attractions

Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Ego Run Wild

This stunning but crowded day trip from Aswan has been moved from its original location.

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Pharaoh Ramesses II embarked upon one of the most ambitious construction programs in Ancient Egypt. But it was his temple in Abu Simbel, far from the judgemental eyes in Memphis and Thebes, in the southernmost part of the Egyptian Empire that he gave his megalomania free reign.

There’s a discrepancy in the dating of the site, but it took place over two decades, either 1264-1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE.

The Abu Simbel temples were chopped into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, Ramesses II’s temple to his own awesomeness immediately impresses the visitor with its four massive seated colossi of the king that rise 69 feet high. One, sadly, has lost its torso, which now lies shattered at its feet.

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

A carving of Ra-Horakhty, the conflation of two sun gods (noticeably smaller than the statues of Ramesses II), stands in the center of the façade. A line of baboons decorates the top of the exterior, which faces east, with the rays of the rising sun bathing the frieze in light. Baboons were associated with the sun, as their cries were thought to greet the dawning of a new day.

Inside, the first hall contains eight giant-sized replicas of the pharaoh in the Osiride style, meaning they have their arms crossed over their chests to portray Ramesses as Osiris, lord of the underworld.

We don’t call him Ramesses the Great for nothin’.

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

In theory, though, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty, Amun (creator god of Thebes) and Ptah (creator god of Memphis, associated with the underworld). Oh, and the deified Ramesses II rounded out the grouping, of course.

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

Building the temples in the southernmost part of the country, facing Nubia, also acted as a deterrent to any invaders coming from that direction. They would see these massive statues of their enemy and would hopefully be frightened away.

The temple was a genius stroke of propaganda. The famous Battle of Kadesh, in which the Egyptians fought the Hittites, actually ended as a stalemate. But that didn’t stop Ramesses from declaring a victory and commissioning numerous carvings portraying himself as the protector god and showcasing his “triumph” over one of Ancient Egypt’s archenemies.

Other reliefs on the interior walls are decorated with scenes showing the king defeating the Syrians, Libyans and Nubians, presenting prisoners to the gods.

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

At the very back of the temple, carved deep into the mountain, lies the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies. It housed four statues. There are the three great state gods of the late New Kingdom: Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun-Ra and, no surprise here, the deified Ramesses.

Sunlight bathes these three of these gods on two days only: February 21 and October 21 (some sources say it’s the 22nd), one of which is thought to be Ramesses II’s birthday, the other possibly his coronation day. The figure of Ptah, associated with the underworld, remains in partial shadow.

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

Nefertari’s Temple to Hathor

Nearby is another temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, though it really seems to be for Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief wife (pharaohs were polygamous, with a harem full of spare wives). Even here Ramesses insisted upon sharing the spotlight: Out front are two 33-foot-tall statues of the queen, along with two more of the king. Diminutive figures of their children round out the family portrait.

What was groundbreaking at the time, though, was that Ramesses II portrayed his favorite wife as equal to him — her statues on this temple are the same size as his.

And inside, while it’s still impressive, the pillared hall didn’t get as much attention as the one next door. The Hathor columns, a popular style at the time, where the pillars are topped with the head of one of the most revered deities in the Egyptian pantheon, look downright amateurish in comparison. Hathor, considered the first goddess, was depicted with bovine features. The heads atop the columns all have cow ears.

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted as a cow emerging from a mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown participating in the divine rituals — on equal footing as Ramesses.

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Fun fact: Abu Simbel isn’t what the complex was called in ancient times. In fact, it’s supposedly named after the local boy who led one of the archeologists to the site. Abu Simbel is a bit more catchy than the original name, Hut Ramesses Meryamun, the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, if you ask me.

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

A Monumental Relocation Project

The Abu Simbel you’re visiting today isn’t at the same spot it was in ancient times. The original site has been submerged beneath the waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. What happened to the temple complex?

Egyptians (and UNESCO) couldn’t bear to have such a stunning monument lost beneath the water. So, from 1963 to 1968, teams underwent an impressive undertaking. They chopped up the entire temples into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled them like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Instead of repairing the sculptures — as mentioned, one of the colossi has lost its head — the project team chose to keep the temples exactly as they were before the relocation.

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

Visiting Abu Simbel

If you’re staying in Aswan, chances are your guide will want to get an early move on. Abu Simbel is, after all, a three-hour drive away. But it you leave at the crack of dawn, around 6 a.m. like us, you’ll arrive at the same time all the massive tour buses pull in as well. That meant we arrived at the impressive edifice along with swarms of other visitors. There’s nothing that takes you out of the experience more than having to share an enclosed space with throngs of tourists taking selfies for Instagram and moving en masse all around you.

We suffered through a claustrophobic exploration of Abu Simbel, then went over to see the Nefertari temple. When we returned to Abu Simbel, it had largely emptied out since it was around noon. Only then did we experience the awe of this sacred space.

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

In an effort to prevent congestion, guides can’t go in the temples, so Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, gave us the rundown and then set us free, meeting us back at the café near the entrance.

Admission costs 200 Egyptian pounds, and be sure to spring for the 300 L.E. photo pass. This was one of the sites where we saw guards forcing violators to delete the pics right off their phones.

Like most sites you’ll visit in Egypt, you have to walk through the bazaar on your way out. As we hurried through, a dagger with a curving horn handle caught my eye. Duke likes to joke that everywhere I go I look for daggers and dollies (it’s funny cuz it’s true). I negotiated a price of 350 L.E., or about $20. I could have probably gotten him to go lower, but I was OK with that price.

As we exited on the other side of the temple hill, a policeman smiled and began chatting with us. Of course we had no idea what he was saying, but it seemed like he wanted to pose for a picture with us (for a tip, naturally). He presented his machine gun like he was offering for us to hold it, but I hope I was wrong about that. –Wally

 


What You Need to Know About the Valley of the Kings in Luxor

Pharaohs were buried in elaborate underground tombs depicting their life and accomplishments and filled with everything their spirit would need for a comfortable afterlife.

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

Visiting the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary complex of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs has been a lifelong dream of mine. The massive royal necropolis is located in Upper Egypt on the West Bank of the Nile, opposite the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor.

The ancient Egyptians believed that life was merely a brief passage of time followed by another where the deceased pharaoh would gain eternal access to move freely between the world of the living and the dead. The tomb provided a secure resting place and access to the supernatural realm, ruled over by the gods.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double, which received the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, represented as a human-headed bird, which flew around during the day but returned to the tomb at night.

By the time Amenhotep I came to the throne, kings had learned from bitter experience that a monumental tomb, especially a pyramid, was more of a curse than a blessing. Advertising the location of the royal burial for all to see merely attracted the attention of tomb robbers and almost guaranteed that the deceased would not remain undisturbed for eternity. If the king were to enjoy a blessed afterlife, as intended, the nature of the royal tomb itself had to change.

As part of his wider program of religious remodeling, Amenhotep I implemented just such a radical redesign. From now on, the royal mortuary complex would be split into two distinct elements. A mortuary temple, sited prominently on a plain, would stand as the monarch’s permanent memorial and would act as a public focus for the royal cult. Quite separate, hidden away in the cliffs of western Thebes, a royal tomb cut deep into the rock would provide a secure resting place for eternity, without any outward sign to attract unwanted attention.

–Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, 2010

Our guide Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, picked us up from our hotel at 8:30 a.m., and we set out on our West Bank excursion, which included the Valley of the Kings, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon. Because we’re ancient temple junkies, and we still had the better part of the afternoon, we also added the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu. Prices included a comfortable air-conditioned car, a driver, our English-speaking guide, Mamduh, and general entrance fees.

Wally and I arrived at the site around 9 a.m., avoiding the tourist rush and blistering heat of the late afternoon. It was already 87ºF and would climb over 100º.

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

Despite the name, the Valley of the Kings is comprised of two distinct valleys. The East Valley is where most of the royal tombs can be found. The site was chosen, in part as it was secluded, but also because it is dominated by the peak of El Qurn, a geological formation resembling a pyramid, sacred to the goddesses Hathor and Meretseger, both of whom were regarded as protectors of the dead. The West Valley contains the tombs of nobles and members of the royal family.

The official name for the rugged landscape in ancient times was Ta Sekhet Maat, or the Great Field, and beneath its barren surface lie more than 60 man-made subterranean tombs cut into the rock to commemorate the lives of New Kingdom pharaohs and wealthy nobles, which date from 1500 to 1070 BCE.  The site’s most famous and intact tomb is that of the boy-king Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Other famous pharaohs include Hatshepsut, the only female king, and a slew of Ramesside period monarchs.

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

To enter the World Heritage Site, Mamduh paid the entrance fee of 400 LE, which included admission for only three tombs (you’re dependent upon which ones are open that day), a policy implemented to reduce crowds. We paid an additional 500 LE to see the tomb of Tutankhamun, and because we wanted to take pictures inside the tombs, we sprang for a 300 LE photography permit. (Note that you won’t be able to take photos inside King Tut’s tomb, even with a photography permit.) The tomb of Seti I, which also requires an additional fee, was closed at the time of our visit.

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

Heads up: If you’re considering taking your chances and skipping the photo permit, don’t. We witnessed more than one tourist asked to show their permit, and when they didn’t have it, they were pulled aside and forced to delete their photos.

We took a yellow trolley up the paved road leading to the site entrance and disembarked at a secondary checkpoint, where you’ll be asked to show your tickets. All of the tombs are assigned a number, preceded by the acronym KV (Kings’ Valley), in the order of discovery, a system established by British Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson in 1827.

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

Show your ticket at every entrance, and the guard will punch a hole in it to assure you only visit three.

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

Tomb Raiders

Building a tomb was a massive undertaking and preparation for burial within the necropolis began the moment a pharaoh ascended the throne. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul had dual counterparts and split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double (represented symbolically with what I like to refer to as “goalpost hands” atop its head). The ka entered the tomb through a false door, usually above the sarcophagus, to receive the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, the mobile part of the soul, represented as a human-headed bird. The ba was thought to fly about during the day among the land of the living, but needed to return to the body at night.

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

A traditional tomb plan consisted of a long corridor, descending through one or more halls, reflecting the nightly descent of the sun-god Amun to the underworld. Most royal tombs had multiple rooms, with the last serving as the burial chamber. Egyptians believed that when a pharaoh died, he (or she) became Osiris, the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Another feature common to most tombs is the well shaft, which may have originated as an actual barrier intended to stop seasonal floodwaters from entering the lower parts of the tombs but also served to provide water to the ka.

Although tombs were originally sealed after construction and the burial was completed, many were robbed by the workers of Deir el-Medina, the nearby village which was home to the artisans employed to build and decorate them.

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

Our visit to the Valley of the Kings was a truly memorable experience, and because you’re limited to only three, be sure to take your time and don’t rush through them. –Duke

 

La Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City

Explore the quirky blue-painted home-turned-museum where the bohemian Mexican artist was born and lived while married to muralist Diego Rivera.

You can wander through the home Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in

You can wander through the home Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in

One destination that was at the top of our list to visit while in CDMX was La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, the former home and studio of Mexican artist and revolutionary cultural icon Frida Kahlo.

The first thing to capture your attention upon arrival at the corner of Calles Londres and Allende, which is now the Museo Frida Kahlo, are the vibrant cobalt-blue walls that rise straight up from the sidewalk. They reminded me of the intense blue used by French painter Jacques Majorelle in his garden acquired by Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé in Marrakech, Morocco.

To be in the former home of this captivating, self-willed individual was an amazing and moving experience.
Get your tickets well before you visit — and get the earliest time available to cut down on crowds

Get your tickets well before you visit — and get the earliest time available to cut down on crowds

The other was the line of people waiting to gain admission. After reading how popular the destination is, we purchased and printed our tickets in advance for the first available self-guided tour of the day to avoid the crowds. If you show up without a ticket, we’ve heard you can expect to wait up to four hours, as the museum limits the amount of people allowed inside. Even if you get your tickets in advance, plan on getting into line half an hour early so you’re at the beginning of your group.

Portrait of Frida Kahlo  by Roberto Montenegro, 1936

Portrait of Frida Kahlo by Roberto Montenegro, 1936

You can download an electronic version of your ticket, which will be scanned by one of the museum docents. If you’d like to take pictures inside, which we did, you’ll need to purchase a photography pass for an extra fee of about 30 pesos, or $1.50.

Keep in mind that the cost of your ticket also includes admission to the Anahuacalli Museum, designed by Diego Rivera to contain his impressive collection of pre-Columbian art. It’s great fun to explore.

Duke leans on the iconic blue walls of La Casa Azul while we wait to go in

Duke leans on the iconic blue walls of La Casa Azul while we wait to go in

It’s cool being able to explore the home shared by these two famous artists

It’s cool being able to explore the home shared by these two famous artists

Inside La Casa Azul

At the entry, you’re met by a few of Kahlo’s fantastical and monstrous papier-mâché folk art alebrije figures, traditionally representing Satan and Judas, which are filled with firecrackers and exploded on Sabado de Gloria, the Saturday before Easter.

Part of the courtyard includes this tiled pool

Part of the courtyard includes this tiled pool

Built around an open-air central courtyard, the interior of the house offers visitors a chance to catch a glimpse into Frida’s creative universe. Each room is organized by theme, many exactly as Kahlo left them. The first room Wally and I entered was originally the formal living room, where the Riveras hosted storied intellectual guests from Gershwin to Trotsky and now functions as a gallery featuring a selection of Frida’s lesser-known paintings. Of note is Portrait of My Father, made by Kahlo 10 years after her father’s death with the dedication “I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for 60 years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler. With adoration, his daughter, Frida Kahlo,” and a still life depicting sliced watermelons inscribed with the phrase “Viva la Vida” or, Long Live Life.

Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick  by Frida Kahlo, 1954

Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick by Frida Kahlo, 1954

Portrait of My Father  by Frida Kahlo, 1951

Portrait of My Father by Frida Kahlo, 1951

Viva la Vida  by Frida Kahlo, 1954 — the last of her paintings she signed

Viva la Vida by Frida Kahlo, 1954 — the last of her paintings she signed

The next room held a delightful miniature puppet theater created by Frida. One of my favorite items in the house, it contained a cat or perhaps jaguar, a seated woman, a skeleton with a red sash around its waist and an alligator suspended in the air. Also on display was a painting by Diego Rivera titled La Quebrada. The inscription in the lower right corner reads, “A La Niña Fridita Kahlo la maravillosa. El 7 de Julio de 1956 a los dos años que duerme en cenizas, viva en mi corazón” (To the little girl Fridita Kahlo, the wonderful one. On July 7, 1956, two years since she went to sleep in the ashes, she lives on in my heart.)

We especially loved this kinda creepy puppet theater Frida created

We especially loved this kinda creepy puppet theater Frida created

Moving farther along, white painted ceiling beams and bold blue, yellow and white glazed tiles complement the kitchen countertop and frame the chimney. Kahlo embellished the walls surrounding the wood-burning stove using miniature glazed clay mugs to whimsically spell out her and Diego’s names. On the opposite wall are two doves tying a lovers’ knot and a pair of pumpkin-shaped clay tureens sitting atop a long yellow table.

Frida spelled out her and Diego’s names in miniature clay mugs on the wall above her stove

Frida spelled out her and Diego’s names in miniature clay mugs on the wall above her stove

A glimpse into Frida’s kitchen

A glimpse into Frida’s kitchen

The neutral tones of earthenware pottery pair nicely with the bright blue and yellow tiles

The neutral tones of earthenware pottery pair nicely with the bright blue and yellow tiles

Next to the kitchen, the dining room shares the same vibrant color scheme with bright yellow open storage shelving chock full of colored glassware, earthenware pots, plates and indigenous artifacts.  

The dining room

The dining room

A bright yellow cabinet displaying some of Frida’s collections

A bright yellow cabinet displaying some of Frida’s collections

Rivera’s small bedroom is tucked off to the side of the dining room. A pillow sitting on a vintage armchair is embroidered with the words “Despierta Corazon Dormido” (Wake Up, Sleeping Heart). Outside this room, a flight of stairs leads to the second floor library and studio, an addition by Rivera.

The small room Diego stayed in also once housed Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida had an affair

The small room Diego stayed in also once housed Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida had an affair

Up in the studio, large steel-framed windows look out to the garden and fill the room with natural light. There’s also an enviable collection of books. Kahlo’s small wooden work desk holds an assortment of brushes, a palette, a mirror and small glass bottles of pigment waiting to be mixed for use.

Frida’s work table: where the magic happened

Frida’s work table: where the magic happened

The materials Frida used in her paintings

The materials Frida used in her paintings

Color pigments Frida used to create her paint

Color pigments Frida used to create her paint

Adjacent to these tools, a wheelchair faces an easel with the painting Still Life With Flag — a reminder that Frida experienced a series of life events that left her in chronic pain. At the age of 6, she contracted polio, which left her right leg withered and shorter than her left, causing her to limp. In her teens, while traveling home from school, the bus on which she was riding was hit by a streetcar. She sustained serious trauma, including multiple fractures of the clavicle, ribs and spine, and was pierced by an iron handrail from the streetcar that impaled her pelvis. Frida miraculously survived and and began painting self-portraits — her reality captured by a mirror within the intimacy of her own studio at home. She once said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

In poor health for much of her life, Frida had to paint in a wheelchair now and then

In poor health for much of her life, Frida had to paint in a wheelchair now and then

Immediately off the artists studio are a pair of Kahlo’s four-poster beds. As Frida was frequently bedridden, her day bed is fitted with a mirror above that she would use to paint while convalescing. Because she died in this room in 1954, her death mask fittingly (yet creepily) rests atop the bed. On the wall behind the headboard, a skeleton with tiny arms wearing a top hat and a painting of a presumably dead child with a garland of purple poppy flowers watch over the bed.

Frida’s death mask sits on her bed

Frida’s death mask sits on her bed

Frida’s night bed has a framed grouping of butterfly specimens attached to the panel above. These were given to her by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. On a lace-topped table nearby a headless pre-Columbian urn contains her ashes. A cabinet of toys rendered in miniature are displayed off to the right.

The large urn to the left contains Frida’s ashes

The large urn to the left contains Frida’s ashes

We exited via a staircase from Frida’s day room in the central courtyard and followed a winding path that led us past a stepped pyramidal structure, added and built by Rivera, a pedestal to display their pre-Columbian sculptures in the garden. Frida loved botany and collected many species of plants native to Mexico and created a garden abundant with yuccas, bougainvilleas, cacti, jasmine and agave.

Wally and Duke on the patio leading to the central courtyard

Wally and Duke on the patio leading to the central courtyard

Diego especially loved pre-Columbian artifacts

Diego especially loved pre-Columbian artifacts

A large ofrenda is set up in the garden

A large ofrenda is set up in the garden

Around back you’ll find an opportunity to pretend to be Frida and Diego

Around back you’ll find an opportunity to pretend to be Frida and Diego

An ancillary building contains an exhibit named after a drawing Kahlo made in 1946: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, where the artist drew herself, showing an X-ray view through her traditional Tehuana dress to reveal her injured leg and plaster corset. The first room displays a few of Kahlo’s personal objects used in relation to her medical condition. There’s also a vitrine with mannequins wearing Kahlo’s distinctive Tehuana dresses and headpieces. She favored the huipil, a boxy blouse, rebozo shawl and long skirt, a representation of Kahlo’s authentic Mexican femininity. There’s also a couture dress with a buckled corset by fashion designer and provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier whose 1998 spring-summer runway was titled Tribute to Frida Kahlo. In this same case is a dress by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons surrounded by a sort of hoop cage, and in the last room there’s a delicately embroidered bodysuit with an incredible fringe jacket by Roberto Tisci for Givenchy.

An outbuilding houses some of Frida’s distinctive outfits

An outbuilding houses some of Frida’s distinctive outfits

A dress by Comme des Garçons (left) and  The Freckles  by Gaultier

A dress by Comme des Garçons (left) and The Freckles by Gaultier

To be in the former home of this captivating, self-willed individual was an amazing and moving experience. Like Kahlo, La Casa Azul has many layers — its details bear witness to her inspired magpie approach, filled with objects that carried personal meaning to Kahlo and are reflected in her fascinating collection of arte popular. –Duke

La Casa Azul, the Museo Frida Kahlo

La Casa Azul, the Museo Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Museum
Londres 247
Del Carmen
04100 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico

 

olmedomuseum

10 Most Instagrammable Places in Mexico City's Centro

A photographer’s tour of the CDMX historic district, from the Palacio de Bellas Artes to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México.

CDMX, as the cool kids call it, is full of stunning design, a mind-blowing mix of colonial architecture and modern marvels. Here are some of our favorites to help you get started on a cultural and Insta-worthy tour of the city’s historic heart.

Centro Histórico

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

1. Sinagoga Histórica Justo Sierra 71

Start your tour with this hidden gem, built and established by the Ashkenazi, Eastern European Jews who arrived in Mexico City as refugees escaping persecution in the early 1940s. The Historic Synagogue, or Templo Nidje Israel, is entered through an interior courtyard beyond the building’s colonial façade (and a somewhat grumpy guard).

The interior contains a rather plain assembly hall on the first floor, but the sanctuary located on the second floor is impressive, said to be modeled after a synagogue in Lithuania. Make sure to look up at the vaulted clerestory ceiling intricately painted in hues of rust, mustard yellow, blue and green. An elaborately carved platform stands in the center of the room and faces the richly ornamented aron kodesh, or holy ark, surrounded by folk art elements typical of Eastern European villages. The sacred Torah scrolls were once kept behind the blue velvet curtain panel embroidered with silver thread.

Justo Sierra 71

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

2. Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

A block or so down from the synagogue is a former Jesuit boarding school that has since been transformed into a museum and cultural center. After the Jesuits were expelled from the city, the building temporarily served as barracks for the Mexican army before becoming the National Preparatory School. The site is considered to be the birthplace of the Mexican muralism movement and features murals painted by David Alfaro, José Clemente Orozco (Wally’s personal fave) and Diego Rivera.

Justo Sierra 16

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

3. La Casa de las Sirenas

The frieze on the façade of this former 17th century colonial abode features a Caravaca cross flanked by a pair of mermaids, which gives the restaurant its name, the House of the Mermaids.

We ate a delicious lunch on the rooftop terrace with a spectacular view overlooking the extremely disappointing Templo Mayor and the back of the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, while an organ grinder played a whimsical tune over and over from the street below.

República de Guatemala 32

The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

4. Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

This massive Baroque-style cathedral dominating the northern side of the Zócalo plaza was built in stages between 1573 to 1873, shortly after Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors defeated the Aztec Empire. Among the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas, much of it was built using stones pilfered from the Templo Mayor. (Maybe that’s why the temple’s ruins are so unimpressive.) Step inside to see the large, ornate Altar of the Kings, collection of paintings, pipe organ and statuary.

Plaza de la Constitución s/n

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

5. Gran Hotel Ciudad de México

After binge-watching the Spanish soap series Gran Hotel on Netflix, we had to go inside this historic Art Nouveau gem of the same name. It was originally the city’s most luxurious department store, known as el Centro Mercanti — in fact, you can still see the monogram “CM” in the stained-glass ceiling designed by French glass artist Jacques Grüber as well as the railings. Fun fact: The interior is featured in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Spectre.

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This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

6. Casa de los Azulejos

Meaning “the House of Tiles” in Spanish, the exterior of this 16th century building is embellished with tin-glazed ceramic tilework known as azulejos, from Puebla, Mexico. The property was originally the residence of the Valle de Orizaba counts, one of the wealthiest families in the country. It was purchased by brothers Walter and Frank Sanborn in 1919 and converted into the flagship location of Sanborns, a Mexican department store and restaurant chain.

Av Francisco I. Madero 4

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

7. Palacio Postal

Also known as the Correo Mayor, the Postal Palace was built by Italian architect Adamo Boari and Mexican engineer Gonzalo Garita and has been in continuous operation since it first opened in 1907. The interior was restored to its original gilded splendor with the help of Boari’s granddaughter, who had the original building plans in Italy. The money shot is of a pair of grand interconnecting staircases embellished with vegetal brass balustrades that almost appear to be alive. My only regret is that we weren’t able to send a postcard home while there.

C. Tacuba 1, Cuauhtémoc

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

8. Palacio de Bellas Artes

We didn’t get to go inside on this visit. But the secret to an amazing aerial shot is to head over to the Sears department store directly across the street. (If you don’t want to have a snack or drink on the balcony café, just go up one more floor and press your camera against the glass as we did.)

Designed by the same architect as the Palacio Postal, the building’s gorgeously photogenic Art Nouveau exterior is topped by a lattice of iron and a shimmering iridescent ombre-tiled dome. At the very top, the Mexican eagle perches on a cactus with a serpent in its beak, with the four figures beneath representing the personifications of the dramatic arts.  

The plaza includes various sculptures, including four Pegasus statues designed by Catalan Agustí Querol Subirats, as well as the famous Mexico City Olympics logo — way too popular with tourists to get a good picture of.

Av. Juárez

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

9. Alameda Central

This leafy park was created in 1525 on what was previously the site of an Aztec marketplace. Its name comes from the word alámo, Spanish for poplar tree — which can be found in abundance throughout the park. You’ll encounter children playing in empty fountain basins and locals of all ages meandering or sitting on benches along the many paths. The Kiosco Morisco was located there briefly and used as a pavilion to announce lottery winners before being moved to make way for the semicircular Neoclassical Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument, dedicated to the former Mexican president.

Av. Hidalgo s/n

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

País de Volcanes  ( Country of Volcanoes ) by Ricardo Legorreta

País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes) by Ricardo Legorreta

10. Fuente de Vicente Rojo

Across from Alameda Park, tucked into the courtyard of the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia surrounded by governmental offices is a fountain designed by Mexican visual artist Vicente Rojo and architect Ricardo Legorreta. Titled País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes), it features more than 1,000 small burnt red concrete pyramids emerging from a sunken reflecting pool, a reference to the coarse volcanic tezontle stone widely used by the Aztecs. –Duke

Av. Juárez 44

Biblioteca Vasconcelos: A Futuristic Architectural Marvel

Architect Alberto Kalach’s amazing library in Mexico City contains bookshelves that hang from the ceiling, and a whale bone sculpture by artist Gabriel Orozco.

Off-the-beaten-path CDMX: la Biblioteca Vasconcelos

Off-the-beaten-path CDMX: la Biblioteca Vasconcelos

After a visit to the labyrinthine and often-claustrophobic Mercado de Sonora Witch’s Market, Duke and I took a short Uber ride to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos in the Colonia Buenavista neighborhood. Dedicated to José Vasconcelos, a Mexican writer, philosopher and politician, the library’s interior is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Story after story of metal and glass bookcases defy logic, floating above like a science fiction version of Hogwarts.
Wally and Duke in ecstasy: Who needs to go to church when you’ve got a library like this?

Wally and Duke in ecstasy: Who needs to go to church when you’ve got a library like this?

The interior is like stepping into an M.C. Escher drawing

The interior is like stepping into an M.C. Escher drawing

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

From the building’s exterior — a fortress of concrete and steel grillwork — you’d never imagine the airy futuristic interior within. However, getting into the hallowed repository of knowledge was a bit tricky. Initially, Duke and I saw the gaping maw of the parking garage and wondered if we had to enter there. We skirted around to the right of the building in an attempt to gain access. When we realized there wasn’t an entrance there either, we paused to ask a local who was walking his dog. He gestured to the left side of the library. We thanked him and made our way over to a courtyard with a couple of smaller buildings and the main entrance.

The exterior of the library isn’t too impressive — but just wait till you step inside!

The exterior of the library isn’t too impressive — but just wait till you step inside!

When we first stepped foot inside the 400,000-square-foot Biblioteca Vasconcelos, designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, we could barely contain our giddiness. We looked around in wonder, our necks craning in every direction.

The floating stacks are a novel way, pun intended, to display books

The floating stacks are a novel way, pun intended, to display books

Story after story of metal and glass bookcases defy logic, while simultaneously offering a sense of complete order, floating above like a science fiction version of Hogwarts. Thin steel beams seem barely able to support the monumental stacks filled with books. Hazy silhouettes of patrons can be glimpsed through translucent sea-green catwalks.

Greenish-blue semitranslucent walkways connect the stacks

Greenish-blue semitranslucent walkways connect the stacks

Seating areas seen from across the expanse

Seating areas seen from across the expanse

We felt as though we had entered a sacred space, one that evoked the same reverence of the organic space-age architecture of La Sagrada Família church in Barcelona, Spain.

The exhibit  Vientos de Japón  ( Winds of Japan)  by master calligrapher Ryuho Hamano was on display when we visited

The exhibit Vientos de Japón (Winds of Japan) by master calligrapher Ryuho Hamano was on display when we visited

Duke daring to lean against the thin wire railing

Duke daring to lean against the thin wire railing

Wally chose a more secure spot for his portrait

Wally chose a more secure spot for his portrait

Sunlight plays a major role at the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, filling the interior with natural light. Ingenious louvered glass panels soften the sun's rays and keep the library from getting too hot.

The far ends of the library offer expansive views of the city

The far ends of the library offer expansive views of the city

As we passed by the first floor patios, we saw teens practicing dance routines, mimicking the choreography seen in some pop star’s latest music video. Beyond them, we could see the sprawling botanic garden that surrounds the structure. During our stay in Mexico City, we saw chilangos of all ages, from teens to seniors, dancing in public spaces.

A botanic park surrounds the structure

A botanic park surrounds the structure

Whenever I got too close to the cable rails on the upper floors of the library, my head would spin with vertigo. It became clear that this was a library for the brave. God forbid I needed a book located at the end of one of these stacks.

Looking down at Gabriel Orozco’s hanging sculpture,  Mobile Matrix

Looking down at Gabriel Orozco’s hanging sculpture, Mobile Matrix

A Whale of a Time: Orozco’s Mobile Matrix

Hovering above the central atrium hall is the striking Mátrix Móvil (Mobile Matrix in English), an intricately inscribed gray whale skeleton fitted onto a metal armature. Conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco and his team used over 6,000 mechanical pencils to etch concentric circles onto the bones, which stretch over 38 feet long. I learned that the whale had died after beaching itself on the Baja Peninsula during a migratory trip along the Mexican Pacific coast. The art piece adds a museum-like quality to the space.

A peek at the whale bone sculpture

A peek at the whale bone sculpture

There’s a lot to see in Mexico City, but the Biblioteca Vasconcelos is worth adding to your itinerary. It’s quite close to CDMX’s historic Centro. And when you’re done exploring this modern marvel (and have taken copious amounts of photos), head past the Buenavista rail and bus station and cross the overpass that spans the bustling Avenida Insurgentes. A 10-minute walk straight down Calle Salvador Díaz Mirón will bring you to the colorful Kiosco Morisco in the nearby Santa María la Ribera neighborhood. –Wally

A forest of paper cylinders with Japanese kana characters on display at the entrance

A forest of paper cylinders with Japanese kana characters on display at the entrance

Duke poses in front of the art exhibit

Duke poses in front of the art exhibit

There are elevators for those who don’t want to walk up all those stairs

There are elevators for those who don’t want to walk up all those stairs

One of the rooms along the sides of the library was filled with women knitting a cool cactus

One of the rooms along the sides of the library was filled with women knitting a cool cactus

Peek-a-boo! Duke looks through one of the stacks near the edge of the railing

Peek-a-boo! Duke looks through one of the stacks near the edge of the railing

Biblioteca Vasconcelos
Mosqueta
Eje 1 Norte S/N
Buenavista
06350 Ciudad de México
CDMX, México

 

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 and directly in our line of vision was 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 one act dramatizations known as autos sacramentales. 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

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