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Language no barrier to finding love in the heart of Mexico City

Lockdown has been a crash course in living in the now as Gillian Hyland spends it in Mexico with her camera, her new love and a foster dog


Gillian loved  Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City

Gillian loved Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City


Gillian loved Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City

I'm locked-down in love on the other side of the world and with an ocean of unknowns to navigate.

Before this blissful state, I'd long realised that what I want from life I rarely get, but what comes my way is often far better than anything I had dare dream of. But I never quite imagined being caught 'sheltering' in Mexico City during a pandemic as an Irish woman with a camera who speaks absolutely no Spanish.

The past months have been a crash course in living in the 'now' and relinquishing control of all that I knew. And as I sit on my roof terrace writing this with a view of the sprawl and bustle of this capital 'ciudad', I smile at the twists and turns of just how far I've come - and how quickly.

I'm an all-or-nothing gal who loves a good challenge so when a friend suggested I visit Mexico City for my next photo trip, I didn't hesitate.

It's become an annual thing, flying solo to Cuba, Bali, India and beyond in search of vibrant art, unique architecture and the sense of adventure: a great combo for the creative mind to weave new visual stories within a rich and colourful culture.

So by December last year, I was Mexico-bound.

Before I left, I lined up two house swaps online. I knew no one in the country to ask. The first was with lovehomeswap.com: an art deco home in Roma (the suburb that essentially won an academy award for both Netflix and film director, Alfonso Cuaron). I followed that with a stay at the Mayan walled town of Tulum on the Caribbean coastline, through artistresidencyswap.com to celebrate my mother's 60th birthday.

I'd invited her for a two- week visit which involved daily sojourns to white sandy beaches and hidden lagoons, swimming in turquoise water cenotes and learning to weave our own traditional wall hangings.


Gillian and her new four-legged friend

Gillian and her new four-legged friend

Gillian and her new four-legged friend

Perched atop tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the archaeological ruins of Tulum are one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites in Mexico, as well as one of the most photogenic and popular among tourists. My only regret is not travelling to the eastern coast to visit the small fishing village, Las Coloradas, where you can marvel at the candy pink lagoons which are a natural phenomenon. The tinted waters are caused by the red plankton and brine shrimp.

Colourful Roma is the hipster heart of Mexico City, it's a gorgeous place to stay if you're looking to shop at cute boutiques, sip incredibly good coffee, and enjoy close proximity to many of the city's biggest attractions.

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Originally a neighbourhood for the upper class, it was the stage for some of Mexico City's political protests like the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre that features in the Cuaron movie.

Roma fell on hard times after the 1985 earthquake and many of the local properties and businesses were damaged. But since then the neighbourhood has enjoyed a recent renaissance and refurbishment leading to a combination of art deco mansions, colourful street art, and, of course, the neighbourhood's vibe.

Although reputed to be a dangerous city, most of Mexico City feels safe and Roma is one of the safest neighbourhoods in town. Another highlight is the notable late night dance spot, Mama Rumba, known for being one of the best salsa bars in the city, it's the hottest place for mojito sipping and booty shaking -and partners who will offer to help you learn the moves.

In all, after my mother left, I'd planned to stay less than two months, photographing a new series of art pieces.

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I got busy straight away visiting museums such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and Museo de Arte Popular. I trawled craft markets like La Ciudadela and sailed down the Xochimilco River drinking tequila to a mariachi band. But I also hoped to meet local people on these excursions which always inspires my work.

To that end, I tried Airbnb 'Experiences' which offers small tours to the best taco joints or hotspots like Frida Kahlo's house or a Mezcal-tasting with a side of crispy crickets.

If you're more spiritually minded, there's a sweat lodge stay with strangers, hosted by a native shaman or city walks to view the impressive murals of the prominent Mexican painter Diego Rivera.

I tried them all and soon found friends from Guatemala, Sweden and California I could celebrate Christmas with - friendships that have lasted.

And one relationship that came as a surprise. As a single woman, I prefer real life and random encounters to online dating. I've tried the Eat Pray Love adventure of Bali (which didn't quite work out to plan) but Mexico turned out to be the stage for my own Julia Roberts moment: over the last five months I've fallen for a local guy and it's made me rethink my path totally - including how the rest of my life might unfold.

The irony is I met him on my Swedish friend's tinder date (a very long story). She didn't (ahem) click with him but I did. And it was great.

However, I had an air ticket home (which I extended a little), photographic work to finish in Mexico and more assignments set up in London which also kept me busy. And then Covid-19 hit. Yes, it was unsettling.

With all London work cancelled and the prospect of a 13-hour flight home with people who might be ill sitting next to me, I decided it was best to stay put, buy health insurance, learn Spanish and finally live in the 'now'. For someone who has lived to wor since school days, that involved quite a lot of precariousness and letting go.


While here I've still been able to do a good bit of travel (Mexican restrictions are lighter) and having my own local 'mi amour' tour guide to explore with, has opened up the potential to see the country.

I'm a city girl at heart, but to get a true sense of a country you need to see the small towns and provincial hideouts.

With our car packed and hiking boots on, we ventured to Huasca De Ocampo, where we slept in wood cabins and wondered at the impressive rock formation and waterfall, Basalticos Prismas.

Wanting to taste the famous chocolate mole dish of Puebla, we spent a weekend in the town, admiring the colonial architecture and counting churches. It's said to have one 'iglesia' for every day of the year - and I thought we had a lot in Ireland! Then earlier this year, before travel was halted entirely, we had a jet set weekend away to the birthplace of tequila, Guadalajara in Western Mexico.

The vibrant city also hosts the Mercado San Juan de Dios, the largest indoor market in the Americas.

I've also got a little taste of home from home by connecting with an Irish WhatsApp group - they've given me great visa advice, local tips, the occasional photo of Barry's Tea, and it's even helped me foster a dog.

Missing my cats in London, I wanted to do something to help the rising number of abandoned animals here - especially due to lack of food during the lockdown and the financial crisis that has followed. Many pups have been left homeless. But two weeks ago, with the help of himself, I fell in love for a second time with the over-grown chihuahua that is Coco.

We rescued him from a neglectful owner but even after surviving a home with no love, he's the most affectionate, playful and perfect partner for me to stroll the streets of Mexico with. And he likes eating as much as I do. There's a real buzz around Mexico City and the one thing everyone comments on is the food. Trust me when I say it's on every street corner.

Even during the Covid-19 crisis, you still see the neighbourhood food sellers and markets.

Without financial aid, many can't afford not to work and food is the cornerstone of their culture. Thankfully I got to delve into the restaurant scene before lockdown and tickle my taste buds with incredible meals at noted posh nosh restaurants, Rosetta and Contramar.

And if you're wondering where to eat in Mexico City for the classic combination of tacos and tequila, look no further than El Parnita. Lastly for rooftop cocktails while gazing over the impressive city sites, it's worth visiting El Mayo and Miralto.

But of course, behind all this remains the virus. To date, confirmed cases are not as high as other countries, but statistics aren't always clear. Poor people suffer more with health care costs. Work is lost especially for those living on the margins. Saying that, the warmth of the locals radiates from the street sellers to the talented artists and new friends I've made. Mexicans, like the Irish, love to chat and are quick to laugh and share a drink. They are also kind, generous and warm-hearted. Family is everything and I've found one here.

I've been lucky through the lockdown in securing ongoing Aribnb accommodation: moving areas and seeing different parts of Mexico City as the sun gets hotter and the colours of seasons brighter.

My new friends have generously let me stay when pressure hit over big decisions. I haven't regretted one moment of my five months in Mexico. The bad news? Despite an early but fraught relationship with Duolingo, my Spanish is terrible.

The good news? My boyfriend - Ponciano Pliego Ladnak - speaks fluent English. And his lovely sister, Anezka, helps me with my photography.

My home in London is rented and I'm continuing with my lockdown adventure; our next destination is Playa La Saladita, a surf village in Guerrero, where my hope of conquering the waves shall commence.

I'm no longer the solo voyager, but happily together with hombre, pooch and all.


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