Dispatches From Life Before the Pandemic-
Noches Largas in Mexico City
There is a plethora of things that I miss about pre-COVID life in Mexico City, after a total of six years in this sprawling, confounding metropolis. However, what stands out above all are the wild, endless nights spent partying with throngs of people, whether at a humble apartment or sprawling nightclub. These noches largas are what invokes the most intense periods of nostalgia in me. I arrived in Mexico City at age 25, and before I moved here, I was more likely to spend a Saturday night reading or watching a classic French film than going out all night; I requested a single room in my college dorm to avoid the reckless partying. Yet, when I arrived in the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere in 2015, everything changed.
Here is a recounting- and a guide- to the noches de danza y pedo (nights of dancing and getting drunk) that perhaps will never quite return in the same way.
Pedas en Un Depa (Booze-Addled Parties in an Apartment)
There ain´t no party like a Mexican party because a Mexican party don´t stop- or más bien it ends at 4:30 in the morning. Before coming to Mexico 6 years ago, I was a rather timid person, as previously noted. I opted out of going to the flagship campus in my state (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) due to its reputation as a party school and its colorful nickname ¨Zoo Mass.¨
Upon my arrival to the notorious Mexico City, however, I was ready to explore the city head-on; even killing the night if I had to. I soon discovered, through my job as an English teacher, that punctuality was not the Mexican people´s strong suit. Students would nonchalantly arrive to my classes (which they were paying for) 30, 45 minutes, even an hour late; and it did not seem like a big deal. Naturally, when it comes to parties, the official starting time can be completely disregarded.
Of course, even in the U.S., it is relatively common to arrive ¨fashionably late¨ to a gathering. I arrived about an hour after the official time to my first major party in Mexico, expecting there to be several people already. Instead, only the host and his two roommates were there. After some time elapsed, as the night wore on, more and more people filled the apartment; some extranjeros like me (foreigners), as well as many Mexicans. The music, a mix of English pop and pumping reggaeton and salsa, emanated non-stop as chili sauce-drenched botanas and light, watery, but smooth and tasty cervezas, from Tecate and Indio to Dos Equis and Victoria, were drunk one after another by all.
I gamely tried to follow the salsa steps taught to me by patient Mexican women, and I went all-out gringo dancing up a storm to the then-relatively-recent hit Üptown Funk¨ by Bruno Mars, a song that seems to transcend language or nationality. I finally called it a night well into the dawn, after 4 AM or so, and perhaps unwisely walked through the infamous prostitute district Calle Sullivan to arrive to my apartment. I passed out and looked forward to a lazy Sunday after an endless Saturday.
To some people, this would not be an amazing or unusual occurrence. Yet I was not used to these kind of nights, and I certainly did not predict how common these would be for a while; at least during my first year in the city.
Unfortunately, I worked all day on Saturdays in those days, making Friday excursions practically impossible. I would listen with envy as my neighbors blasted salsa music, chatting and boozing and dancing the night away. Saturday was my day to shine, even though I often took a late afternoon nap after 8 hours of teaching classes.
I would wake up suddenly in the early evening, fire up something to eat (or better yet grab some tacos on the street), and see what lay ahead. One of my most cherished memories from my first year was a Halloween costume party. While Mexicans technically celebrate Día de los Muertos, which has some aspects in common but is a distinct (and specifically Mexican) celebration, the people there can´t pass up an excuse to party and dress up. Once again, I arrived at an hour which I considered to be quite late, only to be greeted by a few scattered attendees and the hosts.
I used it as an excuse to practice my then-rusty Spanish with a partygoer who spoke not a word of English. Soon, an overflow of both familiar and unfamiliar faces arrived, one by one, until the spacious apartment was nearly full of people. (Social distancing be damned!). A similar mixture of Latin and English hits bounced off the walls, as suddenly the mass of partiers broke into a conga line.
By the end of the night (morning), just a few hardcore party animals remained, as we wailed off-key renditions of David Bowie and Eagles classics. I stumbled back to my home at 5:30 am, which I believe still stands as a personal record.
Antros and Bares Rockeros (Nightclubs and Rocker Bars)
For those who want to visit Mexico City someday after all the dust settles, the real draw will be the various bars of all stripes dotted along the central avenues lining the massive city, from grimy punk clubs in La Roma to upscale fresa snoot-fests in La Condesa to loose and freewheeling salsa clubs in el Centro.
My first real glimpse into the monster nightlife of the city was through an ex-coworker who also moonlighted as a DJ, spinning classic blues, soul, garage rock, and punk on vinyl. I thought there would only be a limited niche audience for this, but each show shocked me with not just the number of young Mexicans who showed up, but the utter devotion on display. I will never forget entering a dark, hazy, cramped bar as short, stylish young Mexican women in 60´s style haircuts and clothing sashayed to the likes of Martha Reeves, Santana, and Lesley Gore (what a mix). Glass bottles of Dos Equis Ambar clinked and the boogieing never ceased.
I would go to several more of those ¨60s fiestas,¨ in various colonias in the city. I danced to The Kinks at a tiny American Legion bar, shook it to Lou Rawls at a rooftop terrace near el Monumento a la Revolución, and jumped in a mosh pit dressed as Bob Dylan (it was Halloween again) to a live punk-billy band in the Zocalo.
As time went on, I made rockero friends from other circles, and happened upon two gigantic, multi-story bars with an underground vibe and an eclectic stew of music. One was called UTA, and it is located right in the heart of the city´s historic center. I went in with a rockera friend without even a single expectation. I entered into a mystical world, complete with dark rooms with gyrating goths, carefree dancing to disco and George Michael, intense moshing to Smashing Pumpkins, and whimsical bopping along to Buddy Holly on the top floor with a charming terrace. It was a true paradise for rockers of all nationalities and mother tongues, and as a result it is one of my most-missed places in the heart of CDMX.
Another haven for edgy music lovers, which during the pandemic moved from its hipster mecca location in Roma Norte to the more relaxed yet still bohemian enclave of Coyoacán, was the strikingly similar but subtly more sinister Real Under. Although superficially identical to the aforementioned UTA, due to its several stories blaring various types of music, but with an emphasis on classic punk and alternative ie New Order, Ramones, The Cure etc., the general vibe it sends out is distinct. Despite the gyrating goths in darkened upper chambers, UTA has a warm, friendly, come ye rockeros aqui! type of ambience. Conversely, Real Under, given its Roma base, is an odd hybrid of holier-than-thou hipster and slightly menacing rocker thug. It is about the same cost-wise and the tune selection is nearly a replica, but there is some type of off-kilter sensation Real Under gives off (or did, in its original location) that can be polarizing. That said, both clubs are truly enchanting and beguiling for music-lovers who tend to be rockers at heart.
Cantinas are the old-school, emblematic, slightly hokey type of establishment that seems stereotypically Mexican, as portrayed in Hollywood films like Three Amigos or classic border ballads such as Ël Paso¨. There are of course an abundance of them in the Mexican capital, but they are also the type of place where no gringo dares to set foot. Irish pubs in Condesa or pulsating nightclubs in Polanco are chock full of them, but for an extranjero who wants to explore the true Mexico and truly immerse oneself, a classic cantina right in el Centro or in nearby gritty, low-key, and nearly tourist-free colonias such as San Rafael, Buenavista, or Santa Maria La Ribera, is where it´s at. Cantinas in these neighborhoods and an array of similar ones in the sprawling city are authentic, affordable, and offer people watching that is truly unparalleled. I unwisely made the mistake of venturing into a cantina on the trendy Reforma, which despite live mariachis and spicy, salted cacahuates, was overpriced, tacky, and geared towards fresa businessmen in their fancy suits.
The cantinas that truly capture the essence of being a Chilango del barrio are the ones with 20 peso chelas, middle-aged pot-bellied working-class güeys in t-shirts belting out Jose Jose, while drunken construction workers yell at the screen during a America vs. Cruz Azul match. As the lone güero, you will feel out of place, but there is no reason to have any fear. The type of people who populate these joints are unpretentious, raw, real, and friendly. You will make amigos en una vez.
As can be expected, I avoided these cramped, rowdy, and noise-spewing lugares for almost the entire duration of the endless pandemic. Finally, in October, during the heart of the MLB playoffs (which are basically ignored here), I entered a small, boisterous, classically Mexican cantina right on my block which had always piqued my curiosity. Despite being flabbergasted at the lack of masks in the tiny bar, I found a small table close to the window (and far away from others), and ordered a bola of cerveza clara.
I somehow managed to follow the action on the hanging pantalla of the Braves-Brewers game, despite the frenzied shouts of ¨dios mío!¨ and the jukebox blasting everything from Vincente Fernandez to the Rolling Stones. Downing the light, refreshing chela mixed with the salty, limón-accented cacahuates as the patrons yelled and the ranchera horns sounded, I couldn´t imagine anywhere else I would rather be.
Gay, Straight, or Que Sea: Bars to Have The Time of Your Life
I consider myself fairly enlightened as far as hetero guys without an iota of bicurious leanings go, but I will admit that I had never been to a gay bar until I lived in Mexico City. Not that I was blatantly repulsed by them- not at all- I simply had not had the opportunity. Despite Mexico´s long-standing traditions of Catholic conservatism, the city itself for many years now has been a bastion for LGBT folks. The truth is that I have never seen a major city in the U.S. with so many openly gay couples hand-in-hand or kissing; not even in San Francisco. As a relatively young, slender, non-macho gringo, I have on several occasions been the subject of obvious leering by Mexican men; rarely of the overly aggressive persuasion, it must said, yet at times I have felt uncomfortable, even in danger.
However, at the first gay bar I went to, and perhaps the most renowned one in Downtown Mexico City, La Purisima, or La Puri, I was witness to a sea of people of all sexual orientations and points of view, dancing wildly to the booming sounds of 90s Latin pop, old-school hip hop and the Backstreet Boys. I met one of my numerous Mexican girlfriends there, which led to questions along the lines of, Äre you sure that was a woman?¨ La Puri is surely a place for open-minded gente of all stripes to dance the night away, and now in the post-COVID era, it is assuring to know that all those twisted partiers twerking to reggaetón or the Spice Girls are vaccinated. Safe, well-protected, and un desmadre? Sign me up!
There are few other places to rival the experience offered by La Puri, but there are other contenders. Buen Tiempo offers frankly that; although I was flirted with by various locals, one of whom clasped my face and called me divino, it appears from a distance to be a classic dive bar mixed with an 80s club. The music, as a result, is quite ´80s, as gems from the likes of the Human League, Culture Club, New Order and Hall & Oates bounced off the walls. With cheap chelitas, good tunes and buena gente, Buen Tiempo is certainly a place worth going back to once the pandemic comes close to settling down; no matter one´s sexual leanings.
Will Mexico City Ever Be The Same?
Now, almost 2 years after the pandemic began across the world, the city I now call home starts to seem almost back to normal. Salsa bars blare the classics of Willie Colón en el centro, karaoke cantinas emanate with drunken renditions of Jose María Napoleon or Daniela Romo, and a sea of people line the winding, earthquake-cracked avenues- with masks.
It might still seem unsafe nowadays to enter a sweaty, cramped bar or pulsating antro in the heart of Mexico´s capital, especially with the onslaught of new variants, but someday CDMX will fully return to its nightlife chingona. Once again, it will be a city where, as Ernest Hemingway once said of Madrid, the people do not go to bed until they have killed the night.