Mexico's Best Zocalo?
The Zocalo (or zócalo, a town plaza) is a central (and crucial) feature of every town and city in Mexico. It is literally where it's happening - the focal point for both organized and casual social activity. Most Mexicans take great pride in their zocalo, and it is often the best kept area of town. Warm evenings will find vendors of every sort, clusters of young adults flirting and strutting, venerated Dons and Donas holding court at their exclusive benches, small children racing around
Every town's zacalo is characterized by its own distinctive meeting area - and of course, large cities will have numerous plazas, many of which might have a unique architectural aspect or singularly beautiful garden (jardin). The focal point might be a bandstand (as in Oaxaca) or a fountain (like Puebla), it might be in the layout of the paths crisscrossing the square, perhaps interspersed with trees, or it might be a vast open space dominated by the imposing edifices that surround the perimeter (as in Mexico City's main plaza, the Plaza de la Constitucion).
So where in Mexico exist the best zocalos? As is most of the cases beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and arguments can be made for numerous stellar candidates among the hundreds that might be put forth. Perhaps the most famous is Mexico City's, because of it's immense size, it's location (on the spot where Cortes met Montezuma for the first time).
Arguably the most beautiful is Patzcuaro's Plaza Vasco de Quiroga - a Mexican colonial classic, surrounded by period buildings and filled with trees. Often, it's just a small mountain town's humble offering, set against the fog enshrouded backdrop of the surrounding Sierra Madre Mountains, such as the little puebla of San Sebastian de Oeste, in the mountains of Jalisco east of Puerto Vallarta. Founded in 1605, San Sebastian was once mining centers of Mexico, the gold and silver giving this one time provincial capital a population of nearly 40,000 people it's now virtually deserted with only 600 or so people living there now, but with the opening of the highway between PV and the lovely inland valley town of Mascota (whose plaza is pictured at the top, and is also enjoying a tourism boost from the highway - it is gaining some notice as an eco-tourism destination) San Sebastian de Oeste is now back on the map as a tourist destination.
Another interesting zocalo can be found in the mountain town Tapalpa. While it's not particularly intimate area, it has an interesting, multi-level layout, an imposing church, is surrounded by interesting stores and restaurants and quaint calles that provide delightful walking opportunities for the small town exploration that make destinations such as Tapalpa so rewarding.
Evenings can provide the most satisfying people watching, culture absorbing zocalo experience - especially during festivals (which can last for a week for the town's patron saint). Carnival attractions, numerous band competitions, nightly (and even early morning) fireworks are all part of the mix, such as this lively scene from the Lake Chapala town ofAjijic attests.