You have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that you're actually in Chapultepec Park, in the middle of Mexico City, undisturbed by the thick traffic crawling up Reforma and Constituyentes just beyond the trees.






The lights go off once again and we're left momentarily as if blind, as if a thick blanket has been thrown over us. Unexpectedly, the island to the right of us flares up with flashing lights, purple, blue, red and green, like fireworks bursting through the branches, illuminating an eerie smoke-filled lair. Out comes the evil sorcerer swirling his wing-like cloak menacingly and fuming malevolently as he paces back and forth. The black swan appears to lure the prince away from the princess and decieve him. And so the story continues.


Maybe you've seen Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet before. But seeing it performed by Mexico's Compañia Nacional de Danza outdoors at night in Chapultepec Park in the natural setting provided by the Lago Menor is hard to forget. They've been performing it for 36 years on the trot, every year in February and March, and it's become a permanent fixture to look forward to. I recommend it, even if you think you aren't keen on ballet. It's spectacular. Magical.


(Photos taken from various newspapers and digital magazines)

Posted by margaretm 04:05 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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