By Florrie Grigson.
Mexico City is typically described as a sprawling, urban metropolis; full of fumes, full of fun and full of fascination. And all these things it certainly is, but it’s also full of wonderful weirdness. Mexico has a reputation for dealing in one way or another with the macabre. We all know about Day of the Dead, but this is only the beginning, being just one day in a country packed to the brim with superstition. If you’re looking for a holiday destination that transcends the boundaries of your average booze fuelled beach destination, then Mexico might just fit that bill. The first encounter with Mexico’s supernatural for many unsuspecting tourists comes from the unthreatening, colourful canals of Xochimilco. Both tourists and locals alike can be found floating along in colourful boats called Trajineras, accompanied by hordes of floating vendors selling anything from elote (grilled corn on the cob) to large glasses of pulque (alcohol made from fermented cactus juice) – both served with a sufficient dose of chili, a la mexicana.
The name Xochimilco stems from Nauhatl, meaning ‘where the flowers grow,’ a rather romantic image. This makes one island in particular stand out, la Isla de las Muñuecas (the Island of the dolls). Again, this seems neither threatening nor macabre in nature but to take things at face value in Mexico is always a mistake. Legend has it that once upon a dark Mexican day, the caretaker of the island was peacefully minding his own business when he spotted a young girl drowned in mysterious circumstances. He was unable to save her life and a little while later a doll floated down the river, presumably belonging to the deceased. He decided to hang it on a nearby tree as a sign of respect. Big mistake. The spirit of the dead girl is then said to have entered the body of the doll. In an attempt to placate the spirit, the caretaker hung more and more dolls in the trees, but of course this would have been too easy. The spirits of dead children have been accumulating on the island in the dolls ever since. Nowadays as a visitor you can see the disjointed limbs, heads and bodies of dolls strung up on the surrounding trees. At night some swear that the limbs will twitch and the eyes will track your movement. This is Mexico at its spookiest.
My second favourite weird place to visit in Mexico City has to be Mercado Sonora. This one of a kind market is yet another example of why it is always worth digging beneath the surface, for the first few rows of stalls are your average plastic-toy selling ones. Walk a little further in to the right and you hit witchcraft paradise. The reason this section lies further towards the back of the market is because it is not there as a tourist attraction but is a part of everyday life for some locals. The belief in witchcraft is deeply rooted in Mexican culture, dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Today many Mexicans will still come for ‘limpias’ or cleansings, involving being hit repeatedly, albeit gently, with scented branches, having tequila or mezcal spat on you and then being sprinkled with spices. Oh yes, and during this you are required by custom to be naked or at least topless. This can rid the person of bad omens, spirits, curses and can even bring good fortune and money, apparently.
In this market you will find a stunningly vast array of items for your every witchcraft need, as well as a range of live animals: multi-coloured chickens, goats, puppies, racoons, eagles, snakes, miniature horses…you name it and they will probably have it, regardless of legality. Many westerners will find the animal part hard to deal with, myself included, as standards of animal welfare are often not a top priority in Mexico. However it is the potions that make the market: potions to attract money, to turn you into a chicken, to attract love, to turn you homosexual, to turn you straight and last but certainly not least you can buy a potion to turn yourself into a black man… Mexico has clearly got somewhere that science has not. So when visiting Mexico, I urge you not to be swayed by the idea of Cancun beaches, clubbing and Mexico as a paradise. Mexico is no paradise; it is grimy, imperfect, weird, exciting and unlike any other place on this planet. Why visit postcard-perfect beaches when just a little further north, the magic of Mexico City is waiting to give you a real adventure, for want of a cliché. If you are looking for a place of enchantment (literally and metaphorically), with a unique personality, then look no further.