Geography & Neighborhoods
Mexico City, in its current form, was created by the the Acta Constitutiva de la Federación in 1824. The Congress of the day marked out a surface area of 8,800 acres centered on the Zocalo that you can still see today. The enormous area was cut out from the State of Mexico, but it didn’t include population centers of the towns of Coyoacán, Xochimilco, Mexicaltzingo and Tlalpan, all of which remained as part of the State of Mexico until much later.
After the US invasion, (1847 – 48), president Antonio López de Santa Anna enlarged the area of Mexico City almost eightfold from the original 220 to 1,700 square kilometers to secure the strategic mountain passes to the south and southwest and to protect from foreign invasion. Finally, between 1898 and 1902, the area was reduced to the current 1,479 square kilometers (571 sq mi) by adjusting the southern border with the state of Morelos.
As of today, Mexico City is composed of 1812 colonias, including pueblos (small towns physically separated from the core of the city) and these colonias are divided among 16 alcaldias. Alcaldias had been called delegaciones, (a word you’ll still see in use) but, along with the name change for the city in general from Distrito Federal (DF) to Ciudad de Mexico, the delegaciones were changed to alcaldias on January 29, 2016.
The alcaldias are still very often compared to the “boroughs” of New York City, and just like New York’s boroughs compare to “counties” outside the city, Mexico City’s alcaldias are very similar to the municipios that make up the 31 states of the republic.
Here’s a brief introduction to each of them.
Álvaro Obregón is the quiet but potent home to nine indigenous villages, four Barrios Magicos, plus a nearly uncountable number of historical monuments, sculptures, museums, theaters, a wide array of shopping and dining areas and a tremendous acreage of forests in the south. To Chilangos, it’s the home to Televisa, to most of Pedegral, in a not entirely geographically understandable way. But it’s also
The northwestern corner of the city is Azcapotzalco. This butts up against innumerable heavily populated areas in EdoMex, making it sometimes seem like it’s primarily a but history buffs recall it as a kingdom and part of the Aztec Triple Alliance. Today, the very center of the borough maintains the feeling of a tranquil Colonial-era town in the Jardín Hidalgo and surrounding streets. It’s just opposite the former Dominican monastery, the parish Church of Felipe and Santiago, and very nearby is the Casa de Cultura, renowned for its gardens, too. While temporary art exhibitions, and the interior of the nearby Fray Bartolomé de las Casas library boasts a fabulous mural by Juan O’Gorman, you can walk the neighborhood to take in the sights, head for one of the oldest cantinas in the city, el Dux de Venecia, or head for Parque Tezozómoc with a lake and an open-air theater
Benito Juárez shares much with its northern neighbor, the more widely recognized Cuauhtémoc. But the overwhelmingly residential Benito Juárez is still home to a great deal that’s of interest to international travelers. The world’s largest mural, ‘The March of Humanity,’ by the artist David Álfaro Siqueiros still measures some 26,000 square feet across and emblazons the interior of the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros. Just beyond is the World trade Center which arguably welcomes as many international visitors as any place else in the city. The estadio Cruz azul is home to one of Mexico City’s most celebrated soccer teams and the sheer length of the Avenida Insurgentes continues to showcase some of the most dynamic neighborhoods in Benito Juárez.
Famous not only for its ost renowned local artist, Frida Kahlo, who was born and died in La Casa Azul, Coyoacán remains as charming as when she was here. The vast campus of University City is home to the MUAC museum (Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo) and a dozen other sites, scultpures, performance halls, and architectural masterpieces. But the Villa of Coyoacán is still what most people will remember. Since Hernán Cortés settled here, artists and intellectuals have lived here among them Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Octavio Paz. Other museums include the Museo Diego Rivera “Anahuacalli”, the León Trotsky museum, the Popular Culture Museum, the Museum of the Interventions, and the National Watercolor Museum. And all that’s before you get to the central market.
Desierto de los Leones National Park in the far south of Cuajimalpa is a dense forest surrounding the former Convent of the Carmelite Nuns. Today it’s also a gallery of contemporary art, and Cuajimalpa remains very much a mystery in the city’s western mountains. El Ocotal forest is jsut barely visible from the ultra-modern, even futuristic cityscapes of Santa Fe and Bosques de las Lomas, with some of the most exclusive shopping centers, hotels, and restaurants in the city. Don’t miss out on San Mateo Tlaltenango, San Lorenzo Acopilco, or San Pablo Chimalpa all of which retain a traditional sense of place, family, and togetherness.
The ancient heart of the city, and the modern recipient of most of the attention, don’t be fooled by all the glamour. The Templo Mayor is your starting point, but the whole of Mexico City is only now beginning to unfold. Hit La Condesa, but check out San Rafael and Santa Maria la Ribera too. There’s a tremendous amount to be learned in Tlatelolco, but from all the museums in and around the Centro Histórico, too. The Palacio de Bellas Artes, and the Monument to the Revolution deserve good contemplative walks and talks and understanding.
Gustavo A. Madero
Primarily visited for the Basilica de Guadalupe, Gustavo A. Madero is the northernmost part of the capital, including the stem on the pear. In the shape of an L, it can be understood in terms of the two extensions from the center, and the center, which is Lindavista and Vallejo. Residents to the north will tell you they are from Cuauhtepec, soon to be better connected by a cable car to Indios Verdes. Residents to the East will say they are from Aragon, an equally complex and charming collection of neighborhoods surrounding the Bosques de Aragon park and zoo.
Iztacalco is a smaller alcaldia on the western edge of the city. Primarily residential, it’s the city’s most densely populated area and plays hosts to concerts, sporting events and auto races in and around the famous Palacio de los Deportes. The central neighborhoods, the Centro Histórico of Iztacalco corresponds to the original island and is still divided into six barrios: Santa Cruz, La Asunción, San Miguel, Los Reyes, Zapotla, San Francisco Xicaltongo y Santiago, and Santa Anita Zacatlalmanco Huéhuetl. Barrio de la Asunción, whose church and former convent date from 1564, is a similar striking oasis of colonial, and deeply historic buildings.
The most populous of all Mexico City’s alcaldias, Iztapalapa has been settled since post-Classical times. It’s home to the Museo del Fuego Nuevo at Huixachtécatl, today known as the Cerro de la Estrella. The New Fire ceremony was held here once every 52 years, beginning a new cycle of years, and celebrated a total of only nine times, the last having been in 1507. The former convent at Culhuacán was built in 1607, on what had been an important ancient settlement. Today the museum and grounds can be visited to see later Christian murals and some important artifacts.
Los Dinamos is an area of protected parkland on the city’s southern perim-eter, through which runs the Magdale-na River, the city’s only open waterway, which follows an 8-mile course through the valley and a series of canyons and rapids. It’s the ideal place to hike, moun-tain bike or go horseback riding along the more than 20 miles of trails, and ride zip lines. The Mazatépetl archaeo-logical site contains various monuments built by the Otomi culture. The small, ba-roque-style Church of Magdalena Atlitic is the setting for big celebrations every July 22. The temperate forest of Parque Ejidal San Nicolás Totolapan offers di-verse sporting and recreational activities.
Chapultepec Park contains some of the city’s most important museums, such as the National Anthropology Museum, with a vast collection showcasing the country’s pre-Hispanic civilizations; the Museum of Modern Art, with a permanent retrospec-tive of 20th century Mexican art; the Rufino Tamayo Museum, showcasing contem-porary art, and the Papalote Children’s Museum, a wonderland for the younger visitors. The park is divided into three sec-tions and also contains a zoo, Chapultepec Castle, which houses the National Histo-ry Museum, and a large boating lake with boat rental. In Polanco you’ll find the most prestigious boutiques for luxury goods on Presidente Masaryk, as well as art galleries, such as the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros,and some of the city’s best restaurants, while Polanquito and Parque Lincoln are also pleasant places to explore. The Museo Soumaya houses an art collection, and the Parque Bicentenario boasts greenhouses that recreate different climates from across the world. Turismo Miguel Hidalgo:
Every October, the small village of San Pedro Atocpan holds its Mole Fair, when more than 500 exhibitors, both local and from other regions of the country, present different varieties of mole, a thick sauce prepared with a plethora of ingredients that include cocoa, sesame seeds, plan-tains and dried chilies, and which comes in a variety of colors, from black and dark brown to green, orange and red. You can sample all of the different varieties pre-pared in a number of ways, as well as purchase the paste to take home. Foodies should also visit the nopal cactus market. The Centro de Educación Ambiental Te-penahuac organizes educational activitiesconcerning agriculture and the use of re-newable energies. On the Day of the Dead, the Cantoya Balloon Festival is held. Chronicles and stories of Mexico:
The fast growing part of the city, Tláhuac is still surprisingly rural and agricultural in character. Day of the Dead celebrations in San Andrés Mixquic are among the most famous and colorful in the country. But to Mexico City residents, Tláhuac is probably best known for the most recent Metro line, #12, if not for Tláhuac’s stunning agricultural landscapes and the fact that it’s nearly as criss-crossed with canals as the nearby and much more famous Xochimilco. The Seven Original Towns of Tláhuac (Siete Pueblos Originarios de Tláhuac), each having been founded well before the arrival of the Spanish, include Santiago Zapotitlán, San Francisco Tlaltenco, Santa Catarina Yechuizotl, San Nicolas Tetelco, San Juan Ixtayopan, San Andrés Mixquic, and San Pedro Tláhuac.
At 80% preserved forestland and similarly ecologically sensitive area, it’s a good thing Tlalpan is also the biggest alcaldia in terms of sheer square kilometers. With a scattering of charming and very small towns, most of Tlalpan’s population live on the northern borders where they are neighbors with many parts of Coyoacán. Tlalpan has long been principally known for the colonial historic center, with its kiosk, and the charming cafes and shops. The election in 2018 of the current chief of government, herself an environmental scientist, has put renewed attention on Tlalpan’s many forests, farms, and agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas. The five basic zones of Tlalpan include the Centro de Tlalpan, Villa Coapa, Padierna Miguel Hidalgo, Ajusco, and the rural towns (Pueblos rurales).
Home to three of the city’s major markets, it’s the east side of the city, the airport and home to hundreds of thousands. La Merced is one of the oldest city markets anywhere on the continent, and no foody trip is ever going to be complete without lunch here. The Sonora Market draws people not just for the live animals, but for the exotic plants and remedies, and of course, for the Santaria vendors, tarot readings, and similar services. The Mercado de Jamaica is the city’s biggest and most famous flower and plant market – outside of Xochimilco (see below). But researchers head for the General Archive of the whole country, in part beccause it’s situated now in the notorious former Lecumberri prison, which does have some guided tours. Probably even more notorious is the homebase of “sonidero” music and dancing: the Peñón de los Baños neighborhood. Famed as a resport and spa even for the Aztec tlaonis of generations ago, you can still get a medicinal bath and visit the famous chapel.
Most famous for the embarcaderos and the flower-filled canal boat rides, Xochimilco is a striking and dynamic historical part of the city, and much older than most of it. With four big flower and plant markets at Cuemanco, Madre Selva, San Luis Tlaxialtemalco and the Palacio de la Flor, Xochimilco’s agricultural roots are never far off. It’s also a growing part of the city’s eco-tourism and alternative vacation scene. Among the most beloved museums is the Museo Dolores Olmedo which has carefully preserved the art patron’s stunning house and gardens – even her beloved hairless dogs, but there’s an extensive collection of Mexican modern art a frequent line up of exhibitions. Among the oldest colonial sites, both the parish church of Santa María Tepepan and the former Convent of San Bernardino de Siena date from the 16th century. With magnificent altars, sculptures and paintings, a visit to Xochimilco is not just a trip into the past, but a trip into a future that’s blossoming around just many colorful corners