Underneath an old convent in the southern suburb of San Ángel awaits one of Mexico City’s most peculiar attractions. The former Carmelite convent, which dates back to the 17th century, is now known as the Museo de El Carmen. It hosts a large collection of Spanish Baroque paintings and ancient religious relics, while the building itself is an excellent example of Mexican colonial architecture. But most people come to see something else – a collection of twelve unidentified mummies. During my visit, I happened to be completely alone with them in the dimly lit crypt. And it was just as eerie as you might imagine.
Meeting the Mummies
The Museo de El Carmen, as we know it today, has only been open to the public since 2012. But the building it’s housed in was constructed all the way back in 1615. It was made by the Order of the Carmelites, one of the many Catholic orders, such as the Jesuits and Dominicans, to expand into New Spain. I arrived at the entrance, please to discover that entry was free on Sundays. Walking through the outer garden, the atmosphere was serene and peaceful. It would turn out to be a big contrast to what I was about to encounter.
Entering the building, I wandered around for a bit on the ground floor. I came across paintings by Baroque artist Cristóbal de Villalpando, known mainly for his pieces on display in the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and the Puebla Cathedral. Their dark mood set the tone for the rest of my visit. And it wasn’t long before I discovered the staircase which led down into the basement.
As I got partly down the staircase, I noticed a group of skulls neatly arranged on a nearby ledge (pictured above). And then the natural light gradually faded away as I got closer to the entrance of the crypt. I noticed a shadowy figure off in the distance, but it was only a statue. I approached slowly and cautiously. Looking around, I was pretty sure that I was the only visitor.
And then, as my eyes adjusted, there they were.
It was a morbid sight, and I couldn’t help but wince as I got closer to the glass caskets. Looking closer at their faces, they were surprisingly expressive. And judging by their expressions, the mummies didn’t seem all too pleased with their current predicament.
After at least a hundred years of peaceful slumber underground, they’re now trapped in these glass caskets, constantly exposed to the (relatively) bright lights of the museum. I was still alone, and didn’t want to be the one to blame should they suddenly wake up and start moving.
Supposedly, there are only 12 corpses in total. But I seemed to keep noticing new ones every time I turned around. Who were these mummies, though, and how did they end up this way?
While the convent functioned normally for its first couple hundred years, it was secularized by the Mexican government after a series of reform laws were passed in the 1850’s. Before long, the building was shut down and abandoned.
We don’t know exactly who the mummies were, but it was most likely a group of local parishioners who’d chosen to be buried underneath the convent. After its abrupt close, the bodies were left in place and eventually forgotten about – at least until 1916, during the thick of the Mexican revolution.
Soldiers fighting in the war encountered the empty convent and raided the crypt, hoping to find gold or other treasures. Instead, all they found were the mummies. The convent was left alone again until the 1920’s, when a group of local residents, aware of the rumors, decided to go and see the mummies for themselves. The rumors, of course, were true. The abandoned converts at least had the courtesy to provide glass caskets for their newly acquainted neighbors.
But why did these bodies mummify, rather than simply rot like normal? It likely had to do with the unique composition of the volcanic soil underneath the convent, which caused the corpses to quickly dehydrate rather than naturally decompose.
Time went on and I was still the only (living) person in the crypt. I began to feel like an intruder and the longer I stayed, the creepier the place felt. I walked back up to surface level and went on to explore the rest of the museum. Though I hadn’t been downstairs for very long, the natural sunlight beaming in through the windows made for a refreshing change of atmosphere.
Around the Building
While the mummies are the main attraction for most, the Museo de El Carmen has a lot more to offer, and you could easily spend an additional hour or two around the building. Fortunately, the rest of the museum is a lot less creepy.
One of its main highlights is the collection of paintings by famed Baroque artists like Miguel Cabrera, Luis Juárez and, as mentioned above, Cristóbal de Villalpando. Aside from paintings, there are plenty of other statues and ancient relics spread across various rooms of the upper floors. Additionally, the Museo de El Carmen provides an in-depth history of the Carmelite order, albeit only in Spanish.
The order can be traced back to a group of Christian hermits living on the top of Mt. Carmel in the 12th and 13th centuries. Over the first few hundred years of their history, they established settlements in countries like England, France and Spain. And, as mentioned, they were one of many Catholic orders to introduce themselves to New Spain during Mexico’s colonial era.
The Carmelites place a special emphasis on contemplation, along with worship of the Virgin Mary, whom they also refer to as ‘Our Lady of Mount Carmel.’ Images of the ‘Virgen del Carmen’ are common throughout the museum, including in the old Domestic Chapel, along with the adjacent active church that you can peak into from the second floor.
Interestingly, the one here in San Angel wasn’t the only Carmelite convent in the region. Another was built in a place now known as Desierto de los Leones, on the far western outskirts of Mexico City. Oddly enough, while containing no mummies, that former convent is believed by locals to be inhabited by ghosts! I hoped to make a visit out there, but it, like many places at the time, was closed due to earthquake damage.
If you feel the need to take a break from artwork, relics and mummies, the peaceful garden out back offers the perfect opportunity for contemplation on what you just saw. The complex even features a small theater, and during my visit I was invited to attend a free concert by a local classical pianist. All in all, a trip to the Museo de El Carmen was as informative and culturally enriching as it was macabre. It’s definitely worth a visit for those looking for something unique to do in Mexico City – just not for the squeamish.
To get to the museum, simply take the number 3 metro line to Miguel Ángel de Quevedo station.
Mexico City’s public transportation system is very efficient, so generally speaking, you’ll be fine if you base yourself nearby a metro station. However, the city is so big that it can take awhile to get anywhere. The most strategic area to base yourself in to see the main historical places would be the Centro district.
Other neighborhoods that are popular with foreign visitors are the hip Roma and Condesa districts.
I stayed at a basic, no frills hotel called Hotel Costazul. I would recommend this place to people looking for an affordable private hotel room in a convenient location. Located in Centro, it’s a fairly easy walk to the Zocalo and right by a couple of subway stations.
The best way to get to Mexico City would be to fly. The main Benito Juarez International Airport services flights from all around the world.
Coming from within Mexico, many budget airlines service Toluca International Airport instead. Some cheaper flights from abroad also go to the nearby city of Puebla.