December is one of my favorite months for being in Mexico City. Although the nights and early mornings can be quite chilly, the sun shines gloriously most days, and the Christmas decorations and noche buenas (poinsettias) are displayed in abundance. Additionally, it seems that each Chilango you meet (and there are many – roughly 21 million) has a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face as he sips an atole (a warm corn beverage, vaguely similar to hot chocolate) or ponche (fruit punch, flavored with whole chunks of fruit) in between rounds of holiday shopping at any of the city’s mercados or galerias.
As regards public gathering spaces in Mexico City, the city’s Plaza de la Constitución – or Zócalo – is ground zero. This is the unofficial geographic center of the city, and the third-largest square in the world, after Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Red Square in Moscow. Mexico City’s Zócalo is home to the location of the country’s presidential palace, its largest cathedral, one of its most important Aztec sites, and the capital’s city hall.
The Metropolitan Cathedral faces north and is the largest church in Latin America. The main chapel is big enough to seat several hundred parishioners, although the mammoth columns – tree trunks, really – can obscure the view of the stunning, gold-lined altar.
The Altar of the Kings is dedicated to Jesucristo himself, and is comparable to any dozen Gothic church altars from elsewhere in the world. The Metropolitan Cathedral, which is slowly sinking into the swampy earth, is showing its age, but the altarpiece still impresses.
Once a day, guided tours lead intrepid visitors to the cathedral’s bell tower and rooftop. The brickwork and roof comb block views to the Zócalo itself from all but one corner, but I was more impressed by the architecture than anything else.
The above close-up shows some of the cathedral’s intimate details. Behind the wall in the background is the cathedral treasury, which requires paid entry (as does the guided tour to the bell tower).
El Palacio Nacional (the National Palace) is an enormous building along the east side of the Zócalo that occupies an entire city block and is a fine example of colonial Spanish architecture.
Each Independence Day eve (September 15th), the President of Mexico steps out onto this balcony and declares “¡Viva México!” This cry, the Grito de Dolores, attracts crowds numbering in the millions, and ends with a fireworks display like no other. The image above, in which passing cars blur into a mirage of green, white and red – the colors of the Mexican flag – was a happy accident.
Entry to the national palace is free, but foreign visitors may be asked to show their passports. The interior includes museum galleries, a desert garden, and a series of politically-charged Diego Rivera murals, such as the one that Mexican soldiers are admiring in the picture above.
The northeast corner of the Zócalo is home to the excavated ruins of Templo Mayor, an important pre-Colombian site. Templo Mayor was a major temple in the Aztec settlement of Tenochtitlan, which was built beneath what today is Mexico City’s Centro Histórico. Aesthetically, these particular ruins – a fraction of the original city – aren’t much to look at, but they are more anthropologically important than perhaps any other ancient ruins on the continent.
The Zócalo is the starting or ending point for any number of protests. These particular demonstrators are disgruntled members of an electricians’ union who found themselves unemployed after the Mexican government bought their factory. The white mobile trailers in the background double as water stations for the marchers.
It should come as little surprise that the Zócalo even includes a McDonald’s, on the west side of the square, in the same building from which the previous picture was taken. Incidentally, a 15-peso Mexican shoe shine is a fun cultural experience and a cheap way to help a local – even if her shoe shine station happens to be sponsored by Mickey D’s.
The nightly flag-lowering service – each evening at 6:00 p.m. – is an impressive display. This surely is one of the biggest flags in the world.
See what I mean? The flagpole’s midday shadow provides a respite from the heat.
It is mid-December as I write this, and the Zócalo should be nicely decorated for the holidays by now.
The Zócalo has taken on many forms over the years. During the first half of the 20th century, the square was a sort of park, with a stone plinth in the middle and a maze of greenery. It later fell into disrepair, and when I visited in the first decade of this century, it was a flat, open square with untarnished views of the surrounding buildings. Today, it plays frequent host to book fairs and expos. The mass of tents that sometimes occupy the Zócalo are an eyesore, with the exception of the lavish Christmas festival that appears from late November through January 6th. Picture an ice-skating rink, a toboggan run, and a food market (as seen in the photo above).
I began this year’s monthly Photo Locale of the Month feature with an entry about Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle, and I felt it only appropriate to conclude it with a post about another historic place in Mexico City. To me, Mexico City, with its Centro Histórico (with apologies to Dos Equis spokesman Jonathan Goldsmith), is The Most Interesting Place in the World.
All pictures were taken with a Nikon DSLR camera. All images are the property of GringoPotpourri unless credited otherwise, and should be used with permission only.