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 tranquillity, 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. The conquistador Hernan Cortés is said to have lived here around 1520 (after the destruction of the Aztec capital), though 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 the 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 Dostoyevsky’s deck of cards, read the first drafts of 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 recreation 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 the 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 British writer Rebecca West was appalled by the structure, and wrote about it blisteringly (and hilariously) in an essay collected in “Survivors in Mexico,” published in 2003: “Grey blocks of stone have been piled up by an architect who had the Aztec pyramids in mind,” she wrote. “As we approached it, there issued from its funerary portals a party of people whose faces were stiff with the sense that the visit was not yet over, but only slightly stiff, for it was nearly over.” When I was there, a thriller was being filmed in the museum, and it added to the oppressiveness to be chased from room to room by the film crew who needed one gallery, then another.
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 the 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.
Grouped around the courtyard, where there are quarters for the guards assigned to protect Trotsky and hutches in which he kept his beloved rabbits and chickens, the rooms are pleasant but spartan, touching in their modesty and simplicity. Adjacent to the house is an exhibition of photos of Trotsky and his associates, as well as a timeline of early 20th century Russian and Mexican history. It’s instructive to learn that, at the time Trotsky lived there, his home bordered on fields and farmland at the very edge of the neighborhood and the city; now, just outside his door, is a busy highway that one can take to reach the historical center.
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.
Built around an enormous courtyard once used to corral the horses that Fernández used in his films — he often played cowboys and revolutionaries — the house has immense, cavernous public rooms. Among the guests at his lavish parties were Kahlo, Rivera and Marilyn Monroe. Everywhere are framed photos of Indio’ s three wives, and in his former bedroom there is a photo of Olivia de Havilland. According to our tour guide at the house, the Hollywood actress rejected Fernandez’s advances because he was “too ugly.” Fernández swore that he would someday have de Havilland “at his feet,” and when the government agreed to let him name the street beside his house, he named it Dulce Olivia, or Sweet Olivia, fulfilling his promise — or threat.
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-Foxtrot. 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, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.
Admission: Weekdays: 230 pesos (about $11.25); weekends: 270 pesos. Tickets can be booked online and it is recommended to do so.
Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky
Avenida Río Churubusco 410, Colonia del Carmen
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: 40 pesos
Museo 150, Colonia San Pablo Tepetlapa
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, from 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 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: 100 pesos
Francine Prose’s most recent novel is “The Vixen.”