Moments of stillness, in a city of millions

Whitney Eulich
The author’s husband and older daughter hike a secluded trail in Los Dinamos, a national park that, surprisingly, is within the borders of Mexico City.

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When I moved to Mexico City in 2014, my husband and I spent most of our free time exploring the megacity of 20 million. We squeezed our way through massive crowds of religious pilgrims. We spent hours in crowded fruit and vegetable markets, looking for the perfect mango milkshake. Once our two children were born, we spent more time at playgrounds. The idea of being alone was laughable.

Now our lives have moved increasingly indoors. We avoid the still-crowded restaurants and city plazas. Sometimes the walls of our home/office/preschool/zoo feel as though they’re closing in on us.

Why We Wrote This

Mexico City is a place where you’re never alone – or it used to be, before social distancing set in. The stillness is jarring, the Monitor’s Latin America correspondent writes, but maybe it’s what we need right now.

Except on weekends. On a recent morning, we drove about 30 minutes to Los Dinamos, a vast, mountainous, densely forested national park – officially within the capital’s city limits.

I listened to the sound of rushing water from the river below and the twittering of birds hidden in the pine branches above. I held the tiny hand of our excited toddler. And then I realized with a jolt: We’re alone. 

I often tell people what I miss most about pre-pandemic life is the buzz of the city. I miss street food, and mariachi serenades at a busy cafe. But that may not be true: Yes, I miss the bustle, but I’m not sure it’s what I need right now. I need these walks on pine-needle-covered trails. I need to breathe truly fresh air. I need to be with my family – even as I miss my parents, siblings, and friends immensely – in the heart of a forest on the edge of a megacity. It reminds me that there’s life all around me, even if I can’t spend time mixing with others.

A few weekends ago my family and I hopped in the car for an adventure. This has become our Sunday routine over the past several months of the pandemic, with our former weekend rituals nothing more than distant memories.

When I moved to Mexico City in 2014, my husband and I spent most of our free time exploring the megacity of 20 million. We squeezed our way through massive crowds that had traveled across the country to pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. We spent hours in crowded fruit and vegetable markets, looking for the perfect mango milkshake or vendors selling the most interesting-sounding mole mix. 

Once our two children were born, we made more stops at nearby parks, catching up with friends on the playground or testing out new flavors of paletas, delicious artisanal popsicles. 

Why We Wrote This

Mexico City is a place where you’re never alone – or it used to be, before social distancing set in. The stillness is jarring, the Monitor’s Latin America correspondent writes, but maybe it’s what we need right now.

The idea of being alone was laughable: I remember once looking out my office window, pre-pandemic, and not seeing a single person on the block. I recall it vividly because it seemed utterly apocalyptic – and it never happened again.

Over the past nine months, our lives have moved increasingly indoors. We avoid the still-crowded restaurants and city plazas. Sometimes the walls of our home/office/preschool/zoo feel as though they’re closing in on us.

Except on weekends. On a recent morning, we drove about 30 minutes to Los Dinamos, a vast, mountainous, densely forested national park – officially within the capital’s city limits. Despite Mexico City’s reputation as a crowded, bustling megalopolis, there are a handful of mountain refuges and hikes less than an hour away. This particular Sunday was a foggy, rainy day, but the sun peeked out every once in a while, and the cover of the tall pine trees kept us dry. 

A few minutes into our walk, my eyes followed the muddy, rocky path until it turned a green corner in the distance. I listened to the sound of rushing water from the river below (the park used to be a series of hydroelectric plants) and the twittering of birds hidden in the branches above. I held the tiny hand of our excited toddler, eager to get a week’s worth of wiggles out. And then I realized with a jolt: We’re alone. In a city of millions where a quiet night is punctuated with sounds of tamale or sweet-potato vendors stalking the streets with their high-pitched whistles or recorded sales pitches, we had transported ourselves into another realm.

I often tell people what I miss most about pre-pandemic life is the buzz of the city. I miss street food, and mariachi serenades while I’m in a busy cafe sipping my morning coffee. 

But I’ve come to realize that my sentiment’s not entirely true. Yes, I miss the hustle and bustle, but I’m not sure it’s what I need right now. I need these walks on pine-needle-covered trails with my young daughters, exploring the decomposing tree trunks or calling out the colors of the flowers we pass along the way. I need to breathe in truly fresh air; I need to lure my kids (and my husband) ahead with promises of snacks and perfect picnic spots. 

I need to be with my family – even as I miss my parents, siblings, and friends immensely – in the heart of a forest on the edge of a megacity in the midst of a pandemic.

It’s a reminder that there’s life all around me, even if I can’t spend time mixing with others.

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