Tlatelolco - Plaza of 3 Cultures in Mexico City

Three Cultures Square at Tlatelolco
Getty Images / diegograndi 

The Plaza de las Tres Culturas ("Plaza of Three Cultures") located in Mexico City's Cuauhtémoc borough is a spot where an archaeological site, a colonial-period church, and modern-era high rise apartment buildings converge. On a visit to the site you can see architecture from the three main phases of Mexico City's history: the pre-Hispanic, colonial, and modern, encompassed within a single plaza.

The Ancient City

Once the site of an important Aztec ceremonial center and bustling marketplace, Tlatelolco was conquered by a rival indigenous group in 1473, only to be destroyed with the arrival of the Spaniards. The name Tlatelolco comes from the Nahuatl language and translated means "mound of sand". This was the main commercial center of the Aztec empire, and a twin city of the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan, although it was founded around 1337, some 13 years after the founding of Tenochtitlan. 

The vast, well-organized market that was held here was described in great detail by Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo who arrived in Mexico in the mid-fifteenth century along with Hernán Cortés. In his book  The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, he wrote that some 20,000 to 25,000 people gathered at the market here every day, with goods brought in for sale by "pochtecas," merchant travelers from all over the region. A wide variety of goods were sold at the Tlatelolco market including food, animal hides, clay pots and implements, clothing, sandals, furniture, exotic items, and even slaves. The Spaniards and their allies, the Tlaxcaltecans, laid siege to the city in 1521 and the city was razed. Since this was the spot where the final Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc was captured by the Spaniards in 1521, it is here that the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan is commemorated. 

Church of Santiago Tlatelolco

This church was built in 1527 on the place of the Aztecs' last stand against the Spanish. Conquistador Hernan Cortes designated Tlatelolco as Indigenous lordship and Cuauhtemoc as its ruler, naming it Santiago in honor of the patron saint of his troops. The church was under the control of the Franciscan order. The Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, the school on the grounds, where many important religious men of the colonial period were educated, was founded in 1536. In 1585 the church was flanked by the hospital and college of Santa Cruz. The church was in use until the Reform Laws were enacted in the 1860s and following that, it was looted and abandoned for many years.

Modern Tlatelolco

In the early 1960s, this area was the setting for an ambitious housing project. Trying to solve the problem of Mexico's expanding population and issues of urbanization, architect Mario Pani had the idea of making this a city within a city. The Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco is the largest apartment complex in Mexico, and second largest in North America. The complex originally had 102 apartment buildings, along with its own schools, hospitals, stores, public artwork, and green spaces.

Tlatelolco is also the site where one of Mexico's modern tragedies took place: on October 2nd, 1968, Mexican army and police massacred some 300 students who had gathered here to protest the repressive government of president Diaz Ordaz just ten days before the start of the Olympics which were held in Mexico City that year.

Tlatelolco Archaeological Site and Museum

On a visit to the Plaza of Three Cultures, visitors can visit the archaeological site and church, as well as the site museum. It's a place where you can feel the passage of time and how deeply rooted Mexican history is. A few of the main highlights of the archaeological site include the Temple of the Paintings, the Temple of Calendrics, the Temple of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, and the Coatepantli, or "wall of snakes," which encloses the sacred precinct. The recently opened Tlatelolco Museum houses over 300 artifacts and archaeological remains that were salvaged from the site.

Visitor Information

Location: Eje Central Lázaro Cardenas, corner with Flores Magón, Tlatelolco, Mexico City

Closest metro station: Tlatelolco (Line 3). Check out the Mexico City metro map ahead of time.

Hours: The archaeological site is open daily from 8 am to 6 pm. The Tlatelolco Museum (Museo de Tlatelolco) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm.

Admission: Admission to the archaeological site is free, like many other things in the city. The museum entrance fee is 20 pesos per person.