Obsessives of the Macabre: Mexico City
With a population of 22 million, Mexico City is bound to house some loonies. You don't really need to step too far from your front door to locate one; there will always be the right nut job for you, and within arm's reach to play with. Despite its magnificence, Mexico's capital can be a gregarious, dangerous and morbid place to hang around in at times; death is around every corner, if not physically, then definitely spiritually. There's even a most curious little place called Barranca Del Muerto (Canyon of the Death) located at the end of the orange line of the city's super cheap and efficient rail system, such is the country's fascination with the subject.
So, if it's in your face danger and morbidity you want, here's where to find it; without dying.
Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls)
Is there anything on the planet as morbid as a doll collection? Those comatose, smirking faces, collectively staring at you as you move about the room. You shift left, you shift right, and still their eyes stalk your every move. How the hell do they keep moving?!
How about hundreds of dolls that once drowned in a canal and are now hanging by their necks from several trees on an isolated island? What fucked up hell is this?!
It's the Island of the Dolls, and it's hell on Earth. Still, you'd be an irresponsible traveller if you didn't make your way out there to pay homage.
Legend has it that a young girl drowned in this very section of the Xochimilco Canal, and was pulled out by an elderly gentleman who lived peacefully on a nearby island. Once fished out of the canal, he discovered that the girl was still clutching on to her doll, and believed that her spirit would only survive if he hung the freaky looking thing from a tree (the doll, not the girl). Over the years, the young girl's spirit has seemingly lived on, as the sole resident of the island is continually discovering dolls floating down the canal. With each discovery, he hangs the newly found doll on its own special branch on one of the island's many trees. Where the hell do they all come from?!
Island of the Dolls is an absolute mission to get to, but very much worth the half day journey. From the city centre, you need to take the Blue Metro Line in the Tasquena direction, to the second last station, General Anaya. From there, you can either take a bus (5 pesos) or a taxi (50 pesos) to a place called Embarcadero Cuemanco.
Now comes the tricky part. As soon as you arrive to Embarcadero, you will be hounded by a lot of extremely vocal touts who will offer you the world to take you on a tour of the canals. Don't do it. Walk directly to a boat captain (barcadero) and negotiate with him directly (if there are less than six people in your travelling party, save some money by making sure it's a small boat).
On your way to the water's edge, you'll see an official sign that says pay no more than 350 pesos per hour. That's for one person or more; not per person. The barcaderos will try to convince you otherwise, but they're full of it. If the crook just won't be negotiated with, move on to the next guy, and watch how quickly his attitude changes. Depending on your Spanish and your negotiations skills, you may be able to haggle for much less than the official price, especially if the docks are quiet.
You must be specific with the person taking you; you don't want a general tour of the canals (even though they are beautiful and must be explored on a seperate occasion), you want the real Island of the Dolls, not the fake one that's close by, and you want to be able to set foot on the island once you've arrived, and not just float by from a distance.
All up, it should be a round trip of 4-6 hours, depending on how leisurely you want to take it, or how long the barcadero tries to drag it out for.
Just try not to get kidnapped by those doll freaks!
Walking through Tepito safely is a case of trial and error. Here's what I've learnt:
- As a gringo, don't wear clothes that stand out from the crowd, not even your favourite Beastie Boys t-shirt. This is an extremely poor barrio with plenty of violence, robberies and drugs all around. Just wear a plain, dark-coloured t-shirt with your shittiest pair of jeans. If not, you will be targeted.
- Do not take your wallet. Only take enough cash to buy yourself a souvenir, or to set up a contract killing (I'm not joking). Tepito is infamous for its 70+ block black market where you can get your grubby little hands on just about anything. Drugs, weapons, hit men, car parts, even a job with a cartel; Tepito has it all. Carry a small amount of decoy cash in your shoe in case you do get mugged; it's much more conducive to living to keep your potential killer happy with a token "donation", rather than giving him nothing at all. My rule is to take 200 pesos for me, and 100 pesos for the guy that's bound to rob me.
- If you must take a camera with you, don't. But if you're a stubborn motherfucker like myself, then please carry it in an opaque, dark-coloured plastic bag instead of a day pack. If you look like trash, and look like you're carrying trash, then you are much less likely to end up as someone's little bitch. If you happen to stumble upon something that's photo-worthy, make yourself as hidden and crouched as possible, and be insanely discreet and super quick.
- Take a whole lot of spare Metro tickets with you. They're only five pesos each and they may save your life. The thing is, if you do get robbed, then you will probably be left with nothing. How will you get home? Remember this rhyme: Metro tickets in the shoe, will help to get out of the poo. Super lame, but effective.
- If you can avoid trouble, Tepito is actually a great place to visit. Apart from the black market, the street food is incredible, and the music, colours and dope smoke combination will set your mind alight. Just don't forget to visit the Santa Muerte in Tepito's hotspot to plead your case for living first.
Tianguis Cultura del Chopo (Punk Market)
If you're a poser, emo, hipster or hippy, then don't bother showing your face around here. Instead, spike your hair, dye it green, and paint your favourite punk band's logo on the back of your studded leather jacket (not Sex Pistols, come on!) It's punk-up time!
An entire gritty and stinky market run by punks, for punks. Punk vinyl and memorabilia, band patches, leather jackets, studded dog collars... all that poser shit is for sale.
Once you're kitted out, be sure to pogo down to the mosh pit (shit I'm old) to gain street-cred while watching Mexico City's latest punk flavour of the weekend. These motherfuckers take no prisoners though. You will get hurt. But once initiated, you'll be like some sort of cool, gringo novelty, and be shouted beers in the local cantina all night long.
Skulls everywhere too.
Leon Trotsky's House
Get yourself some culture, and learn about one of the 20th Century's true revolutionaries. A Marxist and founding leader of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky completely pissed off Joseph Stalin by leading the Russian Revolution against him.
Afterwards, with Stalin and the NKVD seeking vengeance, a banished Trotsky fled many countries that were prepared to house him, fearing for his life. Eventually, thanks to the dedicated efforts of iconic artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, he ended up in Mexico City.
Sadly, it was in this great city where Trotsky met his demise. In 1940, a hired hitman broke into the Trotsky family home and, whilst he was working at his desk, the hitman assassinated him by ways of a very sharp ice-axe blow to the head.
It's such an intriguing and morbid fascination to stand and stare at Trotsky's desk chair where he was killed, one that will hold you in a trance for hours.
With Trotsky's death, came year dot for the death of Communism, a thought much more morbid than death itself.
Cafe la Habana
After all of these death dealings and near misses, you are definitely going to need a strong latte. La Habana will provide.
The cafe itself is neither morbid or dangerous, and it lies in a very safe area of Mexico City. Just as well too, because seriously, how much of that death crap can anyone really take?
This particular cafe though, is more than infamous, because it was precisely here that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara clandestinely planned a large portion of the Cuban Revolution. Ask the question to any wait staff, and they'll eagerly point out the happy couple's favourite corner for you. If you're fortunate enough to have the chance to sit at their table, then take it! Sit and sip your decadent Habana Oreo, and feel the pinko, red spirit vibe flow through your veins, as you plan a revolution of your own. D-Day will come sooner than you think; once you see the rather large bill, Habana will be yours for the taking.
Mexico City may not look traditionally pretty, but it truly is a brilliant place to visit. Spend some time, and don't be afraid to explore. For the most part, the locals are extremely friendly and accommodating, and might just point you in the direction of one of the city's thousands of hidden treasures.
Just don't forget to take your crucifix.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, why not subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.