The idea of Mexico comes with certain stock images — tacos and guacamole; a wild night out fuelled by tequila; the ancient Aztec pyramids — accumulated over the years from media and pop culture. So when I finally visited Mexico City this summer, I tried to rid myself of all these preconceived ideas, so I could take it all in like blank canvas, devoid of expectations. This turned out to be a much harder task than expected, when the very images I was trying to ignore kept popping out at me from every corner! Since I couldn’t ignore them, I decided instead to see how much of each of the stereotypes I came across was actually true.

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In this image: Pirámidedel Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) in the Teotihuacán complex, one of the largest pyramids in Mesoamerica

Mexican food is popular the world over; Americans have even created their own spin on it with Tex-Mex (which originated in Texas, hence the name). But what is real Mexican food, as eaten by Mexicans? I was excited to find out when invited by some friends to sample real Mexican cuisine at a local Sunday food market. This was not a place for tourists but for Mexicans enjoying an afternoon out, eating their favourite things. While tacos are indeed everywhere (and why not, they are a cheap and deliciously fresh alternative to the greasy processed fast food joints of the West), I discovered a whole host of locally popular Mexican dishes that I had never heard of before.

One dish, which deserves a special mention, and one that you might not have heard of before, is barbacoa. Restaurants specialising in this dish have big tables filled with large families, gathered to share this traditional feast. I was told that barbacoa is often eaten on the morning after a big night out, as a kind of delicious hangover cure, or as a way to carry on the party and the drinking of the night before, so the hangover never even gets a chance to get going.

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The Teotihuacán complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has become the most visited archeological site in Mexico

Originating from the Caribbean’s Taino people, barbacoa is a form of cooking meat over long periods of time over an open fire or in a hole dug into the ground, and it is said to be where the word ‘barbeque’ was later derived from. In Mexico, the hole in the ground method is preferred and whole sheep or goats are cooked in this way for 12 hours, covered with agave leaves. The result is supremely succulent fatty meat that melts the second it touches your lips.

At special barbacoa restaurants, it is bought by the kilo and shared by families, to the non-stop sounds of live mariachi bands surrounding your table. Believe me when I tell you that all this makes for quite an assault on the senses!

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Above photo: A stairwell at the Palacio Postal (Post Palace) in the historical city center of Mexico City

Back on the streets of the local Sunday food market, and continuing along the multi sensory theme, the most memorable dish for me was chicharrón, which is simply sheets of deep fried pig skin. Stacked high on the vendor’s table, fresh out of the oil vat, it crackled loudly and continuously. Once in your hands, it is extremely light and at the same time much more robust than you’d expect. Take a bite and there’s an explosion of intense flavour, smell and texture, even as it crackles in your mouth. Admittedly, after a while it was quite hard work to get through more than half of the sheet that was given to me, but it’s an undeniably memorable food experience.

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Freshly cooked chicharrón (deep fried pig skin), audibly crackling on a table at a local Sunday food market in Mexico City

From food onto drink, and the first thing I wanted to know on my myth-busting Mexican journey was: do Mexicans really drink a lot of tequila, or is that just an image that has been fanned by the media? The answer was yes, they certainly do, along with endless bottles of chilled beer, but what was new to me was the discovery of the entire mezcal family, of which tequila is just one variety, and their connection to cacti, another Mexican pop culture favourite. It turns out that mezcal is a strong distilled alcoholic spirit made from any type of agave plant, while tequila is made only from the blue agave and comes from a town of the same name. Agaves are a kind of succulent plant, and together with cacti, which are also part of the succulent family, these plants make up a large proportion of the Mexican fauna.

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In this image: The nopal cactus plant, with its edible fruit (tuna in Spanish or prickly pear in English). It must be peeled carefully to remove the tiny spikes along its surface.

With over 500 types of cactus native to Mexico, and over 200 types of agave, it is not surprising that the locals have found many uses for these plants, not least of which is the age old tradition of carving out graffiti on them. The juice from the heart of the agave (piña) is used to make mezcal; the moist inside of the leaves of the aloe vera plant (sábila), another succulent endemic to Mexico, is used as a skin moisturiser and sunburn treatment; while the flesh of the nopal cactus is eaten in salad or as a vegetable side dish, and its fruit (known as tuna in Spanish, or prickly pear elsewhere) is eaten as a fruit (carefully), and even made into candy. Nopal and other cacti also have many traditional natural medicinal uses, from antiviral to anti inflammatory, and are said to be a cure for all kinds of ills, from diabetes to hangovers.

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Seen here: A statue at the Castillo de Chapultepec museum grounds in Mexico City of the famous Aztec legend, which talks about an eagle, eating a serpent, in a nopal cactus, on a rock, in a lake. A coat of arms representing this legend also appears on the Mexican flag.

Speaking of ills, death was next on my list of stereotypes to be investigated and it wasn’t hard to find, since colourful imagery of it was absolutely everywhere. What is it that makes Mexican culture so comfortable with, and seemingly unafraid of, death? Indeed death is not a taboo subject here; it is viewed as a natural part of the cycle of human life and, as such, it is celebrated, not feared. During the famous annual Mexican festival Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) families set up altars full of things that were special to their departed relatives. They believe that during the festival, the spirits of their dead relatives will join them back in the land of the living and spend the day with them. Some set up altars at home, while others actually go to the cemetery and spend the whole night there by the graves of their loved ones, bringing for them all the food and drink that they once loved during their earthly existence.

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Above photo: A party picnic boat (trajinera) on one of the famous Aztec canals and floating gardens of Xochimilco, South of Mexico City

While the Mexican attitude to death was interesting enough to learn about and understand, there was something else I came across relating to the subject of death, which I found utterly fascinating and entirely unexpected, during a boat trip of sorts south of Mexico City. In an area called Xochimilco, famous for its Aztec canals and floating gardens, brightly-coloured boats called trajineras can be hired: with a big table in the middle and many chairs either side, they are essentially floating picnic party spaces. So far, so good, until suddenly there was talk of the Dead Doll Island… Curiosity sufficiently aroused, it took a couple of hours of leisurely floating (and less than leisurely drinking) along the canal system before the boatman moored our vessel to a small island with high wooden fences.

Having paid our entrance fee (well worth it, if only for the promise of a toilet, after two hours of the aforementioned drinking on the boat) we stepped into a truly bizarre world. Spooky and haunting dead doll eyes looked out at us from every tree, wall, nook and cranny. Isla de las muñecas (Doll Island) is tiny, but every inch of visible surface was covered with old, weather-beaten, washed out, broken and decidedly dead-looking dolls of every shape and size The overall effect of all these soulless eyes, severed heads and dislocated limbs is really rather blood curling and slightly terrifying, even for the most seasoned traveller.

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Isla de lasmuñecas (Doll Island), in the famous Aztec canal system of Xochimilco, where thousands of ‘dead dolls’ have been collected and hung on display in the trees and on the walls

The story behind the creation of this weird and wonderful space is as sad as it is odd. A local man named Don Julian Santana Barrera found a drowned girl child and was not able to save her. The guilt affected him greatly, and he felt he was haunted by the spirit of the girl. Soon after the accident, he found what he assumed to be her doll, floating in the water. He hung that first doll on the tree on the island, as a mark of respect to the dead child. As time passed, he started collecting more abandoned dolls, as a way of appeasing the spirit of the child, which he felt was possessing him — except he soon began to believe that all the dolls on the island were also possessed by the girl’s spirit.

After 50 years of collecting dolls, the old man died at the exact spot that the girl had drowned all those years ago. Make of this what you will, but the locals swear that the dolls whisper to each other at night and have even been seen to move their severed limbs. Since his death in 2001, the island has become a quirky tourist attraction and now tourists bring more dead dolls from around the world to add to this bizarre collection.

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Above photo: Colourful Lucha Libre masks for sale outside the arena.

From dolls to masks, and the famous masked wrestlers of the Lucha Libre — a sport with such an important connection to the culture of Mexico City, that in July 2018 it was officially named as part of its ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Seeing this tradition played out in live action, having heard so much about it over the years, was one of the highlights of my trip. The masks are deeply significant in this sport, as well as having a more general historical significance, their usage in Mexico dating back to the days of the Aztecs. They are considered sacred in a way and, since each wrestler essentially plays the character represented by their mask, with a fiercely loyal fan following for each character, unmasking a wrestler, and so revealing his/her identity, is a huge deal in this sport, at times punishable by disqualification.

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In this image: Lucha Libre trio fighters – one wrestler is about to be slammed onto the floor, as the referee watches on to ensure fair play.

Nothing, but nothing, prepares you for the assault on your hearing that is a night out at the Lucha Libre! The arena is drowned in dancing bright lights, the arrival of each fighter is announced with much fanfare on loudspeakers, scantily clad dancing girls perform choreographed routines as the fighters make their grand entrance to the delight of their loyal fans. As if that wasn’t loud enough, a major part of the experience for the audience is to shout insults at the wrestlers, and blow their horns as loudly as they can, throughout the duration of the match. I dare not print examples of the creative use of expletives that were flying all around us, but believe me when I say that they were often as funny as they were offensive.

The fights can be one on one, or they might involve three fighters on each side (these are known as trios). It can get a little busy in the arena, with bodies being lifted up and slammed down on one side of the ring, while high-flying maneuvers, that have come to characterise this sport almost as much as the masks, might be happening simultaneously on the other side. Sadly the use of cameras is forbidden here, so only phone photography of this insane spectacle is allowed.

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Seen here: Avenue of the Dead, previously used in ancient times for sacrificial purposes, leading to the Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) in the Teotihuacán complex

One place where cameras are most certainly allowed, and even encouraged, is the most visited archeological site in Mexico — the famous Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán, with its two main pyramids dedicated to the gods of the Moon and the Sun, the latter being one of the largest pyramids in Mesoamerica. Some people mistakenly believe them to be Aztec, however the complex is far older than that, with the earliest construction on this site dating back to before 100 BC. It wasn’t until the 1400s though that the Aztecs would find the abandoned ruins of this once powerful city and its pyramids, and it is they who would give them their names Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon).

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A closer look at the construction of the walls at the Teotihuacán complex.

There is a legend, which explains what brought the Aztecs to this part of Mexico, where they would find the magnificent ruins of Teotihuacán and build their capital city Tenochtitlan nearby… a legend so well known that it is represented on the Mexican national flag. The Aztec gods are said to have sent them a vision, that they must go forth and wander until they find a place where they will see an eagle, sitting on a nopal cactus, eating a serpent, on a rock, in a lake. The Gods decreed that in this special place they must build their city, and indeed they did. Tenochtitlan is in fact, present day Mexico City — which was once surrounded by a large lake.

—All photographs by Polina Schapova

Polina Schapova is a Delhi-based Russian-British photographer. Follow her work on Instagram or on her website

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