Explore Mexico City
Mexico City spreads itself furthest to the south, where a series of old villages that have been swallowed up by the urban sprawl harbour some of the most enticing destinations outside the centre, including the colonial suburbs of Coyoacán and San Ángel, the archeological site of Cuicuilco and the canals of Xochimilco.Read More
- San Ángel
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
To see the largest private collection of Rivera’s work, and to experience one of the city’s finest museums, head ten stops further along the Tren Ligero line to the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño. The museum sits amid peaceful and beautifully tended grounds where peacocks strut, oblivious of the busy streets outside. It is built into a seventeenth-century mansion, donated in 1994 by the elderly Dolores Olmedo, a wealthy collector and longtime friend and patron of Rivera’s. Over the years she amassed over 130 of his works, all of which are on display here. They span his career, from his Cubist experimentation in the early twentieth century through self-portraits (exhibiting varying degrees of flattery) to 25 sunsets painted in Acapulco from the balcony of his patron’s house. The collection is immensely varied, making this perhaps the best place to get a true sense of just how versatile a master he was. Look particularly for three large and striking nudes from the early 1940s, and sketches for his famous paintings of calla lilies.
Rivera’s work is reason enough to come here, but the museum also has an outstanding collection of two dozen paintings by Frida Kahlo. With the works arranged in approximate chronological order, it is easy to see her development as an artist, from the Riveraesque approach of early works such as 1929’s The Bus, to her infinitely more powerful self-portraits. Many of her finest works are here, including Henry Ford Hospital, A Few Small Pricks, The Broken Column and Self-Portrait with Monkey, the latter featuring a Xoloitzcuintle, a pre-Columbian grey-skinned, hairless dog. To see these creatures in the flesh, wander out into the garden where a few are still kept. There’s also a portrait of Kahlo by Rivera elsewhere in the museum in a pastiche of her own style.
Though easily overshadowed by the Rivera and Kahlo pieces, there is also a worthwhile collection of wood-block prints done by Angelina Beloff, Diego’s first wife, featuring scenes from Mexico and her native Russia.
The floating gardens adjoining the suburb of Xochimilco (Tren Ligero Xochimilco) offer an intense carnival atmosphere every weekend and are likely to be one of your most memorable experiences of the city. Considerable effort has been expended in recent years to clean up the canals and maintain the water levels that had been dropping here, so Xochimilco (“place of the flower fields” in Náhuatl) looks set to remain the most popular Sunday outing for thousands of Mexicans. It’s also the one place where you get some feel for the ancient city and its waterborne commerce, thriving markets and dazzling colour – or at least an idealized view of it. Rent any of the colourful boats and you’ll be ferried around miles of canals, continually harangued by women selling flowers, fruit and hot food from tiny canoes, or even by larger vessels bearing marimba players and entire mariachi bands who, for a small fee, will grapple alongside you and blast out a couple of numbers. The floating gardens themselves are no more floating than the Titanic: following the old Aztec methods of making the lake fertile, these chinampas are formed by a raft of mud and reeds, firmly rooted to the bottom by the plants. The scene now appears like a series of canals cut through dry land, but the area is still a very important gardening and flower-producing centre for the city. If you wander the streets of Xochimilco town you’ll find garden centres everywhere, with wonderful flowers and fruit in the market that enlivens the town centre for much of Saturday (though whether it’s healthy to eat food raised on these dirty waters is open to question).
Plaza Garibaldi (Metros Bellas Artes and Garibaldi) is the traditional final call on a long night around the capital’s bars, and as the night wears on and the drinking continues, it can get pretty rowdy. The plaza is on Lázaro Cárdenas, five blocks north of Bellas Artes in a thoroughly sleazy area of cheap bars, grimy hotels and several brightly lit theatres offering burlesque and strip shows. Despite a high-profile police presence, pickpockets are always a threat and it’s best to avoid coming laden down with expensive camera equipment or an obviously bulging wallet.
Hundreds of competing mariachi bands gather here in the evenings, all in their tight, silver-spangled charro finery and vast sombreros, to play for anyone who’ll pay them. A typical group consists of two or four violins, a brass section of three trumpeters standing some way back so as not to drown out the others, three or four men on guitars of varying sizes, and a vocalist, though a truly macho man will rent the band and do the serenading himself. Mariachis take their name, supposedly, from the French mariage, it being traditional during the nineteenth-century French intervention to rent a group to play at weddings. You may also come across norteño bands from the border areas with their Tex-Mex brand of country music, or the softer sounds of marimba musicians from the south. Simply wander round the square and you’ll get your fill – should you want to be individually serenaded, pick out a group and negotiate your price.
At the back of the square is a huge market hall in which a whole series of stalls serve simple food and vie furiously for customers. Alternatively, there is at least one prominent pulquería on the square, and a number of fairly pricey restaurant/bars, which try to drown out the mariachi bands with their own canned music, and tempt customers with their no-cover entry. The last Metro leaves at midnight.
Since the 1970s, Frida Kahlo (1907–54) has been considered Mexico’s most internationally renowned artist, outshining even her husband, Diego Rivera, who recognized her as “the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women”. Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek, further consolidated her role as a feminist icon. Her work is deeply personal, centred on her insecurities and her relations with her family, her country and her politics. “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.” Her relatively short painting career was never prolific and the largest collection of her work is at the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño.
The daughter of a mestizo Mexican mother and Hungarian Jewish father, Frida was born in the Blue House in Coyoacán (now the Museo Frida Kahlo) in 1907, though she always claimed she was born in 1910, symbolically uniting her birth with the start of the Revolution. When she was 6, she battled a bout of polio that left her right leg withered. She rebounded and, as a precocious 14-year-old at Mexico City’s top school, first met Diego Rivera (twenty years her senior) who was painting a mural there. She shocked her friends by declaring that she wished to conceive his child “just as soon as I convince him to cooperate”, but they didn’t meet again for many years.
Marriage to Rivera
At 18, and already breaking free of the roles then ordained for women in Mexico, Frida had begun to pursue a career in medicine when she suffered a gruesome accident. The bus she was riding in was struck by a tram, leaving her with multiple fractures and a pelvis skewered by a steel handrail. It was during the months she spent bedridden, recovering, that she first took up a paintbrush. Later in life, she reflected “I had two accidents in my life. One was the bus, the other Diego.” After her recovery she fell in with a left-leaning bunch of artists, free-thinkers and Communists where she again met Rivera. Within a year they were married: she a striking, slender woman of 21; he a massively overweight man twice her age with a frog-like face and an unparalleled reputation for womanizing. Diego went about his affairs quite publicly (including briefly with Frida’s sister, Cristina). He was furious when Frida took up with other men, but her several affairs with women seemed to delight him. After her death he wrote, “Too late now, I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”
Encouraged by Diego, Frida pursued her painting career. Over half of her canvases are self-portraits: an unsmiling face with dark monobrow above a body often sliced open and mutilated. Increasingly her self-portraits were imbued with sophisticated personal symbolism, with themes of abortion, broken bones and betrayed love explored through the body set in an unlikely juxtaposition of elements.
In 1932 Frida miscarried and was hospitalized in Detroit where she painted Henry Ford Hospital. This disturbing depiction of her grief shows her naked body lying on a bed in an industrial wasteland, surrounded by a foetus, pelvic bones and surgical implements all umbilically tied back to her. After returning to Mexico, her circle of friends expanded to include Trotsky (with whom she had a brief affair), Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella and muralist David Siqueiros (later implicated in an attempt to kill Trotsky). By now Frida and Diego were living in paired houses in San Ángel, which allowed them to maintain relatively separate lives. In 1939 they divorced, a devastating event Frida recorded in Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, in which her trademark long tresses and indigenous tehuana dresses (both much loved by Diego) are replaced by Diego’s oversized suit and cropped hair. They remarried a year later, with Frida insisting on financial independence and a celibate relationship.
The injuries from her accident dogged her throughout her life, and as her physical condition worsened she found solace in her work (as well as drink and pain-killing drugs), painting The Broken Column, in 1944, with her crushed spine depicted as an Ionic column. Despite increasing commercial and critical success, Frida had only one solo exhibition of her work during her lifetime, in Mexico City just a year before she died. In her later years she was wheelchair-bound, but continued the political activism she had always pursued, and died after defying medical advice and taking part in a demonstration against American intervention in Guatemala while she was convalescing from pneumonia in July 1954. By this stage, she knew she was dying; defiantly, on her last work, she daubed the words “Viva la Vida” – “Long Live Life”.
A walk from San Ángel to Coyoacán
A walk from San Ángel to Coyoacán
The most enjoyable way to take in San Ángel and Coyoacán on the same day is to put an hour or so aside and walk between the two. The most pleasant route, through quiet streets past some of the city’s prime real estate, starts at the main junction in the centre of San Ángel where Revolución passes the Museo del Carmen. From here, follow La Paz northeast and cross Insurgentes to reach the Jardín de la Bombilla, a small park centred on a blockish concrete monument to General Alvaro Obregón, who was assassinated here in 1928 soon after being re-elected as president. Revolutionary workers (corn cob in one hand, hammer and sickle in the other) flank the monument, and you can duck inside to see the bronze statue of Obregón. On the east side of the park, cross Chimalistac and walk through the tiny Plaza Frederico Gamboa. When you reach the other side, take a left (you’re now headed north) and cross Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, passing Parque Tagle on your left, then turn right into Arenal. This leads you across Universidad to the Capilla de San Antonio Panzacola, a little red chapel sited attractively next to a small stone bridge.
Continue east on the peaceful, cobbled Francisco Sosa, one of the most beautiful streets in the city, and also one of the oldest. Peer over the high walls lining the street to catch a glimpse of some gorgeous residences – the only way to get any closer to these houses is to visit the Museo Nacional de la Acuarela, Salvador Nova 88, a small museum inside one. Devoted to watercolour painting, the collection includes some architectural and graphic art as well. Look for work by early twentieth-century painter Saturnino Herrán, and don’t miss the temporary exhibits in a separate gallery reached through a small sculpture garden.
Ten minutes’ walk further along Francisco Sosa brings you to the Plaza Santa Caterina, a tranquil square overlooked by a mustard-yellow church and with a couple of restaurants. From here it is a short walk to Coyoacán’s Plaza Central, reached through a twin-arched gateway.
The assassination of Trotsky
The assassination of Trotsky
The first attempt on Trotsky’s life, in his house at Coyoacán, left more than seventy scars in the plaster of the bedroom walls. At 4am on May 24, 1940, a heavily armed group led by painter David Siqueiros (who had been a commander in the Spanish Civil War and was working under the orders of the Stalinist Mexican Communist Party) overcame the guards and pumped more than two hundred shots into the house. Trotsky, his wife and son survived only by hiding under their beds. After this, the house, already heavily guarded, was further fortified. Unknown to all, though, the eventual assassin had already inveigled his way into the household, posing as a businessman being converted to the cause. Although he was never fully trusted, his arrival at the house on the afternoon of August 20, with an article that he wanted Trotsky to look over, seemed innocuous enough. Trotsky invited him into the study and moments later the notorious ice pick (the blunt end), which had been concealed under the killer’s coat, smashed into Trotsky’s skull. He died some 24 hours later, in the hospital after an operation failed to save his life. The killer, who called himself Frank Jackson and claimed to be Belgian, served twenty years in jail, though he never explained his actions or even confessed to his true identity, Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río.