Mexico + Cuba: art and architecture tourists


When we arrived at the Habana airport for check-in, on time at 5.00am, our que was practically out the door. We finally reached the counter and were offered an upgrade to 1st class. The guy with the offer disappeared for a good while and we started to really cotton-on that there was something wrong.

There are a few odd scenarios, that in retrospect, I wish I’d made a greater effort to document: for example, the SWAT team in full get-up with polished black boots and automatic weapons, probing that beach in Mexico for hippies to interrogate; this is another.

When the guy with the offer finally returned he explained that the flight had been over-sold. If the last two passengers for 1st class don’t show we can have their seats. It doesn’t work out. When I asked who to speak to regarding our expenses, he pointed to the Cubana de Aviación Representative, who was explaining the situation to the 70 (approx.) Mexican passengers who were behind us. They are slowly surrounding him, ready to pounce.

All my confusion about the calm and collected guests on Mexican talk-shows was put to rest when these passengers just exploded. The smallest Mexican lady of the group was the loudest and most exacting. It was evident that the Cubana Representative had no intention of offering the reasonable resolution you’d expect.

The situation fairly quickly escalates to a protest chant and we later learnt that the Cubana Rep. had threatened to take some of the ringleaders to jail. The replies from the Mexicans were “no problem, call my embassy” and “if he goes, I will go, we will all go!” The Cubana Rep. high-tails it to his office with protest in tow and so the most combatant squeeze into his tiny office.

The Cubana Rep. continues to quietly nod his head, pretending to listen and the one-sided negotiations go nowhere. It’s obvious to the entire airport that there’s a scene when another tiny Mexican woman, who in all likelihood has lost her job as a result, curses Fidel. She would later beat up her luggage, screaming in frustration. Airport operations are at a stand-still with the majority of passengers refusing to budge from the check-in counter.

A number of passengers had actually witnessed this occurrence before, because as it turns out, it’s standard practice for Cubana to over-sell the Havana to Mexico City flight and if possible avoid any type of reimbursement. In this case however, the Cubana Rep. eventually offers what he’s contractually obliged to. We receive free bus transfers to and from a huge hotel room somewhere near the Marina Hemingway and three square meals to carry us over till the next day. We order breakfast around 9/9.30am (I have bacon for the first time in seven weeks) and have hot showers, now that’s a plus.

Tropicana P: D. Eckersley and L. Rollman, originally uploaded by cubamxc.

We managed to reserve the cheap seats earlier that morning, which include a quarter of a bottle of rum and a meal each for about $100 AUS. On arrival we also received a cigar and a carnation and the cheap seats weren’t bad at all.

We bristled with anticipation for the start of the performance as we heard the faint chinking sound of the huge chandelier headdresses the girls were wearing as they filed past us into their initial positions. What a spectacle! For the most part the colour and vibrancy isn’t really captured in the images we took or, for that matter, any other images I’ve seen.

Neither Damian nor I had been to a Cabaret performance previously, but I’m pretty sure it’s typically about the tits. Tropicana is all Latin American! There’s no topless here. The focus is on exposed butts and intense butt shaking. My hands down, favourite costume was the super bright yellow, three-quarter length Chaps!

The show culminated for us with the African-style, Romeo and Juliet act. It seemed totally clichéd at first, but the crescendo – boy dies, girl escapes, climbing the wayward Vegas strip structural feature to the second storey and… dives! Unfortunately, in all the excitement I was a little trigger-happy and pre-empted the mid-air shot too early.

DSC01131, originally uploaded by cubamxc.

Things were looking up when we walked through Salvador Gonzalez Escalona’s open-air project. Not typically my thing, but I do like when these types of community projects are all consuming and the wackier the beater. The next few locations were more or less a repeat of the last contemporary art expedition.

We walked along the Malecon to reach Casa de la. Yay! This organisation focuses on the promotion of Latin American creativity, from visual arts exhibitions to literary conventions. This included the exquisite linework of Pedro Villalba Ospina’s (Colombian) exhibition Cien anos de soledad al aguafuerte, en ocasion del XXVII Festival International del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, based on text by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After viewing Ospina in Galeria Latinoamericana we were fortunate to have received a comprehensive tour of the collection, IN SPANISH of course, which for the most part was simply beyond our collective abilities but very friendly!

Next stop Galeria Habana. We entered via the back entrance, through a stock room to – Yay, a large contemporary exhibition space. Yay! Kcho’s Los Animales presented a series of large scale modified boats, or winged creatures, placed on the ground and suspended, with two vitrines predominately featuring working drawings. I must say, I always like boats in a gallery.

However, is it just me or is there a slight fixation on flight and diversion (which I can completely appreciate): the Cuban passion for cinema; Rene Francisco Rodriguez’s exhibition at Nina Menocal in Mexico, in part eluded to unattainable travel; and I don’t think I’ve mentioned the bag search before entering the ferry stop for Casablanca and our plan to hijack the ferry to Miami obstructed?

Anyway, I’m just happy that the last gallery we went to had some real contemporary art. I’m not going to push my luck any further and have resolved not to aggravate our last day looking for anymore.

We rode our bony steeds Rosetta and Mulatto most of the way and then walked the remainder to what should be Cascada El Cubano, but who really knows. There was no sales pitch that could convince us to try the park restaurant’s speciality dish, catfish and we settled for a fruity cocktail.  Our guide pointed out numerous plants along the way, which included eating Almonds from the tree and touching Memosis leaves, which sensitive to the intrusion, close for 5 minutes then open again. We also saw the national bird, the Tocororo, with its red, white and blue colours.  It has a distinctive call that resonated through the valley.

However, the highlight was definitely swimming at the waterfall, behind which was a cave complete with stalagmites that you can swim into, it was amazing! On the return ride, Damian just didn’t understand what the hurry was for, his arse was crying out in pain. Watch out for those old Cuban saddles!

Museo Nacional de la Lucha Bandidos P: D. Eckersley and L. Rollman, originally uploaded by cubamxc.

Of all the universally didactic, deja vu presentations with their decrepit vitrines, scratchy photocopies, blurred images and obscure personal effects this one has been our favourite so far. Here the exhibits have actually been maintained, the timber frame vitrines have aged better than the soviet style metal ones, and the content (which included a portion of 
US spy plane fuselage and lots of weapons) was more thoroughly considered. The Marquette’s here rocked, and included our favourite (pictured), depicting one of the many attempts on Fidel’s life, this one a rifle shot at the former Presidential Palace in Havana!!

We saw the New Year in at a disco in a cave, which was even better than it sounds!

Descending more than 50 steps underground we emerged into a generous limestone space, replete with bar, overlooking DJ space, seating area and a dance floor that pumped and grinded literally, all on multiple levels. It all looked like something out of Dr No, even though we couldn’t remember him having a mirror ball.

We decided to introduce some Aussie normality by heading to the beach for New Year’s Day. Hiring some dodgy bikes, we trekked to nearby Playa Ancon.

We paid $4 CUC (convertible currency) for our cabana by the beach, which had that aqua blue water straight out of a Caribbean tourist brochure. We didn’t order the lobster from our cabana this time, but we did have some mighty potent pina colidas. While we had a nice time, it was disturbing that the beach was only occupied by mostly middle-aged, white foreigners. The only Cubans there were working…

Our bellies full of pina colidas we were more prepared to overlook typical comforts i.e. seat cushioning and gears. The ride home was fun except for that damn hill.

Havana has been sooo frustrating. Where is all the contemporary art? For our first day, Damian plotted a day of galleries, because “apparently” I wasn’t really satisfied inMexico until I found contemporary art. We searched high & low, but almost everything was either closed for renovations (which is reassuring), closed down, moved who knows where or perhaps just closed to us?

Most of the art we’ve encountered has been geared directly for tourists, every now and then, there’s some expressionistic work with muted colours, but that’s it! What the hell’s going on?? Thank God for the Camara Oscura at Plaza Vieja, it rescued our first day from a personal hell.

We were later frustrated with trying to purchase a train ticket out of Havana.  We quickly realised that transport generally in Cuba is heavily stressed and can be very difficult to negotiate. This is not to mention the rapid fire abbreviated Cuban version of Spanish. Eventually we learnt that using tourist agencies for reserving bus tickets, well in advance is the surest way to get around.

Periodically we would have happy moments, like dinner in Chinatown – an ode to familiarity (I start a grocery list for my return home), hearing fabulous music being played live almost everywhere (including over breakfast) and the Bellas Artes – Colleccion de Arte Cubano. This was the only visual arts institution that provided us any insight into Cuban art. The drawing and printmaking were particularly sophisticated. Unfortunately they had the saddest little museum store, that I could never have dared to imagine – with no catalogues to speak of!

In our last days, we finally chilled out, booked our bus tickets out, spent Cuban pesos on deep fried treats from a hole in the wall and caught a ferry to Casablanca to drink cheap mojitos while watching the sunset over Havana.  It turns out that Cuba is like a dollar store that Cuban’s can’t afford and settling with the no-brainer tourist options makes for the most pleasant time.

On the morning we were to leave, Damian went out searching the streets for breakfast and was arrested by a mute Rastafarian’s inescapable conversation, nearly causing us to miss the bus! Only Damian could manage this!!  (Cuban people are very friendly says Damian!)

We made it to Remedios for their famous fiesta and found accommodation on the 24th even though people said we wouldn’t make it past Santa Clara. It was great to meet up with our friends Laura and Sienna!

The locals were warning us. It was difficult to understand why we would need hats and to take cover – we’ve seen fireworks before? Initially it seemed straightforward, but then the fireworks got closer and closer. We found out soon enough. Holy crap! Mucho loco!!

Their parrandas actually has 3 elements: fireworks, the towers and the floats. For us the towers and floats simply lent an atmosphere and context for the fireworks. The ingenious system of timber frames for igniting multiple fireworks enabled excess fireworks to be scavenged for random public participation. Add copious amounts of rum and you have an explosive combination of pure anarchy. It was muy diversion!

It became clear that safety standards just aren’t valued as they are at home. Both Damian and Laura were launching homemade sparkling rockets. The action went from 11pm until dawn and then some, requiring lots of stamina and determination. Visually, it was almost like being amidst a war zone and the next morning was evidence of this.

Leaving Remedios is however, another story.

Sitting on the vast flat jungle covered plains of the Yucatan Peninsula, this Mayan city was very popular due to it’s proximity to the mega resort beaches in Cancun and kind of functioned like a Disneyland for aged American tourists. It was interesting anyway.

This is the last of the ancient Mexican cities to visit for our trip, so we thought we’d be getting to be old hands at climbing steps. I was disappointed that the only pyramids open to access were the large central El Castillo and El Caracol (an Observatory). Chichen Itza is also mentioned in Jorn Utzon’s essay on platforms (see Oaxaca entry) and the closure thwarted my plan to re-photograph the views from the original publication to retell his story. Never-the-less the central ideas were very clear: the constructed platform has the feel of the natural ground; an up and down movement is introduced to a terrain where there were none (or at least few); this facilitated access to a whole new landscape level with the tops of the trees, making a place with divergent characteristics to the dense jungle experience of their everyday life. The only other variations in this singular landscape were the deep cenotes that provided essential water. These also played a sacred role in the life of the city.

Also of note is the Grupo de la Mil Columnas – see Louise zigzagging through, this was experientially unique to this site especially how they blurred with the adjacent trees.


Directly from the bus station we caught a taxi to El Panchan. Rather than stay in the shitty town we thought we’d stay adjacent to the ruins in the forest with Beni and Peter from Cologne. Basically, we had a great time with these guys over the next 24 hours, check out the film that they’re making!

The approach to the site was perfectly choreographed and we were astounded as we emerged from the jungle with an oblique view of the Templo de las Inscriptiones Group. The rainforest, the mountains and the mist have made it our favourite. We most liked the detailed combs decorating the temple and palace roofs. We also liked the arrangement of urban clusters, particularly the residential area still covered in jungle and flanked between two waterfalls.  Damian was interested by its commanding position at the base of the mountains overlooking the fertile plans that would have supported it and its access to multiple fresh water sources. In its classic period it was a vast city and only a small portion, the religious/administrative section, is cleared for access today. Unfortunately, the famous tomb of Pakal was closed L


The clean fresh Mountain air here is so refreshing. This nice Spanish colonial town has sight lines down its streets to the surrounding terrain. We’ve made a slight adjustment with the colder climate and so the courtyards are now enclosed with glass roofs.  There is plenty of good eating, including first class curries at a place called Mayambe!  This place might be the most multicultural in all of Mexico.

There is a significant indigenous presence, which we learnt more about when we went to the villages of Chamula and Zinacantan, where we were shown the living Mayan culture. This included some insights into their religious beliefs and practices – that dominate or pervade behind a façade of Catholicism. Damian, always thinking of food, was fascinated by their creation story that includes the recipe for tortillas as how the Maya were made! I was more curious about how particular saints are being punished in their Church.

We’ve also been to the Zapatista store, Nemizapata and bought a number of artworks with the proceeds going back to their resistance struggle.

Damian and Louise

Hierve El Agua was an adventure and we saw more of the real Mexico for the first time. We slept-in and missed the direct bus so we had to catch the second-class bus to Mitla then wait for a collectivo. Eventually when the collectivo did show up, we had to find another two passengers. As a result, we managed to get a mini tour of Mitla that included observing a funeral procession, while the driver periodically yelled ‘Hierve El Agua’.

When we reached the top of the first Mountain I thought we’d finally arrived, but no. Fortunately, the return bus was much more straightforward, even if there was an insane bus driver at the wheel.  After a bus, waiting for the collectivo and driving a bumpy dirt road we finally arrived and all the effort and unsureness was totally worth it.

Oaxaca has been a nice change of pace to Mexico City. Although I’ve been a little, disappointed that it’s not quite the creative city persistently described. In terms of contemporary art, the only real exception has been the Manuel Garcia Arte Contemporaneo, where we saw some interesting smaller works in its Project Space. Oaxaca is more geared for purchasing craft, in fact, it’s one of the top 3 things the city recommends to do. We’ve picked up some great Day of the Dead items at the particularly good women’s co-op – MARO AC The Regional Association of Craftswoman of Oaxaca (5 de Mayo #240 Centro), which isn’t mentioned in any of the publicity materials.

The Zapotec ruins just outside of Oaxaca city at Monte Alban were on our itinerary as they were mentioned by Jorn Utzon in his essay ‘Platforms and Plateaus: Ideas of A Danish Architect’ (Zodiac 10,  1962). Situated on a flattened hilltop very close to the city it was thankfully greener and smaller than Teotihuacan. Utzon’s interest in Mexican platforms focuses on the way they reconfigure the terrain and therefore the relationship with the broader landscape. Louise was curious about Edificio J, which was an observatory. It is set on an angle to the other buildings and we thought it could be a reference for the Tamayo Museo in Mexico City.

Damian and Louise

Dsc00467, originally uploaded by valleygirl2005.

While we’re not fans of wrestling at home, we were totally geared for Lucha Libre. We bought tickets from a scalper for the first time, which seemed to make it even more of an event.

Highlights included the Blue Panther being de-masked. He cowarded on the floor of the ring while the victor tore his mask to shreds. He was then shamefully escorted from the ring by his team mates. Sensationally, Tarzan Boy threw his bout. After dusting off the mat, he suprised the crowd by simply laying down for the count. His team did not take it so well. I also particularly enjoyed when Hector Del Aguya managed to keep his pants on while his opponent tried to dack him.

Generally, the most entertaining antics were the jumping, leaping and sliding out of the ring into all in brawls. In the headline Cabellena Vs Cabellena match the most interesting wrestling was actually between the coaches and sometimes a referee.

I managed to take a few photos before being asked to stop. It’s funny what you can and can’t take photos of in Mexico. To be posted.

Damian’s making me add the image like almost a year later, originally uploaded by valleygirl2005.

The only image: Casa Barragan pop-up card featuring cantilever stairs, with its own little Albers.It was an absolute architectural delight visiting this house and it has made the whole trip worthwhile for me. We were lucky to get in to see this inspiring work of architecture and recommend booking in advance ( There was no photography allowed so please refer to books or the web for images The guide on sale at the house is very good with explanatory text, furnished plans, sections although only B&W photos.Mute from the street, this was Barragán’s own house and studio for 40 years. It is notable not only for the famous cantilevered stair detail that you’d all be familiar with but also his trademark use of colour and light (both natural and artificial), which is enlivened by the controlled sequence of spaces.

It was the rigour applied in the sequencing that I was most impressed by. For example, the entry room off the street is lit by a gold coloured glass window over the door, otherwise dark with a stained timber wall (& seat) and volcanic stone floor. The colour of and subdued quality of light in this room prepares the retina for the next room, the hot pink stair hall. The pink in turn is followed by the deep green of the tropical garden viewed through the back windows of the dinning or lounge rooms.

Fully furnished as it was lived in, the house also exhibits his exquisite collection of religious/devotional and modern artworks, including a number by Josef Albers. Louise was also interested in the way his religious beliefs affected the number of doors in a room!

– Damian

In addition to the Museo de Arte Moderno and the Museo Rufino Tamayo, where we saw the Jesus Rafael Soto exhibition, the best contemporary work we’ve seen is in Condesa. We should have skipped Salon de la Plastica Mexicana and headed directly for the university satellite space MUCA Roma. Aside from being a very good exhibition space, they had the most information regarding current contemporary exhibitions. We picked up a great map of local galleries that also included shops and cafes.

At MUCA Roma, we saw some fantastic new media work as part of an exhibition titled Relativ0, curated by Barbara Perea. Standouts included a video installation by Juande Jarillo where a man is in a position on his back, similar to foetal, loudly knocks his head back against the ground and Gilberto Esparaza’s water balloon that slowly fills until bursting. Also, Alicia Framis Secret Strike 2004, which depicts people or workers at a standstill, mid motion, while automated operations proceed (automatic doors etc) and the world continues to turn.

The exhibition by Cuban artist Rene Francisco Rodriguez at Nina Menocal was skilfully executed, in terms of both the work and installation. The dual exhibition by Thomas Grunfeld and Peter Zimmerman at OMR presented distorted realities. Thomas Grunfeld’s animal bodies with bird’s heads, that I almost didn’t quite notice, were particularly wild! We also visited Garash that seemed to be the younger independent space complete with el Greco room or Plato’s cave that I recognised from some other space (Greek columns, B&W tile floor and three walls painted black facing onto a wide hallway).

Overall, the curated and solo exhibitions in Condesa were much more controlled and consistent than their more traditional counterparts near the Zocalo.

The bus trip to and from the ruins goes through the outer regions of the valle de Mexico to beyond its mountainous rim. The city has spread this far (from its days as an island in a lake) and was like Montreal’s Habitat (or Calem Morton) a thousand, thousand times over, as it covers the lower slopes.

Hot and dusty, it is best not to wear thongs to visit the largest prehispanic city (1st to 8th C AD) in Mexico. Excavation and concentration on reconstruction lines the areas most adjacent to the main axis or ‘Avenue of the Dead’. The avenue terminates at the Piramide de la Luna although the axis is aligned with the peak of the mountain behind. The reconstructed parts of the city are awesome. The surrounding city is generally manifest as a number of regular grassy mounds.

A river was diverted to cross the main avenue at a right angle. The ground rises slowly up to the Piramide del la Luna providing a sense of drama for our expedition and evidence of a drainage strategy. The avenue is crossed by several causeways that plesantly interrupt the journey with an overview of the route and they pace our advance preparing us for what is to come.

The Temple de Quetzalcoatl sits within the walled compound of La Ciudadela and is approached over broad but steep steps. A feature of the structures here is that subsequent eras built over the previous, like onion skins. This temple has been excavated to reveal a fasinating and well preserved earlier structure. The detailed stone work features a number of deity/creatures.

There is still much speculation about the meaning or purpose of the various structures. Later archelogical theories surpase previous, making it difficult to follow the most authorative advice with only our meagre tourist guide info. For example, the reconstruction of the Piramide del Sol has 5 terraces, recent opinion is that there were only 4! Furthermore, it is now believed to be a temple to a water god (not sun). Needless to say we climbed to the top which was as breath taking as the view.

The Piramide de la Luna sits in an open air plaza rather than a walled compound. It suggests that perhaps this was a place for more public functions.

The temple/palace that faces on to the plaza La Luna was fascinating. The reconstruction featured a portion of roofing (exposed timber frame) on stone columns, which is not dissimilar to widely used construction methods used in Mexico today. It included a courtyard with detailed stone reliefs; a complex series of unreconstructed rooms and courtyards; and beneath an earlier temple with murals and more interesting stone details that Louise was very fond of.

Incidently Louise thought Teotihuacan was better than Pompeii, but that it would have been good to gain a sense of their everday life.


We spent 1 day focused on all things closely connected with Frida.

We actually began Frida Day at Trotsky’s casa. We entered via a newer museo, that leads to Trotsky’s charming garden. It is still plainly visible that both garden and casa were guarded, but failed to save him from assination. The interior featured bullet holes, purportedly evidence from the first attempt (Siqueirous). 

Key elements of Frida’s last Blue Casa remain intact. Along with artworks and clothes, an extensive collection of medications and the corsets are exhibited in the gallery. The kitchen appears as it does in photographs with Frida. The studio, with its meticuilous material cupboard, leads to a bedroom with the mirror bed. Her death mask is placed on its pillow.

With the same ticket we went to Diego’s Anahuacalli. Purpose built to house his prehispanic objects, the architecture was intense. Built entirely of volcanic stone, it has a series of interesting crypt like spaces.

Unfortunaltely at the (Pink + Blue) Double House, Frida’s blue casa was closed in preparation for an exhibition. So we made do with Diego’s, which seems more familir from images including the movie etc. A number of ‘The Frog’s’ hotel keys are still on his bedside table.

Both houses sit atop Pillotis in the manner of Le Corbusier (or a Queenslander). This maximises the ground space for use, but affords little of the privacy or defended territory of traditional courtyard gardens. We want a cactus fence!


After getting our bearings atop the Torre Latinoamericana, I was briefly obsessed with photographing the Mariachi Cops in the nearby park (sombrerowearing  police cowboys on horseback).

The next day we wandered around museos near the Zocalo. The most interesting was the exhibition of legorreta + legorreta (architects) at Antiguo Colegio de San Idefonso (images to be downloaded when I find internet facilities with USB).

I’m totally perplexed by the traffic in Mexico City. If the roads aren’t choked, it’s the crush of people. Earlier at 6pm the street vendors collapsed their stalls in one swoop and bolted. Then for no apparent reason the stalls (and the crush) was back.

Anyway, we’re off to drink 6 peso Coronas!