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Mexico's lack of tourists makes way for locals

It was truly a lonely planet Saturday for street vendors and restaurateurs in Mexico City's favorite tourist spots.
Mexico Swine Flu Empty City
A couple, with their protective masks against swine flu around their necks, dance at a public square in the Coyoacan neighborhood in Mexico City on May 2.Rodrigo Abd / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was truly a lonely planet Saturday for street vendors and restaurateurs in Mexico City's favorite tourist spots.

But what the guidebook jaunts through colonial neighborhoods lacked in foreigners was made up by a strong turnout of locals — tired of being shut in their houses — who strolled at the pace of a bygone era.

On the second day of Mexico's five-day shutdown of all but essential government and business services, streets in the wide valley of 20 million people and around the capital were strangely quiet, as normally crowded markets were shuttered and many parks locked up.

But that provided a chance for locals to meander the cobblestone streets of the capital's most popular colonial neighborhoods, shielded by trees from the warm afternoon sun and by surgical masks from the lingering swine-flu virus — first confirmed in Mexico more than a week ago.

Some artists showed up at Bazaar de Sabado, a giant Saturday artisan market in the upscale San Angel neighborhood that normally teems with shoppers and diners. But sales were nil.

"It's totally dead. There's no movement in the streets," said Angel Gaspar Chavez, 65, who usually roams the sidewalk cafes — all shuttered — selling his hand-crafted tablecloths.

"We don't expect to sell anything," said Fernando Llanes, who has brought his paintings to the bazaar every weekend for 20 years, this time bold, yellow-and-red interpretations of fruit. But although he anticipated no sales, he was not entirely disappointed.

"I came to talk to my friends," he said. "We've been in the house all week."

Isabel Monter set up her stand of handmade necklaces and hand-painted T-shirts — many bearing cartoonish pigs, which she said she created so people would stop blaming swine for the global outbreak of swine flu. Scientists say it's now transmitted only by people.

"This is an open-air market. The people will come," she said. "The danger is in closed places."

Among the few tourists was German Lena Homburg, 17, who had to leave Mexico Saturday with 119 other exchange students being evacuated because of the flu.

"I'm buying some souvenirs for my family," she said, lamenting her return to Munich before her studies were over.

In historic Coyoacan, one-time home to Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortez, exiled Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky and other historical figures, it was easy to imagine the days before tour buses, before the quaint village was annexed by the mega-city.

Water slapping stone fountains and the song of birds could be heard in a newfound quiet. Famed artist Frida Kahlo's periwinkle house was shuttered. La Guadalupana, the cantina where she reportedly swilled tequila with her muralist husband, Diego Rivera, was boarded up as well by the shutdown.

People ate sandwiches and played chess on Cortez's front porch overlooking the remodeled Plaza Hidalgo, normally filled with stands selling Mexican pottery, silver jewelry, and glassware.

"We were forced to stay home all week," said Elizabeth Longi, 52, a primary school teacher who came for a mocha coffee at the El Jarocho cafe and to see the refurbished central plaza.

"Normally you can't see anything because of all vendors," Longi said, "though we understand the people have to work, people have to eat."

Down the street, 20-year-old Dulce Guzman bopped to the Spanish rock group The Fifth Season in the doorway of the Yellow Cafe. With restaurants closed to all but carryout business, few people were buying the coffee or doughnuts she had to offer.

"I'm so bored," she said, her surgical mask pulled down around her neck. She said she did about $2.50 worth of business as of midday. "I sweep the sidewalks, wash the rags and flush the toilets ... whatever has to be done."

In the nearby central market, guidebook standout Tostadas Coyoacan reported 25 percent of normal sales as cooks wrapped their deep-fried tortillas bearing refried black beans, chicken, ceviche or beef in plastic and told customers to eat outside.

"Sad," said Maria Elena Aguilar, who hadn't sold even one of her beaded necklaces and shawls laid out on a blanket on the street. On a normal Saturday, she sells six or seven.

"The people are zombies," she complained, as potential customers sauntered by, dropping their surgical masks to enjoy ice cream but shaking their heads at her wares.