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Riding the buses » Featured garden, Gardens of the world, Mexico » The central plazas of Mexican colonial towns (aka zócalos)

The central plazas of Mexican colonial towns (aka zócalos)

At the centre of most Spanish colonial towns in Mexico there is a plaza around which life revolves. These plazas can be called jardín central, plaza principal or zócalo and they are so charming that after spending a few hours in one you’ll want to explore them all. Several of the plazas, along with the historic district that surrounds them, have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Most have been remarkably preserved.

It sort of goes like this: the Spanish conquistadors conquered the territory, making it the King of Spain’s overseas empire; great wealth was found, particularly from the extraction of silver; the Spanish decided to build permanent settlements and went about spreading the Catholic religion and European culture.

Being entertained in the Morelia zocalo

The colonization of New Spain was not done haphazardly. Towns were built according to a very strict grid and at the centre of most colonial towns was a plaza. The avenues around the plaza were constructed in a checkerboard pattern and those closest to the plaza were usually the grandest and widest and contained the prominent religious and civic structures, often built in an ornate Baroque or neoclassical style. A cathedral would usually occupy one of the blocks across from the plaza, the governor’s palace and the court of law another. Nearby mansions were often exceptionally large and lavish.

Some colonial towns were built on very rugged terrain and the streets that run from the central plaza are steep and narrow. A few incorporated indigenous quarters and landmarks.

Merida’s central plaza and nearby cafe under the portales

Mansions have been converted into hotels and can offer some of the choicest accommodation. Outdoor restaurants are tucked under portales and onto balconies.

Ancient trees in Oaxaca’s plaza

Most plazas have wrought-iron benches and a bandstand. In just about all you will find men selling balloons and shining shoes. Seats on benches are usually in high demand, particularly those that are shaded by an ancient tree. The Indian Laurel trees in Oaxaca’s plaza date back to 1871 and are grand. On Sundays, locals and tourists congregate under them to listen to the classical music concert the Oaxaca State Band puts on.

Many towns close the streets around the zócalo to vehicle traffic on Sundays. Vendors, musicians and families take over the space and the atmosphere can be decidedly festive.

Jardín de la Unión in Guanajuato

Some plazas are large and rectangular with lavish gardens such as the one in Morelia. A favourite of mine is the Jardín de la Unión in Guanajuato because it is small and intimate and surrounded by pruned laurel trees with outdoor restaurants close by.

Puebla’s perfect plaza

Puebla was the first colonial town designed according to the King of Spain’s checkerboard layout and its zócalo has to be one of the finest in the country and so well taken care of. The locals obviously love it, particularly the teenagers who occupy the benches in non-stop embraces. Many of the buildings around Puebla’s zócalo are clad in hand-painted tiles for which the city is famous.

Don Vasco de Quiroga in Patzcuaro

The central plaza in Patzcuaro has an interesting history. It’s named after Don Vasco de Quiroga, a Spanish bishop who went there in 1536 and encouraged communal living and skill training among the indigenous population and built the cathedral–not facing the plaza as was the usual custom–on a nearby hill where a pyramid once stood to symbolize the coming together of two cultures.

The jardin in Tasco

Tasco was my first colonial town in Mexico so it will always be special. My family went there by local bus for what we foolishly thought would be a day trip from Acapulco. Well, the bus broke down, we had to spend the night, and I can vividly remember sitting in its small Plaza Borda as the sun came down and watching village life pass by and being utterly enchanted. It’s a stunning environment, with white-stucco restaurants and silver jewelry shops topped with red-tiled roofs; narrow and twisting cobbled streets running everywhere; and a huge pink-powered cathedral, the Parroquia de Santa Prisca. You see all this while seated on the plaza bench.

Danser in San Miguel’s zocalo

San Miguel de Allende was the first colonial town that I visited on my own. The hotel I stayed in was a block from the Jardín and every evening I would make my way to a bench in the park and watch thousands of birds noisily roost in its laurel trees. When the show was over I would carefully find my way back to my hotel in the semi-dark. That was my nightly routine and it was rather reassuring. I’ve been back several times. Most recently, hundreds of dancers occupied the space around the Jardín from early morning to late at night for three days. They were doing battle with the occupiers, the Spanish conquistadors, but not with weapons — with drums.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses™ 2018

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