One of my favorite things about visiting a new place is listening to all the unfamiliar sounds. On every street there are a hundred little things buzzing and clanking if you stop and listen for them. And every place is different! When you’re at home it’s easy for all that sound to fade away into the background. Once you get used to it you just stop hearing it. That’s why it’s such a treat to visit a new city, especially one that’s far from home. Everything is new, and you can appreciate the music of the streets with ears wide open. And while it’s fascinating to take it all in it can also be a bit overwhelming, especially in a sprawling metropolis like Mexico City.
And wow is this place noisy. Shockingly noisy sometimes. Life is lived in the streets here in a way that is different than anywhere else. If you’re looking to buy something there’s a good chance you’ll run into somebody outside selling exactly what you need. You can see (and hear) these street vendors hawking their wares in small markets and on large thoroughfares throughout the city. And not to worry if you’re hungry. The streets are filled with people making and eating food. Tortas, tacos, chilaquiles, fresh fruit, and everything else. The sounds of sizzling oil, meat on the grill, and vegetables being chopped are ever-present. You should definitely try the food if you get the chance. You might experience some intestinal distress if you’re not used to it, but it’s worth it.
Do you like dogs? Do you like ten million dogs? Well, then, I’ve got good news for you. Dogs are everywhere in Mexico City. I think it’s a law here that every citizen must own at least three. They’re adorable and oh man do they love to bark. Go to Parque México on a Saturday and you’ll see a world where dogs rule and humans are little more than their faithful and obedient companions.
Bells, Whistles, and Loud Speakers
Some of the most surprising noises come from speakers and whistles mounted on vehicles that drive around the city. These carts, bikes, and trucks can be pretty startling at night, at least when you’re not expecting them. And if your Spanish could use some work (I know mine can) the whole thing can be even more baffling, because you have no idea what everyone is yelling about.
Tamales Oaxaqueños! Tamales Calientitos!
Ever wake up in the middle of the night craving a tamale? This is your guy. The same recording is used by countless tamale vendors throughout the city. Reportedly the recording even interrupted a presidential press conference, in the form of a ringtone.
These guys aren’t looking to sell you anything, they’re looking to buy. Have an old appliance or mattress that you don’t want? They’re happy to take it off your hands. The voice you’re hearing is that of María del Mar Terrón Martínez. Her father, Marco Antonio Terrón Aguilar, was a scrap collector that got tired of losing his voice shouting into a megaphone. So he recorded his daughter giving the pitch, put it on a loop, and the rest is history. The recording has spread and is used not just in Mexico City, but throughout Latin America. If you want to learn more you can read all about it in The New York Times (en español).
Camotes (Sweet Potatoes)
This is the scary one when you’re not expecting it. It’s not a recording or a speaker, it’s a loud-as-hell steam whistle attached to a mobile pressure cooker. You can hear this guy from blocks away, and it is positively deafening when you’re right next to it. Be sure to speak loudly when ordering, these guys might be hard of hearing.
Garbage collectors criss-cross the neighborhoods regularly and ring a loud handbell to let everyone know it’s time to bring out the trash. Take a peek out the window when you hear this one because it’s pretty impressive how high they can stack the garbage on top of these things.
These are some of the noises you’ll hear all the time in Mexico City, but it’s far from an exhaustive list. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear some new whistle or bang outside and wonder what’s going on. The locals, of course, are unfazed. They rarely notice at all. Maybe in time I’ll stop falling out of my seat every time the camote whistle blasts outside my window, but for now I just have to accept as one of the many charms of life in Mexico City.