Coyoacán (US: /ˌkɔɪoʊəˈkɑːn/KOY-oh-ə-KAHN, Spanish: [koʝoaˈkan] (listen)) is a municipality (alcaldía) of Mexico City and the former village that is now the borough’s “historic center”. The name comes from Nahuatl and most likely means “place of coyotes”, when the Aztecs named a pre-Hispanic village on the southern shore of Lake Texcoco that was dominated by the Tepanec people. Against Aztec domination, these people welcomed Hernán Cortés and the Spanish, who used the area as a headquarters during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and made it the first capital of New Spain between 1521 and 1523. The village, later municipality, of Coyoacán remained completely independent of Mexico City through the colonial period into the 19th century. In 1857, the area was incorporated into the Federal District when this district was expanded. In 1928, the borough was created when the Federal District was divided into sixteen boroughs. The urban sprawl of Mexico City reached the borough in the mid-20th century, turning farms, former lakes, and forests into developed areas, but many of the former villages have kept their original layouts, plazas, and narrow streets and have conserved structures built from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. This has made the borough of Coyoacán, especially its historic center, a popular place to visit on weekends.
To distinguish it from the rest of Coyoacán borough, the former independent community is referred to as Villa Coyoacán or the historic center of the borough. Consisting now of 29 blocks, it is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Mexico City, located 10 km south of the Zocalo (main square) of Mexico City. This area is filled with narrow cobblestone streets and small plazas, which were laid out during the colonial period, and today give the area a distinct and bohemian identity. The area is filled with mostly single family homes, which were former mansions and country homes built between the colonial period to the mid 20th century. The Project for Public Spaces ranked the neighborhood as one of the best urban spaces to live in North America in 2005 and is the only Mexican neighborhood on the list. This area was designated as a “Barrio Mágico” by the city in 2011.
The center of Coyoacán is relatively peaceful during the week, but it becomes crowded and festive on weekends and holidays. After the Zocalo, the most-visited place in Mexico City is this historic center, especially the twin plazas in its center. According to the borough, the area receives about 70,000 people each weekend. The area is a stop for both the Turibus and Tranvia Turistico tour bus routes, on their routes through San Ángel, Ciudad Universitaria and other locations in the south of Mexico City. People come to enjoy the still somewhat rural atmosphere of the area as well as the large number of restaurants, cafes, cantinas, museums, bookstores and other cultural attractions. Some of these businesses have been around for almost a century. In the two main plazas and even in smaller ones such as the one in the neighboring Santa Catarina neighborhood. Mimes, clowns, musicians, folk and indigenous dancers, storytellers and other street performers can be found entertaining crowds. Vendors sell street food such as ice cream, homemade fruit drinks, esquites (flavored corn kernels) and corn-on-the-cob served with mayonnaise, lime, chili pepper and grated cheese, amaranth bars, and various candies. In the evening, food vendors tend to sell more hot items such as quesadillas, sopes, tortas, tostadas, pozoles and more. One known food vendor goes by the name of Rogelio. He is known for making pancakes (called hotcakes) in the shape of animals and humans. These are usually eaten as a snack with jam, cream and other toppings.
The tourism has been a mixed blessing for the historic center as commercial establishments open, helping the economy, but also push residents out. In the historic center, there are over 860 retail businesses, mostly restaurants, about 200 of which were established in the last five years. Residents attribute the growth to Mexico City’s promotion of the area tourism in general as well as the opening of commercial centers in the borough. While the growing business helps the economy, resident groups fear that the area will lose its current character, as many businesses are opening in formerly residential buildings, with questionable legal basis. Currently, most of the borough, especially in historic center, is residential with older adults. Property prices are high, leading to sales not to new families but rather to larger commercial interests, squeezing out smaller businesses along with residents. Neighborhood groups have formed to confront the changes and preserve the historic value of the area. Another serious problem for the area is the traffic jams and serious lack of parking in the historic center. The quantity of cars and the lack of traffic patrols have meant the proliferation of “franeleros” or people who illegally take possession of public areas such as streets to charge for parking.
The historic area is centered on two large plazas filled with Indian laurel trees called the Jardin del Centenario and the Jardín Hidalgo. These plazas cover an area of 24,000 m2, which were renovated, along with the areas around them in 2008. The green areas were rehabilitated, and areas were paved with red and black volcanic stone. Renovation of the two plazas and the streets around them cost 88.3 million pesos. For over twenty five years, these plazas, especially Plaza Hidalgo, and the streets around them were filled with vendors (wandering and with stalls). When renovation efforts began, 150 vendors were removed from the plazas proper with about 500 total including the surrounding streets. While the practice was illegal, it had been tolerated by authorities, even though it caused damage to the plazas and caused traffic problems. One of the main goals of the renovation work in 2008 was to remove these vendors and move them to a new crafts bazaar built nearby. Initially, opposition to the removal of the vendors came not only from the vendors themselves, but also from some neighborhood groups and local businesses who feared their removal would hurt tourism. When renovation work finished in 2009, police were assigned to the plazas to keep vendors from returning, leading to confrontations, both physically in the plazas and legally in the courts. The borough began to issue some permits for vendors, but there was opposition. Eventually, a group representing the vendors obtained a court order to allow forty vendors to return to the plazas, citing the history of tolerating such activity in the past. This order is still opposed by some neighborhood groups, but as of 2010, there are still a limited number of these vendors selling in the plazas.
Plaza Hidalgo, also called Jardín (garden) Hidalgo is the main plaza or square of the borough. It is bordered by Calle Carillo Puerto on the east, Calle Caballocalco on the west, Calle B. Dominguez and the Casa Municipal on the north and the Plaza del Centenario and the Parish is San Juan Bautista on the south. In the center of the plaza, there is an early 20th-century kiosk with a stained glass cupola topped by a bronze eagle. This kiosk was donated to the then village by Porfirio Díaz for the then-upcoming Centennial of Mexico’s Independence in 1910. The eagle design is one adopted by Mexico after the French Intervention. As the plaza is named after Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a statue of the priest, created by Luis Arias can also be found on the plaza. Behind it is a sculpture carved from a tree trunk called “La Familia de Antonio Alvarez Portual y Josué.
The Plaza del Centenario (also called the Jardín del Centenario) is slightly smaller and located just west of the Plaza Hidalgo, separated by Calle Carrillo Puerto. This plaza originally was part of the very large atrium that belonged to Parish of San Juan Bautista during the colonial period. The main entrance to this atrium still exist on the west side of this plaza and are called the Arcadas Atrial or the Arcos del Jardín del Centenario. This entrance was built in the 16th century of stone with decorative motifs that show both European and indigenous influence. The current name for this area comes from the Centennial of Mexico’s Independence. In the center of the plaza, there is a fountain which contains a bronze sculpture of two coyotes, which refer to the borough’s name. The south side of the plaza is lined with cafes and restaurants, including the well-known Café El Parnaso, and the north side features a very large crafts market.
The Casa Municipal, also referred to La Casa de Cortés, is a building located on the north side of the Plaza Hidalgo. It has served as an administrative/governmental building since it was constructed in the 18th century. The erroneous name of Casa de Cortés (House of Cortés, referring to Hernán Cortés), comes from Coyoacán’s association with the conquistador. Cortés did live in Coyoacán in 1521 and 1522, while the destroyed Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was being rebuilt into Mexico City, and the area was the capital of the colony of New Spain. However, Cortés never lived at the site, despite a plaque on building that says that he did. Cortés residence in Coyoacán was on lands that belonged to the then leader of the indigenous of this area, Juan de Guzmán Iztolinque, in the area where the La Conchita Church and plaza are found now. What Cortés eventually built here where administrative buildings for the offices used to manage the vast lands he was granted as the Marquis del Valle de Oaxaca, which included the Coyoacán area. Local legend states that this was the location were Cuauhtémoc was tortured as the Spanish tried to learn of the whereabouts of more treasure.
The current structure was built in the mid 18th century, by Cortés’ descendants, who still carried the title of the Marquis of the Valle de Oaxaca to replace the old structure, which had deteriorated. In the 1850s, the building began to be used as the seat of the government of the municipality of Coyoacán, which then belonged to the State of Mexico, very separate from Mexico City. When the borough of Coyoacán was created in 1928, as part of the Federal District, the building remained the government seat but of the modern “delegación.” The structure was declared a Colonial Monument by INAH in 1932.
The structure is much the same as it was when it was constructed in the 18th century. The facade is simple and is fronted by a series of columns in sandstone and wood over which is a roof. The door and window jambs are typical of civil constructions of the 18th century with wrought iron work. The facade is topped by a wide cornice and inverted arches. At the very front is a sculpture of two coyotes in volcanic stone, the current logo of the borough. Above the entrance is the coat of arms granted to Coyoacán by Charles IV of Spain. On one side of the building is the Sala de Cabildos, or City Council Hall. It was painted by Aurora Reyes Flores with a mural depicting pre-Hispanic Coyoacán and includes depictions of the landscape of the area including the Xitle volcano, the Tepaneca god Xocotlhuetzin as well as the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl. Next to this hall is an attached chapel. The mural in the chapel was done by Diego Rosales in 1961, depicting the early history of Mexico with personages such as Cuauhtémoc, Cortés, La Malinche and Pedro de Alvarado.
One of the most important historic buildings in the borough is the Parish of San Juan Bautista. Built between 1520 and 1552, it is one of three oldest parish churches in Mexico City, along with the ones in Tlalpan and the small community of Amaqueman. Originally, this church and the cloister next to it were constructed as a monastery by the Dominicans, but the complex was transferred to the Franciscans. Over time, as the complex deteriorated and was reconstructed and restored various time, most was replaced so that now the only original parts from the 16th century are the choir area, the Rosario Chapel and the main altar. However, much of the same layout remains. The parish church has a large open chapel, but only a portion of the atrium it had in the 16th century. During much of the colonial period, the atrium functioned as a cemetery. Today, much of this atrium is now the Plaza del Centenario. The interior of the church has seven chapels, with the Rosario Chapel containing an ornate Baroque altarpiece from the end of the 17th century. The monastery portion is two floors surrounding a large inner courtyard. It conserves a large part of the original wood beams and decorative work in wood which was done by indigenous hands. The feast day for San Juan Bautista is 24 June. In the church a special altar is installed and mass is said all day. The most important mass occurs at midday with mariachi music, with a meal offered in the adjoining monastery building. The event is organized by 24 civil associations and the chaplains of the parish.
In 2005, the San Juan Bautista church underwent renovations to its tower, atrium, facade, portal for pilgrims, the north and south sides and the cupola and more under the supervision of INAH and academics from UNAM. Prior to this, there had been no restoration work to the building for about a century. The cupola was particularly damaged, with trees and other plants growing out of it. Much of the work was to make straight many of the walls and floors, which had cracked and warped. Studies were done on the building to determine what materials in what colors were used in order to use the same. It was declared a National Monument in 1934. The work was sponsored by government and private funds.
Other landmarks off the plazas include the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, and the Acuavida Coyoacán. The museum is located just off the Plaza del Centenario, and features mostly temporary exhibits related to popular or mass culture such as one related to lucha libre wrestling. The museum was created in 1982, to show the values and ways of live of the various modern cultural groups in Mexico. It has various halls, an auditorium and two courtyards in which are exhibitions, auditions, concerts, plays, recitals and craft workshops for children. The Acuavida Coyacán Aquarium is on the north side of the Plaza del Centenario. It offers exhibits of fishes, reptiles, live coral, aquatic plants and more, including the only freshwater manta ray in captivity in the Americas.
The rest of the historic center and nearby neighborhoods are filled with homes built from the colonia era to the middle of the 20th century, many of which have been catalogued for their historic value. Many of these homes can be found one two of the historic center’s oldest streets, the Calle de Higuera, which leads southeast away from the Parish of San Juan Miguel and to the La Concepción neighborhood and Calle Francisco Sosa, which leads away from the same area towards San Angel. Calle Francisco Sosa alone has 65 structures catalogued by INAH for their historic value. One of the most important of these structures is the Casa de Ordaz, located on Calle Francisco Sosa on the corner with the Plaza de Centenario.) It was long thought to have belonged to conquistador Diego de Ordaz, who died in 1532, but research has shown that it was built sometime in the 18th century. Remodeling work was authorized on the Casa de Ordaz in 2004 by the INAH, but complaint stated that the owner, Banamex, gutted the interior and exceeded the limits set for the work by INAH. However, the chronicler of the borough, Luis Everaert, stated that the only original part of the building was the facade, which was not changed. The house underwent modification in the 1930s. In the 1920s, it was a school for girls, the first in Coyoacán, In the 1930s, it was the Instituto Centroamericano, a middle school for boys. The Instituto Italiano de Cultura (Italian Cultural Institute) on Francisco Sosa Street is house in a structure built between the 17th and 18th centuries and remodeled in the 20th. This structure is an adobe and stone mansion with a flat red façade with Moorish style decorative features. It has an inner courtyard with a tile decorated fountain and a private altar. It houses the cultural offices of the Italian Embassy. The main house of the San Pedro Martír Hacienda is located off of Belisario Dominguez Street. The house is now divided into three independent parts, but they retain their original facades. In 1932, this house was where the Escuela de Pintura al Aire Libre (Open Air Painting School) was established, which was an important artistic movement.
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