The Smell of the City

The moment you leave the airport terminal at Benito Juarez  International Airport, your nostrils are filled with a pungent aroma. It’s the smell of industry, rotting organic matter, busy sewers, sweat, sun baked tarmac, pollution, cooking food, discarded litter, acid rain and a multitude of other more difficult to identify odours. It’s the smell of the developing world, and it’s available outside airports around the developing world with localised varieties. It’s an urban smell that changes in strength and flavour as you move across the city. And I love it.

When Paola arrived at Heathrow six and a bit years ago, she held her head up and breathed deeply, savouring the fresh, clean English air. I found that a little bizarre, to be frank, as the air around Heathrow is the most polluted in the country. But not that bizarre. I do the same when I get to Mexico. I love the smell of the developing world. It’s the smell of life being lived. It’s a smell I associate with the exotic. It’s the smell of imminent adventure. Others might wrinkle their noses in disgust, but I inhale deeply. Even in the days before my departure, I loved that smell.

And now when I think of the things I miss most about Mexico, I have to put that delightfully noxious fragrance near the top of the list. The senses give memories substance, and that smell of Mexico City life brings back all sorts of memories. Of course, whilst I’ve been writing this as if a statement of fact, I must confess that it’s my opinion, and maybe I’m just a little quirky. Some might also take exception at my use of the term ‘developing world’. Mexico City is, granted, far too complex for a single term to accurately define it. But if you’ve been there, then hopefully you know what I mean.

There’s something else I miss. The music. Especially one particular song. It brings back memories of football games at the Estadio Azteca. Of lazy afternoons on the canals of Xochimilco. Of the Bicenternario celebrations. Of evenings wolfing down tacos in restaurants with mariachis prowling for custom. It’s the song in the video below. Although the video is a less traditional, but very Mexican, twist on the original.


14 thoughts on “The Smell of the City

  1. Kim G says:

    To me, Mexico City smells a lot like Los Angeles, which is to say that the smell of automotive exhaust is the dominant odor. Second on the list has to be smoke from all the barbacoas where vendors are cooking up all kinds of street food.

    Lovely video, though in my broswer (Firefox 4, running on Win 7 home premium) it did not work embedded. I had to view it in YouTube.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we are beginning to lust after a video camera.


    • Kim, I’d normally recommend travelling beyond the boundaries of Polanco and Condessa in order to experience the full range of aromatic delights that the city has to offer! But you are not the ordinary passing gringo by a stretch. Fumes from exhaust pipes is definitely the most powerful odour. I didn’t specify it in my post, lumping it in under ‘pollution’, but probably should have. But there’s more subtle fragrances to be detected, especially in the quieter, less trafficked parts of the city.

      I wonder what London smells like to a foreigner landing for the first time. Car fumes too, I guess. Upper class, expensive car fumes, mind you…



      • Kim G says:

        Actually, to an American nose, London smells a bit smoggy, or at least it did the last time I was there. Although there is plenty of very fine, expensive machinery plying the streets, there are also older vehicles that wouldn’t meet American emissions standards.

        However, I’ve been informed by my Italian boss that European emissions standards now make the American ones look like belching 19th century factories in comparison. I’m not too sure about that, but I’m sure things are getting better.

        But mostly I think London has pretty clean air, though my brother and sister-in-law complained of the smog in the summers when they lived there in the late 90’s. But they are a spoiled lot,used to living in California on a hillside a half-mile from the ocean.

        (By the way, I hope you realize that I’ve only been in Polanco a time or two, and don’t limit myself to Condesa, either. F lives in Iztacalco, where I stay when I’m there. So I’m down with the ‘hood.)


        Kim G
        Boston, MA
        Where we too are spoiled by living a couple blocks from the bay.


        • London has a pretty smoggy reputation historically. Not ancient history though – most Londoners are pretty aware of this event, even if they were born long after it…

          I know of LA’s pollution issues, but I have generally assumed that the US would have cleaner air, by virtue of it’s low population density. Even big cities can spread their fumes on open land, whereas I would imagine in Euope big cities spread their pollution on other big cities a couple of miles down the road.

          I did start to investigate, out of curiosity. Didn’t find much. Did find one of my photos on the the first search result that came up though. It’s a small world…

          And maybe I phrased my comment the wrong way, regards the extent of your exploits in DF. I know you get out and about beyond the borders of the Centro Historico. Within the borders, I would say that car fumes are more of a dominant force than in the suburbs.


  2. I’ve been away from Mexico City too long and don’t remember the smells. It’s like someone dying and you forget how they sound and smell . Between your post and the youtube I’m ready to weep….and jump on a plane headed south.
    Keep writing about Mexico so I can live vicariously through you.
    Great post!


    • Mexico City is not dead – the smells and sounds are just waiting for you…all you gotta do is get on that plane!

      I probably will keep writing about Mexico you know, even though I’ve left her behind. It’s a sort of therapeutic exercise to help me come to terms with my loss!


  3. Dan in NC says:

    I would not consider leaving DF a loss – more of a misplacement. Something you can always find or return to if the desire is strong enough. In the meantime, you now have all of Europe on your doorstep, and if you care to, courtesy of Ryan Aire or a couple of other local carriers and even train lines, explore a multitude of cultural wonders on any given weekend. Cheap day trips to Calais (and the lower cost cigs & plonk) are sporadically available in the Sunday papers.. Looking ahead, rather than behind is usually more fun.. Cheers!
    Dan in NC


    • Aye, but if you’re looking ahead to something you left behind….!

      But I know what you mean, and yes we’ll have a lot of fun, me and Paola, over the coming years. So many plans already. I’m determind to do a Nile Cruise. Paola has her heart set on Budapest, Berlin and Paris. All of which are easily accessible and affordable.

      Short term, I’m thinking Oxford. There’s the city and university. Plus the wonderful Blenheim Palace which captivated me even as a kid on a school trip. And Paola’s favourite cook Raymond Blanc has his rather posh restaurant just up the road. And a bus from London to Oxford can be had for a pound…


  4. Katie says:

    Every so often I smell something that reminds me of Mexico. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I always enjoy it (even though the smell is not the most pleasant). 🙂


  5. Mimi says:

    It smells horrible, I’m at the airport right now and can’t stand the smell, I wish I would have arrived late like most mexican passengers so that I wouldnt be here smelling this.


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