It was such an honor to guest post for Michael Gerber Photographyabout one my favorite aspect about one of my favorite places: the parks of Mexico City.
This is a photo of me pre or post crying. I had been walking around Chapultepec in Mexico City and just felt so at ease. I don’t know what it is about certain places that make you feel in complete alignment. Is it the light? The colors? The energy? The smells? For some reason, I feel at home in Mexico City. There are rare places that evoke such visceral responses. As if I’m tapping into a past life. I don’t know if there is any science behind it; I just know how I feel. The parks of Mexico City are some of my favorite in the world and I encourage you to explore them.
Here is the original post and below is an excerpt!
Mexico City feels like it was built around a jungle. Each street is lined with contorted trees, protruding aloe, and stoic cacti. Vines and flowers dangle from balconies and splay themselves along the walls of the city. The city’s relationship with nature is evident, if not ostentatious. It has seeped into their art, their literature, and city design. This is seen most prominently in their parks. Current Mexican culture has taken influences from their mystical heritage and fold it nicely into modern cultures, like stuffing cheese into a tamale. Each one is more than a place to relax. They are spaces designed for creative inspiration and expression, filled with sculptures, extravagant architecture, and intricate walkways. Although the locals live in a humans-crawling-over-each- other kind of city, there is clear need to be in nature, a need to keep an air of mystery. Therefore, I am gonna show you the best parks in Mexico City today!
Don’t expect the well-manicured lawns of British gardens, pruned topography, or mowed lawns; these parks in Mexico City are as wild as the city they sit inside. Each one holds its own type of magic. They are jungley and filled with secrets. They make you feel like you are walking around a piece of magical realism, where time evaporates and you find the magic within the real world. Their shadows and secrets break the haughty belief that because we are modern, we know all there is to know. No matter how fast our internet is, life will always be shrouded in mystery.
Mexico City’s parks are places of escape and contemplation, and fortunately, they are everywhere. These are the parks in Mexico City you can’t miss.
Chapultepec: the oldest and largest park in Mexico City and North America. It is a park so magnanimous it could swallow Central Park whole and still have room to munch on smaller parks for dessert. You couldn’t miss if you tried.
This park is a city within itself. It contains 9 museums, a zoo, an amusement park, and a castle, and there is still enough space for hundreds of families to picnic without feeling claustrophobic. You could spend a whole week in the park alone and still not see everything.
You can see people enjoying the park all week long; however, the park offers plenty of free activities on Sundays.
There is enough space to allocate to each age group, from intricate children’s playgrounds to a garden for the elderly. It also contains the spirits and skeletons of past generations in the largest cemetery in Latin America.
While it is a popular place to picnic, this area has been more than just a delightful place to eat outdoors. While it is now used as a space to relax in, Chapultepec is known for its pugnacious past.
This area has always been of interest to humans. In 1122 A.D., the Toltec, one of the ancient peoples who predate the Mayas and Aztecs, cultivated and named the area. Chapultepec translates to “Hill of the Grasshopper” and is cherished for its advantageous lookout spots of the area and the large amounts of bugs bouncing around. The land switched hands as the Toltec slowly morphed into the Aztecs, who ruled it until Cortez- and his onslaught of germs, horses, and gunpowder- weakened and overthrew the Aztecs. One of the final battles between the Aztecs and Cortez happened on the hill of Chapultepec, which was quickly turned over to the conquistadors.
The hill is now h0me to the only castle in Mexico, if not Latin America. It was built in 1785 as a stately home for the head vicor and the Spanish Crown. During the Mexican-American War, Chapultepec was a strategic site. The most notorious story is about the “Boy Heros” a group of young soldiers all under the age of 19 who fought in Chapultepec castle. They were surrounded by American soldiers and rather than surrendering to them, the young soldiers, heroically, wrapped themselves in the Mexican flag and jumped to their deaths. Many streets in Mexico are named “Ninos Heroes” in honor of their martyrdom.
The castle was then run by Maximilian + Carlota, Belgium daughter and son in law of Leopold II (who would later be infamous for his atrocities in the Congo). They were expected to be the Emperor and Empress of Mexico who wanted Mexico City to be the capital of their new empire. Unfortunately, their plans didn’t go exactly as he expected as their presence inflamed the Mexican resistance. Maximilian died by firing squad and his wife went insane and lived in a convent the rest of her life. The castle is now a museum.
From the apex of the hill, you can peer over the tops of trees, which are older than the city itself. There are certain areas where you can stand and capture the city’s different epochs in one look the castle, the skyscrapers, and the surrounding forest- only to wonder what the next hundred years will bring.
Mexico City is one of the rare places that has maintained a balance between modernity and its roots. As many ancient cities have toppled and been rebuilt in a more modern path, Mexico City still maintains a balance between the New and Old Worlds. That is seen best in the canals of the southern neighborhood, Xochimilco. Pre-Hispanic groups constructed a series of canals over a large lake, creating a New World equivalent to Venice or Amsterdam.
They named it Xochimilco, which translates to “field of flowers.” This neighborhood is still one of the main agricultural centers, providing food and flowers for the city.
Today, you can hop into a brightly colored “trajineras,” which are the Mexican take on gondolas and you can paddle through 110 miles of canals and floating gardens. When you walk up to the entrance, you are welcomed with rows of bright neon painted boats, each christened with a loved one’s name and lavishly decorated. You and your boat rider can venture through the giant canal system weaving through the manmade islands, chinampas.
Once you are floating through the canals, your rectangle boats will weave through willow trees, lily pads, and wild reeds. There is a variety of fauna from the occasional cow munching away to the rare Montezuma frog who may hop into your boat. These creatures were once believed to be a reincarnation of an Aztec god “Xolotl”, brother of “Quetzalcoatl”. This amphibian was used as a medicine and food to the Aztec people. It is certainly a sign of good luck if it springs across your path.
The Mexicans know how to turn any opportunity into a fiesta. There are food boats that will saddle up and ride with you as you select your snacks for your trip- peanuts, chili mangos, and real Coca-Cola. Competing for your attention are the mariachi boats who will serenade beside you so emphatically it is astonishing they don’t flip over.
The islands themselves are filled with secrets. One of the most popular and eerie experiences is the island of dolls. Years ago, a man living on the island discovered the body of a little girl who had ostensibly drowned by his house on one of the chinampas. Days later, a doll floated by the same path and the man believed that the doll possessed the girls’ spirit. He hung the doll in one of the trees on the island as a sign of respect but out of superstition began putting up more and more dolls to ward off spirits to prevent him from being haunted. The island is now covered with decapitated and mutilated dolls bodies hanging in the trees like rotting fruit. If you choose to pass by, you will be watched by thousands of hollow glass stares that follow you as you pass by. To sum up, this is certainly one of the best parks in Mexico City.
Santa María la Ribera’s Kiosco Morisco
In the tranquil neighborhood of Santa Maria lies Alameda Park. Like a pearl hiding them in the center of an oyster is a prismatic kiosk in the middle of the park. This stunning geometric edifice might make you think you have accidentally taken a wrong turn and ended up in Morocco.
Open air octagon feels like you are walking around in a kaleidoscope as the green trees pop out against the red and blue design work. It’s just fucking cool.
It was built by a Mexican architect, José Ramón Ibarrola, to be the Mexico Pavilion at the World’s Fair of 1884 in New Orleans and of the Saint Louis Exposition of 1902. It has been taken apart and reconstructed several times before finally making its home in the northern neighborhood of Santa Maria.
Although it is of Mexican origin, the structure has clear Islamic influence. It’s painted patterns bear an exact resemblance to a mosque. The top of the kiosk with its circular top and star designs feels ethereal- like it is a direct transport to the heavens.
The park holds more than just the kiosk. It is a popular area to host shows, dance lessons, outdoor movies, and orchestras. On the side opposite the kiosk is the Geology Institute that holds a lovely collection of fossils, rocks, flora, and fauna from around the globe. Space is lined with benches and plenty of grassy areas to pick up a few snacks at the calm food vendor’s standing around the circumference of the park. You don’t need any drugs to get a trip out of this beautiful park in Mexico City.
Biblioteca Vasconcelos + Botanic Gardens
Vasconcelos Biblioteca is the Moby Dick of libraries. It is named after the progressive José Vasconcelos Calderón who was a Mexican philosopher and politician in the turn of the century. He contributed heavily to the arts and educational programs. However, this library was built with more than one influential Mexican in mind.
This mega-library is 409,000 sq ft and large enough to hold 5 libraries in it-which it technically is. Each quadrant of the space was created in honor of some of the most literary minds that Mexico has raised and nurtured: the poet Ali Chumacero, political advocate Carlos Monsiváis, diplomat + historian José Luis Martínez, writer Jaime García Terrés, and diplomat + intellectual Antonio Castro Leal.
The building is grand but peaceful; you feel a tranquility the moment you step inside. It is the kind of silence that almost lets you hear new ideas sparking within young scholars studying away.
The transparency of the structure adds to the calmness. The open shelving, large glass walls, and expansive ceilings make you feel like you are walking around the skeleton of a whale- its ribcage all exposed. On the ground level, the stacks of books hang above you as if they are suspended by spells.
As you walk up the stairs, your perspective is always shifting through the hive like shelving, like walking around in a Rubix cube. The top layer allows you to peer down at the urban landscape surrounding the building. The edifice is surrounded by endemic Mexican flora: cactus, lush ferns, and trees with trumpet-shaped flowers dangling like Christmas ornaments.
This park has a special place in my heart. Located in the Condesa neighborhood. Art Deco architecture is dispersed through the park, shaded by wild, untamed foliate and trees. It feels like walking through a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, where the tranquility of the nature and abstraction of the art warps your sense of time and reality. It is a magical respite from the rest of the obstreperous city.
Nature weaves around play areas for children, skateboarding spaces for teens, grassy sections for couples, and benches for the elderly to sit and observe the youth run around them. There are canopies of pink flowers elegantly draping themselves over wooden structures, like elegant women fainting.
The park used to be a race track with domesticated horses running around the park in an endless infinity loop until the last one breaks. Now, these paths are replaced with an air of laziness- old couples moving at a snail’s pace, lovers meandering with nowhere else to go, and toddlers haphazardly jumping about. This perfect oval is surrounded by old Spanish architecture holding cute cafes and restaurants, chocolate shops, and bookstores for you to meander in and out of.
It is sometimes so quiet you can almost hear the trees inhale our co2. It’s a wonderful park in Mexico City that literally reminds you to breathe.
As you sit under one of the pine trees in Chapultepec, peacefully meander through the stoic cacti of Parque Mexico, or are hypnotized by the geometric patterns of the kiosk, you will understand the dedication the locals have made to preserve the magic of this land. The parks are a rare space between the known and unknown world. Space where we can be reminded of life’s mysteries.
The land that encompasses Mexico City has always been deemed sacred. A place where people have traveled thousands of miles just to get to; a place others stumbled upon, anticipating other lands. A place that has mesmerized all walks of life; where people have loved and died, killed and protected. A place where you can now sit in peace, shaded by a Mexican Cyprus, under the same sun the Aztecs once worshiped. Disfrutar.
If you want more tips on what to do in Mexico City, check out my post about the 5 Most Unique Adventures in Mexico City with the wonderful travel blog the Solitary Wanderer travel blog.