Coyoacán: Mexico City Down Under
For information about museums, restaurants and cafés mentioned here, and more travel information, see the Coyoacán Travel Guide.
Even though I live just a few hours north of Mexico City, in Guanajuato state, I’ve put off writing about the country’s massive capital city. It seemed just too big to contemplate, too complex to write about authoritatively. Finally a companion and I decided to visit a friend in Coyoacán, one of the capital’s many municipalities. Nydia grew up there, and with her to guide us, Kathie and I concentrated on the restaurants and museums in this less congested, town-like part of Mexico City. An easy entry to the capital!
Staying at Nydia’s house was a huge bonus; there are no hotels that we know of in the historic part of Coyoacán. She did tell us about Hotel Real del Sur (see Coyoacán Travel Guide), which we didn’t visit but gets reasonably good reviews on Trip Advisor. But we lucked out with our “home stay” and amiable hostess.
Our first day in Coyoacán we visited Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli Museum, which displays thousands of both original and replica pre-Hispanic pieces in an unusual building of dark volcanic stone. The formidable-looking museum was designed by Rivera’s friend and fellow muralist, the architect Juan O’Gorman. My two friends showed their INSEM cards and got in free; while I paid a mere 20 pesos entrance fee. During the hour-long guided visit, which is required, we learned some details about Rivera and his contemporaries, and about the cultures represented. But the pieces are arranged artistically and not historically or geographically. It was a relief in a way to just admire them for their aesthetics. (If you want to learn about Mexico’s cultures and see magnificent works of pre-Hispanic art, don’t miss the Museum of Archaeology in Chapultepec Park and the Museo del Templo Mayor, both in downtown Mexico City.)
Coyoacán has many other fine museums. A must-see for most visitors is Frida Kahlo’s cornflower blue childhood home, which has many personal items belonging to the iconoclastic Mexican painter, including the bed where she spent months convalescing from gruesome spinal operations, her dresses, and her illustrated diaries. And the two houses (attached by a second-story bridge) and studios used by Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, can be also visited: Museo Casa Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo.
Although we didn’t have time to see it on this trip, the Museo-Casa de Leon Trotsky is of interest to students of history. Befriended by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and other left-leaning Mexico City intellectuals, the communist revolutionary lived out his final days of exile in this fortress-like house not far from the Rivera’s. You can see the papers he was revising when he was murdered at his desk by an ice-pick to the brain.
Interspersed with our museum stops, we walked around the large, leafy public squares and relatively tranquil streets that make Coyoacán such a pleasure to visit. I had an ice cream from a Helados Siberia, facing Jardín Centenario, where a fountain of howling coyotes depict the town’s legendary namesake---Coyoacán means “Place of Coyotes.” At El Mundo del Café, a tiny java shop with roasted beans for sale, I envied the creamy big cappuccinos my friends had ordered; my espresso was authentic, but too joltingly strong and thick.
I continued to make poor choices when we decided to eat at the town market. Passing the usual stalls piled with fruits and vegetables or crowded with flowering houseplants and cut flowers, we made a beeline for Nydia’s favorite taco stand. Although I don’t usually care for duck, I decided to try something unusual: but I got more than I bargained for. The “pato” (duck) tostada that I thought I ordered turned out to be “pata”: an almost clear, gelatinous mess of cartilage from between some unfortunate animal’s toes. The tacos that my friends ordered, checking off their choices on long paper menus, looked divine.
The next day we visited el Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, which has changing exhibits on various themes. The day of our visit it was “ Estampas de Mexico.” On bar trays, shawls, furniture, and other utilitarian objects, or enlarged and hung on the wall, these familiar and idyllic images personify traditional Mexican culture of the early- and mid-20th century.
Kathie needed to buy bathroom fixtures and Nydia was happy to oblige by taking her to a nearby home appliances marketplace. That gave me an hour or so to more thoroughly explore Jardín Centenario and the adjacent Jardín Hidalgo, faced by a beautiful church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It is one of the oldest Catholic temples in Mexico. I then checked out the iconic Cantina La Guadalupana, also facing the square, a friendly neighborhood bar of mirrors and polished wood.
A few blocks away, I admired the brick-red building facing yet another verdant plaza, where Hernán Cortés installed his mistress/interpreter and mother to his son Martín, in appreciation for her services rendered (to both him and the Spanish Crown). La Malinche, or Malintzín (her given name) was an invaluable, trilingual asset to the Spaniards during their exploration and conquest of the New World. She was presented to Cortés along with other indigenous women as a slave, and later became his trusted interpreter and advisor.
Returning to Plaza Centenario to meet up with Kathie and Nydia, I made a quick pit stop at the two-story Bazar Artesano Mexicano, where embroidered clothing, pottery, and brik-a-brak are available at a multitude of stalls at fair prices.
We went home to rest up, and returned later that evening to Coyoacán’s historical center, where tiny lights made the restaurants facing the twin plazas attractive and romantic. Choosing one at random, we enjoyed a meal of pasta and vino while a trio provided bolero tunes. It was the perfect ending to a relaxing trip. Coyoacán proved an entertaining and historical re-introduction to the wonders of Mexico City. Just stay away from the tostadas de pata.