The Zocalo: Mexico City's Most Exciting Neighborhood
Since the time of the Aztecs, Mexico City’s Zocalo has served as the city’s political, cultural and religious hub.
It’s hot. Chaotic. Crowded. And a total blast to visit.
One of the largest public squares in the world, the Zocalo sits in the middle of the city’s Centro district and contains many of the area’s top sites, including the Catedral Metropolitana, the Templo Mayor and the Palacio Nacional, home to Diego Rivera’s famous “Epic of the Mexican People” mural.
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Unlikely Art: Chalk Frida
A long layover in an exciting city, like Mexico City, can actually become an unanticipated highlight of your trip. I had a long layover in Mexico City, but the flight got there early in the morning and I went ahead and had a cab drop me off at the Zócalo anyway. The Zócalo is Mexico City's main square and the heart of the nation. To my dismay, the Zócalo was empty and everything was closed. So, I walked around with my head down trying to stay warm and I suddenly found myself starring down at an amazing chalk portrait of Frida Kahlo, whose home-turned-museum I planned on seeing after breakfast and a quick stroll though the Templo Mayor. Mexico City has so much to see in such a small area that you can take a taxi to and from the airport and have an amazing time. Around the Zócalo, you can see Diego Rivera murals at the parliament building, go inside the large cathedral, take in the uncovered Aztec capital at the Templo Mayor, eat street tacos and much, much more.
The zócalo in Mexico City is an interesting place to visit year round, but I think the best time is around Christmas. When I say “around Christmas” I mean the holiday period between December 12th and January 6th, known as Maratón Guadalupe-Reyes in Mexican culture.
Due to the dense population and pollution in D.F. the sky is usually hazy and the air is thick. However, when the locals go on vacation it gives you a chance to breathe some fresh air in the city and a view of the famous volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl. It is amazing to stand on the same balcony on December 8th and again on December 24th and see a completely different view!
Go to the top floor of the Holiday Inn directly across from the National Cathedral and enjoy a reasonably priced coffee or the buffet while taking in the view.
On its own, the massive Mexican flag flying in the center of the Zócalo, Mexico City's main and most important plaza, is impressive. But the flag-raising and lowering ceremonies held each morning and evening are even more spectacular and memorable, full of opportunities to take fantastic photos.
Watch as military police form straight lines and march into the square, along with a full complement of bugle blowers, trumpeters, and drummers. They form a square around the plaza and a contingent unfolds or refolds the gigantic flag, depending on the time of day, before parading it out in the daily ceremonial display.
Forget Cinco de Mayo (which commemorates the Battle of Puebla, not Mexico's independence itself); Independence Day–September 16– is where it's at when it comes to important–and memorable–fiestas in Mexico.
Each September 15, thousands of people from all over the country gather in Mexico City's Zócalo to await the President, who steps out onto the balcony at midnight to give "El Grito" ("The Shout"): "Viva México! Viva México! Viva México!" Revelers, many of them wearing fake mustaches or other costumes that evoke revolutionary heroes, shout "Viva!" and cheer for their country. The energy is contagious and the experience thrilling.
What began as a onetime community building proposition in the midst of an economic crisis has become an annual tradition: each winter, the government of Mexico City turns the Zócalo into a winter wonderland. There's ice skating and sledding, snow tubing and snowman building.
Join in on the fun–all of the activities are free of charge–or just enjoy people-watching. More than 10 million locals a day visited for the winter wonderland in 2013. Witnessing kids (and adults) seeing snow for the first time is a kind of wonder all its own.
While some locals laugh and roll their eyes about the commodification of the ritual, especially when it's performed as a spectacle in a place as public as the Zócalo, what can't be denied is how interesting an activity it is to stop and watch "limpias de auras," or "aura cleansings" in the Zócalo.
Shamans and medicine men–some authentic, some scam artists–can often be found in the Zócalo with an assortment of simple tools to assist in these spiritual rituals, which, they say, hark back to early indigenous cultures. Conch shells, small pots with incense (typically made from Mexican copal), and feathers are among the accoutrements that will be used to clean the paying seeker's aura.
Occasionally, you'll see larger groups of shamans and devotees gathered to pray, make music, and dance as a collective, as they do so, calling for the healing of the world. Whether you believe in their particular brand of spirituality or not, there's something impressive about the display.
Sometimes, the most moving expressions of faith aren't those that occur in a formal setting, such as the gilded Metropolitan Cathedral or the cavernous Basilica de Guadalupe. Rather, stumbling upon the spots where people offer expressions of their faith as part of their daily path or ritual are most memorable.
All around Mexico City, you'll find that the presence of Jesus, the Virgin, and a host of saints is pervasive. At nearly every taxi stand, you'll find a free-standing shrine (often in a Plexiglass box mounted on a pole) with the Virgin's image or her statue inside. She may be draped with rosaries and fresh or silk flowers may be left by drivers in her honor or to ask for her protection.
Elsewhere, such as the streets around the Zócalo or in a niche carved into the side of a house in Coyoacan, you'll find statues and small shrines where believers leave flowers, notes, and other offerings, and where they may stop in the midst of their busy day to stand or kneel before the statue to pray. Finding these spots spontaneously and experiencing these moments is a special way to witness expressions of faith.
So many historical episodes have occurred in and around Mexico City's Zócalo, but as far as recent history is concerned, none has been more memorable than the 2010 bicentennial celebration of Mexican independence.
Thousands of citizens from around the country and visitors from around the world converged on the capital for the festivities, which, while eagerly anticipated, were also profoundly anxiety-provoking. In the midst of a global fiscal crisis, the commemoration was costing far more than projected estimates, and at the height of former president Felipe Calderón's drug war, the 2010 bicentennial could have been the perfect target for a display of narcoterror.
Yet the criticisms and fears didn't stop people from coming to the Zócalo en masse for the independence celebration, which was epic and emotional, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief when the festivities went off without incident.
Its massive size, centrality to daily life in the capital, and easy accessibility (a Metro station opens up right onto the plaza) makes the Zócalo an ideal place for large-scale temporary exhibits.
The government hosts occasional exhibits and makes entry free for residents and visitors alike. Past exhibits have included Gregory Colbert's "Ashes and Snow," a show of large-format photos of animals and people, and Willy Souza's "Mexico en tus sentidos" ("Mexico in your senses"), lush, vivid photos of people and places around Mexico.
To see if a show is planned during the time you'll be visiting, check the website of the Secretary of Tourism.
We had the good fortune to be in Mexico City as preparations were being made for Independence Day on September 16. Mexican Independence Day is a major celebration, bigger than Cinco de Mayo. Around the Zocalo (the huge central plaza of the old city), vendors sell flags, flowers, and toys in red, white, and green—the colors of the Mexican flag. The Zocalo pulses at night with large crowds walking and taking selfies against the backdrop of gigantic banners of lights saluting independence and portraying Mexico’s national symbols and patriots, such as Hidalgo and Morelos. Restaurants in the area serve the famous chiles en nogada, large, stuffed green chiles bathed in a white sauce and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds, a symbol of the nation as well as a seasonal dish.