The Magnificent Parroquia San Juan Bautista

Don’t miss la Iglesia de Coyoacán, a striking example of Spanish colonial history and one of the oldest surviving houses of worship in Mexico City.

Add la Iglesia de Coyoacán to your itinerary when exploring this boho neighborhood

Add la Iglesia de Coyoacán to your itinerary when exploring this boho neighborhood

After lunch at Los Danzantes, Wally and I made our way from the leafy Jardín Centenario and crossed Calle Carrillo Puerto, the street that separates the adjacent Plaza Centenario and Plaza Hidalgo.

Presiding over the south side of the Plaza Hidalgo is the Parroquia San Juan Bautista, known locally as la Iglesia de Coyoacán, the Catholic church and former mission dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The Spanish first introduced Christianity to the indigenous Nahuatl people in the early 16th century.



In front of the church entrance is a cobblestone square that originally extended into what is now Plaza Centenario. During the colonial period, the square was used to host religious plays known as autos. Rather than completely abandon old beliefs, the missionaries adopted a strategy to spread the new faith by incorporating indigenous ritual practices that had similarities to Christianity.

A four-story bell tower, which was added later, in the 18th century, stands to the west of the main church and was once topped by a dome, lantern and cross. Sadly, the dome collapsed during an earthquake in September 2017.

The church was built on the site of a school for Aztec nobles

The church was built on the site of a school for Aztec nobles

San Juan Bautista was built upon the site of a calmecac, a school for Aztec nobility, whose ruins still exist beneath the cloister.

The relatively plain façade is in the Herrerian style, named after Spanish architect and mathematician Juan de Herrera. This architectural style is characterized by clean geometric lines and is almost entirely absent of ornamentation, with the exception of grooved classical pilasters, columns of the Ionic order set into the face of the church. An inscription in Latin above the door translates to, “There is none other but a house of God, and this a gate of the heavens.”

The exterior is plain, but the interior is anything but, as this ornate altar attests

The exterior is plain, but the interior is anything but, as this ornate altar attests

Above in bas-relief, are the coat of arms of the Roman Catholic Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans. The petals of the fleur-de-lis cross symbolize the 12 apostles. Another carving depicts a sort of monogram of the Virgin Mary — a crown with the intertwined letters A and M for Ave Maria.

Gorgeous archways and ceiling frescos adorn San Juan Bautista

Gorgeous archways and ceiling frescos adorn San Juan Bautista

Construction of the church happened in fits and starts, between 1527 and 1552, on land donated to conquistador Hernan Cortés by the native Ixtolinque chief, who was baptized into the Catholic faith under the name of Juan de Guzmán. Under the direction of the Dominican order, San Juan Bautista was built upon the site of a calmecac, a school for the sons of Aztec nobility, whose ruins still exist beneath the cloister. The original structure was designed as a basilica, with a simple rectangular floor plan used in temple architecture.

In 1934, the church was declared a historic monument by the government of the republic.

The sides of the church’s interior are gloriously gilded

The sides of the church’s interior are gloriously gilded

Going for Baroque

If you’re like Wally and me, you can’t go to a city without exploring a few churches, and the Parroquia San Juan Bautista did not disappoint. Stepping inside, we immediately noticed the exuberant interior, modified between 1926 and 1947 to reflect the prevailing Baroque style and reduced to a single nave flanked by seven small chapels on either side.

If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it

If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it

The ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe

The ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe

Among the most striking works are the illusion-inducing ceiling frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ by Catalan painter Juan de Fabregat. Angels perch high above the column capitals lining the walls and culminate in the magnificent Chapel of the Rosary, with its lavishly decorated high altar embellished with the glow of gold leaf.

The ceiling depicts scenes from the life of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount

The ceiling depicts scenes from the life of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount

It’s certainly worth popping into Coyoacán’s main church for a quick wander

It’s certainly worth popping into Coyoacán’s main church for a quick wander

An angel guards over the dome at the front of the church

An angel guards over the dome at the front of the church

We paused to admire the vitrine with (the admittedly creepy) el Cristo de los Milagros, Christ of the Miracles, with a mystical assemblage of gold and pewter milagros, healing charms, pinned to a sea of red ribbons. Milagros of a specific body part, such as a leg, are used in a prayer for the improvement for some condition associated with a leg, such as arthritis or a bad knee. Some of the milagros had photos of the person to be healed.

The creepy, life-size Cristo de los Milagros

The creepy, life-size Cristo de los Milagros

If you want to be healed of an ailment, leave a milagro of the proper body part and maybe a photo, then tie a red ribbon and pin it to the wall

If you want to be healed of an ailment, leave a milagro of the proper body part and maybe a photo, then tie a red ribbon and pin it to the wall

Oh, baby! One of the strange icons to offer devotions to at the Iglesia de Coyoacán

Oh, baby! One of the strange icons to offer devotions to at the Iglesia de Coyoacán

Other works were designed to appeal to the emotions of the faithful and feature biblical depictions of the lives of the saints of the Franciscan order, including the Vision of Saint Teresa, the taking of the habit of Santa Clara, and the stigmatizations of San Francisco, Saint Domingo and San Juan.

Expect an inundation of elaborate ornamentation

Expect an inundation of elaborate ornamentation

Converting the infidels

Converting the infidels

Gold-painted statuary and frills line the sides of the church

Gold-painted statuary and frills line the sides of the church

Corpse-like mannequins can seem a strange inclusion to a church

Corpse-like mannequins can seem a strange inclusion to a church

One of the niches on the right-hand side of the church

One of the niches on the right-hand side of the church

We passed through a doorway into a small chapel, where a small group of students was sketching. This led out to an arched arcade of Tuscan columns. This was the cloister of the convent, perhaps founded by Friar Juan de la Cruz, an indigenous man who spoke Castilian Spanish. Within the convent’s walls, Nahuatl people were baptized and taught the tenets of the Christian faith.

Out back you can explore the quiet cloisters

Out back you can explore the quiet cloisters

This might have been where indigenous people were baptized into the Catholic faith

This might have been where indigenous people were baptized into the Catholic faith

A group of students was sketching when we visited

A group of students was sketching when we visited

Like the neighborhood itself, the church is a destination full of rich culture. So if you should find yourself in Coyoacán, make sure to spend some time exploring the Parroquia San Juan Bautista. Like us, you’ll be glad you did. –Duke

La Iglesia de Coyoacán

La Iglesia de Coyoacán

Parroquia San Juan Bautista
Plaza Centenario 8
Villa Coyoacán
04000 Coyoacán
CDMX, Mexico

A Perfect Afternoon in Artsy Coyoacán

Follow our six-stop walking tour of Mexico City’s bohemian neighborhood, including Plaza Hidalgo and Los Danzantes restaurant.

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

There’s much to do in the charming neighborhood of Coyoacán beyond La Casa Azul, the lifelong home and studio of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

The municipality’s name comes from Coyohuacan, Nahuatl for “the Place of Coyotes.” This colonia, or neighborhood, features meandering streets filled with well-preserved colonial buildings, delicious restaurants and handicraft markets waiting to be explored.

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

All you’ll need for a perfect afternoon in Coyoacán is a comfortable pair of shoes and a sense of adventure — the area is walkable, and all of the stops listed below can easily be explored by foot.

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

Make a Splash

Stop 1: Plaza Hidalgo

Your journey begins in the historic heart of Coyoacán, just a few blocks from La Casa Azul. On Avenida Francisco Sosa, you’ll find not one, but two public squares: Jardín Centenario, which memorializes the 100th anniversary of Mexico’s independence, and the Plaza Hidalgo. Together they form a typical colonial town square, complete with benches for people-watching, gazebos for music and vendors selling balloons.

Near the entrance of Plaza Hidalgo, a street artist was selling woven palm-leaf crickets. We purchased a pair for 50 pesos each (about $2.50), and as the vendor was handing them to us, a woman seated on a nearby bench offered her advice by telling us to use hairspray to keep them green.

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

Here you’ll find a circular stone fountain known as the Fuente de los Coyotes, or Fountain of the Coyotes, the animals from whom the borough takes its name. The iconic landmark occupies the center of the plaza and features two bronze coyotes by sculptor Gabriel Ponzanelli. Numerous spouts located around the perimeter spray graceful arcs of water into the air over the playful pair.

Be sure to stop into the exquisite Iglesia de Coyoacán, the large cathedral, across the way.

Ignacio Allende Esquina Avenida Miguel Hidalgo

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Let’s Dance

Stop 2: Los Danzantes

On the periphery of the square is Los Danzantes, the Dancers, a multi-story restaurant in a colonial-era building with panoramic views of the park. Wally’s coworker Juls lived in Mexico City, and this is one of her favorite restaurants. We were seated outside on the patio terrace, and similar to the cafés of Paris, it was a great place to watch the world go by and enjoy a leisurely meal. While we were there, a guitarist paused for a moment as he passed by, looking to see if there might be an interested party willing to pay him to play a song or two. The restaurant also has its own mezcal distillery and grows seasonal produce in garden plots called chinampas in Xochimilco.

The bar at Los Danzantes

The bar at Los Danzantes

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Plaza Jardín Centenario 12

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Get Crafty

Stop 3: Mercado Artesanal Mexicano

After lunch, visit the Mexican Craft Market and walk beneath garlands of fluttering papel picado, colorful cut-tissue paper bunting. The two-story market has dozens of craft stalls featuring a wide variety of traditional Mexican handicrafts and regional specialties from all over the country, all in one place.

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

We headed upstairs first, but it seemed to be endless stalls of tattoo artists and not many handicrafts. The first floor, though, was more our speed. Wally and are were especially drawn to the colorful Oaxacan alebrijes, traditional folk art depicting fantastical creatures embellished with brilliant patterns and colors. (We have a thing for the surreal.) Each small wooden totem is carved by hand, often using nothing more than a simple pocket knife. We brought home a strange little skeleton, a green and orange insect and a black cactus with a bright pink flower and hummingbird on top of it.

When I purchased an unusual-looking doll made from a bulbous gourd with coarsely braided rope pigtails, two tiny breasts and coconut shell limbs (200 pesos, or $10), Wally replied, “You like things that look old, are a little bit cuckoo and are unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere.” He knows me so well.

Stalls often sell the same crafts at different prices, so shop around — but don’t expect to bargain for a lower price.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto 25


coyoacanchurchaisle.jpg

BONUS STOP!

Pop into la Iglesia de Coyoacán (aka Parroquia San Juan Bautista) across the square.

The façade looks plain, but the inside is awash in gilded niches, sweeping arches and hand-painted ceiling frescos, with a peaceful cloister around back.

If that hasn’t convinced you, you can hunt down the creepy life-size mannequins of Christ and a dead baby!


Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Take a Coffee Break

Stop 4: Panadería Pública

If shopping has worn you out, we recommend stopping for a delicious pastry paired with a great cup of coffee at the Panadería Pública for an afternoon pick-me-up. There’s an array of options here, including traditional conchas, campesinos and orejas, as well as French baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat to name a few. I ordered a café con leche and Wally got his latte con leche light. We also purchased a pastelito de guayaba, a puff pastry similar in size and shape to a turnover, filled with cream cheese and guava paste. Stop to chat with the friendly staff.

Higuerra 22
La Concepción

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

Goin’ to the Chapel

Stop 5: Plaza de la Conchita

A short stroll southeast is the leafy Plaza de la Conchita in the colonia La Concepción, a quiet sanctuary that feels worlds away from the crowds of tourists visiting La Casa Azul just a few miles away. The small square contains a pale yellow, timeworn and weather-beaten beauty of the 16th century, the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque-style, chapel known as La Conchita. One of the oldest in Mexico, it’s said that the conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered the church to be built on top of a Toltec altar soon after he settled in Coyoacán. The village was used as the base for the conquistadors after they conquered the Aztec Empire.

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

Duke sits on the steps around back

Duke sits on the steps around back

Unfortunately, the chapel was closed, so we couldn’t venture inside, but the building itself is a charming example of colonial architecture.

The fellas love to take jumping shots

The fellas love to take jumping shots

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Fernández Leal
La Concepción

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Park It

Stop 6: Frida Kahlo Park

Just steps from the Plaza de la Conchita is Frida Kahlo Park. Here you’ll find a menagerie of topiary animals at the entrance and a fountain with a bronze sculpture of a nude woman with her legs drawn up, also by Ponzanelli. A group of teenagers was practicing salsa routines under an arbor of bougainvilleas.

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Wally loves Frida

Wally loves Frida

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

The park is a bit small in scale, but it’s worth stopping by to take a photo with the larger-than-life figures of Frida and Diego and to see the brightly colored mural by Dan Silva aka Polvoe, across the way on Tepalcatitla street.

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

Fernández Leal and Avenida Pacifico
La Concepción


Coyoacán was easily one of our favorite places we visited in CDMX. You can see why this enchanting and storied part of the city has attracted artists and intellectuals over the years. –Duke

 

The Island of the Dead Dolls – La Isla de las Muñecas

How to visit this haunted Mexico City tourist attraction on the Xochimilco canals, and the tragic ghost story of a little girl’s spirit and the strange offerings to appease her.

Rent one of the colorfully painted canal boats on Xochimilco and make a stop at this strange attraction

Rent one of the colorfully painted canal boats on Xochimilco and make a stop at this strange attraction

She was just lying there on the sidewalk, scuffed up and abandoned, behind the massive Uptown Theatre. We knew we had to save her. So Duke and I picked up the dirty baby doll and took her home.

We knew that our sad little toy had a larger destiny: She’d become an offering to the ghost said to inhabit the Island of the Dead Dolls, or la Isla de las Muñecas, on our trip to Mexico City.

Everywhere you look, dolls fill your vision, like a nightmare come to life.

Most have been stripped of their clothing. Dirt and black mold cover their naked lifeless bodies, as if they’ve contracted some sinister plague.
Can’t you totally imagine this guy coming to life?!

Can’t you totally imagine this guy coming to life?!

Dolls lay damaged on the ground, like casualties of some horrific catastrophe

Dolls lay damaged on the ground, like casualties of some horrific catastrophe

These dolls have been nailed to a tree, creating a macabre tableau

These dolls have been nailed to a tree, creating a macabre tableau

The Legend of the Island of the Dead Dolls

Along the canals of Xochimilco (pronounced So-chee-meel-ko), a young girl drowned under mysterious circumstances. One day a man named Don Julián Santana Barrera left his wife and child, and moved into a tiny cabin on one of the small islands between the canals of Xochimilco to live out his life as a hermit.

Shortly thereafter, he made a gruesome discovery that would haunt him for the rest of his life: He found a girl floating face-down in the water. But, try as he might, he was unable to revive her.

Not long after, he saw a doll bobbing along nearby. He fished it out and tied it to a tree as a way of showing respect to the spirit of the drowned girl.

Off with her head!

Off with her head!

A fence with various offerings. Note Captain Sandro in the background

A fence with various offerings. Note Captain Sandro in the background

It didn’t work, though. The girl’s ghost haunted Julián. In an effort to appease this restless wraith, he continued to hang more and more dolls, now joined by mangy stuffed animals, plastic dinosaurs, action figures and even a likeness of Santa Claus. The offerings hang from branches, wires and fences, while others have been cruelly nailed right into tree trunks. A couple lay face-down in the dirt, as if they perished mid-crawl, trying to escape the horrors of la Isla de las Muñecas. Over time, the entire island became a bizarre shrine dedicated to this lost soul.

Fifty years later, in 2001, Julián drowned — in the exact spot where he had found the little girl’s body. Was it an accident? Did he commit suicide? Or did the little girl’s ghost finally claim her victim?

Dolls of all shapes and sizes hang in offering to the restless spirit

Dolls of all shapes and sizes hang in offering to the restless spirit

Ghost Hunters

The Island of the Dead Dolls is just the type of creepy, quirky destination that appeals to our warped sensibilities. We knew that we wanted to take a boat out on the Xochimilco canals, but once we saw pictures of the dolls loosely dangling from branches on la Isla de las Muñecas, that became my number-one priority.

Duke’s only pretending to be scared — he loved the Island of the Dead Dolls

Duke’s only pretending to be scared — he loved the Island of the Dead Dolls

Locals say that the dolls have lured them to the island. They swear they’ve seen the chubby limbs of the dolls move on their own, that the heads, with their dead, unseeing eyes, will turn slowly toward you. They even say that they’ve heard the dolls whisper to each other, momentarily possessed by the spirit of the doomed little girl. It’s easy to imagine the dolls coming to life at night and causing mischief.

I placed our doll on the steering wheel of a toy car. Looks like she’s in good company

I placed our doll on the steering wheel of a toy car. Looks like she’s in good company

Our Offering to the Ghost

While we were on the canals, I had a one-track mind: I wanted to make sure we’d get to see the Island of the Dead Dolls. Our boat captain, Sandro, consented and took us to the haunted isle. I grabbed the doll we had brought and scrambled off the boat onto the small jut of land.

No Pasar means Do Not Enter. As if!

No Pasar means Do Not Enter. As if!

Purposefully ignoring the “No Pasar” sign, we walked past a life-size doll that might or might not be Pee-wee Herman, its neck bent at a sickenly unnatural angle, as if it had been snapped. He hangs there at the base of the path, like a gruesome warning of the dangers ahead.

Is that Pee-wee Herman (with a snapped neck), greeting you to this creepy island?

Is that Pee-wee Herman (with a snapped neck), greeting you to this creepy island?

Everywhere you look, dolls fill your vision, like a nightmare come to life. Most have been stripped of their clothing. Dirt and black mold cover their naked lifeless bodies, as if they’ve contracted some sinister plague.

Disgustingly dirty dolls dangle from branches and wires all over the small isle

Disgustingly dirty dolls dangle from branches and wires all over the small isle

The island is steep and narrow, and we had to be careful not to lose our footing and topple into the canal. Duke and I wandered around, snapping photo after photo while our boat captain got stoned in a nearby field. It’s such a bizarre setting — you can’t really imagine it until you experience it firsthand. Dolls are creepy enough on their own. But they’re downright terrifying when you see a bunch of them, deformed, dirty, missing hair, limbs or heads after being exposed to the elements for decades.

How many dolls does it take to appease a little girl’s ghost?!

How many dolls does it take to appease a little girl’s ghost?!

A doll hangs, missing its head, its skin a grayish hue from years of sun and rain. Another’s eye has popped out. One has been defaced, with an arcane symbol scrawled upon its forehead and a dark smudge over one of its unblinking eyes.

We wouldn’t be surprised if this dolly was used in Satanic rituals

We wouldn’t be surprised if this dolly was used in Satanic rituals

Underneath a bower constructed of wood and dried leaves, I found a large red toy car with a giant dead-eyed, bloated Holly Hobby type doll behind the wheel. I decided this would be the new home for our dolly. I placed her on top of the steering wheel and offered her as a companion to appease the girl’s ghost.

Say hi to “la negrita en el carro” from Chicago when you visit the island

Say hi to “la negrita en el carro” from Chicago when you visit the island

Out front of the island, a couple offered quesadillas for sale. We got the impression that they stationed themselves there every day to catch the tourists. The man called out something to our driver, who in turn translated the query: Did we leave a doll on the island?

My first instinct was to lie, not sure that adding to the collection was encouraged. But I found myself saying, “Si.” I was relieved when this response delighted everybody. The questions came in a frenzy: Where’s the doll we left? Where are we from? Are we sure we didn’t want more quesadillas?

After I pointed out our offering, Captain Sandro exclaimed, “Es la negrita en el carro.” (“It’s the little black girl in the car.”)

He informed us that there are only two foreign dolls on the island: one from Argentina, and now ours, from Chicago. Duke and I beamed at each other. We hope we’ve become part of the legend of the Island of the Dead Dolls.

This man and his wife sell snacks by la Isla de las Muñecas

This man and his wife sell snacks by la Isla de las Muñecas

Wally thinks he saw a ghost!

Wally thinks he saw a ghost!

How to Get to la Isla de las Muñecas

There is apparently more than one of these creepy islands. We were told the original island is about a four-hour round trip if you leave from Embarcadero Cuemanco or Embarcadero Fernando Celada.

Be careful of the plants — and one-eyed dollies!

Be careful of the plants — and one-eyed dollies!

Luckily, there’s another version of the island that’s much closer if you hire a boat at Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas. Be sure to mention the island before you make a commitment to a particular captain.

And consider bringing a doll to help keep the spirit of the little girl at peace. –Wally

Dolls are creepy enough on their own. But they’re downright terrifying when you see a bunch of them, deformed, dirty, missing hair, limbs or heads after being exposed to the elements for decades.
Don’t pass by the Island of the Dead Dolls — if creepy attractions are your thing!

Don’t pass by the Island of the Dead Dolls — if creepy attractions are your thing!

Island of the Dead Dolls
La Isla de la Muñecas
Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco
16036 Mexico City, CDMX
Mexico

6 Reasons to Visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo

The legacy of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo remains alive in this hacienda that’s as pretty as a peacock — which, incidentally, is overrun by them.

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

I had read that Mexico City is sprawling, but you don’t truly begin to understand this until you’re actually there. And although Uber is a cheap mode of transportation, our advice for exploring CDMX and its many sights is to plan your days according to mayoralities, or municipalities. Since Xochimilco was the farthest destination on our itinerary, we put a day aside to experience the canals and visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo located nearby.

Peacocks strut about the lawn, perch on branches and sit in rows like sentinels on the hacienda’s rooftop.

We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.
The original structure dates back to the 1500s

The original structure dates back to the 1500s

Often overlooked by tourists, the estate was once owned by philanthropist and self-made businesswoman Dolores Olmedo Patiño. Known as Lola to her friends, Olmedo purchased the 16th century colonial hacienda in 1962 and resided there until her death in 2002. It’s worth noting that the five-building complex contains the largest private collection of works by Diego Rivera.

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

Olmedo met Rivera when she was 17 and he was in his 40s, when she accompanied her mother, a school teacher, to the Ministry of Education, where Rivera was working on murals in the building. Rivera asked Olmedo’s mother to be allowed to make some drawings of Dolores.

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

“My mother gave her permission without knowing I would pose nude. I never told her about it. It was like magic watching how such beautiful shapes came forth from his tiny hands and how, without lifting the pencil from the paper, he could draw such long, smooth lines. The time went by without my noticing it while I posed.” –Dolores Olmedo

That was how the unique lifelong friendship was born. Under the guidance of Rivera, Olmedo amassed a vast collection, which she donated to the people of Mexico.

Here are six reasons to add the Museo Dolores Olmedo to your Mexico City itinerary:

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

1. The setting itself is worth the entrance fee.

Formerly known as Hacienda La Noria, which translates to the Water Wheel Estate, the grounds are as impressive as the villa. There’s a variety of fowl, including ducks, geese and peacocks. Lots of peacocks. Peacocks strutting about the lawn. Peacocks perched on the branches of trees — who knew they could fly? Even peacocks sitting in rows like sentinels from the hacienda’s rooftop. We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.

The estate is surrounded by spacious gardens with a variety of native plants and flowers: dahlias, bougainvillea and colossal blue agaves. Fun fact: The potent liquor can only be categorized as tequila if it has been produced from the piña, the heart of this varietal.

Giant blue agaves

Giant blue agaves

This is where tequila comes from!

This is where tequila comes from!

2. There are some strange-looking dogs known as Xolos or Mexican hairless.

Close to the hacienda is a spacious pen, home to several bald, wrinkled, dark-skinned canines. Commonly known as the Mexican hairless, the Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo, are descendants of a pre-Columbian breed of hairless dogs. Their name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and is a combination of two words: “Xolotl,” the name of the Aztec god of lightning and death, and “itzcuintli,” meaning dog. According to Aztec belief, the breed was created by Xolotl to protect the living and guide the souls of the deceased through the dangers of Mictlán, the underworld of Aztec mythology.

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from  Coco , is one of this breed

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from Coco, is one of this breed

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Believe it or not, the so-ugly-they’re-cute canines were a delicacy enjoyed by the Spanish conquistadors, who ate them to the brink of extinction.

Although the breed is revered for its loyalty and intelligence, we don’t recommend dangling your toddler over their pen, as we witnessed a family do while we were there.

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting  The Bus , her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting The Bus, her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

3. You can check out some of Frida’s artwork.

Part of the allure of the museum was to see the surrealist works of Frida Kahlo. In a separate room, located off the interior arcade of the hacienda, were several small-format works by the prominently browed artist. In life, Doña Lola had little regard for Kahlo as an artist, but purchased 25 of Kahlo’s paintings shortly after her death at Rivera’s insistence to ensure his wife’s work remained in Mexico under one roof.

One of Frida’s native Tehuana dresses looms large from a glass case in the corner.

It should be noted that Frida’s works are frequently traveling. Two of Frida’s most famous works, La Columna Rota and Self Portrait With Monkey, were absent on our visit.

The postcard-sized works we saw are suffused with symbolism. She frequently depicted suffering and loss, using her broken body in her art, having suffered from childhood polio at the age of 6, which left her a semi-invalid, exacerbated by an accident when she was 18, when a trolley car collided with the bus she was on.

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

4. The museum houses the largest collection of Diego Rivera’s art in the world.

Displayed within the cavernous rooms of the main house is a gallery displaying pieces from different periods of Rivera’s work. Arranged in chronological order, the collection starts with early works, including post-Impressionist and Cubist style paintings.

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston


Diego’s  Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana),  1955

Diego’s Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana), 1955

El Picador , a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

El Picador, a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

A guard told us we weren’t able to take photos here — until she spotted the sticker that signified we had paid extra for this privilege. We’re not sure if the same rule would have applied with the Frida collection.

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

Portrait of Pita Amor , 1957, the year Rivera died

Portrait of Pita Amor, 1957, the year Rivera died

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men)  reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men) reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

Prized pieces from Olmedo’s pre-Columbian collection are distributed among the museum’s rooms — a result of her relationship with Rivera, whose passion for these artifacts is as legendary as the man himself. An entire wall holds effigies known as Colima dogs, depictions of Xolos in terracotta, an essential accessory found buried in ancient tombs throughout Northwestern Mexico. As mentioned, these totems were used to protect and guide the deceased’s spirit through the dangers of Mictlán, the Realm of the Fleshless, or to continue to serve their owners in the afterlife.

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

In a room that was once the hacienda’s chapel are preliminary concept sketches for murals that illustrate the extensive planning required for these large-scale works. A mobile fresco, Frozen Assets, which Rivera did for MoMA, the New York Museum of Modern Art, in 1931, which was his commentary on capitalism and its inequality. The skyline is composed of NYC skyscrapers, the Daily News Building, Bank of Manhattan Building, Rockefeller Building and Chrysler Building among them. A steel and glass structure filled with scores of sleeping men, or possible corpses, (the “assets”) are watched by a guard. Beneath it all is a bank vault with a man seated on a bench, waiting to examine his earnings.

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Frozen Assets  by Rivera, 1931

Frozen Assets by Rivera, 1931

The final gallery contains a series of sunsets painted from the balcony of Olmedo’s house in Acapulco, which reminded us of Claude Monet’s Impressionist study of haystacks.

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

5. You can take a tour of Mexico at the Museo de Arte Popular, or Folk Art Museum.

The gallery that houses this collection is named for the curator Fernando Gamboa. Filled with artifacts acquired by Olmedo from Mexico’s diverse regions, the folk art collection is touted as one of the most important in the world. In the 1920s, when Mexico’s roots were mostly rural, the popular arts and crafts movement became widespread, and was part of the new definition of national identity. On view are masterworks in glass, ceramic, papier-mâché, wood and tin, folk techniques passed down through generations by village craftspeople.

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes  The World of the Dead  exhibit

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes The World of the Dead exhibit

6. End your visit with whimsical ofrendas from various historical epochs.

The Day of the Dead is a popular festival for families to remember and celebrate departed ancestors, and Doña Lola was known for her elaborate ofrendas, “offerings” dedicated to the deceased. Olmedo explored new ways to incorporate the traditional with the world of contemporary art. The theme at this portion of the museum, near the entrance and gift shop, varies from year to year, and on our visit was El Mundo de Los Muertos, The World of the Dead. The exhibit takes you on a journey through the funerary legacy of civilizations throughout history: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Nordic and Mayan, complete with a priest performing a human sacrifice atop a temple.

We found ourselves comfortably spending about two and a half hours at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, delighted by the peacocks, the grounds, folk art and, of course, the works of Mexico’s most famous artist couple.

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Cost for admission is about $5, with a small additional fee for photography. The museum is free on Tuesdays, though it’s certainly worth 5 bucks not to deal with the extra crowds. –Duke

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Museo Dolores Olmedo
Avenida México 5843
La Noria
16030 Ciudad de México
CDMX
Mexico

The Creepy Witch’s Market at Mercado Sonora

Head to the back left corner to enter a world of magic potions, Santeria, brujeria, voodoo dolls and Santa Muerte.

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

Ever since Duke and I stumbled upon a witch’s market in a corner of the souk in Marrakech, Morocco, we’ve been addicted.

What’s a witch’s market, you ask? It’s sort of like a farmer’s market — only with a lot less local produce and more skulls and potions. Filled as they are with often disturbing items, witchcraft markets appeal to our warped sensibilities.

Our Uber dropped us off at the sprawling Mercado Sonora in Mexico City in front of a line of yellow awnings. At first we wondered if we would even be able to find the section that contained the witch’s market. Stall after stall stretched out before us, filled with brightly colored, super-sized stuffed animals like those you hope your honey will win for you at a carnival. Some stalls had lights swirling like a discotheque and housed banners and other decorations that screamed, “¡Feliz Cumpliaños!” Women sat under large cutouts of Disney princesses, Mickey Mouse and superheroes. Piñatas hung from the ceiling. Men tried to tempt us with rows of technicolor candies.

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

As we wandered toward the far right-hand corner of the massive market, we started noticing a disturbing trend: This was where live animals were sold. We witnessed a young boy dump a cardboard box of full of puppies onto the floor and hastily put them into a cage near crates packed with birds, lizards, cats, rabbits and goats.

I stopped to take a picture of a cage full of mangy-looking puppies, but a man wagged his finger at me, saying, “No fotos” in a stern voice.

“I’m not surprised,” Duke mumbled. “He doesn’t want documentation of how inhumane this is.”

It really was quite depressing. So we were relieved when, as we moved to the left, still at the back of the market, we noticed a life-size skeleton wearing a wedding dress, a string of pearls around its neck and a tiara atop its skull.

We knew we were in the right place. We had found the witch’s market.

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

Santa Muerte and Santería

The figure we happened upon is Santa Muerte, the goddess of death, a popular figure in Mexico. The stall took up a corner space, more of a small boutique. We looked around, seeing strings of beads, skeletons carved from bone (Duke still regrets not having bought one), candles in glass containers and a stone head with cowry shells for its eyes and mouth. I called Duke over. This last item was just the type of unexpected and slightly disturbing thing that he would love. We of course purchased it, for 100 pesos, or $5.

By the way, at markets in Mexico City, unlike those in Southeast Asia or Morocco, for instance, you’re not expected to bargain. The prices are set, but that’s OK, as you’ll find that most of them are quite reasonable.

The man who ran the stall was friendly, and grabbed a pen and paper when I asked him to write down what the head is called.

“Elegua,” he scribbled. I later found out he’s the god of beginnings and endings in Santería. He’s a bit of a trickster, which explains why I was so drawn to him.

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

We made our way through the labyrinth of stalls, surprised that they didn’t connect in any sort of logical manner. You would wind through a narrow space and then find yourself at a dead end, having to backtrack. The market was pretty crowded when we were there on a Sunday morning — “These are all the naughty people who should be in church,” I told Duke — and there was still a bit of jostling in the corridors as people stopped to look at goods or tried to pass by. Every now and then, a vendor would appear, carrying a stack of large boxes, and you’d have to press yourself against the wall to let them pass. It wasn’t long before Duke was feeling claustrophobic.

But I wasn’t done exploring this weird and wonderful market.

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

Brujeria Meets Catholicism

What’s strange about brujeria, or Mexican witchcraft, is that it exists alongside Catholic beliefs. Whereas the mere whiff of something witchy prompts Christians in the United States to scream, “Satan,” Mexicans are much more sanguine. In the heart of the witch’s market, you’ll find statues of saints and baby Jesus dolls, Virgins of Guadalupe and crucifixes galore right next to the scythe-wielding Santa Muerte, looking like the Grim Reaper’s soulmate.

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

As we wandered down a narrow corridor, something caught my attention: what was obviously a Barbie doll, entirely covered in red ribbon with a few nails stuck into it. The vendor told me it was a voodoo doll, but an expensive one, he said, apologetically. You see, it cost 100 pesos, or a whopping $5. He showed me a package of smaller, cheaply made dolls, pointing out how much more affordable they were. But I had to have the other one, of course.

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

At stalls in the witchcraft market, creepy dolls hung on the wall, some with their eyes and mouths sewn shut. One that immediately appealed to me had its face painted half red, half black. Sage smoke from a burning smudge stick filled the dark corridor, making me a little lightheaded. The vendor appeared intimidating — an intense young man with long hair, numerous piercings, tattoos down his arms and triangular studs in his earlobes. But he turned out to be friendly and wrote down the name of the god represented by the red-and-blacked-faced doll: Lucero Mundo, or Star of the World. He’s a deity from Palo, a Santería-like religion that originated in Cuba amongst descendants from the Congo. A god of the crossroads, Lucero witnesses everything, and without his consent, no spiritual power will flow.

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Potions and Notions

Brightly colored bottles and boxes promised the solution to any problem. Got a crush? Spray some Ven a Mi (Come to Me). Want a successful small business? Spritz some Llama Cliente (Call Customers).

I’m not sure if you’re supposed to drink these potions, but I wouldn’t put those toxic-looking, neon-colored bottles to my lips no matter how desperate I was.

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

“I was thinking there’d be more desiccated animals,” Duke sighed. These are the types of things that disappoint us. But then, as if he had conjured it by sheer willpower, we almost walked right into some sort of flayed ball of fur, which looked more like a cross between roadkill and beef jerky. It was hardly recognizable as having once been a small animal. We have a taxidermied squirrel climbing our wall, a dried-out bat in our living room and a desiccated chameleon inside our glass-topped coffee table. But this macabre monstrosity was too much, even for us. –Wally

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Mercado Sonora and the Witch’s Market
Fray Servando Teresa de Mier 419
Merced Balbuena
15810 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico

The Colorful History of the Kiosko Morisco in CDMX

Take a step back in time and visit this Mexico City hidden gem, a relic from a world exposition.

The Moroccan Pavilion is a fun place to spend part of an afternoon wandering Mexico City

The Moroccan Pavilion is a fun place to spend part of an afternoon wandering Mexico City

After visiting the futuristic Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Wally and I made our way over to the neighborhood of Santa María la Ribera in search of the 19th century Kiosco Morisco, the Moroccan Pavilion.

It’s an unusual sight for Mexico City — something you’d imagine seeing in the South of Spain. Moorish in style, the octagonal edifice is supported by slender columns crowned by a dome of glass and iron in the center with a bronze eagle devouring a snake on top, the symbol of Mexico. An elaborate relic from the long-forgotten World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in New Orleans in 1884, the Neo-Mudéjar landmark can be found at the intersection of Dr. Atl and Salvador Díaz Mirón, in the center of the Alameda de Santa María de la Ribera park.

The Kiosko Marisco earned the nickname the “Mexican Alhambra Palace,” as stylistically it incorporated elements that reflected the palace in Granada, Spain.
Wally can’t say no to fresh fruit sprinkled with chili powder

Wally can’t say no to fresh fruit sprinkled with chili powder

Since we were both a bit hungry when we arrived, Wally ordered diced watermelon, topped with chili and lime served out of a large plastic tumbler from one of the park vendors. He had been hoping for mango, but the friendly woman running the cart told him it was out of season.

A drawing of the Kiosko Morisco when it was part of the world expo in New Orleans

A drawing of the Kiosko Morisco when it was part of the world expo in New Orleans

From New Orleans to CDMX

The kiosk was conceived by architect and engineer José Ramón Ibarrola, and made its first appearance as a part of a large-scale exhibit representing Mexico on the word stage. Ibarrola had spent several years studying metallurgy in the United States, where he became friends with Andrew Carnegie. When it came time for the structure to be manufactured, it was agreed that it would be forged at Carnegie’s Union Mills Steel Foundry in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, and then shipped to Louisiana for the exposition.

The style is Mudéjar, a mix of Spanish and Moorish architecture

The style is Mudéjar, a mix of Spanish and Moorish architecture

The pavilion is the centerpiece of Santa María la Ribera Park

The pavilion is the centerpiece of Santa María la Ribera Park

Duke in the kiosk

Duke in the kiosk

Wally hanging on one of the columns

Wally hanging on one of the columns

Comprised of several Mudéjar-style arches and slender columns, the attraction was a hit and was originally known simply as the Octagonal Building. However, it soon earned the nickname the “Mexican Alhambra Palace,” as stylistically it incorporated elements that reflected the Nasrid dynasty palace in Granada, Spain.

Tropical foliage framed by the pavilion’s arch

Tropical foliage framed by the pavilion’s arch

The kiosk served as the mining pavilion at the expo and contained large glass vitrines used to display precious stones and minerals. Visitors could only see them by circulating around the center, where the apex of an elevated pyramid culminated in a large onyx stone.

In an excerpt from La Memoria de la Exposición de New Orleans, Eduardo Emilio Zárate was quoted as saying:

The building, generally known as “The Mexican Alhambra,” is extremely popular. It is a beautiful miniature that imitates the historical palace of Granada well. Here are to be found the countless beautiful samples of the rich and almost inexhaustible mineral wealth of the country of Moctezuma.

After the expo closed, the structure was dismantled and shipped to Mexico City, where it was rebuilt in the grand Parque Alameda Central in the Centro Histórico. While there, it briefly served as the location where locals came to witness the announcements of the winners of the National Lottery draws. In 1910 it was dismantled once again and relocated to its third and current location. (President Porfirio Diaz ordered the Neoclassical Juárez Hemicycle monument to be built on the site where the kiosk formerly stood.)

During transport, it lost the stained glass windows that enclosed the bays, transforming the kiosk from an enclosed space to the open pavilion seen today.

In 1972 the National Institute of Anthropology declared the pavilion a historical monument, and it underwent restoration in 2003. It’s fitting that the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México Geology Museum, containing cabinets filled with fossils and minerals, is located nearby, given the kiosk’s past history.

Atop the dome, an eagle attacks a snake — Mexico’s national symbol

Atop the dome, an eagle attacks a snake — Mexico’s national symbol

Be sure to look up

Be sure to look up

Bright colors, pretty patterns and perfect symmetry add up to a visually pleasing attraction

Bright colors, pretty patterns and perfect symmetry add up to a visually pleasing attraction

A girl scoots past a cornhusk wreath seller

A girl scoots past a cornhusk wreath seller

Inside the kiosk we sat for a moment and simply enjoyed people-watching. A young couple and their choreographer caught our attention as they practiced their salsa routine. Outside the pavilion, local seniors also danced to salsa music, pausing only briefly after each song ended. While we waited for our Uber (you should Uber everywhere — it’s dirt cheap and safe), we watched a quaint vignette play out before us: A young girl on her bright pink scooter paused in front of a man selling handmade wreaths woven from cornhusks.

The colonia of Santa María la Ribera was designated a Barrio Mágico (a “Magical Neighborhood”) in 2011, and after visiting the enchanting Kiosko Morisco, you could easily spend an afternoon wandering the pedestrian-friendly area, enjoying its nostalgic feel and low-key vibe. And if you get hungry, maybe grab a beef stroganoff-filled empanada at Kolobok, a restaurant serving Russian fare on the corner of Dr. Atl. –Duke

The pavilion has been moved around but has found a home in Santa María la Ribera

The pavilion has been moved around but has found a home in Santa María la Ribera

Kiosco Morisco
Calle Salvador Díaz Mirón S/N
Sta María la Ribera
06400 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico



Ignacia Guest House: A Colonia Roma Gem in Mexico City

Looking for Mexico City hotels? Book one of the color-themed suites at this charming and chic boutique hotel in one of CDMX’s safest neighborhoods.

The back courtyard of Ignacia, with its cactus garden and fountain, lies between the old house and the new suites

The back courtyard of Ignacia, with its cactus garden and fountain, lies between the old house and the new suites

In Chicago it had begun to feel a lot like winter and we’d already experienced our first snowfall. So the opportunity for Wally and I to temporarily escape the cold weather for sunshine and 70-degree temperatures in Mexico City (aka CDMX) was just what the doctor ordered.

The staff serves up a different cocktail each evening at this al fresco bar

The staff serves up a different cocktail each evening at this al fresco bar

The Ignacia Guest House

The first thing I do when planning a trip is secure lodging. In my research, I had discovered a couple of charming neighborhoods, or colonias — one of which was Colonia Roma.

This charming tree-lined neighborhood, filled with a mix of Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, is the setting for Alfonso Cuarón’s latest movie, the critical darling Roma. Located on Jalapa Street, one of these historic gems is the Ignacia Guest House, which was our home away from home for five nights. The stylish boutique hotel takes its name from its former beloved housekeeper Ignacia, who lived and worked at the house for more than 70 years.

This woodcut, off the check-in area, shows the beloved housekeeper-cook-nanny Ignacia as a young woman

This woodcut, off the check-in area, shows the beloved housekeeper-cook-nanny Ignacia as a young woman

And here’s the other woodcut of Ignacia, as an older woman. Note the signature cows below

And here’s the other woodcut of Ignacia, as an older woman. Note the signature cows below

Inside the former estate, the palette is restrained to pale pink-colored walls, which truly allows the custom furnishings, lighting and artisanal objects chosen by interior designer Andrés Gutiérrez to shine.

The front sitting room at the hotel

The front sitting room at the hotel

A variety of magazines and other publications are available

A variety of magazines and other publications are available

(Make sure to check out the super-chic bathroom with its oxblood channel tufted wall panels and illuminated vanity mirror located next to the reception desk — you’ll thank me later.)

On every trip I become obsessed with a particular item, and in this case it happened to be the burnished terra cotta vacas, or cows, that could be seen atop the console table beneath a woodcut image of Ignacia in the main house and on the countertop of the patio bar. Romina Argüelles, one of the guest house managers, told us that the artisans who make these only create one or two per year. Needless to say, there’s quite a waiting list.

Across from the breakfast seating area is the small library

Across from the breakfast seating area is the small library

Elements of the historic mansion, which dates to around 1913, have been lovingly preserved and restored, including the window frames, doors, wood floors, ornate plasterwork and pressed tin moldings. That’s thanks to Fermín Espinosa, architect and cofounder of Factor Eficiencia, a Mexico City-based design and construction firm. While the common rooms have been repurposed, the largest and most luxurious suite, Negra, is the only one located in the former mansion and is connected to the additional rooms by an enclosed steel and glass corridor.

This glass corridor leads from the original house to the new modern wing

This glass corridor leads from the original house to the new modern wing

Between the two structures is an intimate central courtyard patio containing cacti typical of Oaxaca, with ivy-covered walls and a rectilinear steel-clad fountain gently gurgling in the middle. The garden also contains a pair of majestic orange trees planted by Ignacia herself after she began working at the house in 1929.

Looking down upon the courtyard patio

Looking down upon the courtyard patio

Wally and Duke, mimicking a shot they had seen of a gay couple taking wedding photos the day before

Wally and Duke, mimicking a shot they had seen of a gay couple taking wedding photos the day before

The view from our room’s door. You can see Ignacia’s orange trees to either side, along with the balcony of the Negra suite

The view from our room’s door. You can see Ignacia’s orange trees to either side, along with the balcony of the Negra suite

The modern two-story addition stands just beyond the original home and is a geometric combination of glass and steel where the other four monochromatic suites, Rosa, Amarilla, Azul and Verde, are found. The palette was inspired by Ignacia’s memories of growing up in the town of Guerrero.

Breakfast is made daily from scratch in the kitchen, the recipes culled from Ignacia’s extensive repertoire. Each breakfast comes with freshly squeezed orange juice, a choice of coffee or espresso drink, seasonal fruit with muesli, yogurt and honey, and a basket filled with buttery puff-pastry orejas — as well as a main dish. One nice touch: They remembered how we liked our coffee the following morning, and every morning thereafter, bringing me a café americano and Wally his latte with leche light, the local colloquialism for reduced fat milk.

Where breakfast is served each morning

Where breakfast is served each morning

The curlicue pastries they call orejas, or “ears,” a main dish (this one with cecina, rehydrated salted dried beef) and coffee

The curlicue pastries they call orejas, or “ears,” a main dish (this one with cecina, rehydrated salted dried beef) and coffee

Another delicious breakfast from Ignacia’s recipe book

Another delicious breakfast from Ignacia’s recipe book

After our first breakfast, the delightful Romina checked in with us to see how our flight was and gave us a quick tour of the guest house, pointing out the two woodcut portraits of Ignacia by the artist Pau Masiques and commissioned by the property’s co-owner Gina Lozado. One depicts the Ignacia at the age of 16, the other at 87. “She was the heart of the home,” Romina told us. As she finished the tour, she let us know that cocktail hour is held between 5-7 p.m. “Maybe we’ll have some local snacks,” she said with a grin. I had a sneaking suspicion of what that might mean.

The Azul room

The Azul room

Azul Like It

We stayed in the Azul suite located off the central courtyard to the left. Our room included a screen print of the Castillo de Chapultepec by graphic designer Miguel Alpulche and maple flooring with inlaid dark walnut arrows that led us to guess, correctly, that it was reclaimed from bowling alley lanes!

There’s plenty of storage in the rooms, including this dresser

There’s plenty of storage in the rooms, including this dresser

A Nespresso machine sat atop the dresser and we were told that the television is set up with Netflix, a nice feature we didn’t bother to use. There’s artesian bottled water from Casa del Agua adorned with line drawings of whimsical steampunk contraptions (never drink the local water, and use bottled water even when brushing your teeth!), and natural bath products by CDMX brand Loredana inside the bathroom, which is covered floor to ceiling in Carrara marble.

When we visited in November, the weather was in the 70s, so we spent a lot of time in the courtyard

When we visited in November, the weather was in the 70s, so we spent a lot of time in the courtyard

Courtyard Cocktails and Our First Crickets

The courtyard patio was also where we returned in the evening to enjoy cocktails and snacks at the bar. Our first evening, the cocktail was a refreshing combination of freshly squeezed fruit juice, mezcal and an ancho chile liqueur rimmed with sal de gusano, pulverized maguey worms with chili powder, and garnished with a sprig of mint, which reminded me of the rebujitos Wally and I enjoyed in Seville during Feria.

We struck up a conversation with Magda Navarrete, another one of Ignacia’s managers, who asked if we’d be interested in trying a local snack. I perhaps too eagerly agreed. When she returned from the kitchen, she had a small ramekin filled with crispy, salted chalupines, or crickets. She was so endearing, we figured what the hell, we might as well try it.

I popped the cricket into my mouth. “Respect!” Magda called out. Wally, meanwhile, grimaced as he swallowed his chalupine. “It’s not bad — except when you feel the little legs catching on your throat,” he said.

If you’d prefer to embark on a hands-on culinary adventure, you can take a cooking class and spend the day with chefs Beto Estúa and Jorge Fitz at Casa Jacaranda, located in the same building as the Ignacia.

Duke and Wally imitating Ignacia’s pose

Duke and Wally imitating Ignacia’s pose

With so much to see, it was impossible for us to fit everything on our original itinerary into one trip. Wally and I are already dreaming of our next visit to CDMX and staying in one of the suites at 208 Jalapa Street. And while the spirit of Ignacia may have lent the property its character, it was the incredible staff that made our experience memorable. –Duke

A chic and friendly option in one of the safest neighborhoods in Mexico City

A chic and friendly option in one of the safest neighborhoods in Mexico City

Ignacia Guest House
Jalapa 208
Roma Norte
06700 Ciudad de México
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The Legend of Rangda, Bali’s Queen of the Demons

The origin of the queen who became a child-eating witch goddess fated to battle Barong, the King of the Spirits, for eternity.

The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

When my husband, the king, died, his people began to call me Rangda, which means “widow.” As if my entire life should be reduced to the loss of a single thing, namely a feckless spouse.

It’s ironic that my name would be tied to him for eternity, for he cast me aside to marry another woman. Was I even still officially his wife?

Ours had been a strategic alliance to unite two kingdoms. I was born Mahendradatta, princess of Java, and when I came of age, my father arranged for my marriage to King Udayana and shipped me off to the neighboring isle of Bali.

I never let silly romantic fantasies enter my mind. As a royal, I had a job to do, a responsibility to my people.

As a queen, though, I didn’t have much power. My marriage would politically tie Java to Bali, and that was all that was required of me, aside from making sure I provided heirs.

All over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them.

Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy.

(That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

But I craved power; I yearned to be strong. Hindus have hundreds of deities, but the one I focused my prayers on was the goddess Durga, whom I had always emulated. Such a strong woman, a fierce warrior, her many arms clutching weapons, riding upon a snarling tiger. Yes, this was who I wanted to be.

I had few options. With little power of my own, I decided to harness the strength of others. I turned to witchcraft, learning how to control demons, those dim-witted ground-dwellers, to do what I demanded of them. If someone displeased me, I would inflict a horrific illness upon them.

At last, power coursed through my veins, an intense, almost orgasmic feeling.

But secrets never last long in a palace. Someone, hoping to gain favor with the king, told my husband what I was up to at night in my open-air chamber that faced the graveyard at the edge of the sea. Udayana called the court together and stood upon the sacred platform and shouted, “Mahendradatta, you have brought shame upon this kingdom. You have let evil into Bali. You are no longer my queen! I exile you!”

And before I knew what was happening, his guards had grabbed me and dragged me out of the palace, abandoning me in the dark jungle amidst the screeching of monkeys. I had only the clothes on my back. No food or supplies. A woman left exposed in the wild — Udayana assumed I would soon die, and everyone could forget all about me and the shameful fact that I had corrupted this island with the introduction of witchcraft.

The nocturnal sounds of the jungle filled my ears. I could hear animals moving stealthily through the foliage, stalking their prey. But I was no weak woman. I called upon Durga and the demons to protect me.

After a week or so, some villagers had learned of my exile and went into the jungle to seek me out. They heeded the alluring call of the dark arts; they wanted me to teach them how to enslave demons. Bitter souls who wanted to curse others, who wanted to spread sickness among their enemies.

These were my first students, my first leyaks, or witches. No longer the Queen of Bali, I became Queen of the Leyaks, and eventually, Queen of Demons.

Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

A Son’s Betrayal, A Daughter’s Shame

One of the demons I used to spy on the court returned one evening, slithering along the ground to inform me that my husband planned to remarry.

Fury filled my breast. Who was Udayana to replace me, the mother of his children, the woman who brought his son, Erlangga, the king-to-be, into the world?

I screamed in rage, a horrific cry that wilted the plants around me and sent the animals scurrying away in fright.Trembling with anger, I sent a message to Erlangga to meet me at the edge of the jungle.

I saw the prince sneaking down the path for our illicit rendezvous, his eyes darting in every direction, worried he might be seen.

“My son, my son,” I called, a whisper that carried on the wind to his ears.

“Mother,” he said, looking at the ground. He would not meet my eyes.

“I have called you here to request a favor. Convince your father that he must not remarry. I will not be replaced.”

“I cannot,” he said after a time. “I cannot.” Erlangga turned from me and fled back to the palace.

If he had looked upon me — by this time I was a rather frightening sight, unbathed, my clothes in tatters, my hair matted — things might have turned out differently.

But it seemed Erlangga feared his father more than he feared me. That would be the biggest mistake of his life.

On top of my firstborn’s betrayal, I learned that my daughter, Princess Ratna Menggali, a young maiden known for her loveliness (this is not just a mother’s pride speaking), couldn’t find a single suitor. No one of high caste wanted to marry a daughter of mine. My association with witchcraft had tainted my poor daughter.

I found Ratna running through the jungle in tears, not seeming to notice or care about the branches that scratched her beautiful face.

I gathered her to me and held her against my chest.

“Come, daughter,” I told her. “You have a place here. Your life is not over, but just beginning.”

Ratna became my pupil, one of my most powerful leyaks.

“We shall make them pay,” I told her, seething at the wrong we had both suffered.

Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

A young girl from the village wandered too far into the jungle one misty morning, and Ratna snatched her and brought her to me. While the child trembled and sobbed in fear, I dragged my claw-like nails across her throat.

“Take this innocent blood as an offering, Durga, O Invincible One!” we chanted.

The goddess heeded our call. The sea rose in a rush of water, a black tide that flooded the entire village. The crops became unharvestable, homes destroyed.

The success of the sacrifice sparked an idea. On Bali, babies are holy, for they have only recently left the spirit realm. In fact, for months, the Balinese do not let their newborns even so much as touch the ground. For that, you see, is where my minions must stay. Demons are relegated to the dirty, profane earth, where only the filthiest of body parts, the feet, should touch.

Whenever we learned of a child’s death, I would send Ratna and the other leyaks on a mission to dig up and steal the tiny corpse for our black rituals.

Even today, all over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them. Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy. (That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

My patron deity Durga, pleased with my drive and my devotion, granted me immortality and full dominion over the demons. I felt as if I were on fire, as my mortal essence burned away. I had become a goddess.

Erlangga Enlists the Aid of Barong

One day, years later, I learned that Udayana had died and Erlangga was now king. I refused to forgive him for not defending my honor. He had abandoned his own mother and he would pay the price.

Erlangga knew of the danger of my wrath. Reports of desecrated graves had spread, of a wild woman of the jungle and her pet demons, which wreaked havoc on the people of Bali.

While my son mustered an army to fight me, I sent a foul plague creeping throughout the kingdom. Within days, half of the population lay dead.

Erlangga fretted. What chance would mortal men have against a goddess and her army of witches and demons?

As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

My son called upon Empu Pradah, a legendary holy man, and asked him how to defeat me. He was told to seek the aid of another god, Barong, the King of the Spirits, a mighty shape-shifting beast. He sometimes takes the form of a boar, sometimes an elephant, sometimes a tiger — though the lion guise is his favorite.

Barong ambles along clumsily. But don’t let that fool you — when it comes time to fight, he becomes as fierce as any of my demons. People don’t like to think of him as a monster, but that’s what he is.

Erlangga’s army approached, carrying wavy silver knives called keris, the tips coated with poison.

Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine, I thought.

All of the soldiers were suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to turn the keris upon themselves, to commit suicide by stabbing the toxic blades into their own hearts.

But just as the daggers were about to pierce their skin and become inflamed with the poison the soldiers meant for me and my demons to suffer, Barong reared up and cast a counterspell. Instantly, the skin of Erlangga’s soldiers became impenetrable. The keris were deflected. The army was saved.

My frustrated shriek caused the men to cover their ears, to tremble in fear. But I had gone.

Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

The Balance of Good and Evil

For, you see, a realization had dawned on me, like a bright light piercing the darkness. This was my role for eternity: Barong and I were to engage in a never-ending battle. Neither good nor evil could win.

Of course, Barong’s battle is seen as necessary. The Balinese love him. He is their benevolent hero. His violence is forgiven, while mine is reviled. So be it. The minute we are done battling, Barong is back to his docile self, lumbering along like a puppy dog. He knows how to play to his audience.

By the time I had gained immortality, I had become an old woman. I let my hair grow long and wild; it became a mass of tangled white strands, some matted into dreadlocks. For the most part, I stopped bothering to wear clothes — what was the point? I was a fearsome deity. My breasts drooped farther and farther, until they swung across my stomach when I snarled. My teeth continued to grow as well, forming fangs that curved outward like a boar’s. I let my fingernails lengthen until they were razor-sharp claws. And I stretched out my tongue to demonstrate my insatiable hunger. A sense horror overwhelms all who see me.

People call the spirits over which I reign “evil.” But do you feel evil when you are consumed by grief or pain? Is it evil to feel fear or hopelessness? To be sick? Unloved?

I quickly realized that without my army of so-called evil demons, people would not realize the joy brought about by my counterpart, Barong, and his legion of spirits.

The world must remain in balance, and I must do my part. Do not wish for a paradise. Utopias are dull places, for how can you know what happiness is if that’s all there is? How would you know peace without there being stress to escape from? Paradise, as humans naïvely imagine it, is the epitome of boredom, not pleasure.

Does this sound strange to you? It is no more strange than the fact that Christians pray to a demigod dying in agony. There, too, you have the balance of good and evil.

Perhaps I am wrong about the Balinese. Perhaps they do realize I have an essential part to play.

I, too, crave worship. The usual fruit and flowers will do. But sacrifice a rooster if you want me to ensure your fertility. And once you conceive, maybe, just maybe, I’ll keep away from that tasty little morsel. –Wally

Barong, King of the Spirits on Bali

What is Barong? Or should we say, who is Barong? The Balinese personification of good fights an eternal battle with the demon queen Rangda.

The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world

The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world


I fell in love with Barong the first time I saw him. And really, who could resist his charm? He’s most often depicted as a bright red, playful creature who gallops along good-naturedly like a playful Labrador retriever. Somehow his bug eyes and fangs don’t detract from his cuteness.

While Barong’s name supposedly comes from a word meaning “bear,” it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what type of creature he is. He looks a lot like a Chinese fu dog, which to me has always seemed a muddling of a lion and a Pekingese.

Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

If an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace.
A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

The Barong Ket, or Lion Barong, is the most popular, though the creature sometimes takes other forms:

  • Barong Celeng: Boar

  • Barong Macan: Tiger

  • Barong Naga: Dragon or Serpent

  • Barong Gajah: Elephant

Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

It helps that Barong is essentially all that is good in the world. He protects the Balinese in their villages. Barong is represented by a mask, its dark beard usually made of human hair. The mask is often kept in the village’s pura dalem, the temple of death, or in a small shrine near the bale banjar, the meeting hall.

An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

If, for instance, an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace. Oil dripping from the mask’s eyes has even been said to cure scabies.


puradalemrangda.jpg

His worship predates Hinduism and is a relic of animism, the belief that animals have supernatural protective powers.

During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

Galungan Guise

When I first visited Bali, we arrived in September during the Galungan Festival. It struck us the Balinese version of Halloween. All through the town of Ubud, we’d hear the clanging of metal percussion instruments, and would gawk as a strange creature approached. This was Barong, its wooden jaw opening and closing with a loud thok. One boy worked the mask, with its golden, mirrored crown, while others hid under a sheet to form the bumpy body that moved jerkily along the street. The kids, in their Barong costume, would stop at various business and receive sweets or coins. We later learned that Galungan was the most holy of holidays for the Hindus of Bali.

During the galungan holidays, the island was suddenly filled with magnificent masked beasts. With glaring eyes and snapping jaws, with elaborate golden crowns, great hairy bodies bedecked with little mirrors, and tails that rose high in the air to end in a tassel of tiny bells, they pranced and champed up and down the roads from village to village to the sound of cymbals and gongs, as though they had newly emerged, like awakened dragons, from caves and crevices in which for months they had been lying dormant.

This was the barong, a beautiful composite animal, lion, said some, bear, said others, Ruler of the Demons, said still others. …

These creatures were high-spirited and full of whims, dancing a strange ballet, coquettish and playful one moment, rolling on the ground like a puppy, and suddenly and unaccountably ferocious the next, snapping and stamping in fine fury as the two dancers within the body synchronized their steps and movements with beautiful coordination.

–Colin McPhee, A House in Bali


Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong vs. Rangda, the Battle Between Good and Evil

As the king of the good spirits, Barong fights a never-ending battle with the demon queen Rangda.

His nemesis is more human-like, a hideous half-nude witch with sagging breasts, disheveled hair and a long tongue lolling out of her fanged mouth. Barong and Rangda, like yin and yang, cannot exist with the other; there is no good without evil. Unlike in our Western lore, where people often tend to live happily ever after, in Balinese legend, neither Barong nor Rangda ever truly win. Their battle is the subject of a favorite dance on Bali. The forces of good and evil, of order and chaos, must remain in balance. –Wally


More Myths From Bali and Java

Bloodletting and Trepanation: A Tour of the International Museum of Surgical Science

12 fascinating, freaky facts about early medical science.

You can’t miss the strange statue in front of the International Museum of Surgical Science just north of the Magnificent Mile shopping district

You can’t miss the strange statue in front of the International Museum of Surgical Science just north of the Magnificent Mile shopping district

We had heard about the International Museum of Surgical Science’s spooky Halloween tours for years and had passed by the colossal figure holding a limp and seemingly lifeless body out front numerous times on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

So when something called Morbid Curiosities showed up as a suggested event in our Facebook feed, we couldn’t resist. The museum smartly offers tours year-round, though their Halloween event is legendary.

We were surprised to hear that George Washington died from bloodletting.

The reason this was prescribed? He had woken up with a sore throat.
The tour starts in the coolest room in the museum: the hall of statues of famous physicians

The tour starts in the coolest room in the museum: the hall of statues of famous physicians

Housed in a mansion built in 1917 near the shore of Lake Michigan, just north of downtown Chicago, the museum contains three floors of macabre medical paraphernalia. For this event, a guide walked us through the displays, calling out gruesome fun facts about the various medical techniques of the past.

Here are a dozen creepy cool things we learned on our tour.

Doctors swear to healing gods that they will obey certain ethical standards in the famous oath named for the Greek physician Hippocrates

Doctors swear to healing gods that they will obey certain ethical standards in the famous oath named for the Greek physician Hippocrates

1. Ancient doctors believed illnesses were attributable to an imbalance of the four humors.

This notion dates back to Ancient Greece and the teachings of Hippocrates. Often referred to as the Father of Medicine, his code of ethics, known as the Hippocratic Oath, is still used today. Hippocrates developed the theory of the four humors and their influence on the body and its emotions.

This woodcut from Leonhard Thurneysser’s  Quinta Essentia  (1574) shows the four humors

This woodcut from Leonhard Thurneysser’s Quinta Essentia (1574) shows the four humors

Humor: Black bile

Organ: Spleen

Trait: Melancholic


Humor: Phlegm

Organ: Brain

Trait: Phlegmatic


Humor: Yellow bile

Organ: Gallbladder

Trait: Choleric

Humor: Blood

Organ: Heart

Trait: Sanguine

Hippocrates believed that by paying attention to the balance of these four humors, we could maintain a healthy body and mind — and an imbalance could result in disease or death.

2. One of the best-regarded doctors of the Dark Ages recommended a medical bath involving the blood of blind puppies.

In Flowers of Bartholomew, written around 1375, the monk and doctor Johannes de Mirfield wrote:

Here is a bath which has proved to be of value. Take blind puppies, gut them and cut off the feet; then boil in water, and in this water let the patient bathe himself. Let him get in the bath for four hours after he has eaten, and whilst in the bath he should keep his head covered, and his chest completely covered with the skin of a goat, so he won’t catch a sudden chill.

If you decide to try it, let us know how it works! (Kidding, obviously.)

If you get poisoned, don’t expect the bezoar, which comes from a goat’s stomach, to be a miracle cure

If you get poisoned, don’t expect the bezoar, which comes from a goat’s stomach, to be a miracle cure

3. A stone that grows in a goat’s stomach was thought to be the ultimate antidote to any poison.

The bezoar comes from the Persian word for “counter poison.” And while the bezoar works miraculously in the world of Harry Potter, it doesn’t have quite the same power in real life. The French surgeon Ambroise Paré decided to put the bezoar’s antidotal properties to the test (with the help of an unwilling condemned criminal). The poor fellow was given sublimate of mercury, a nasty poison, to see if a bezoar would counteract it. Things didn’t work out too well. Paré wrote about the experiment in Apology and Treatise (1575):

An hour after, I found him on the ground on his hands and feet like an animal, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his eyes wild, vomiting, with blood pouring from his ears, nose and mouth. Eventually he died in great torment, seven hours after I gave him the poison.

Patients risked blindness (and suffered a lot of pain) during the earliest cataract surgeries in India

Patients risked blindness (and suffered a lot of pain) during the earliest cataract surgeries in India

4. Cataract surgery can be traced all the way back to the 5th century BCE in India.

I’m not sure what current cataract surgery involves, but its origins are downright disgusting. The procedure started out pleasant enough, with an oil massage and a hot bath. But that’s when things got icky. The patient was tied down because of the excruciating pain to come. A knife or needle would dislodge the cataract — you’d know when this had happened because you’d hear a pop and see a gush of water. Surgeons would seal the cut with breast milk and a salve of clarified butter. If the patient could see after, it was considered successful. Not surprisingly, this didn’t happen all that often.

The most infamous book bound in human skin,  Burke’s Skin Pocket Book,  put a serial killer to good use

The most infamous book bound in human skin, Burke’s Skin Pocket Book, put a serial killer to good use

5. There are books — mostly medical texts — that are bound in human skin.

The practice of binding books in human skin was once fairly common and has a fancy name: anthropodermic bibliopegy. The poor suckers whose epidermises have been cured to cover books were typically prisoners and other cadavers used for dissection. It’s tough to know if that leather-bound ancient tome is from a cow or a criminal.

How many books from the museum’s library are bound in human skin?

How many books from the museum’s library are bound in human skin?

A famous (and morbid) example is Burke’s Skin Pocket Book. William Burke and William Hare were serial killers who murdered 16 people and sold the cadavers for anatomical study and dissection.

Burke was found guilty and hanged. He received a just punishment: His corpse was dissected, and some of his skin was used to fashion a small book, now part of the collection of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.

An early C-section in Latin America, where they actually gave woman pain relievers, unlike Westerners at the time, who thought childbirth was supposed to hurt like hell (thanks, Eve!)

An early C-section in Latin America, where they actually gave woman pain relievers, unlike Westerners at the time, who thought childbirth was supposed to hurt like hell (thanks, Eve!)

6. People didn’t think women should have anesthesia during childbirth because of a Bible passage.

Yes, there’s a lot of crazy shit in the Bible (read the story of Lot sometime, who offered up his daughters to be gang raped and was then seduced by them). In Genesis 3:16, God punishes Eve for her part in convincing Adam to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, declaring, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”

Sorry, moms-to-be! Childbirth is gonna hurt — though a lot less than in the past

Sorry, moms-to-be! Childbirth is gonna hurt — though a lot less than in the past

In South America, at least, when a woman was to give birth, they’d use a sea sponge drenched in wine and mandrake root as anesthesia. It had one mild side effect, though: The woman would hallucinate and trip her balls off.

The first surgery ever was to create literal holes in the head, during a practice known as trepanning or trepanation

The first surgery ever was to create literal holes in the head, during a practice known as trepanning or trepanation

7. The first surgery involved poking holes into the skull.

This fun practice, known as trepanation, seems as necessary as a hole in the head — pun intended. It was performed by Incan priests to let out evil spirits. They’d chew coca (the same plant from which cocaine is derived) and spit it into the open wound. What’s most shocking is that more than half of the victims, er, patients survived.

A portrait of Vesalius from  De Humani Corporis Fabrica  (1543)

A portrait of Vesalius from De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543)

8. Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, took to grave robbing for corpses to dissect.

Vesalius, who lived during the 1500s, used the bodies of convicted criminals to create his seminal works on human anatomy. But when that wasn’t enough, he started digging up bodies in graveyards. To be fair, many cemeteries were a mess at the time. Dogs would often be found gnawing away at the bodies piled up in mass graves, and Vesalius would have to fight them off for his prize.

Who’d’ve thunk a sore throat would lead to the death of the United States’ first president?!

Who’d’ve thunk a sore throat would lead to the death of the United States’ first president?!

9. Bloodletting was a popular practice — and led to the death of none other than George Washington!

For 3,000 years, surgeons have thought that blood gets old and stagnates, and that the best way to refresh it was to open a vein and start to drain. We were familiar with the practice of bloodletting but were surprised to hear that the first U.S. president died from complications of a bloodletting procedure in 1799, in which nearly 40% of his blood was drained. The reason this was prescribed? He had woken up with a sore throat.

10. Blood transfusions didn’t work so well in the past.

This surgical procedure had a high rate of mortality before blood groups were discovered by Karl Landsteiner in 1901. In fact, sometimes animal blood was used in transfusions because it was thought to be cleaner (in part because they don’t drink booze).

Dr. Liston, the Fastest Knife in the West End, was a master of amputation (though he had quite a few misfires as well)

Dr. Liston, the Fastest Knife in the West End, was a master of amputation (though he had quite a few misfires as well)

11. Amputation used to be the most common surgery because of infection.

There was even an amputation superhero: Robert Liston, who earned the nickname the Fastest Knife in the West End in the earlyish 1800s. The London surgeon proudly wore his bloody apron and could hack off a limb in 90 seconds flat. Fast was good, what with the lack of anesthesia.

Nice gams! Check out these early artificial limbs from the museum’s collection

Nice gams! Check out these early artificial limbs from the museum’s collection

Of course, the downside was that Liston had a high mortality rate. In fact, one of his surgeries killed three people: the patient, an assistant whose fingers were accidentally cut off and later became infected, and an elderly doctor watching the procedure whose coat was sliced in the excitement and died of a heart attack.

12. Maggots are still used to clean out wounds.

These disgusting little creepy-crawlies are actually really good at finding necrotic tissue and dissolving it. On top of that, they have antibacterial saliva. Maybe you should make out with a maggot next time you’re feeling sick? –Wally

If you’d like to learn the creepy origins of medicine, book a tour of the Chicago Surgical Museum

If you’d like to learn the creepy origins of medicine, book a tour of the Chicago Surgical Museum

International Museum of Surgical Science
1524 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Chicago, IL 60610
USA


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