The Madrileño Aesthetic

The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

Perhaps it’s the pale brickwork and the sandstone, the wrought iron balconies, or the fierce sunlight that bleaches the city of colour and renders it in the sepia tones of an old photograph, but living in Madrid feels as much like being in another time as it does another country. 

It’s a city in which extravagant churches, palaces, and sweeping plazas stand beside tired looking cafes and dingy bars populated by cigarette machines and austere septuagenarians perched on tall metal stools.

Done out in formica and faux marble, many of these establishments have an air of old world formality. Waiters wear waistcoats or matching pullovers and your change arrives on a little metal dish. Yet, the floors are littered with scrunched-up napkins and discarded sugar packets, the paintwork is peeling and the awnings are frayed at the edges. It’s hard to tell a good bar from a bad one when so many look a little like dives.

Outside, the city is just as shabby, graffiti-daubed, and dated. Gaggles of old women in shift dresses and shawls sit at wooden benches surrounded by pigeons and bags full of shopping. Restaurant frontages sport faded photographs of seafood platters and cups of strong black coffee that look as grim as they taste, faintly of headaches and civil war rationing.

Even crossing the street involves a nostalgia trip of a decade or so. The laser-beam chirp of the traffic lights means you tread the tarmac to the soundtrack of a ’90s arcade game.

But this old fashioned feel, this air of gentle decay and dilapidation, adds much to Madrid’s charm. Like the noise of shouted conversations on the street below or the frenzy of extravagant beeping that erupts during rush hour, it endears you to the city and it makes you smile.

Moreover, it chimes with a lack of pretension or concern for polish that feels thoroughly Spanish. Why sweep the floors or buy new curtains when you could pour your energy into shouting orders to the kitchen, arguing about the football with your clientele, or dashing about with hastily poured glasses of beer and bowls of complementary olives? Character and attitude beat style hands down. Modernity can wait.

– Thomas Rees

Late arrival

La Cultura Madrileña: Metropolis building, Madrid by night (Thomas Rees)

La Cultura Madrileña: Metropolis building, Madrid by night (Thomas Rees)

They say that Madrid is a city that never sleeps, but all is quiet as we make our way from the airport and along Jaime el Conquistador. The entrance hall to the apartment building is dark. The walls are clad in cool marble and a heavy mirror stands in one corner. A caged lift takes us to the fourth floor, with its beige tiles and scuffed banisters, where the air smells sweetly of old varnish.

The flat is just what I expect: a long corridor that wraps itself around a central courtyard, lit by moonlight and crisscrossed with washing lines. The floors are old laminate and the walls are whitewashed and uneven. Pains of yellow glass sit in dark wooden door frames that shudder when you pull them to.

Outside my window is a treelined avenue scattered with fragile, dried blossoms. There are more on the floor of my bedroom and on the soles of my shoes.

At 2am, a street sweeper passes beneath my window with a soft whirr of brushes and at 2:30 a white taxi stops by the apartment building opposite. Snatches of conversation drift on the breeze, strings of hard-edged consonants and clipped Iberian vowels that clatter like the keys of a typewriter.

My sleep is broken and filled with images of the cities that looked like islets of liquid light from the window of the plane. I wake at sunrise to the sound of car horns and the hum of traffic. Rousing itself from a weekend stupor, Madrid is beginning to stir.

– Thomas Rees

Exploring the tombs of Tierradentro, Colombia

Exploring the tombs of Tierradentro, Colombia (shutterstock)

We sat under the scant shade of a guava tree, listening to the hum of insects in the long grass and watching a late afternoon shower soften the outlines of the statues. Vultures with ragged wings hung in the valley below and circled the tops of the hills as groves of banana trees tumbled down the slopes ahead of us, breaking the lines of the coffee terraces that striped the landscape. For a while Juan was silent, then conversation turned back to the tombs, to the columns carved with ancient faces and the rock-hewn walls with their riddle of geometric patterns.

The seductive charm of colonial Cartagena and the lure of the Caribbean means that few travellers make it to the west of Colombia. Fewer still venture into the hills and valleys of Cauca, to the village of San Andrés de Pisimbalá and the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro.

It’s unsurprising. Though many are now being paved, most of the surrounding roads are deeply rutted and disagreeable. Come via the town of Popayán, en route from the Ecuadorian border, and you’ll spend several hours lurching along dirt tracks through a landscape of mist-shrouded Andean moorland in a hand-me-down American school bus.

But don’t be dissuaded. It would be worth it for the rural tranquility and the scenery alone. It’s all the more worth it for the sense of adventure and, once you learn that the hills surrounding San Andrés are riddled with tombs carved into the rock and decorated with pre-Columbian cave paintings, the decision becomes an easy one.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these scattered hypogea range from claustrophobic earthen hollows to elaborate burial chambers set nine meters deep in the volcanic bedrock and reached by spiralling staircases. Designed to house the  remains of Tierradentro’s pre-Columbian elite, they offer all manner of intriguing insights into a north Andean culture that flourished between the 6th and the 10th centuries.

Descend the steps of  the tombs at Alto de San Andrés or Alto de Segovia, wait for the lamps to flicker into life, and you’ll be greeted by swirls of mineral pigment, riotous zigzag patterns and delicately painted animals picked out in red, yellow and black.

In some you’ll find human figures, inquisitive faces and birds. At Alto del Aguacate, the beam of my torch illuminated the shapes of salamanders, agents of the underworld, separated from a celestial sphere that hung with coloured moons by a black line representing the earth. Just as fascinating were a series of shallow pits dug into the floor. A trip to the site’s museum later that morning confirmed that they were for the servants of the deceased. Their sunken graves were indicative of lower status and evidence of a hierarchy that continued into the afterlife.

At El Tablón a number of monolithic stone statues depicting broad-shouldered warriors, priests and women in turbans, are also on display. It was here that I met Juan, a barrel chested park ranger with a thick black moustache. He spoke wistfully of the 1980s when many of the painted tombs were first exhumed and of the intensity of the colours. “There are  hundreds more,” he said, “you can find them all over these hills”. I was due to leave for Bogotá the next day but my plans were fast beginning to change. The rest of Colombia could wait.

The logistics:

Tierradentro can be reached by bus or in one of the pickup trucks used as collective taxis (colectivos) throughout the region. They run sporadically throughout the day and drop you at a crossroads a short walk from the museum or further up the hill in San Andrés itself. The journey from Popayán takes between 4 and 6 hours. La Plata (en route to San Agustín) is 4-5 hours to the south east.

The tombs are scattered throughout the hills and must be reached by walking or on horseback. Maps and information are available at the Casa de Cultura in San Andrés and at the museum where you can hire horses for around US$2 an hour.

Though it’s possible to visit all of the sites in the valley in a single day if you start early, it’s best not to rush. The climb to Alto del Aguacate, in particular, is steep and requires a good level of fitness. At the time of writing a day ticket valid for the museum and all of the surrounding tombs cost US$8.

The larger tombs are lit and looked after by park rangers, many of whom are extremely knowledgeable about the area and its history. A torch is recommended, however. Ask permission before taking photos and don’t, under any circumstances, use flash.

There are a number of small restaurants and guest houses in San Andrés and along the road to the museum. Hospedaje Luzerna, run by doting octogenarian couple Don Secundario and his wife Carmelita, comes highly recommended.

The area is fantastic for birdwatching and there are many spectacular hiking trails connecting nearby villages. It’s a great place for an extended stay.

– Thomas Rees

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Setting sail for Panama’s San Blas Archipelago

Setting sail for Panama's San Blas Archipelago

Why fly between Panama and Colombia when you could explore the islands and coral reefs of San Blas?

I woke just as the storm was breaking, as the first of the iron grey waves enveloped the prow. Veins of lightening ran through the bank of cloud ahead of us and it glowed, just for a second, blue-black like a bruise. Fritz stayed on deck as we stumbled to our cabins, wiping the salt-water from his thick-lensed glasses and barking instructions to the crew. A string of German swear-words followed me down the narrow stair-well as I descended into the belly of the catamaran, ducking low beneath the polished wood of the door frames and clambering into the narrow birth with its sweet smell of paint and old varnish. I had left Central America behind, a hundred nautical miles in the distance, through the windswept night, lay the lights of Cartagena.

Unless you have a private army at your disposal or aspire to be the star of the continent’s next hostage crisis, overland travel between Panama and Colombia would be unwise. The jungles and swamps of the Darién Gap are the stuff of legend, the stronghold of the last of the FARC rebels and a smoke screen for the nefarious activities of drug traffickers. But that doesn’t mean you should fly. There’s too much to see at the naval of Latin America. Far better to book a spot on one of the private yachts that ply their trade ferrying travellers between Panama and the Colombian coast.

After backpacking my way through Central America, I did just that, arranging my passage with Fritz, an eccentric Austrian businessman-turned-skipper sailing the route in his 50ft catamaran. Just a few months after my journey, Fritz entrusted his boat to a washed up captain with a fondness for rum rations and subsequently lost it to the waters of the Caribbean. But there are plenty of others still operating, sailed by reliable sorts with scrupulous safety records and reams of recommendations.

The yacht was moored at Carti, three hours from Panama City along patch-work roads of broken tarmac and bare earth. It was there that I boarded a motor launch in the fumbling light of dawn and arrived to find Fritz out on deck in Birkenstocks and sky-blue swimming trunks, making the final preparations. “Alles ist gut!” he said with a smile.

We set sail that morning, bound for San Blas, a network of islands that surpass the most palm-fringed of holiday brochure cliches, and spent three days floating through the archipelago, snorkelling along reefs of fire coral and eating lobster from paper plates. Angel fish with feather-like fins glided through the shallows and, in the deeper water, barracuda stalked silvery shoals that scattered as they approached, like shards of softly broken glass.

The San Blas Islands are home to the Kuna, a nation of weather-beaten Amerindians who eke out an existence tending glades of coconut palms and trading with passing ships. Juan, the Panamanian deck hand pointed out the silhouettes of their fishing boats in the distance. “They’re diving for shellfish,” he said. “Some of them can hold their breath for ten minutes.”

While Kuna men are famed for their aquatic prowess, the women of San Blas, or Kuna Yala as it is also known, pride themselves on their fabrics. At Nagaurchirdup, three women in orange headscarves paddled over in a canoe beneath the shade of a tattered parasol. “Mola sellers” said Juan, as they unloaded their baskets. Made from layers of cloth and decorated with geometric patterns and brightly coloured birds, mola form the central panels of Kuna blouses. The finest examples are highly prized and well worth a lazy afternoon of haggling.

As the sun set that evening, we headed for the open sea, leaving the shelter of the islands and braving the waiting storm. We kept watch in shifts until it passed. Alfred the retired accountant woke Toby the photographer, who woke the French couple, who woke me as the first of the Colombian lighthouses appeared: flecks of hot light in the mist.

By the time we arrived in Cartagena on the fifth day, I was glad to escape the claustrophobic cabins, the sleeping bags damp with sweat and salt water, and the lingering seasickness. But I’d do it again in a second.

Hauling our rucksacks from the harbour to the centre of town, we passed a group of tourists, their suitcases emblazoned with luggage tags and flight stickers. I didn’t have the heart to tell them what they’d missed.

The logistics:

Upwards of 20 yachts sail this route in both directions with most spending three days in the San Blas Islands and around 40 hours on the open ocean. You can book a cabin at hostels and hotels, both in Cartagena and Panama City. Hostel Mamallena provide a comprehensive list of boats, complete with departure times and further details. At the time of writing, the trip cost around $500. It’s by no means a budget option but well worth the expense and infinitely preferable to spending $350 dollars on a 90-minute flight. Most boats provide snorkeling gear but it can be a little leaky so it’s worth taking your own. Seasickness tablets are highly recommended, save them for the open sea when things can get choppy!

– Thomas Rees

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Digging deep in Joya de Cerén, El Salvador


There’s little to love about downtown San Salvador, pock-marked by slums and thick with snarling traffic. But don’t let it colour your opinion of the city as a whole. From elegant suburbs, like Santa Tecla, to the forested slopes of El Boquerón, the slumbering volcano that bathes the outskirts of the city in late afternoon shadow, there’s more to El Salvador’s capital than joyless urban sprawl.

More beautiful still are the nearby colonial towns, like Suchitoto the ‘place of birds and flowers’, a jumble of pastel-coloured houses and artisans’ workshops trimmed with terracotta tiles that look out over Lake Suchitlán. Famed for the elegant white facade of its 19th century church, it’s as sun-dappled and chocolate-boxy a town as you could wish for. But of all the places I visited in El Salvador the best was Joya de Cerén.

Stone temples and crumbling Mayan palaces are a dime a dozen in Latin America. Whether scrubbed clean by archaeologists or hidden beneath jungle canopies, noisy with the frantic calls of cicadas, they provide ample evidence of the power and the splendour of the Mayan elite. Yet they tell us little about the lives of ordinary people, of the peasants and artisans upon whose backs an empire was built.

The archaeological site at Joya de Cerén (Jewel of Cerén) is different. Known as the ‘Pompeii of the Americas’, it’s the most complete Mayan village ever to be discovered on the continent. Preserved beneath layers of volcanic ash following the eruption of a nearby volcano around 600AD, it’s here alone that the wattle and daub dwellings of pre-hispanic farmers have survived, complete with neatly-furrowed fields and kitchen gardens. When the site was first excavated, even the delicate impressions of yucca (manioc), maguey cactus and maize were visible in the ash, allowing archaeologists to build up an impression of the diet of Joya’s inhabitants.

The religious practices of Mayan villagers are in evidence too. In the midst of one group of buildings is a temezcal, a ceremonial steam bath depicted in the codices of the period and used for ritual cleansing. Entering the warmth of its interior was likened to returning to the womb, that you might emerge reborn. Set into its domed roof is a circular valve of baked earth that would have allowed excess steam to escape, preventing the temperature and the pressure inside from growing too great.

My guide, Maria, a bright-eyed salvadoreña in a floral scarf, smiled at the ingenuity of her ancient ancestors and led me to another building in which excavators have found painted deer antlers, shells and the fragments of a headdress. Adorned with a latticework window designed to allow those inside to peer out while obscuring the view of passersby, it is thought to have been a centre of occult activity, the dwelling of a village shaman.

“Just as intriguing,” she said, “was the discovery of tiny clay figure.” Housed in the smart museum at the site’s entrance, it depicts a man sporting a broad-brimmed hat, a glimpse of 7th century Mayan attire which overturns the assumption that sombreros were brought to the continent by the Spanish. “It turns out they’re a Salvadoran invention, that the Conquistadors borrowed the idea from us,” she said, brimming with pride.

Though it was discovered in the 1970s, much of Joya de Cerén is yet to be excavated. No doubt more illuminating fragments of history lie hidden beneath the soil. Just like in El Salvador itself, if you dig down just a little there are treasures to be found.

– Thomas Rees

An edited version of this article appeared on

Review: Beyond Hip Hop: Glasper Stays True To His Improvising Roots At The Gateshead International Jazz Festival

Much has been made of Robert Glasper’s R&B and hip hop leanings and of his gradual drift away from jazz and the acoustic setting of the piano trio towards the heavy, electronic grooves of the Robert Glasper Experiment. The texan pianist makes no secret of his love of hip hop producer J Dilla, Black Radio (his first record with the Experiment) scooped ‘Best R&B Album’ in the 2013 Grammy Awards, and the recently released follow up, Black Radio 2, features the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Jill Scott.

It comes as no surprise then to find that it’s standing only in the Sage Gateshead’s Hall Two, that the stage is wreathed in smoke and that the music blaring out of the speakers as the audience pours in isn’t jazz, but classic hiphop and neo-soul.

Nor is it odd when a cheer goes up and the quartet take their places, dressed in hoodies and sneakers and led by Glasper who wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘Donuts’, the name of J Dilla’s final release.

So far, so hip hop, and when the band kick into a heavy, bass-drum led groove, that settles beneath the distorted vocals of Casey Benjamin on vocoder and electronics, flawless funk and hiphop is what we get. From there, a wash of keyboard from Glasper takes the group into Daft Punk hit “Get Lucky”, the visceral bass of Burniss Earl Travis slamming in like a freight train on the chorus and shuddering beneath the rimshot and heavy backbeats of Mark Colenburg on drums.

Tracks from Black Radio 2 stand shoulder to shoulder with impossibly tight renditions of earlier originals, while more covers, including ‘Lovely Day’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, also get the Glasper treatment.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Experiment are out of place here or that Glasper has left the jazz behind entirely. Midway through the immaculately paced set, when the pianist finally let rip, his surging lines, sidestepping away from the tonal centre and tumbling in again, were steeped in jazz language. So too were those of Benjamin whose soprano sax feature brought the house down. Scything into his hi-hat, Colenburg spat cross rhythms of astonishing complexity, while Travis showed he had improvising chops to burn in a chordal bass segue.

Embracing minimalism and poise, and distilling virtuosity into the tightest of grooves, the Experiment have taken the best bits of hiphop and fused them with soloistic virtuosity, challenging arrangements and captivating rhythmic variety within the groove. The result is a genre apart, an imaginative blend that is nothing short of brilliant.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: Django Bates And The Norrbotten Big Band Do The Double At The Gateshead International Jazz Festival

Charlie Parker

You could argue that it’s easier to premier a project than to take it on a successful second outing, particularly when that premier is a wonderfully eccentric tribute to Charlie Parker that left critics salivating and a packed Albert Hall in raptures.

But if revered British pianist Django Bates felt the pressure of a follow up, he didn’t let it show, even with the added complications that come from flying in your big band from the wilds of arctic Sweden only to find that their suits and most of their instruments didn’t make it beyond Copenhagen airport.

Perhaps the unfamiliarity of borrowed horns played a part because a first set homage to North East pop outfit Prefab Sprout, arranged by Norrbotten’s artistic director and Sprout fan Joakim Milder, was a shaky start.

There were some nice moments. In ‘God Watch Over You’, Milder’s Saxophone cleaved through rich voicings and a tumultuous brass backing that rose and fell like a North Sea squall. A mellow trombone feature on ‘Oh, The Swiss’, set to the backdrop of introspective guitar and washes of cymbal, was similarly effective. But on the whole, the arrangements sat awkwardly with the band. Swirling chromatic lines and gentle grooves quickly became directionless, stab backings cluttered the texture and endings were a little uncomfortable.

Yet when Bates took his seat in the rhythm section for the second half, surrounded by the band and his trio Belovèd, it wasn’t long before we were back to the gloriously schizophrenic music of Prom 62. Challenging and meticulously chaotic, the set was a masterclass in compositional technique. Tempos and textures changed on a whim, eddies of squabbling saxophone were contrasted with arhythmic stabs from the brass and freer elements merged seamlessly with through composition.

In the midst of it all were glimpses and distortions of bebop themes. A fragment of Donna Lee’s frantic melody appeared in the trumpet section before melting back into the texture, while a riff from Parker favourite ‘Star Eyes’ became an eerie vamp. Markus Pesonen contributed scrapes and scratches, drawing a tattered bow across the strings of his guitar, while Bates harmonised his scrambling piano lines with those of a detuned synth, creating an effect like the last gasp of an exhausted music box.

‘Confirmation’, featuring a virtuosic solo from Bates and bewitching interplay from the rhythm section, was another firm favourite. As was a latin rendering of ‘Little Suede Shoes’ and Bates original ‘The Study of Touch’, trio led and given room to breathe by a sensitive big band accompaniment.

Bewitching and irreverent, this is music that keeps you guessing and when the tinny sound of a mobile phone erupted from the audience in the final moments of the set it could almost have been a plant. If it was unintentional, it did nothing to spoil the occasion, an assured second UK outing for Bates and his Scandinavian collaborators and a strong start to the 10th Gateshead International Jazz Festival.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: Gateshead International Jazz Festival Hits 10 In Style With Jazz Stars And Newcomers Alike

Amidst the sweeping glass curves of the Sage Gateshead, the weekend-long festival got off to a strong start on Friday night with the irrepressible Django Bates at the helm. Backed by his Belovèd trio and Swedish sparring partners the Norrbotten Big Band, the pianist led a tribute to the music of Charlie Parker which received its UK premier at last year’s BBC Proms. Subversive and unrestrained, this was Parker taken through a hall of mirrors, hand-in-hand with an impish Bates. Bebop heads were bent and buckled, emerging in the brass before melting into passages of rhythm section-led free improvisation. It had the audience on the edge of their seats (read full review here).

As if to hammer home the festival’s commitment to variety, what followed was a blistering performance from the Robert Glasper Experiment, who brought their unique blend of jazz, hip hop, funk and electronica to a packed Hall Two. Virtuosic and immaculately paced, Glasper improvisations soared above visceral bass grooves and whirlwind drum breaks as the group powered through covers, including Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers, alongside tracks from their new album, Black Radio 2 (read full review here).

Informally dubbed the Day of the Saxophone, Saturday saw horns aplenty, with matinee sets fromJason Yarde and Andrew McCormack (pictured above) followed by former Jazz Messenger Jean Toussaint. Supported by pizzicato flurries and delicate counterpoint from collaborators the Elysian String Quartet, Yarde and McCormack performed a beguiling set of originals. With energy and spirit that recalled Coltrane, Toussaint freed things up and gave the audience a taste of burning, post-bop swing – the first of the weekend.

Later that night, young tenor saxophonist Marius Neset and tuba player Daniel Herskedal brought to bear astonishing technique and youthful exuberance with marching band grooves and nostalgic Scandinavian folk melodies.

Before a crowd pleasing set from Courtney Pine, the icing on the cake would have been a stellar performance from headliners the Spring Quartet (pictured above), featuring Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, and her pianist of choice, Leo Genovese. But while there were some scintillating moments of free improv, much of the set felt aimless, not least whenDeJohnette’s announcements on the mic descended into groans and streams of fragmented sentences that seemed out of place.

Overdriven rock and experimental electronics characterised the final afternoon of the festival, with a double bill featuring local group Shiver and a rhythmically inventive set from Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear. Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra kept the party going with a swaggering Ellington tribute, but performances from Bill Frisell and the breathtaking Pablo Held Trio proved that the best had been saved until last.

Eschewing pre-arranged forms, the trio, led by Held on piano, displayed masterful sensitivity and interaction, playing richly varied originals that glistened with arco bass harmonics, subtle grooves and twisting melodies. Lilting folk tunes, standards, and country music melodies from Frisell, accompanied by Eyvind Kang on viola and drummer Rudy Royston, were equally captivating and assured – a superb conclusion to a festival turning 10 in style.

– Thomas Rees

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Mexico’s Island of the Dolls

"Xochimilco Dolls' Island" (c) Esparta Palma/Wikicommons

“Xochimilco Dolls’ Island” (c) Esparta Palma/Wikicommons

Thomas Rees uncovers a dark secret in the sleepy canal district of Mexico City and finds a culture fascinated by death and decay

It’s hard to forget their eyes or the smiles that play around the corners of their mouths, gripped by plastic rigamortis. In spite of the heat, you feel yourself shiver.

The Island of the Dolls is as disturbing a sight as you’ll find in Mexico City: more chilling than the Templo Mayor, where graphic stone friezes depict scenes of ritual blood-letting, or the Museum of Mexican Medicine with its collections of the skulls of syphilitic Aztecs.

A metro and a train ride away from the centre, the island is hidden among the canals of Xochimilco, in the city’s tranquil suburbs. The name itself sounds like running water: Xochimilco, ‘the place where the flowers grow’. It was once a great centre of agriculture, the 10th century home of the Xochimilca who built the network of waterways and floating gardens (chinampas) on the site of an ancient lake. Conquered by the Mexica Aztecs in the 14th century and razed by the Spanish just a few generations later, the town was swallowed by the urban sprawl of Mexico City in the 1900s.

Though the lake has all-but disappeared, many of the canals have survived and are popular with travellers and Mexican families seeking respite from the heat and the relentless pace of downtown. At weekends the languid waterways bustle with brightly painted trajineras, long wooden punts steered by thick-set Mexican pilots. Go with a group and haggle unashamedly and you can rent one for a modest sum. Pay a little extra and they’ll take you to the dolls.

It was quiet when we arrived at the embarcadero on a week day afternoon, a group of eight from the hostel. We knew to avoid the landing stages closest to the train station where the price is hiked for tourists and to leave the talking to Daniel, a norteño from the state of Sinaloa. When it comes to bargaining, there’s no substitute for being Mexican. The Argentinians who shared my dorm had learnt that to their cost, returning from Xochimilco the day before with pained expressions and empty pockets.

After several minutes of debate, punctuated by theatrical head-scratching and sharp intakes of breath, a deal was reached. Ramon, our pilot, motioned to a trajinera at the end of the row and we slid out onto the water. Broad-shouldered punts with decorative canopies slipped past, carrying wedding parties, marimba players and groups of mariachis who sweated beneath their sombreros and sequined jackets. They played requests as we dozed in the sunshine and stopped to buy pale yellow maize and bottles of beer from women in dugout canoes.

After an hour or so, the sound of trumpets and Mexican folk-songs drifted out of ear-shot. Ramon slowed the trajinera to a stop and steered us towards the bank, close enough to make out the bedraggled teddy-bears and broken toys that hung from the canopy. Balding dolls with lolling heads and twisted limbs of dull grey plastic returned our gaze. Their pastel pink dresses look like scraps of bunting, caught in the tired branches of the willow trees.

“They say that a girl drowned here years ago,” said Ramon, “that the dolls are possessed by her spirit.” His tale was fanciful but sinister all the same: a classic horror story about the island’s lonely caretaker who found the girl’s body and hung the dolls in the trees to appease her ghost. “He died in the same spot,” Ramon said, “some people think that the dolls killed him.”

It felt strange making our return, past flower gardens and summer houses, back to the embarcadero. Somehow the island is more unsettling for its sun-dappled location: a whisper of Mexico’s morbid fascination in a place of sweetness and light. Even later that day, sat before plates of enchiladas in the noisy food-hall of Xochimilco’s market, it played on our minds.

– Thomas Rees

Getting there: Take Metro Line 2 southbound to Tasqueña and change to Tren Ligero. Xochimilco is the final stop on the line. All embarcaderos are clearly signposted. At the time of writing, hiring a trajinera cost around M$200 (£10/$15) per hour though it can be slightly cheaper or significantly more expensive depending on your haggling skills! A return trip to the Island of the Dolls (Isla de las Muñecas) takes about three hours. 

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