Off the Beaten Track in Mexico City: Santa Maria La Ribera

kiosco 2

It’s easy to go to Mexico City and miss Santa Maria La Ribera. West of the historic centre, and north of fashionable districts like La Roma and La Condesa, it’s a place that’s often forgotten, and rarely just stumbled upon. Not that stumbling upon things is all that common in “el Distrito Federal”, what with it being one of the world’s largest metropolises and all. But in the tangle of Mexico City’s streets, subway lines and bus systems, it can sometimes feel very difficult for visitors to discover a place that’s really not that far away. Santa Maria La Ribera is one such place, a neighbourhood in transition, for better or for worse, that’s really worth the effort to visit. And the effort isn’t huge, either, a mere 4-6 subway stops from many of the city’s main attractions.

Santa Maria La Ribera doesn’t have the ruins that attract tourists to the centre, nor the late-night bars and galleries that draw local fresas (rich preppies) and the international art set to La Condesa and La Roma. But maybe that’s exactly what has kept it rather special, and a little bit off the radar. It’s not cool and obnoxiously trendy, but it’s not touristy and swarming with trinket-sellers either. It’s very traditional and very Mexican, but unlike large swathes of the city, it’s not comprised of 2-story concrete buildings in muted tones, with electrical wires jutting out in every direction, or 10-lane expressways. “Faded glory” is the phrase I’d use to describe Santa Maria La Ribera—beautiful, even baroque, peeling in places, but colourful nonetheless; lively, if a little down on its luck.

Santa Maria la Ribera’s star has fallen since its glory days, the first thirty years of the twentieth century, when it became a haven for middle class Mexicans trying to escape the city centre. In fact, “la Ribera” means “the shore” in Spanish, presumably a reference to the beaches of the Aztec lake, which used to house the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. When the Spanish came and the lake was filled in, Santa Maria la Ribera suddenly became connected to the city, though it was still far enough away to be considered remote. By the early twentieth century, however, it had become a new type of shoreline—an inner suburb, offering a calmer, greener alternative to the hectic life of the city’s historic centre. It grew by design, as one of Mexico City’s first planned neighbourhoods, with grand buildings and stately homes built for the burgeoning middle class.

But growth moves quickly in Mexico City, and so, by the 1950s, Santa Maria La Ribera had become just another part of the growing conurbation of Mexico City. Apartments started replacing many of the grand houses, buildings started to deteriorate (some were even abandoned), and petty crime moved in. These days a reverse trend is slowly, but surely, happening, though gentrification is not yet particularly obvious (though neither is much crime). The neighbourhood is only just, shall we say, on the verge…at least by the standards of Mexican real estate (which thankfully moves a little more slowly than its northern counterparts.) There are no dog boutiques yet, but it doesn’t feel derelict either. For the large part, Santa Maria la Ribera is lively and old-fashioned, like a small town in the city, home to mom-and-pop shops and sidewalk tlacoyo ladies, as well as several museums, grand buildings, and if you’re willing to take a slight diversion, two cultural icons of a much more modern Mexico: the architecturally significant and futuristic Vasconcelos Library, and the El Chopo, the city’s biggest countercultural market.

Both the Vasconcelos Library and El Chopo are located directly outside of Buenavista station, the neighbourhood’s nearest subway stop, and hub for suburban train and rapid bus lines. Buenavista’s surroundings are not the most pleasant, a bit industrial, with train tracks where many old streets used to be. Technically the station (along with the library and market) is not located in Santa Maria La Ribera. You have cross the street (Insurgentes Avenue) to get there. But it’s worth visiting those latter two things before crossing into the heart of the neighbourhood, as their provenance and influence cannot be separated from it.

By ProtoplasmaKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vasconcelos Library is a new addition to Mexico City, an almost megalithic edifice that spreads across 38,000 square metres. Sculptures by famous Mexican artists adorn the building, including Gabriel Orozco’s Ballena, a floating whale-bone piece. But it’s not a touristy site. Most people in the library are just going about their business—reading, researching, accessing computers and using the library’s special facilities. One such place is the musical instrument room, where all you need is a piece of ID to be granted access to a digital piano, or electric guitar and some headphones to listen to as you play. Even foreigners are welcome, as long as they hand over their passport before trying out the instruments. But for most travelers, the library’s draw is first and foremost its architecture: suspended steel and glass, floating stacks, and an orthogonal plan.

By ProtoplasmaKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Right up the street is El Chopo, a tanguis, the Mexican equivalent of a temporary street market. The word “temporary” is important, because it only occurs on Saturdays, attracting metal, goth, grunge, ska, reggae and punk kids (and grown-ups who still want to be kids) from all over the city. It has a little bit of a Camden Market feel, you know, that rock ‘n’ roll theme park aspect where you can buy your “rebellious” style for a fixed price. But it’s still a fun place, simply because the diversity of its subcultures, styles and materials is so large. This is not the oppressive world of lily-white hipster culture. It’s not $4 espressos or trust-fund artists telling you what’s cool. It’s just kids with a passion, real Mexicans from all different backgrounds, with faces that reflect the same—straight out of Aztec reliefs, except their t-shirts scream “Anthrax” and their lip jewelry says punk, and their hair might be purple, or dreaded, or styled in the fashion of that much more northern indigenous group, the Mohawk. You see, that’s one of the great things about Mexico City…it blows away all the stereotypes of Latin America that you could ever imagine, because there are so many subcultures there. People don’t just listen to banda or salsa or reggaeton. They love rock music too, and metal and well…whatever you can imagine. More than anything, El Chopo is a gathering place where you can talk to passionate people, buy their handmade fanzines or bootlegged music, and at its worst, chuckle at the kitsch. And there’s usually live music too, a chance to see up-and-coming Mexican bands.

By Luisalvaz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When the chaos of El Chopo becomes too much, it’s a good time to head into the quiet side streets of Santa Maria La Ribera. Because the train tracks block the most direct route, it’s fastest to return via the library and train station in order to cross Insurgentes Avenue. Within a block, you’re in a whole other world, calm and slow, with little old ladies pulling grocery carts, and families out for a stroll. A three-block walk along Calle Salvador Diaz Mirón takes you to the community’s hub, the Alameda de Santa Maria. It’s just like any Mexican central square, except even better. Besides the usual trees, benches and food vendors, there’s also a gigantic, colourful pavilion built in the Moorish style. Called the Kiosco Morisco, it was constructed for the Mexican pavilion at the New Orleans Exhibition of 1884/85, and then later moved to Mexico. Many locals are not aware of this fact, and will try to tell you that it was donated by an Arab Sheik. But no, it is simply a nod to the deep Spanish (an therefore Arab) roots of Mexican culture. Like most kiosks in Mexican plazas, it’s a place for bands to play in the evening, occasionally with community dancing on the side. In the daylight hours, it’s simply a nice place in which to wander around, or take a rest.

There are many places to eat near nearby. Street food is the cheapest option, with fresh potato chips, chile-and-cheese corn on the cob, fruit salad and paleta (homemade popsicle) vendors ambulating around the plaza. But for something a bit heartier, hole-in-wall antojitos joints are a better option. Antojitos are basically anything that you can eat with your hands, usually masa-based, made from fresh corn dough. Tacos, tamales, and gorditas are probably the most famous varieties of antojitos, though they represent but a tiny percentage of the myriad of options. Never tell a Mexican that all antojitos are the same. Even though sopes, gorditas, tlacoyos and huaraches can be difficult to distinguish sometimes, especially depending on the neighbourhood, they are all technically different, thanks to the thickness of their dough and the nature of their fillings and/or toppings.

By ProtoplasmaKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Technically, Mexicans consider antojitos snacks, but many shops in Santa Maria La Ribera sell them in very large portions. One of them, La Jirafa y la Mula, makes giant quesadillas, which are a world away from the ones your mother probably made you as a child (if you grew up north of the border, that is.) In fact, a Chilango friend once told me that quesadillas in Mexico City are different from pretty much everywhere else in the country, where cheese dominates as a filling (as the name suggests, since the Spanish word for cheese is queso!) But in Mexico City, cheese is only one of a myriad of options. Chorizo, huitlacoche (corn fungus), chicken, mushrooms, and roasted Poblano peppers are some of the most popular. Squash flowers and Oaxaca cheese are my personal favourite when the season is right. Another important feature of Mexico City’s quesadillas is that the cooks don’t use flour tortillas. The dough is made from corn, hand rolled and cooked on the spot, so that outside melds deliciously and smoothly into its filling.

One peculiarity of Alamada Santa Maria is a restaurant on the corner called Kolobok. It’s Russian, serving Chiburekki (labeled as “empanadas”), borscht and other traditional foods of Eastern Europe. Why it’s there is a little unclear, since Russians are not a noticeable ethnic group in the city. But its popularity is not subject to debate, since it’s always full. That being said, unless you’re craving Russian food, I recommend walking on by and eating some antojitos instead. They’re cheaper and far tastier.

By JEDIKNIGHT1970 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you want something sweet to cap off your meal, be sure check out a panaderia. They’re a staple of the neighbourhood (and a wonderfully cheap option for budget travelers.) They all operate the same way. Walk in, grab a tray and some pincers, pick what you like off the shelf and pay for it at the counter. Cookies, pan dulces (sweet breads) and pastries tend to average about 5 pesos, about 30-40 cents each. Pastries in Mexico tend to be especially good, thanks to a range of outside influence. Some say it’s because Maximilian I brought Viennese bakers with him when he declared himself Emperor of Mexico. Others point to the convent nuns, who have maintained baking traditions in the Spanish world for time immemorial. The famously Francophile dictator Porfirio Diaz may have also influenced the country’s baked goods in his constant quest to emulate French culture. Whatever the reason, Mexican pastries are tasty and cheap, an easy way to quell a sweet craving.

With a full belly, and rested feet, it’s worth it to make one last stop at one of Santa Maria La Ribera’s museums. My personal favourite is the Museo Universitario del Chopo, which, a bit confusingly, bears a very similar name to the previously discussed market. Apparently the street it sits on (now called Calle Enrique Conzález Martínez) used to be called “Chopo,” named, presumably, for the poplar tree (poplar translates as “chopo” in Spanish). The El Chopo market actually began on the museum’s grounds and ran there until it became too large, and had to move to its current location.

By Patricia Alzuarte Díaz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The El Chopo museum is located a few blocks south of the Alameda, and like the Kiosco Morisco, is of foreign extraction. Many Mexicans refer to the museum as the “Crystal Palace”, because they believe that it looks like the London building of the same name. However, El Chopo’s origins are German not British, as it was manufactured in Oberhausen in the Art Nouveau (or as the German say, Jugendstil) style. Like the Kiosco Morisco, it originated as a pavilion, in this particular case from the 1902 art and textile exhibition in Dusseldorf. Unlike the Kiosco, it was not designed to represented anything inherently Mexican, however. Rather, it was bought after the exhibition and shipped to Mexico, where it was used to house the Japanese Pavilion at the Universal Exhibition of Mexico in 1920, and later became the home the National Museum of Natural History.

In 1964, the museum closed and the building lay empty for almost ten years. In 1973 it was bought by UNAM, Mexico’s most important university, and re-inaugurated as a modern art space. Apart from its many galleries, it now also houses workshops and performing arts events, as well as a movie theatre, which shows art films. It’s not a huge museum, but one that is substantial enough for an hour or two of wandering. Though it’s certainly not a replica of London’s Crystal Palace, it does bear many cool architectural features. More than anything, it feels almost like an old railway station, with turn-of-the-century industrial design mixed in. Like the El Chopo Market it gave its name to, the museum has a very alternative feel—except in this case, it’s one that’s grown up and curated. It’s not necessarily as innocent or raw as the market, but it’s a lot more educated. It’s fun to experience them both on the same day, and take the best from each.

image source: Louise Ranck. Via Wikimedia commons.

As for the rest of the neighbourhood? Well, that’s yours to explore. It’s the kind of place that just likes to be wandered in…or, if you’re too tired, it’s the kind of place in which it’s perfect to just watch the world go by, preferably while sitting on the steps of Kiosco Morisco, or a nearby bench just as the evening’s music begins.

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