With over two thousand colonias (the Mexican name for neighbourhood), divided up in 16 boroughs, it should come as no surprise that I haven’t been able to visit each and every one of them. A life lived here I believe even does not suffice in order to see it all. The other side of the coin however is that it gives me the perfect excuse to let my inner nomad out, drag some well-meaning friends along and go explore the lesser well-known corners of the city. Because, let’s be honest, Roma-Condesa feels a little small after a while.
It is in that spirit that I gathered two of my girlfriends and convinced them of the idea to go visit Santa María la Ribeira, a so-called barrio mágico, or magic neighbourhood in English. You guessed it, the concept is the same as that of the pueblos mágicos, but this time adapted to the needs of the Big City. To be fair, each neighbourhood has its very own personality, history and aesthetic (although the latter sometimes is markedly absent), and hence, the nicer ones are in my opinion entirely deserving of their title. Why – despite their title – some of them are still as run-down, for now remains an unsolved mystery.
Santa María la Ribeira is everything I love about Mexico City – minus the lively bars, that is. But the vibe, the energy, the colours… they are all there, as bright and strong as ever. The neighbourhood is located only 10 km away from Roma-Condesa, which, when I realized it while looking at the map, made me feel a little self-conscious for not having visited earlier. Although to be frank, I do not know of a lot of people who have. I tend to not be very concerned about safety issues, and was swiftly (and rightly so) put into my place by our cab driver, who was quick to point out that this is not a safe area. His advice: “Just act normal and nothing will happen to you!”. Umm.. okay then. Whatever that means. The following day I read that it has one of the highest crime rates of the city.
The barrio has a rich history, and extensive list of notable individuals have inhabited it at some point in time – for instance, Chucho el Roto, the Mexican Robin Hood, and Don Facundo, a rat-trainer turned artist. Originally located outside of what once were the city’s borders, the area was developed as to serve the capital’s affluent class. Now mostly catering to the less wealthy, the streets display an idiosyncratic mix of architecture. The most appealing buildings are late 19th-early 20th century mansions built for the aforementioned wealthy. Those have now been complemented by what once must have once been considered modern apartment buildings, as well as social housing developments. The influx of lower-class residents has had the unfortunate consequence that many of the buildings with historical value have been abandoned and are now falling into utter disrepair.
While this may seem strange to a foreigner – Not caring for one’s architecture, really? – it is all too common here. It is also part of the charm. What may seem as entirely contradicting, in fact effectively captures the peculiar essence of Mexico City. New mixes with old, beautiful with ugly, lively colours with grey tones. They all happily coexist in what sometimes can confuse the European mind, so accustomed to neat streets and planned urban landscapes. An area such as Santa María de Ribeira perfectly showcases the changes that have swept through the city, in all its decrepit glory.
The building the area may be best known for is its Kiosko Morisco, a colourful iron-and-steel structure reminiscent of moorish architecture, which graces the colonia’s central park. It was built in 1902 by the Mexican engineer José Ramón Ibarrola to be sent to an international exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri. Recently renovated, the kiosk is absolutely beautiful and well worth a visit. Since on weekends it becomes rather busy, I’d recommend visiting during the week (if you have that luxury, that is!). Other notable landmarks include the Museo Universitario del Chopo, which should be visited not for the art exhibitions it houses but much rather for its Jugendstil architecture, which has earned the building the nickname Chrystal Palace, after the famed London one.
Other reasons to go visit: dirtcheap juices (no sane person would be able to say no to a freshly pressed beetroot, orange, mandarine and grapefruit juice at that price, I assure you!), intriguing old mansions up for sale, a small market for local women to sell their artesanías, a Russian restaurant (Kolobok, on Díaz Mirón No. 87), and its colourful street art. In essence, it is one of those places with soul in which one can aimlessly wander the streets and be sure to find a treasure at every corner.
© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius