Coyoacan – A town within a city

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Visitors to the historic centre of the bohemian Coyoacan neighbourhood could be forgiven for thinking that they have been transported to medieval Europe due to its narrow cobbled streets, picturesque plazas and colonial architecture.  Throw into the mix some fine craft markets, hip bars and excellent museums and you’ve found the perfect place to unwind, far from the maddening chaos of Mexico City, without actually leaving the city.  Let me explain…

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Coyoacan, from the Nahuatl for “place of the coyotes” refers to one of the 16 boroughs of Mexico City, as well as the former village which now forms the borough’s historic centre.   This once independent village was used by Hernan Cortes and the Spanish as a headquarters during the Spanish conquest and wasn’t incorporated into the Federal District until 1857.  Although the urban sprawl of Mexico City reached the borough in the mid-20th century, the area still retains plenty of its colonial charm making it a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.

If I could advise you on how to spend an ideal day in Coyoacan, this is what I would do.  To get there I would take metro line 3 as far as Viveros.  Facing the fence as you exit the Viveros metro station, walk right along Avenida Universidad then take your first left onto Avenida Progreso.  You’ll see the entrance to Viveros Coyoacan, a beautiful park, tree nursery and plant market with a trailed wooded area popular among runners, yogis, nature-lovers and gardeners.

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You can breathe in some fresh air as you cut through Viveros towards Mercado Coyoacan in the centre for some breakfast.

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On the day of my video post, I’d already had breakfast by the time I reached the market and hadn’t intended on eating there until I saw the trays piled high with fresh seafood at El Jardin del Pulpo right on the corner of the market.  Given that Ireland is an island, I’m always surprised at how little seafood we eat, yet here in Mexico City, miles from the ocean, it’s perfectly normal to see people chomping down on crispy tostadas topped with octopus, shrimp, squid etc.  Being a seafood lover and very weak-willed, I ended up having a second breakfast of a tostada generously topped with king crab and salad.  It was absolutely superb as well as ridiculously economical.

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The seafood here is brought in fresh from Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast and I am told the place is hugely popular at weekends.

Once I’d finished my impromptu second breakfast, I made my way to the stalls around the exterior of the market building to check out some of the clothes and accessories decorated with intricate traditional embroidery.

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I will happily confess that before coming to Mexico City, I was a slave to fashion and designer labels.  Since arriving I have abandoned the latest trends in favour of ethically produced materials and handmade items, lovingly created by someone who deserves a fair price for their obvious talent.  My friends back home don’t recognise me anymore but I have to admit, I have never been happier now that I have freed myself from the constraints of crazy consumerism.

Inside the market you’ll find the typical groceries available in any Mexico City neighbourhood market.  Although I wasn’t hungry, I couldn’t resist trying some of the candied fruits in deliciously sticky syrup.  Although not technically a fruit, the sweet potato was sublime.

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You’ll find typical fruit and veg stalls selling not so typical produce and most vendors are happy to let you try before you buy.  I tried chirimoya, zapote and mamey before reluctantly turning down further offers due to lack of tummy space.

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It was coming up to Día de Muertos when I visited, so the market was full of sugar skulls, and tiny edible offerings to be placed on altars in memory of loved ones.

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Leaving the market, I headed towards Plaza Hidalgo, Coyoacan’s main square where balloon sellers mingle among locals and tourists around the 20th century kiosk.

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I couldn’t believe it when I came across Juan Orozco Alvarez, Mexico’s only polyglot police officer.  As well as his native Spanish, this self-taught phenomenon speaks English, French, German, Korean and Japanese! You can check out my video post to see him in action, but in the meantime this photo will help you recognize him in case you need help or directions while in Coyoacan.

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From Plaza Hidalgo I walked to the adjacent Jardin del Centenario, another pretty plaza shaded by squirrel-ridden trees around the famous coyote fountain.  The view of the 16th century church is beautiful from either plaza and it is well worth entering to have a look at the ornate ceiling and the tiny side chapel to the left of the altar.

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It’s in these plazas that Coyoacan really feels like a village apart from Mexico City. The surrounding bars, restaurants, ice cream parlours and craft markets bring life to the square and the numerous benches provide locals and weary tourists with a place to rest for a while, where they can enjoy the sunshine, and soak up the atmosphere.

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After browsing for a couple of hours in the two craft markets that border the Jardin del Centenario, it was time to eat again, so I called at the Mercado de Antojitos Mexicanos for a deep fried quesadilla to keep me going until dinner time.  This tiny little market isn’t often mentioned in the guidebooks but it is located behind the church and has about a dozen stalls, each serving traditional Mexican street food.  It opens to 10pm on week nights and 2am on weekends so it’s a great place to grab a bite to eat after a few drinks.

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Of course no trip to Coyoacan is complete without a visit to Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, so I walked the few blocks towards the museum after lunch.  The Casa Azul is more than just an ordinary museum. You actually get to wander through the house Frida Kahlo grew up in and later lived in with Diego Rivera.

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I would love to live in a house like this and seeing her clothes, jewellery, paints and personal items was almost like meeting her in person. A real must-see for anyone visiting Coyoacan whether you are a fan of her art or not!

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From here I headed west along Calle Francisco Sosa, one of Coyoacan’s most beautiful streets, to another picturesque plaza, Plaza Santa Catarina with its mustard-coloured church and papel picado fluttering between the trees.  The church was built during the early colonial period and some of the original structure remains.  Inside you’ll find 400 year old murals!

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Just across the road is the Casa de Cultura Jesús Reyes Heroes, a cultural centre housed within a beautiful colonial building offering various workshops and performances.  Even though most of its activities are in Spanish, it’s still worth going in to have a wander around its 3 art galleries and its lush gardens where you’ll find an outdoor coffee shop among the plants.  Look out for the ghost of a previous owner that is said to haunt Callejón del Aguacate, the little street behind the house.

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If you haven’t eaten, you’ll see the pretty Merendero Las Lupitas facing you on the square as you leave the Cultural Centre.  Serving traditional Mexican fare in a tranquil setting, it’s a great place to have a spot of lunch or dinner.

From here I headed to Coyoacan institution, El Jarocho for one of their famous coffees.  To be honest, I’ve had better coffee in Mexico but it was still fun to make like a local and take my place in the long line of people spilling out onto the pavement and down the block.   Pretty impressive for a coffee place with no seats!

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Of course there was no better way to end my night than by sampling one of Coyoacan’s great nightlife options, Centenario 107 (named for its address).  This unique venue is divided into three sections: a beer bar, a wine bar and a champagne bar, each serving its own pairing menu.  I loved this concept and had a fun night sharing a pizza with friends while listening to great live music.  This place fills up at weekends but they have a handy beer vending machine in the entrance for those waiting for a table.

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I was able to pack a lot into one day in Coyoacan but tourists can still fit most of these sights into a tighter schedule by resisting the temptation to stop off and eat as often as I did.  The neighbourhood is the perfect choice for anyone tired of the chaos of downtown and it is easily doable in a few hours.  Be warned though, Mexico City residents adore Coyoacan and the area really fills up on weekends, so you might have longer waits for food etc.  It seems to be the part of Mexico City where most tourists find themselves whimsically claiming that they could “definitely live here” and it is well worth visiting to appreciate a whole other side to life in the metropolis.

Don’t forget to check out my tips section for visiting Coyoacan!