Vanlife diaries #51: Mexico City, from Xochimilco to Coyoacán to Roma Norte
Fresh on the heels of an emergency hospital stay, we scrapped ambitious plans for the week and instead settled into an airbnb south of Mexico City so that I could rest and recuperate. By the end of the week, I finally felt well enough to venture out and explore, from Xochimilco to Coyoacán to Roma Norte.
Mexico City, CDMX
If you read my last weekly update, you’ll recall that I spent a couple days in the hospital after a thoroughly epic visit to the Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
The two events were entirely unrelated, but unfortunately it slowed our roll to a grinding halt and we’ve instead spent much of the week in the recliner chairs of our Mexico City Airbnb, trying to shovel water, antibiotics, and yogurt into my fragile system.
There’s nothing much of consequence to report, other than that we truly needed this downtime and, by the end of the week, I was finally ready to get out and about.
In an effort to preserve sanity and avoid the expense of fuel and parking, we decided to zip around Mexico City by Uber, which proved very inexpensive (around $4USD for a 20min ride) and infinitely simpler than driving our oversized vehicle through the considerable urban traffic.
National Museum of Anthropology, CDMX
We made the most of our limited time in Mexico City, beginning with a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, which houses Mexico’s most impressive collection of human history, from the ancient Maya and Aztecs all the way through Spanish colonisation to 20th century Mexico.
Although I’m not much for museums in general, I have a particular interest in ancient civilisations and found myself thoroughly engrossed in the 12,000 years of Mesoamérican history centred in Mexico. The museum is also managed by INAH, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History), which looks after ruins and other significant archaeological sites around the country— this isn’t a private collection, it’s an incredibly robust repository of native relics housed in the country’s most visited museum!
It’s an enormous museum and, even with nearly 3hrs, we had to hustle through to see both levels of exhibits. Some of the signs and plaques were translated to English, but not all, which naturally helped speed things up— my Spanish feels worse than ever with my slightly foggy brain and I hope things will start to improve as I recover.
Next, we explored Bosque Chapultepec (the museum is actually inside this massive city park)— twice as large as NYC’s Central Park and full of vendors, shops, botanical gardens, and even a small lake. This expanse of green space is a natural haven amongst the concrete and chaos of 23 million people.
On a Saturday, festivities were in full swing and we could hardly resist all the treats and snacks that lined the paths, finally succumbing to a pineapple coconut juice and a steamy stack of gorditas de nata, a small spiced pancake popular in this part of the country.
Roma Norte, CDMX
At the end of the day, we caught up with our friend Travis, whom we’d met a few weeks prior at Cervecería Hércules in Querétaro and who was in Mexico City for the weekend. After grabbing churro ice cream sandwiches from El Moro, we joined him at the staggeringly trendy Pulquería Insurgentes, an incredible if somewhat rough-around-the-edges 3-level bar serving some of the best pulque we’ve had in Mexico.
For those who missed it, pulque is a fermented agave sap drink considered to be the ancient precursor to tequila (which is made from the piña or heart of the agave plant), but that more closely resembles a mix of beer and kombucha— slightly thick, lightly effervescent, and extremely low in alcohol.
Pulque sugars ferment in a matter of hours, meaning the beverage has a remarkably short shelf life and a penchant for spoiling (read: always fresh and endemic to central Mexico!). Indeed, it has been a staple of not only local cuisine for thousands of years but also an important part of pre-Hispanic culture dating back at far as 200CE. Since its origin, pulque was considered a sacred beverage, “the nectar of the gods”, only to be drank by high priests and emperors— or as the final rite of those about to be sacrificed.
With the fall of the Aztec empire and the arrival of the Spanish, pulque was rebranded as a common man’s drink and much of the mystique and sanctity surrounding its fermentation was lost as the total number of pulquerías in all of Mexico fell to double digits. But in recent decades, pulque has experienced a grand revival— young generations of Mexicans are once again embracing this sacred beverage, if not in the original ritualistic way then certainly as something trendy and different!
It was a wonderful night and it felt intensely reassuring to know that we have friends in Mexico who were following my entire recovery and ready to send help at a moment’s notice.
The following day, we explored the leafy upperclsss neighbourhood of Coyoacán, the birthplace and longtime home of famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
We visited her childhood home, Casa Azul, where she later lived for many years with her husband Diego Rivera, another iconic Mexican artist (whose own childhood home was also turned into a museum in Guanajuato, which we visited only a few weeks ago).
Casa Azul is now one of the most visited museums in Mexico City, an enormous queue stretching around the block and sold-out tickets for nearly every time slot, and it boasts an incredible variety of the late painter’s work, as well as artwork from her own personal collection, photographs documenting her life, and much of the home’s original decor.
The grounds were packed on a Sunday, but still we found ourselves alone in the gardens, a testament to the quiet escape offered by banana trees and monstera mere metres from the busy city streets.
We dug into a traditional lunch and wandered through the lively Coyoacán Market before hopping in an Uber towards our final destination, Xochimilco.
Xochimilco, from the Nahuatl word meaning ‘garden of flowers’, was once an incredibly vast network of canals, causeways & floating gardens conceived by the ancient Aztecs as a means of water transit through Lake Texcoco, the massive body of water covering the Valley of Mexico.
With the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s, dams were destroyed to make way for the construction of roads and much of Lake Texcoco ceased to exist— but the canals were deemed useful and preserved, and are now considered to be the last remnant of this Aztec marvel (and indeed one of the only remaining Aztec legacies in this part of Mexico!).
Xochimilco is located in a somewhat rough neighbourhood just south of Mexico City, but its canals have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their cultural and historical significance to Mesoamérica and pre-Hispanic Mexico.
Today, colourful wooden gondolas called trajineras drift up and down the canals, full of couples, families, and large groups of friends enjoying what has become an immensely popular weekend outing in Mexico City. Smaller boats deliver everything from margaritas to elotes while you float through Xochimilco, and full mariachi bands will even hop aboard and serenade you for a modest 150 pesos ($7.50USD).
It was nearly 5pm by the time we arrived to Embercado Nuevo Navitas, but we were able to quickly negotiate 400p for a 1-hour boat trip on our own private trajinera.
As others had reported, the scenery along the canals wasn’t overly exciting (and I would have been genuinely upset to fall in the water here), but that’s not why you visit Xochimilco— we’re here for the cultural experience.
And on a Sunday afternoon, we were surrounded by hundreds of laughing and dancing Mexicans, traditional mariachi bands, vendors selling elotes and pulque out of small wooden boats, and of course an entire rainbow of brightly painted trajineras jostling their way through the festivities.
The only people on our 20-seater wooden trajinera, Dan and I spent the entire hour standing (ok, occasionally sitting) on the wooden lip right at the front of the boat, taking in the entire scene with wide eyes and over-eager smiles that earned us several “cheers” from passing groups.
We were particularly delighted by the family who rolled passed on their trajinera with a portable Coleman bbq, grilling up an enormous pan of meat and serving up tacos to a full table of aunts and uncles and little cousins, all while another boat blasts Bad Bunny and a third hollers through the closing notes of a full Mariachi band.
It doesn’t get more Mexican than this, and I don’t know if it’s our timing or just luck, but we somehow manage to be the only gringos at almost every destination and it’s truly delivering the authentic local experience we feared we’d never get in popular destinations like Xochimilco. Whatever the explanation, let’s hope it continues!
Where we stayed this week
- Airbnb near Xochimilco in Mexico City, CDMX ($300USD; 20-27 Feb)
- Street parking near the Airbnb in Mexico City, CDMX (free; 28 Feb)