Sea change for Mexico City

Times Staff Writer

It’s spring break in Mexico, but the newest beach attraction here doesn’t have wet T-shirt contests or inflatable-banana rides. Oh, and there’s no sea either.

None of that, though, has deterred thousands of Mexico City residents from seeking a taste of vernal release in the middle of this vast concrete jungle, about 170 miles from the nearest coast.

As throngs of well-off Mexicans raced off this month to join U.S. college students at resort hot spots such as Acapulco and Cancun, the Mexico City government has offered a consolation prize for residents too poor to get away: fake beaches.


Officials have created 10 artificial beach areas across the landlocked city by hauling in truckloads of sand and planting palm trees, beach chairs and umbrellas around public swimming pools.

In a few cases, they have built pools or installed giant inflatable ones.

The attractions, costing an estimated $600,000, opened in time for the two-week Mexican school vacation ending March 30. After that, the beaches operate weekends until summer, when they fully reopen.

In a city where rich and poor live in vastly separate worlds, the beach sites were picked for their closeness to public transportation and densely settled working-class neighborhoods. In those places, many residents get by on less than $5 a day and, unlike wealthier capitalinos, have never traveled to the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.

Critics have labeled the beaches, which are free, a costly gimmick, but officials say the project is already a success, with more than 70,000 visitors during the first five days despite cool temperatures and often cloudy skies. Lifeguards enforce limits on time in the pools to give everyone a chance to frolic.

“It’s summertime in the middle of the Federal District,” said Sabino Deloya Cortes, who runs a public park on the edge of the city that is home to the largest of the artificial beaches. “It’s for families who can’t go to Acapulco, who can’t go to Cancun.”

Built on a former trash dump next to Mexico City’s airport, the park, with its inflatable pool, sits amid a graffiti-spattered district of bare block houses, salvage yards and car repair shops.

Across the street begins sprawling Nezahualcoyotl, a neighboring municipality whose residents can also use the beach though they live outside the capital.

Veronica Chavez, a 29-year-old homemaker, was among 3,400 people who visited this beach the other day, along with her husband, who drives a taxi, and their two sons.

The boys, 7 and 8, dug in the imported sand with plastic cups. The couple relaxed on plastic chairs along a patch of palm-studded beach roughly the size of what a small seaside hotel might offer.

The gleeful screech of children playing in the pools regularly gave way to the roar of airplanes overhead. A dry wind -- no sea breeze -- carried dust and noise from a nearby road project.

Yet for Chavez, it was the closest she had come to a beach. “I’ve never been,” she said. “I’d like to, but right now we can’t.”

Her husband, 30-year-old Israel Prado, said he went to Acapulco once as a teenager. But that was the last time.

“With my pay, I could never take them to Acapulco,” he said. “There are a lot of people who can’t take their families anywhere. With this, we have a place to bring our children and let them have fun.”

At the center of the recreation area was a 100-foot-wide inflatable pool and water slide, surrounded by smaller kiddie pools, a playground and a karaoke tent, where a group of teenage girls belted out a Spanish version of “Time Warp.” Children buried one another in fine, khaki-toned sand that had been dumped and smoothed into four separate “beaches.”

The artificial beaches, in their second year, have drawn ridicule from critics of the leftist mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, and concern from some tourism officials that the city may be missing a chance to draw visitors to more established attractions.

One business leader questioned whether overcrowded pools were healthy, characterizing them as “big bathtubs.”

Ebrard’s aides dismiss the criticism as politically motivated grousing, just as they brushed aside complaints when the city created a huge free ice-skating rink this winter on its main plaza, known as the Zocalo.

“The city is changing, and they don’t like that,” Yessica Miranda, a mayoral aide, said of the critics, pointing in particular to those from the center-right National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon.

Miranda said the beach project, which expanded from seven sites last year, has helped address some of the capital’s more serious problems, such as crime, by keeping families close. “What we’re looking for with these approaches is to regain family togetherness,” she said.

The ersatz beaches feel a lot like any municipal swimming pool, and the weather in Mexico City during March is no sun-bather’s dream. On a recent day, as Acapulco basked in 79-degree sunshine, Mexico City was mostly cloudy and 10 degrees cooler.

But it felt warmer than that at the improvised beach near the airport, where 100 youths in bathing suits and baggy shorts snaked around one of the pools for the chance to splash around for up to the 25-minute limit.

In the chest-deep water, 14-year-old Carlos Figueroa said his family couldn’t afford an out-of-town trip because his father, an airport worker, had bought a new television. But this was fun too, he said.

Not far away, Joel Vilchis Gonzalez shepherded nieces and nephews at the edge of the sand. Vilchis, 21, said he had been to Acapulco twice.

The artificial beach was fine for the children, he said, but a grown man like himself could appreciate the racier offerings of a place such as Acapulco: the discos, the girls.

“It’s the only real difference,” Vilchis said, offering a devilish grin. “But it’s a big difference.”