There’s not many tours in the city that I actually get excited about so listen up. I have been kind of obsessed with the bell tower tour at the Catedral Metropolitana since I took some visiting friends about a year ago. Last week I went again, just to confirm my original sensation of awesomeness. Confirmed.
Part of the reason I love this tour is why I love lots of the tours, national monuments, and ruins in Mexico: the causal insecurity and extreme proximity in every visit (think climbing the pyramid of the sun at Tenochtitlán).
You start out by climbing a winding stone staircase up the east bell tower of the cathedral. There are no railings to hold on to and no warning about the 4 flights of steps you are about to ascend. Anyone with mobility issues (or high heels) might want to sit this one out. Then you pass cordoned off areas like the picture to the right and the unofficialness of their restrictive measures is so unbelievably tempting that it’s hard to hold yourself back.
The guide waiting at the top of bell tower hustles the group together, moving quickly from one part of the cathedral’s rooftop to another… that’s right, over the domes of a 400-year-old church, tripping over pipes laid along the edges and wires stretched across its surface, invisible in the sunlight. Random boards that look to be as old as the church are laid out at one point as a walkway from one dome to another.
Along with being just on the edge of dangerous, the experience is spelling-binding. There’s the zócalo stretched out in front of you and the immensity of the cathedral — that you get only a sense of at ground level — is even more breathtaking from hundreds of feet above the air. I know that these tours run about every 20 minutes Monday to Friday, but they make you feel like you are in the special club: high above the city, crawling all over God’s house. Through the window tiny parishioners move below you.
The guides that lead the tour are also bell ringers. They take turns ringing the bells each morning, afternoon and evening. Special bells are rung on holy days and a giant wooden matraca during Easter week.
While the tours themselves are short and sweet they pack in lots of info: the weight of the bells (the largest, Santa María de Guadalupe is 13 tons, the smallest, La Bebé, 70 kilos), which bell was blessed by the pope, which one was donated by Carlos Slim, which bell was “punished” for centuries after clonking a careless bell ringer in the head and killing him. You’re done in about 30 minutes but you really feel like you saw something unique (and are relieved you didn’t trip and fall and kill yourself.)
After the tour you just let yourself out. The guide thanks you for coming and points the way to the exit, leaving you to manage another set of rail-less stone steps and figure out the latch on the door at the bottom. It’s tough love for tourists. Refreshing.
If you are in Mexico City, even if you have absolutely no interest (you think) in church bells, please just take this tour. It’ll be the best 20 pesos you ever spent.