One of my criteria for a great urban experience is how many fun surprises you encounter while on your way to other places. Recently, while in Mexico City for 18 days, I was super impressed by the number and diversity of surprises my mother and I encountered – everything from coming upon thousands of locals participating in a Zombie Walk, to a plaza’s fun dancing waterfall with coloured lights that attracted hundreds of families and young adults on a Sunday evening.
The first surprise happened on our first day when I unexpectedly discovered I could walk on 8-lane Reforma Boulevard (think Paris’ Champs-Elysees), as it closed Sunday mornings to allow cyclists, joggers and walkers to wander. After a few blocks, my second surprise was happening upon some 20 feet tall, colourful and fun paper-mache creatures. Soon I realized there were over 200 sculptures lined up like a parade on both sides of the boulevard. Hundreds of people, taking pictures and laughing at the imaginative sculptures that linked indigenous spiritualism and decoration with modern surrealism, created a carnival atmosphere.
On another day, I wandered to the Zocalo Square having earlier noticed new bleachers had been set up. I found a small crowd watching a dozen or so archers with their high-tech bows seemingly firing arrows randomly and silently to a target about 100 meters away. Alternatively you could actually stand by the targets and hear the “invisible” arrows “thud” as they hit the their targets – almost all of them dead centre or just inches away. Given there was no protection from a stray arrow; it was a bit of a hair-raising experience. I soon realized they were warming up for the World Archery Competition that was happening in the temporary stadium in another part of Zocalo.
Later that same day, as we were wandering back from the fabric block (my Mom is an avid quilter), I was intrigued by a reflection in a bakery window and the word “Ideal”. Upon a closer look in the window we realized this was Pasteleria Ideal, the motherlode of bakeries - there were hundreds of people inside and we couldn’t see all the way to the back. Once inside we were in awe - this was definitely the biggest and busiest bakery we had ever seen. The size of a small department or grocery store (estimated 40,000 square feet), it even had a second floor gallery with specially decorated cakes for weddings, birthdays, first communions etc. The place was swarming with people many carrying huge trays (30 inches in diameter) heaping with their favourite breads and pastries. So mesmerized, we didn’t even buy anything that day.
Another surprise was the 20+ fire engine red shed-shaped metal structures that appeared one day in Alameda Central Park. Interesting-looking, but we had no idea what they were all about. The next day as we wandered by, we noticed they now had hammocks attached to them – which were all occupied. Later in the day, I figured out it was part of Design Week, which included dozens of pop-up displays and exhibitions throughout the city. Very cool!
St. Jude Fun
Then one night we were kept awake by firecrackers going off every few minutes – my Mom was not happy. I was thinking this might go on for several days, as the Day of the Dead was still a few days away. The next then we encountered a small parade with people carrying statues of St. Jude and a small marching band. My mother, a devout Catholic, quickly realized we were at St. Jude Church and it was October 28th – St. Jude’s Day. They were simply celebrating this apostle and patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came when we got off the bus late in the afternoon of our first Saturday as we were heading back to our hostel. We found ourselves in the midst of tens of thousands of people (from infants to seniors) dressed up in gory outfits with makeup to match. “Was this the beginning of the Day of Dead celebrations?” we wondered. The procession of people was slowly walking from Revolution Plaza towards the historic city centre. Only later did we find out it was a Zombie Walk. Too fun!
Then there was also our first Sunday when we decided to take an evening walk toward an eerie pink-lit building in the distance. Not only did we discover it was the monument at Revolucion Plaza that is lit every night, but that it has a large, fun, dancing fountain that attracted hundreds of people (young and old) to watch or run through it. The squeals and screams of happiness were infectious.
The BEST surprise was attending the National Lottery draw. Early in the day, we finagled our way into the art deco National Lottery building (who can say “no” to an 84-year woman politely asking questions in English) with its spectacular murals and auditorium. It turnout, a public draw takes place to choose the winning lottery numbers. As chance would have it, there was a draw that night at 8 pm. We didn’t give it much thought until we were just about back at our hostel and realized it was 7:45 pm and we were just a block from the National Lottery building. We decided to see if we could get in.
Again, my mother thanks managed to talk our way in and we were treated to the most amazing evening of entertainment. As we headed for our seats, we encountered about a dozen young people (ages 10 to 16) in military uniform lined up waiting to get into the auditorium. No sooner had we taken our seats then they marched in and up onto the stage. After a flurry of hand-shaking and greeting of the head table dignitaries, the young people took over the night, managing the elaborate system of ball dropping and number calling/chanting – a spectacle almost impossible to describe. Watch the video and you will know what I mean.
The public displays of affection that occurred in the parks, plazas and sidewalks was a delightful surprise. Everywhere we went, couples (young and old) were sitting on benches canoodling, not the least bit shy about it (they even liked having their pictures taken). We also noticed how handholding was very popular with people of all ages. Paris may commonly be known as the “City of Love,” Mexico City – in my opinion – gives it a run for its money.
Hostel Suites Fun
Our final surprise happened as we were leaving. My Mom, returning to our room after saying goodbye to the hostel staff, held two decorated sugar skulls – gifts from the Hostel Suites staff. The staff there are the best!
We came to Mexico City for the "Day of the Dead" and Our Lady of Quadalupe shrine but left with memories of dozens of other fun, memorable and everyday surprises.