As I become familiar with Mexico City, I’ve come to believe that this city is best taken in small pieces. To try to understand the whole city, one can easily become overwhelmed and jaded by the urban sprawl and terrible conditions in some areas. I’d like to pay homage to one of the first places I visited in Mexico City — the zocalo of the delegation of Tlalpan — a small, hidden spot on the far south side of the city.
Tlalpan is one of Mexico City’s delegations, or major political subdivisions. A delegation is different from a colonia, or neighborhood, because it encompasses a much broader area and is, in many respects, considered a city within the city. Each delegation has dozens and dozens of colonias. According to my trusty map, there are 16 delegations within the political boundaries of Mexico City. Tlalpan is one of the southernmost delegations, and in fact, the southern edge is also one of the southern borders of the city. You have to to pass through Tlalpan if you are on your way to Cuernavaca.
Nestled between Insurgentes Sur and Viaducto Tlalpan in the southernmost reaches of the city is a little square, La Plaza Constitucion, that is considered the zocalo of the delegation of Tlalpan. To me, this little plaza embodies much of what I find endearing about Mexico — narrow stone streets lined with trees, colonial style housing with lots of wrought iron and color, street vendors next to small store fronts, etc. You can walk through the neighborhoods of Tlalpan, but to be honest, the sidewalks are narrow and most of the houses are walled — which limits what you’ll actually see. You can tell by the gates, however, that many of the houses are impressive. As a matter of fact, years ago when Tlalpan was distanced from the rest of the city, it used to serve as a retreat for the rich and influential. Now, some of the large houses have been transformed into space for offices and other non-residential use.
Even if you don’t walk through the streets of Tlalpan, the main attraction is, of course, the plaza. The plaza encompasses about one square block and is marked in the center with a raised gazebo.
Filled with tall trees, shrubs and flowers, it’s shady, cool and fresh even on the hottest and most polluted days. And scattered throughout the garden are tall busts of famous Mexican leaders. It’s a great place for strolling.
Bordering one side of the plaza is the delegation building — an impressive two-story building that houses administrative offices. It was from the second story balcony of this building that I witnessed the ringing of the bell and the crying out of “Viva México!” during the Independence Day celebration, September 16.
Seeing this little square filled with Tlalpan residents echoing the words was a moving experience. The front of the building is covered with a mural that pays tribute to major events in Tlalpan history. Below the mural are small plaques that describe the events being depicted. The descriptions are in Spanish, but even with my rudimentary skills, I was able to understand just about all of them. On the backside of the delegation building is the Tlalpan mercado. Although small compared to other mercados, it has all the the fresh food, sundries and prepared food that you find in other markets.
Bordering another side of the plaza is the church and ex-convent of San Augustin. First built in the 16th century, after changing hands a couple times, it eventually ended up as a Dominican nunnery. Unfortunately, a huge fire in 1898 destroyed much of the ornamentation typically found in Mexican churches. There are surviving pieces of art, and while it appears as though they may have been salvaged from a tragedy, you get a feel for how beautiful it was in all its splendor. Sitting in front of the church in a small park with tall trees, shrubs, flowers and birds, I appreciate this small green space and the freshness of the area.
Of the last two sides of the plaza, one is a private residence and cluster of stores, and the other is a row of restaurants with outdoor seating overlooking the plaza. One of my favorites is Café de la Selva. They specialize in organic coffee cultivated in Chiapas and their Tamal de la Selva is not to be missed. The coffee is great. I bought some to take home and it beats any pre-ground I could find in the grocery store.
Another place, the Hacienda Tlalpan near the Plaza de Constitucion, I’ve heard has very good food and is very beautiful, like the famous St. Angel Inn. The Hacienda Tlalpan is a restaurant housed in a historical site. The grounds are painstakingly maintained. The Sunday brunches have a good reputation. I’d classify it as an expensive restaurant. It’s located less than 5 blocks from the plaza (take Miguel Hidalgo east along the outside edge of the convent for two or three blocks and turn left for another block or two), near the corner of Calzada de Tlalpan and San Fernando.
The only thing I don’t like about Tlalpan is the graffiti. Given its geographic location in the city, I find it hard to believe that Tlalpan is a place where the general population circulates. I’ve hypothesized that most of the people there live in or nearby the area. This makes the graffiti even more difficult for me to digest — it pains me to think that people would destroy their own beautiful neighborhood.
All said, the zocalo of Tlalpan isn’t a place that you would turn into a day trip — you surely won’t find it touted in any guide books. But it’s a charming stop on your way to Cuernavaca or if you find yourself on the south side of Mexico City. It’s well worth the visit if you’re in need of a quiet, cool, cheery place to relax. It reminds me that even in this expansive urban jungle, there are small hidden places that still embody all that’s special about Mexico.