Place of coyotes. That’s the likely translation of Coyoacán, an apt image for a colonial era village that began life as a distinct and remote village not yet subsumed into the megalopolis of Mexico City. Cortés lived here from 1521 to 1522, waiting for the demolished Aztec city of Tenochtitlan to be rebuilt as colonial Mexico City. While here, the parish church of San Juan Bautista was built and, adjacent to the church, Plaza Hidalgo. This is the historic centre, Villa Coyoacán.
But the small village was destined to grow substantially and merge with the ever-growing Mexico City. In 1928, the Federal District (DF) divided the city into 16 administrative boroughs, one being Coyoacán, now much larger than its village roots. It incorporates a number of pre-existing pueblos, colonias, barrios. Each has its own distinct identity but, overall, the borough is known for its bohemian character. Wandering up and down the narrow, treed streets brings the walker in touch with Coyoacán’s eclecticism.
Walking north from Villa Coyoacán takes us to Colonia del Carmen. Dating to 1890, the colonia has been home to artists and intellectuals. Here you will find La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s childhood home and the home of exiled big-thinker Leon Trotsky. Meandering a bit further north—and just inside another borough, Benito Juárez—we find another cultural hotspot, the Cineteca Nacional de Mexico. This spectacular, modern temple to cinema is one of many such centres in a city clearly in love with film.
Walking back south, passing through Villa Coyoacán once more, takes us to Barrio de la Concepción. The colonial-era Plaza de la Conchita and La Conchita chapel are situated on a pre-Hispanic ceremonial area. Just around the corner we find the more modern Jardin Frida Kahlo, a quiet park with bronze statuary dedicated to Frida and husband Diego.
Continuing westward along treed streets, we pass a colourful mix of residential and commercial buildings. Massive tree trunks crowd our sidewalks. Their massive roots push unchecked through the pavement that heaves unpredictably. Caution is required, whether walking in Coyoacán or most other neighbourhoods in the city.
Set in a festive square strung with brightly coloured papel picado (perforated paper sheets with decorative patterns) is Capilla de Santa Catarina. In 1520, it was as an open-air chapel used by the indigenous population. Since then it has transformed dramatically, acquiring a 17th century nave and decorative façade. A tower was added later on, only to be lost in a 1985 earthquake.
Much further west and south, but still within the Coyoacán borough, is National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Aside from its very high worldwide ranking as a university, the campus is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Founded in 1910, the original university was, in 1943, relocated from downtown Mexico City to its current site, known as Ciudad Universitaria (University City). Gathered around a large grass plaza, are remarkable examples of early modern architecture by prominent Mexican architects.
Front and centre is the Biblioteca Central, designed by Juan O’Gorman, Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martinez de Velasco. But it is Juan O’Gorman’s multi-storey murals of naturally-coloured stones that command attention. Over the four façades of the library tower—a rectangular, windowless mass—he has illustrated in rich, detailed mosaics the history of Mexico from pre-colonial to modern times.