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THE ZOCALO: THE VERY HEART OF MEXICO Mexico City's spectacular plaza stands at the hub of the Aztec civilization

White-gloved honor guards linger in the doorway of th National Palace in Mexico City, leaning on rifles or slouching on benches. Indians with thick braids and plump, wide-eyed babies squat on the unforgiving pavement in front of the gray cathedral, sewing snippets of handwoven fabric into dolls that sell for a handful of pesos.

Around the corner, stern Aztec statues, chiseled from stone, flank an excavated pyramid; on the perimeter, hawkers peddle copper Michoacan kitchenware, Peruvian alpaca sweaters and pastel "American-fashion" brassieres in an extemporaneous market that includes an herbalist who makes his sales pitch while draped by an enormous snake.

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These and a thousand other minor dramas are played out each day at the Zocalo, the literal and figurative heart of Mexico. It is from this plaza that the Mexican president repeats the Grito de Hidalgo every Sept. 15, celebrating Father Hidalgo's cry for independence in 1810. And from here all mileage markers throughout the country are referenced. By every standard, it ranks high on the "must see" list for visitors to Mexico City.

Nearly exceeding Moscow's Red Square in size, the Zocalo is rimmed by palaces, museums, colonial mansions, a cathedral, temples, pyramids and a dozen magnificent churches, former monasteries and convents. At its center on a raised platform, the green, white and red national colors fly in a flag so large that 10 soldiers are needed to fold it at day's end.

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Incredibly, the site also was the priestly and royal center of the exotic Aztec empire. "Where we're standing was a small island at the west end of the lake that covered present-day Mexico City," explained Ivonne Pablo, my bilingual guide at the Templo Mayor Museum. "No more than a few feet away is where Aztec priests spotted an eagle perched on a nopal cactus, gripping a snake in its mouth." That spot, around which Tenochtitlan was built, became the navel of the Aztec universe, as well as the power center of their empire.

The splendor of the Aztec canals, causeways, cedar palaces, courtyards shaded by woven awnings, stonework, and gardens choked with fruit trees and songbirds, astonished even the hardened Spanish adventurers. Bernal Diaz, the conquistador chronicler, wrote: "Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before."

But with the swiftness of a galleon under full sail, HernandCortes dismembered the Aztec empire and toppled Tenochtitlan. Just a few paragraphs later, Diaz wrote, "But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing." Libraries and palaces were burned, statues smashed, and temples razed; rubble was used to build the church where the present cathedral now stands (replacing the grisly Rack of Skulls used by Montezuma's priests, the Temple of the Sun and six other temples); Cortes' mansion, built atop Montezuma's demolished palace, has grown into the National Palace.

Today, more of Tenochtitlan is exposed than at any time since 1521. A large excavation of Aztec temples, and a perfectly preserved, 600-year-old Chac Mool sacrificial altar preface entry to the Templo Mayor, a dramatic museum dedicated to displaying the 7,000 objects found in situ.

The archaeology, history, architecture, museums, plazas, ecclesiastical art and parks near the Zocalo could take a week to explore, but even the most hurried of visitors needs to allow a half-day.

The advantage of an early start is breakfast at one of two charming hotel patios overlooking the Zocalo from its west side: the narrow fourth-floor restaurant at the Gran (buffet only, $5.50) or the more spacious seventh-floor patio of the Majestic (a la carte, except for Sundays ranchero buffet, 1 p.m.-5 p.m., $11).

The Cathedral: More impressive to me than the gilt of the 14 chapels was the statue known as "Our Lord of the Cocoa Beans." I watched Indians fervently worship in front of the life-size image of a suffering Christ, reverently reaching to touch the glass enclosure. One of the oldest and most revered icons in the New World, the image originally stood by the former Aztec Main Temple to encourage church donations. Not having Spanish coins, Indians gave cocoa beans, the Aztec currency.

The National Palace: The staircase and Grand Courtyard murals by Diego Rivera are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Benito Juarez museum, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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Templo Mayor Museum: If my time were limited, I'd concentrate all of it here. English guides are available at 11 a.m. and noon. Two-hour tours are $4 for groups of four. Being alone, I paid the same $4 and had a guide all to myself. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Mondays.

Palace of Fine Arts: A 10-minute walk west of the Zocalo, this exquisite performing arts center is the home to the Ballet Folklorico, which performs Wednesday and Sunday evenings and Sunday mornings. There's also a Museum of Art and murals.

More museums: Mexico City Museum has good panoramas of Tenochtitlan and early Mexico City; open daily except Mondays from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cathedral Museum gives an opportunity to see how walls were built with Aztec rubble; outstanding 3-foot sculpted Aztec seashell, found in 1976 under the east door; open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Franz Mayer Museum, north of Alameda Park, an exquisite showcase for pottery, tile, sculpture and other applied arts. Save time for this one.

More churches: Templo del Hospital de Jesus, two blocks south of the Zocalo, was where Montezuma and Cortes met, and where Cortes is interred. Our Lady of Pilar, "La Ensenanza," two blocks north of the cathedral, is a golden fantasy of frescoes, saints, and domes.

Where to go for lunch: Best food -- Prendes or Cafe de Tacuba. Best atmosphere, with passable food, is the open courtyard (like a Secret Garden in the midst of downtown) of the Cortes Hotel, at the northwest corner of Alameda Park.

Where to Shop: Limited opportunities. After a look-see in Sanborn's House of Tiles, grab a cab to La Ciudadela handicraft market, open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

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Night life: The Bar Jorongo in the Maria Isabel Sheraton has been blowing out all the stops with mariachi music for 27 years; it's always crowded. From 7 p.m. on, $6 cover, reservations advised.

Where to Stay: The 1985 earthquake destroyed both the Alameda and Del Prado, both excellent hotels facing Alameda Park, but spared the Cortes (Best Western, $55). The Gran (a Howard Johnson hotel, from $65) and Majestic (Best Western, $50) hotels are on the Zocalo. The top three hotels city-wide are the Maria Isabel Sheraton, the Camino Real and the Nikko. The closest to the downtown Zocalo area is the Sheraton (on Reforma, across from the Zona Rosa and next to the U.S. Embassy); doubles from $110; cab fare to downtown is $2.50 to $4 depending if you hail a street cab or use the hotel's radio cabs.


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