A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about mexico city

Color, music and dancing

At the Basilica in Mexico City



Whenever I cycle up to the Basilica early on Sunday morning, I wonder what surprise awaits me today. Being Mexico's most important Catholic shrine, the Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe draws Mexicans from all over the country who journey here to fulfill promises, to pray and make petitions, and to attend mass. Devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe is an unmistakeable thread woven into the very fabric of Mexican culture. A whole community may arrive together in trucks, buses or cars. They often come wearing their traditional dress to honor the Virgen with a specific dance, or music. So when I arrive here on my bicycle, I often find the plaza a colorful study in anthropology. Sometimes on specific dates, it is full of hundreds of cyclists who have made their pilgrimage on two wheels or, in the case of last Sunday, lots of music bands who had arrived with their musical instruments.

Last Sunday was a truly colorful, musical day to visit the Basilica... I'll let my photos speak for themselves.



The complex comprises of the Old Basilica with the red and yellow domes which was begun in 1695. However, over the centuries, because Mexico City is built on a former lake bed, the church began to sink and become dangerous so a new bigger basilica was built next to it and the old one was closed in 1976. The New Basilica is a stunning green circular building designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez. It has no pillars inside, providing a spacious area for the crowds of pilgrims who come to venerate the image of the Virgen. After carrying out restoration work on the Old Basilica, it was re-opened in 2000 but still continues to lean visibly. In this part of the complex you can also see the Bell Tower which shows the different ways people measure time... clock, sundial, Aztec calendar, astronomical calendar etc.

The distinct red and yellow domes of the Old Basilica

A close-up of the yellow domes

Reflection of both basilicas in the glass windows of the plaza

A band setting up their drums right outside the new Basilica

A group of cyclists arrive

People from all walks of life come here.... seen in the wide variety of footwear!

I have often seen the Aztec Indian dancers doing their syncretic dances in honor of the Virgen, or maybe to the goddess Tonantzin, who was worshipped at this very same site before the Spaniards arrived, bringing their Catholic faith to Mexico.

A group of dancers on the upper part of the plaza


They typically wear feather headdresses, and seed pods around their ankles which shake as they move

This time they were playing mandolin-type instruments

In contrast to them were the bands playing popular songs, some of them making enough noise to waken the whole city. They were moved from their very close position to the main temple where mass was being held and sent to the other end of the plaza.



A small boy is fascinated by the musicians

On the other side of the plaza was a group from Hidalgo, dressed in mariachi hats and sequined capes, along with their band. One of the ladies informed me that they had come to fulfill a promise made to the Virgen. They had arrived that morning, would do their dance and attend mass and then return home about 200 kms away.

Band members and mariachis

Nine-year old Miguel in his costume

His cape was decorated with thousands of sequins

Design on the cape

The group getting ready

Getting in order

Young girl

Last minute shuffling around

Off toward the New Basilica

Making lots of noise

Crowds near the New Basilica

There was so much to see and hear, with many more bands and dancers, thatI didn't even move from the plaza. But time had run out for me so I jumped on my bike again and cycled back down to the centre. That's the advantage of getting up early on Sunday morning. You see things that you wouldn't even imagine in your dreams if you stayed in bed.

Posted by margaretm 16:26 Archived in Mexico Tagged basilica music dancing traditions mexico_city Comments (0)

Wintry Christmas magic

Mexican-style winter


It's coming up to 6.30 pm and dusk has fallen on top of us like a soft blanket. The temperature has dropped several degrees and there's a persistent wind, waking up the huge flag from its usual limp slumber and throwing it into frenzied fits. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and then decide to wrap a thin scarf around my neck to protect me from the wind's clawing fingers. The man next to me is shivering in a T-shirt, wishing he'd anticipated the change of season in the last half hour. His small daughter is dressed from head to toes in pink, obviously her favourite color. At least she won't get lost. We're all waiting, and in the meantime, watching an army of ant-like figures frenetically skating in a vaguely anti-clockwise direction on the enormous ice-rink below. Skates, helmets and seal-shaped sleds to push kids on or hold onto with white knuckles are all a coordinated bright orange color.

I turn to the young couple on the other side of me. They are huddling up to one another, "A qué hora van a prender las luces?" I ask. I'm wondering what time they are going to switch the lights on. They're not sure. They thought it would be at 6 o'clock. Maybe at 6.30 pm. I'm hoping so.



It all seems a bit surreal. Here I am in the middle of Mexico City, in the massive central square, the Zócalo, feeling decidely chilly looking down on the largest ice-rink in Latin America. And waiting for them to switch on the Christmas lights. Looming opposite me is the huge shadowy bulk of the Cathedral, silent and melancholic, slowly sinking down into the soft ground, vigilando la plaza under its stern gaze. I wonder if it approves of this year's winter wonderland spread at its feet. Probably. It certainly makes a change from the panorama of the last few months. For weeks on end, thousands of teachers from Oaxaca and other states took the large square hostage and camped here in a chaotic mess to protest against the government's education reforms. It had begun to look like a stubbornly permanent refugee camp, complete with streets and restaurant tents. You needed a map and large doses of determination to attempt a crossing of the plaza. The discontented teachers were finally evicted in mid-September to make way for the patriotic Independence Day celebrations and for a short while, the Zócalo was released from the clutches of its secuestradores. I have no idea if a ransom was paid or not.

After the Dia de la Independencia came the political meetings in protest at the energy reform billl, followed by the International Book Fair, the Science and Technology event, the Day of the Dead ... and so on. Now the twin towers of the Catedral Metropolitana are smiling down on families enjoying the Christmas atmosphere and holidaymakers sporting orange skates trying to stay upright on the ice. Meanwhile, tourists in Turibuses are coughed up into the square and left to reconcile the coexistence of Aztec temples, colonial cathedrals and modern-day technology responsible for bringing the frozen Arctic to Mexican latitudes.



As we continue to wait, the ice-rink slowly empties and winds down for the day and night closes in on all sides. Then, all of a sudden, the enormous Christmas tree on the other side of the rink leaps into action. I'm impressed. It's exactly 6.30 pm. Where there was just a black outline seconds before, now the tree takes shape in the darkness with thousands of small twinkling lights coming to life. I can literally hear the plaza gasp. Two minutes later, the darkness is split by a burst of thousands more light bulbs illuminating the square. Cheers and waves of applause and murmurs of approval accompany the arrival of the Christmas lights. It was worth the chilly wait in the wind.


Sitting on the highest tier of the spectator seating, it feels like I can just stretch my hand out and touch the light bulbs behind me. For once, the Cathedral and the Palacio Nacional take a step back into the shadows and retreat into anonymity while the buildings on the other two sides of the square take on the leading role. They have waited all year, anxious to proclaim their Christmas greetings - Feliz Navidad and Próspero Año 2014 - to the inhabitants of Mexico City and visitors. Their vibrant colors and Christmas designs - poinsettias. candles, carol singers, stars and tree decorations - light up the city and set the mood for this season.


I wander around observing my fellow-visitors and then remember I'm supposed to pick Marc up from Polanco shortly. Time to move on. I join the slowly-flowing river of people as it makes its way down pedestrianised Madero Street. Earlier when I was heading in the opposite direction towards the Zócalo from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the street was already brimming with shoppers and families. Inside the Casa de los Azulejos, a huge star-shaped piñata was strung up above the restaurant tables. I hoped it wouldn't accidentally drop into someone's quesadillas below. A bit further on, I stopped to listen to a band of troubadours, who looked like they had been transported in a time machine straight from Medieval Germany. Elsewhere, a group of young children dressed in red wooly jumpers were singing Los peces en el rio (the Fish in the River) under the banner of the Salvation Army.


Now, feeling just like fish swimming in the river, we are carried downstream towards the Torre Latino, expanding like a viscous mass of humanity to occupy all the available space between the buildings on either side. Suddenly, we're surprised by the sound of ringing bells and children's voices singing Christmas carols and are treated to the sight of an unexpected snowfall. All along the street, flurries of skinny white flakes start floating in the air, before being energetically whisked off by the wind, much to the delight of toddlers, youngsters and adults alike. As if in response to a previously-planned choreography, scores of iPhones and smartphones are whipped out of pockets to record the fleeting event and provide proof to non-believers. It doesn't matter that it's not the authentic frozen stuff. Mexicans in DF rarely have the chance to see real nieve so even a clear imposter of the white stuff is welcome. A small boy wearing a red cap claps his hands enthusiastically, trying to catch some flakes, balanced on his father's shoulders, who appears to be as ecstatic as his son is. Yes, it definitely feels like Christmas here in the Centro Histórico and I'm caught up in the festive mood too.


My phone begins buzzing in my pocket. Message from Marc: "Mum, pls meet me at Antara half an hour." Well, that will need to be a flexible Mexican 30 minutes if I'm going to get there in time. At the bottom of the Torre Latino, a tidal wave of pedestrians is heaped up, waiting for the green light to cross the main road. As the cars screech to a halt and a small traffic policeman in his fluorescent vest starts his symphony of whistle-blowing and hand-waving, the wave surges forward and rushes across, breaking on the shore at the other side. I extricate myself from it and hurry down into the bowels of the car park under Bellas Artes. Quick, I must get to Polanco.


I spend 11 minutes just trying to get out of the car park. This is the other side of Christmas in Mexico City. The traffic is worse than usual. My phone buzzes again. "Mum, traffic terrible. Will walk to school. Meet me there." Phew! That will probably cut off an extra 45 minutes trapped in a solidified line of cars. I settle down to another long wait and pick up my camera to look through my photos. They will keep me in the Christmas spirit for a bit longer as the neighbouring vehicles slowly wrap themselves around me in a python's strangle. Happy Christmas!


Posted by margaretm 07:58 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico christmas mexico_city Comments (0)

Hiking up to see the Monarch butterflies

Monarch butterfly


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.

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

Countryside near Valle de Bravo

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

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

Horses waiting to carry people up the mountain

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.

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

A group of schoolchildren coming down singing

Looking up at the tall trees

Hiking up the mountainside

Lots of moss covering the tree trunks

Some of the wildflowers we saw along the way

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

Beautiful chestnut-coloured horse

A lone butterfly soaking up the sun's warmth

Thick vegetation

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.

Looking towards the trees in the distance covered in butterflies

The trees turn an orangey colour

Huge clumps of butterflies

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

The air was full of monarchs fluttering around in the sunshine

Sunbathing on a branch

Not orange flowers, but butterflies

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.

The air was thick with orange smudges

Observing a monarch flying overhead

How many butterflies on these branches, I wonder?

Enjoying the sunshine

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.

Going back to get the horses

Walking down through the trees

All the guides are trained and know all about the butterflies

Pottery souvenirs

Monarch butterfly fridge magnets

A Mazahua lady embroidering

This little dog was hoping to get some crumbs from us

Blue skies behind the truck

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

One of the many churches we passed along the way

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

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


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.

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.

Stuck in the traffic jam inside the tunnel

People standing outside the buildings in Santa Fe

A couple of the tall buildings which resisted the earthquake well

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.

People outside in Paseo de la Reforma

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

Side view of the microbus

Damage to a bridge

A transformer crushes a taxi

A road sign fallen down

The headlines on Wednesday 21st March

El Universal newspaper


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





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

The Basilica de Guadalupe, mirror of Mexican faith

The old and new Basilicas


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.

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.

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.

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.

The whole complex is huge

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

A devoted Catholic approaching the Basilica on his knees.

A floral representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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

A priest standing at one of the doors.

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.

The decorative designs on the doors.

Looking up at the windows above.

People waiting to go inside.

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

Proud of his outfit

Two boys show me their clothes

Detail of the Virgen de Guadalupe embroidered by his mother

This boy's aunt embroidered a cross and heart

Pilgrims gather outside the new Basilica

This shrine attracts people from all walks of life.

An indigenous lady wears a specially embroidered shawl

Waiting to go inside the church

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.

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

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.

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.

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

The Templo del Pocito

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

Visitors enjoying the gardens and ponds

Statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe in her blue cloak

Aztecs and Indians worshipping the Virgen de Guadalupe

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

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

By-standers watching the small orange bird telling their fortune

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!

A skyline of colourful church domes

A group of dancers performing in the Plaza

Young dancer learning the steps

An energetic dance accompanied by drum beats

A general view of the plaza

A girl on her knees

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:

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

(Entries 1 - 5 of 18) Page [1] 2 3 4 » Next