I hopped in a taxi at the bus station and asked the driver to take me to the Zocalo. “Perdon?” he replied. Thinking he hadn’t heard me I repeated my request, but he still seemed perplexed. “La Plaza Principal?” I tried. That did the trick; we were instantly on our way to the main square in the historic center of Veracruz.
Almost every city in Mexico has a large open square in the center of town, usually anchored by a cathedral or parish church. Before I began this long-term backpacking trip around Mexico I believed that these squares were all called Zocalos, but I was soon to discover that the naming of these public spaces wasn’t quite that simple.
My confusion began at my first stop, Mazatlan. In the center of the historic old town I found Plazuela de la Republica, the city’s main square, which is surrounded by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Municipal Palace, and the main telegraph and postal buildings. In La Paz, capital of Baja California South, the Plaza Principal was called Jardín de Velasco (Velasco Gaden). In Zacatecas it was Plaza de las Armas; in Guanajuato the Jardin Union; in Queretaro I found another Plaza de las Armas. But no Zocalos.
I Googled the term and hit the Mexico forums, but research further muddled the issue. Even Mexican nationals were in disagreement on the subject. Although most concurred that to be considered a Zocalo a square must have both a cathedral and government building on its perimeter, many also insisted that the term is barely known throughout much of Mexico. Yet I was quite sure that the main square in Acapulco, which I had visited more than 20 years earlier, is called the Zocalo, as is the main square in Mexico City.
It was the Mexico City connection that finally shed some light. It seems that plans for the capital city’s Plaza Principal originally called for a column to be constructed as a monument to Independence, but only the pedestal, or zocalo, was ever built. Over time, the word itself was adopted as the name for Plaza Principal, and several other Mexican cities, including Guadalajara and Oaxaca, followed suit. However, most other Mexican cities still refer to their main square as a plaza, plazuela (a smaller plaza), or jardin (garden).
So when I checked into my hostel in Merida, I was pretty sure of myself when I asked the owner for directions to the Plaza Principal. “You mean the Zocalo?” he asked.