Mexico City’s Zocalo: the centre of the Aztec world

by Catherine Ball

Take a chance on Mexico City - it is one of the liveliest, friendliest cities in the world. The Zocalo provides the perfect introduction to the history and culture of this amazing metropolis

The story goes that the Aztec leaders were told in a vision from the gods to settle where they saw an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its mouth. That place was the Zocalo, which today is the main plaza in Mexico City, and the second largest central square of any city in the world. The square itself is completely bare except for a gigantic Mexican flag in its centre. The attractions surrounding the Zocalo are a brilliant starting point for a tour of Mexico City. The atmosphere in the Zocalo encapsulates the city’s energy. Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses perform to a hypnotic drumbeat, VW Beatle taxis zoom around and, more often than not, protesters will be camped in one corner of the main square.

The National Palace

Start your tour by visiting the Palacio Nacional, the seat of Mexican Government. You will need some ID, such as a passport and driving licence, in order to enter. Inside the Palace is a huge mural by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, which depicts events in Mexico from Aztec times to the revolution. Tourists can test their knowledge of Mexican history by picking out key figures such as Cortes and his lover La Malinche and the god Quetzalcoatl.

Some Aztec history

Once you have familiarised yourself with Mexican history, head north, to the Templo Mayor. The ‘Temple’ is actually a partially excavated Aztec Pyramid, which was only rediscovered relatively recently, in 1978. The temple is home to many Aztec carvings and the gruesome ‘Wall of Skulls’, containing the heads of the victims of human sacrifice. The museum next to the Temple provides a great introduction to ancient Aztec culture and houses all the artefacts that have been discovered in the temple since the excavation began.

The Metropolitan Cathedral

Mexico is a devoutly Catholic country and the Metropolitan Cathedral sits on the north side of the Zocalo, next to the Templo Mayor. The Cathedral is elaborately decorated with golden alters and a famous statue of a black Christ on a crucifix. Mexico City suffers from a serious subsidence, due to the depletion of the city’s aquifers over many centuries. As a result, there are several large cracks in the floor in and around the Cathedral and the entire structure leans to one side.

15 September - Mexican Independence Day

If you are lucky enough to be in Mexico on Independence Day, 15 September, I would definitely recommend a trip to the Zocalo for the cry of independence or ‘Grito’. From the balcony of the Palacio Nacional, the President of Mexico re-enacts a speech given by Miguel Hidalgo, during the fight for independence from Spanish rule. Be warned that this is not a tourist event, and few foreigners attend, therefore precautions are required. On the 15th, the streets surrounding the Zocalo will be extremely crowded, so leave all valuables at your hotel and take only the cash you need, as you are likely to be swept away in the crowd and it will be difficult to keep an eye on your belongings. People spray foam and silly string and as a Gringo you will be a prime target. Amongst the tacky merchandise that is sold for the Grito (fake moustaches, massive sombreros and anything red, white and green) there are visors which are intended for children. Buy one, as this will protect your eyes if you do get sprayed with foam. Although this may sound like a nightmare, I guarantee it will be worth it. During the Grito, the atmosphere in the Zocalo is electric. Being among thousands of people as the cry of ‘Viva Mexico’ echoes around the giant square is an experience you will never forget. Fireworks and mariachi music continue well into the night.

Where to stay

Hotel Isabel
Address: Isabel La Catolica #63, Col. Centro, Mexico City

Hotel Isabel is a favourite with budget travellers, located only a few blocks away from the Zocalo. Standard rooms start at $35 for a double. The hotel has its own restaurant and half and full board options are available. I have stayed here several times and have been pleased with the service. The rooms are basic and clean but be warned that, as the hotel is in an old building, the size and condition of the rooms varies and some are larger and brighter than others. If you have any special requirements, for example, if you want a room away from the street, the staff will be happy to oblige.

I opted to stay room only, but had breakfast in the hotel restaurant on a couple of occasions. The food was really tasty and the portions were generous. Travellers with a sweet tooth should go for hot cakes - thick, American-style pancakes, with lashings of butter and maple syrup. For those wishing to avoid a sugar rush, a good savoury option is huevos revueltos - scrambled eggs accompanied by salsa and a mountain of tortillas. Breakfasts are served as ‘packages’ and include coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. The hotel has a contract with a local taxi firm and staff can arrange taxi excursions for you. This is a really good option if your Spanish is not great or if you do not feel confident negotiating public transport. A hotel taxi driver picked up a group of my friends from the hotel, transported them and waited for them whilst they explored the Teotihuacan Pyramids, which are located just outside of Mexico City. The door-to-door service cost them about £15 each for a group of four people.

Mexico City Hostel
Address: Republica de Brasil #8, Col. Centro, Mexico City

It would be hard to find more centrally located accommodation than the Mexico City Hostel. Right next to the Zocalo, it is another good budget option. I am usually not a big fan of hostels, but was pleasantly surprised by this one. Brightly painted walls and tiled corridors give the hostel a fresh, airy feel. Dorm rooms are clean and spacious, with lockers provided for luggage storage. The rooftop bar offers views of the Zocalo and is a great place to meet fellow travellers and chat over a cold Corona beer or two. The hotel staff are extremely friendly and between them speak several languages. They can arrange city tours and taxis and will try their best to answer any questions about your stay in Mexico. A cold breakfast of granola, yogurt and fruit is available, but if you want a more hearty meal to start your day, I would suggest you go elsewhere. Private rooms, single sex dorms and mixed dorms are available. Dorms are $10 and private double rooms start at $27.

The Best Western Majestic

Address: Av. Madero #73. Col. Centro MX Mexico City

If you have a bit more cash to spare, then I would suggest the Best Western Majestic. This is a seven storey building which overlooks the Zocalo, facing the Palacio Nacional. The hotel is decorated in the traditional Mexican style; carved wooden furniture, patterned tiles and lots of plants and flowers. However, the main reason to stay here is to take advantage of the roof-terrace restaurant. The view of the Zocalo from the restaurant is spectacular. Rooms start at $75 for a double, although prices increase during holiday periods.