A Night in the Woods in Mexico City

P2104162 By day, el Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s largest public park, is ruled by the public and tourists. Children with painted faces and balloons run around playing, while their parents lounge and teen couples make out on the grass. But come late afternoon, the park closes its gates to us commoners. Or at least I thought so.

That was until last week, when I managed to get myself on the list for a “Paseo Nocturna” of the Bosque (Woods), an activity that is back in season for a short time only. Despite having lived in Mexico City for two years, it took me until now to discover the night-time jaunt, which has been running since 2001 for two short seasons a year, in late winter and fall. The tours are publicized only by word of mouth and a little bit of news coverage. My curiosity was piqued to visit a space that I love but have only seen by day.

After being given the nod by the night guards on the park’s entrance on Paseo de la Reforma on a recent Wednesday night, we made our way to the Casa del Lago — or Lake House — at the center of the 1,600-acre park. About a dozen visitors were met by a very jolly young woman wearing a rainbow-covered neck-scarf, corduroy skirt and knee-high boots. She introduced herself as “Grisi” and ordered us to follow her.

We all walked through the grounds of the Casa del Lago to our waiting transport: an electric, rubber-tired train like the one that during the weekends does the run up and down the steep lane to the Castillo de Chapultepec, or Chapultepec Castle, once home to Mexican Emperor Maximilian I and his wife, Empress Carlota. We got on board, and the train took off up the Avenida de Colegio Militar, the mild night wind in our hair.

Grisi got right to it, reeling out dates and names as we moved through the night. I have to confess to not being able to pay much attention. I was much more interested in how the trees looked after-hours, especially lit up by the moon. There was no one but us in the park.

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La Fuente de las Ranas, a small round fountain, popped up out of the darkness as we neared it. The fountain was circled by beautiful tiles from Sevilla, Spain, and by brass frogs, which spurted water from their mouths into the center of the round pool. Our driver kindly did three slow circles around it before we moved on, leaving the little oasis of light and water behind us.

Before we plunged again into total obscurity, a statue of the great poet-king Nezahualcoyotl came into view. This is where Grisi lost me as she started to lecture us in Spanish about pre-Columbian Mexico, which is hard enough to pay attention to in your mother tongue.

But Grisi was soon to be saved. As we moved further into the park down an avenue lined with enormous trees, a night watchman sped out of the night on his bike, waving frantically and ringing his bell to inform us that we couldn’t go any further.

“El vigilante (the night watchman)” — or Federico, as he was later persuaded to divulge — was part of the act. In his role, he not only took a fancy to Grisi but also took over as guide, lending the tour the enthusiastic air it had been lacking. Our new ""guide" couldn’t sit still for a moment. He rode alongside the train on a bicycle, playing old Mexican music over a mounted speaker. He leaped around our next destination, which was the Fuente de Quijote, dedicated to the main character in the novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

P2104161 Federico made magic happen. Dormant fountains came to life, suddenly lighting up and throwing water into the night air at his command. He recited poems in one of Mexico’s indigenous languages, Nahuatl, before translating them into Spanish for us.

He even showed us the alleged entrance to Mitlan, the underworld where the Aztecs believed their people went after death. It was at the back of a cave in the "audiorama," a small, shady space tucked away in the park where, during the day, speakers tied to trees emit music to those lounging around on low, metal mesh benches.

Before I knew it, our hour and a half of magic was over, and I was waving goodbye to Grisi and Federico, the night watchman, as they rowed off together toward the center of one of Chapultepec’s lakes in a small, wooden rowboat.

Love, it appears, blossoms between them every Wednesday night -– at least when the romantic night tour is in season.

For details on how to get onto the tour, click here.

— Written for La Plaza

Photo (top): A statue in the Plaza de Quijote, in the heart of the Chapultepec Woods.

Photo (bottom): Nezahualcoytl, the poet-king.

Credit (photo and video): Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times.

See more images here on Flickr.