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d(istrito) f(ederal)

Mexico City is the second biggest in the world and it seems like I could probably stay here for a very long time before it started to make much sense to me. However, living previously in Sao Paulo, the third biggest city in the world, for three and a half years has prepared me for it somewhat and I manage not to feel totally overwhelmed.

A bit of whimsy on the streets of the city.

I have found a few instant friends by the relatively simple, but not entirely foolproof, method of contacting a couple of bicycle groups and, so, of course, most of my activities end up being bicycle related but Mexico City proves to have no shortage of them.

Sunday morning sees me hazily wandering the streets of the city, after a uncharacteristic night of partying. A combination of Mexico City authorities have instituted a Sunday Bike Programme, in which some major city avenues are turned over to pedestrians, skaters and cyclists between 8.00 am and  2.00 pm every Sunday. A range of activist groups that wish to promote cycling are out and about on the streets preaching their gospel.

Something like 4 million motor vehicles are in use in Mexico City every day, commuters spend nearly two hours each day in transportation and 25% of the carbon dioxide emissions in the city are produced by cars. It would be nice to see a few more people on bikes as their preferred means of everyday transport instead of just Sunday recreation but the Sunday Bike Programme seems like a very good start in promoting bike culture in the city.

ECOBICI are one of the many groups in Mexico City which are trying to promote cycling. If you are a member of the programme (which requires you to have a credit card registered with the organisation) you can borrow a bike from any ECOBICI station and use it free of charge for up to three hours. It is possible to return the bike to any ECOBICI station in the city.

Another ECOBICI station.

The local constabulary also get around on bikes.

Bicitekas is cycle activist group that has a number of projects. One is Paseo a Ciegas, where volunteers  take sight-impaired people on tours of the city on tandems as part of the Sunday Bike Programme.

All sorts of bike organisations and projects exist in Mexico City. A volunteer wearing a tee-shirt sporting the Paseos a Ciegos logo.

I spend the first few weeks in Mexico City staying with Alisa and her three cats and two flatmates. This tolerant household seems unfazed by my erratic comings and goings and the various belongings, including my bike, that I leave scattered around the lounge room.

Alisa and Orix.

DF empties out over the semana santa – Holy Week – as Easter is known in Mexico. Semana santa is one of Mexico’s most important holidays, although less for its religious significance, than for the opportunity it provides for people to enjoy Mexico’s fabulous beaches.

I explore the city’s markets, the most obviously attractive of which is the flower market, housed in a bustling cavernous tin building. The place never sleeps because you simply can’t know when you might have an urgent need of flowers.

Flower market - open 24 hours a day, 365 days a years...

...because you never know when you might need a funeral wreath...

...or a party balloon...

...or a couple of hundred dozen roses...

...or just piles and piles of flowers.

Every market place has a shrine and this market clearly never lacks for cut flowers to place on the alter.

There are always plenty of flowers here, I'm sure, for the market place shrine.

In the general market, behind the Zocalo, I come across another macabre religious figure: Santa Muerte. This statue stands behind the counter of a stall where it is possible to buy herbal remedies for all your spiritual and bodily ailments. To one side you may, if you choose, enter a small booth sealed by a slightly ominous sliding door to get your aura cleansed for a mere 120 pesos. I briefly contemplate having the procedure performed before deciding that, on reflection, that I would prefer my aura to retain is imperfections.

In the general market, I come across more grim religious imagery. Santa Muerte's Catholic credentials are slightly dubious, I think.

Big cities have an undeniable force, something like that of a black hole, that draws me in and holds me tight and I find it hard to drag myself away from DF. Eventually I relieve Alisa and her household of my presence on their couch and move to another cat-loving household a little further south – with Rose and her feline friend, Yumi.

People gradually drift back into the city after Easter and the pace of life picks up again. Paseos Nocturnos is another Bicitekas initiative; every Wednesday at 9.00 pm cyclists gather under The Angel of Independence on Reforma to cycle through the night-time city. The evening I participated the group rode a relatively short distance to the Zocalo, and around the market areas behind it, but often the night rides are much more extended and don’t finish until 1.00 or 2.00 am.

Another Bicitekas activity are night rides around Mexico City. Every Wednesday, the group meets under the Angel at 9.00 pm and explores different areas of the city on two-wheels.

Police survey the crowd of cyclists - a couple of police cars accompany the ride.

Darkness...

...and light...

More bicycle lights in the night.

I meet with Cheve, a keen biker and mountaineer, to quiz him for information about climbing some of Mexico’s more challenging volcanoes. I have my eyes set on Iztaccihuatl but to reach the summit it is necessary to deal with some glaciated areas and this is an aspect of climbing of which I have no previous experience. We meet on a rainy afternoon at UNAM, the Autonomous University of Mexico, and chat sheltering first under a freeway bridge before making our way, in a break in the downpour, to an local example of 70s land art, a giant ring of concrete triangles surrounding a patch of volcanic rock – the rock that much of Mexico City is built from. We continue our conversation about trips and adventures and when the skies open again we hide out in a small underground cave in the middle of the encircled area.

An art work at the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) - the circle surrounds a patch of volcanic rock. There is even a little underground cave in the middle of it.

Later in the evening, I meet with Kodiak, another keen cycle tourist. Kodiak appears to devote most of his spare time to promoting cycle touring in Mexico by organising trips for members of Ciclovida, a group he co-ordinates.  We met earlier in the week to swap cycling stories and, when Kodiak discovered that I have been riding without a helmet since mine was stolen in Guachochi, he insisted that Ciclovida would provide me with a new one.

Kodiak, the co-ordinator of Ciclovida, a bike group with the aim of promoting cycle touring, gives me a new helmet to replace the one that was stolen in Gauchochi.

So, finally, armed with plenty of good advice on the best route out of Mexico City to Puebla –  my next stop –  and a brand new helmet, I am ready to leave DF. Getting out of DF requires negotiating some pretty hairy roads so I am quite happy to have a hard head again.

The periferico....

...is an awe-inspiring and...

... and awful thing. Just imagine if all those resources, effort and ingenuity were put into making something really useful.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Matt K | April 19, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    You’ve done a great job of capturing the DF. I’m glad to see there are more and more bike initiatives.
    I had the same feeling about the Sunday ciclovias in Guadalajara… SO MANY folks were out and about, businesses were packed, faces were smiling, people were dancing, why can’t it be like that every day?
    As for the 2-nd story of the Periferico… yes, how awful. Maybe after peak oil (hopefully like tomorrow) cyclists will freely roll along these roads.

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