Within hours of arriving in Coyoacán — a leafy, tranquil, beautiful neighborhood in the southwest part of Mexico City — I was searching the internet for long-term rentals in the area. It was pure fantasy that my family could move there. It seemed as if my family and I had found the ideal base for exploring Mexico City, a place I’d always loved. Its sidewalks lined with brightly colored houses and tenderly nurtured vegetation, Coyoacán is an oasis of tranquility, almost like an island surrounded by the roiling 24/7 energy of the nation’s vibrant capital.
The neighborhood’s appeal has been obvious for centuries, long before it was engulfed by Mexico City’s sprawl, in fact before it was even a village. Conquistador Hernan Cortés is said to have lived here around 1520 (after the destruction of the Aztec capital), although obviously not in the 18th century building now known as the Casa de Cortés. Coyoacán was incorporated into the capital in the 19th century and, in 1928, designated as a borough.
In the early and mid-20th century, Coyoacán was Mexico City’s Greenwich Village, its Montparnasse. Artists from all over the world came to visit their Mexican counterparts — and stayed. Much of the area’s rich history — and its particular magic — has remained and can still be seen in the houses where these luminaries lived and worked. Perhaps it’s superstitious to feel closer to the dead in the places where they lived, but if so, it’s a superstition shared by a great many people.
Purely by lucky accident, the house we found on Airbnb was the former studio of painter José Orozco, one of the founders of the Mexican muralist movement, a group that included Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and others. On the walls were framed drawings and prints by Orozco, who died in 1949, and the bookshelves contained volumes of reproductions of his art.
Several of the houses where Coyoacán’s celebrated residents lived have been turned into museums. House museums draw us out of curiosity about the living conditions and the possessions of a figure we venerate or loathe. I’ve seen Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s deck of cards, read the first drafts of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech, stared down the field from Virginia Woolf’s writing cottage toward the river where she drowned. If we believe that ghosts are still inhabiting these structures, we long for the quiet and solitude that will enable us to hear what they have to say.
By far the most famous of the neighborhood’s house museums is the brilliantly bright blue Casa Azul, where Frida Kahlo spent much of her life and died. In the 1940s and ’50s, she and Rivera hosted Mexican artists, European surrealists, movie stars, wealthy art collectors, expats and political refugees.
When I first visited the house, long before the film starring Salma Hayek was released, before the world was gripped by what the Mexicans call Fridamania, which shows no signs of disappearing, I was the only visitor except for one Canadian backpacker who wept as she moved from room to room.
Now it is a wildly popular tourist destination, almost a pilgrimage site, with advanced ticketing and (often) long waits to get in. You can pause before vitrines containing the elaborate folkloric costumes the artist wore and visit her somewhat shrine-like bedroom, but it’s hard to feel a personal sense of communion with her in what is less a re-creation of her home and more of a tribute display, with a gift shop and a quote from Patti Smith stenciled on one wall, words that could not have been there when Kahlo and Rivera enjoyed the pretty courtyard.
It’s certainly worth braving the crowd, though, because Kahlo had great collections — most notably, of retablos, or holy pictures, many representing miraculous rescues. Besides which, you can’t help thinking that Frida and Diego would have been pleased by the turnout, the awe and the attention. Both were ambitious, both deeply concerned with career and reputation.
Anyone wanting to know more about Rivera’s ego might schedule a visit to the Museo Anahuacalli, a half-hour cab ride from the Casa Azul. It’s the extraordinary monument that Rivera built to himself with the help of architect Juan O’Gorman. The structure, which once served as Rivera’s studio, now houses his collection of pre-Columbian art displayed in dramatically lit showcases.
The Casa Azul is by no means the only house museum that one can visit for a sense of what Coyoacán was like at another time — who lived here and what they did, the community they formed. When Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1936, he stayed at the Casa Azul rent-free. Later in his exile he moved to the nearby house on the Avenida Rio Churubusco, where he was assassinated by an agent of Stalin’s secret police, and which is now also a museum.
Trotsky’s house is a quieter scene than the Casa Azul. It too has a pleasant courtyard, where the relative peace and physical space make it easier to imagine the brief period when the revolutionary — a wanted man in Russia — found sanctuary there. Perhaps its haunting aura derives from the fact that one can see the desk at which Trotsky was working, presumably writing his biography of Stalin, when he was killed, famously with an ice ax, by a Soviet agent.
On a weekday morning, my family and I were the only visitors to my favorite of Coyoacán’s house museums, the atmospheric and magical Casa del Emilio Fernández, who was known as “Indio.” In a lovely and especially peaceful corner of Coyoacán, the former home of the Mexican movie star, open only on weekends, seems relatively untouched by tourism and the passage of time.
Constructed of volcanic stone, the “house-fortress,” which occupies much of a square city block, was designed and built in 1947 by Fernández, a director and actor who, until his death in 1986, made more than 120 films and whose impressive physique was said to have been the model for the Oscar statuette. Born to an Indigenous mother (hence the nickname), he claimed to have fought in the Mexican Revolution and was exiled to the United States, where he lived in Los Angeles and edged his way into the movie business, later returning to Mexico.
These monuments to the past are not the only reason to visit Coyoacán, which has great food, a huge botanical garden, a pleasant zocalo and markets for food and crafts. Here, as in so much of Mexico, the past and present exist side by side. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, in the Jardín Centenario, a band was playing for a few middle-age and older couples dancing a sort of dignified salsa-fox trot. Their families sat around, drinking coffee, eating cups of elote, or roasted corn; the children were sucking on spicy lollipops. There’s still not much traffic, and it’s not hard to imagine the luxury sedans edging the central square on their way to deliver guests to one of Emilio Fernández’s long, astonishing parties.
If You Go
Coyoacán’s house museums offer a window into the neighborhood’s rich artistic and cultural history. Visiting them is affordable and, with the exception of Casa Azul, they are usually not overwhelmed by tourists. Here’s how to find them:
Londres 247, Colonia del Carmen
Hours: Tuesday, Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.
Admission: Weekdays: 230 pesos (about $11.25); weekends: 270 pesos. Tickets can be booked online, which is recommended.
Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky
Avenida Río Churubusco 410, Colonia del Carmen
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: 40 pesos
Museo 150, Colonia San Pablo Tepetlapa
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Admission: 80 pesos; free with ticket from Casa Azul
Casa de Emilio Fernández
Ignacio Zaragoza 51, Colonia Santa Catarina
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Admission: 100 pesos — NYT