Saturday, October 29, 2005

Taking on Toluca

Originally published in The News (Mexico City), February 23, 2002

Nondescript city contains beauty, inspires bravery

When contemplating daytrips from Mexico City, few people think of Toluca, famous for ... well, for being colder than the Distrito Federal, thanks to the high altitude. And, if you can believe shop signs, for making an orange liqueur called moscos. Plus, for fame of the Hollywood sort, the Julia Roberts-Brad Pitt film The Mexican was partly set in the splendour of the Toluca International Airport.

Yet the capital of the state of Mexico does have other enticing attractions to make the 30-peso, hour-long bus ride from Mexico City worthwhile, such as beautiful plazas, colonial architecture and fascinating museums. At the top of the list is the Cosmovitral, a spectacular botanic garden whose highlight is not the thousand or so varieties of local plants, but the panoramic stained glass windows.

Sunlight filters through vivid panels of red, orange, blue and green glass created by Tolucan artist Leopoldo Flores Valdez. The ethereal glow surrounds alcatraz lilies, cacti and other reminders of Mexico's rich diversity of fauna, and illuminates scenes of mankind's struggles, represented by dualities of birth and death, light and dark.

The circular window by the entrance has a fiery design reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, while at the opposite end of the Cosmovitral is a womb-like representation of procreation.

After gaping in awe at the splendid scenes on glass, we found the paths and ponds to be perfect places to stroll and get away from the traffic and noise of the industrial city that surrounds it.

The State of Mexico Cultural Centre, a complex including three museums and a library, is another Toluca destination not to be missed. Located just outside the city, it consists of the Popular Culture Museum, where an impressive collection of arts and crafts includes some spectacular Trees of Life, the Anthropology and History Museum, containing a wealth of pre-Hispanic artifacts, and the Modern Art Museum, which boasts works by Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera.

To make the trip to Toluca complete, we indulged in two gastronomic rarities. In a demonstration of the power of marketing, we bought a bottle of the sickly sweet moscas despite gagging on the store sample, and despite never having heard of it before encountering the store sign: "Coming to Toluca without buying moscas is like going to Acapulco without swimming in the ocean."

After a shot of the 86 proof moscos, the second culinary unknown seemed less scary. Across the street from the botanic garden is a nondescript restaurant specializing in chapulines - that's grasshoppers - a pre-Hispanic edible most often encountered in Oaxaca.

In 1575, Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernandez wrote: "Here I see these Western Indians who devour tadpoles with great enthusiasm, which are something our fellow countrymen are horrified to see, or even name, and they also eat grasshoppers and ants. They regard as great delicacies many things that no other inhabitants of the world would think of eating."

We ourselves would not have thought of eating grasshoppers, but were up for an adventure. And after all, the restaurant sign assured us they were a tasty delicacy. I imagined - hoped - the creatures would come in a preparation that disguised what they were, but the waitress brought a dinner plate full of nothing but fried grasshoppers, legs and all, and an order of tortillas. Crunchy and salty, like strangely seasoned potato chips, they were tasty smothered in lime and salsa and even, when bravery permitted, eaten solo.

So for culinary adventure, cultural enrichment and relaxation, Toluca is only a day trip away from Mexico City. Just beware the power of its advertising.