Mexico City, Mexico — “Es un problema. Un problema grande,” the hard-eyed, grubby little man announced sharply, pointing to my camera. The man held a walkie-talkie, but he hardly looked like policia, or anyone official for that matter.

I immediately got it that he didn’t want me taking pictures in his corner of Mexico City’s famous Zócalo, although I didn’t immediately get why. I shrugged my shoulders and started to walk away. “Puta Madre,” he called after me (“Your mom’s a whore” would be probably the least insulting translation of the phrase). Rather than returning to engage in pointless philosophical banter (“Is not.” “Is too.” “Is not…” and so on), I chose to keep walking, more pissed off than afraid. It was broad daylight, after all, and the Zócalo teemed with tourists and locals.

The Zócalo is one of the world’s largest public squares, bordered by a massive cathedral (seat of Mexico’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese), the Palacio Nacional, Federal District buildings, and the site of the Templo Mayor from Aztec times. At the Zócalo’s center, an enormous Mexican flag waves atop a flagpole. Naturally, the Zócalo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a must-see on any Mexico City itinerary.

And as you’ll find nearly everywhere throughout the country, vendors line the edges of the plaza, selling food, drinks, clothing and chucherías. And amongst the vendors, apparently lay the problem.

My wife and I had flown into Mexico City — she to attend an anthropology conference in the city of Puebla, about 2 hours away, during which I’d arranged a motorcycle rental on which I would go exploring solo throughout Puebla state. We stayed in Mexico City for a couple of days before taking a 2-hour bus ride via Estrella Roja express (better than Greyhound in the US — it even had wireless internet) to Puebla.

Siesta time

We stayed at a Hampton Inn just a few blocks from the Zócalo (incidentally, an incredibly nice hotel – I highly recommend it if you come here, and no, they didn’t pay me to say this). We planned on walking around the Zócalo and throughout the heart of Mexico City, visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Anthropology Museum, known as one of the world’s finest), La Zona Rosa (a famous neighborhood, shopping and entertainment district), walking several miles throughout the city over a couple of days.

Back to my amigo in the Zócalo: it wasn’t until later in the afternoon of my inhospitable encounter that my wife figured out what had been going on. She noticed a pair of police officers patrolling an adjacent street. As the officers approached, some of the street vendors began immediately rolling up their blankets and packing their merchandise, accompanied by frantic chatter over the walkie-talkies they all carried. Now it all made sense — these vendors sold counterfeit merchandise (you know, the Fendi bags and fake Rolexes), and the gentleman I’d encountered earlier was one of their lookouts — they were trying to avoid a police raid and confiscation of their dubious merchandise!

Voyage to the Volcano

Aside from that one unpleasant encounter, the rest of our Mexico trip was incredible — I rode a Kawasaki dual-sport motorcycle over dirt roads to the volcanoes of Puebla, one of the most fun motorcycle trips ever (click here to read the story of that ride), which I also wrote about for the September 2010 issue of RoadBike magazine, getting to explore a part of the country I’d never visited before.

Shady vendors or not, I’ll be back!

Travelin’ Gringo on the Zócalo

This was a friendly vendor!

Zona Rosa

“You can’t get there from here, señorita!”

Harley-Davidson of Mexico City

Anthropology Museum

“Two Heads are Better than One”

Um, no comment on this one.

On the road to an active volcano

Street festival, Puebla

Street festival, Puebla

“Me and my friend Corralejo”

About Glen Abbott
Glen Abbott is a Florida-based travel writer & photographer specializing in motorcycle touring and travel. He is regular contributor to Harley-Davidson's HOG Magazine, and his travel features appear regularly in motorcycle magazines and other publications.

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16 Comments
  1. Laura

    April 1, 2011

    These are great photos! It’s too bad about that initial unpleasant encounter, but I’m glad you didn’t let it ruin your visit. And I have to agree, long distance bus travel in Mexico can be quite nice – much better than Greyhound or the Chinatown buses that I was used to taking in the U.S. 😉 I imagine exploring by motorcycle is pretty incredible too!
    Laura recently posted..Weekend Links

    • Travelin' Gringo

      April 1, 2011

      Thanks, Laura. If it wasn’t for the occasional unpleasant encounter, all my stories would be boring! 🙂

  2. robin

    March 22, 2011

    Some really nice shots here, especially the police giving directions. Nicely caught.
    robin recently posted..Seriously- Carnaval

  3. Grace

    March 21, 2011

    lovely photos! the one with the mask- how did you achieve that effect?
    also, your wife is an anthropologist??
    Grace recently posted..What you can learn from the time I escaped a dangerous scam

    • Travelin' Gringo

      March 22, 2011

      Thanks, Grace. The photo with the mask — I just played around with the tools in iPhoto — I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I think I added edge blur and increased the color saturation.
      And yes, my wife is an anthropologist — she specializes in Urban Anthropology.

  4. Jozef @ Where Now

    March 21, 2011

    Looks like a great place to visit other than that one unpleasent encounter. You get people like that anywhere you go though. Some great photos as always as well!
    Jozef @ Where Now recently posted..The Pantanal Day 1

    • Travelin' Gringo

      March 21, 2011

      Thanks Jozef. And people like that just help make the trip interesting!

  5. Renee

    March 21, 2011

    I love all of the bright, warm colors there…fantastic pics, Glen. I could just pinch the cheeks of those darlings at the Puebla fair and ahem…thanks for the no comment on that other photo. lol
    Renee recently posted..How traveling improves your quality of life

  6. Adam

    March 21, 2011

    Great post Glen, and even more impressive are the photos. You got some fantastic shots, and this areas of Mexico looks stunning.
    Adam recently posted..Picture of the Week — New Orleans

    • Travelin' Gringo

      March 21, 2011

      Thanks Adam. I really love Mexico — and you can’t go wrong photographing all the bright colors there.

  7. The Dropout

    March 21, 2011

    Wow. Mexico has amazing clouds!
    I love your photos and your lovely story. I’m a bit disappointed you didn’t start the “is not, is too” argument, though. That would have been hilarious (in the retelling, anyway).
    The Dropout recently posted..Dumpling Devotion In Singapore

    • Travelin' Gringo

      March 21, 2011

      Thanks! But believe me, that gentleman didn’t look too inclined to engage in witty banter!

  8. inka

    March 21, 2011

    Glen, this is the best ‘picture book’ I have ever seen of the area. As I’m such a history fan I loved the anthropology museum over view and of course, your bike.
    inka recently posted..The charm of the backside

    • Travelin' Gringo

      March 21, 2011

      Thanks, Inka. The anthropology museum is incredible — overall that was one of the best trips ever,despite one unfriendly vendor!

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