San Mateo Xalpa is one of the 14 original settlements of Xochimilco. Founded in 1542, the ancient town of Pochtlan here bore the name “place of merchants.” A minor colonial town on the old Mexico-Acapulco highway, the colonial Nahuatl name, Xalpa, can be translated as “over the Sand.”
Already in the 16th century, a small hermitage was built here, part of the Monastery of San Bernardino. By the following century, work began on a permanent temple. This consisted of a nave, masonry walls and a wooden roof. Before the outer wall of the apse, priests recited open-air masses for centuries. The adjoining chapels, built between 1750 and 1798, give the floor plan of the Latin cross. To support the vaulted roof, workers built buttresses during this period.
Between 1882 and 1891, the side walls had rounded and semi-circular arches added. This addition of height allowed builders to cover the transept with a vaulted dome over an octagonal drum. Some final interventions in the early 20th century didn’t significantly alter the building’s appearance. A graveyard remained in the atrium even through the end of the 20th century.
In 2005, the town had some 14,520 residents. While San Mateo Xalpa is not likely to get hundreds of international visitors, its narrow streets and high mountain atmosphere give the town a character entirely different to that of lower, northern Xochimilco. It’s often visited together with San Francisco Tlalnepantlaand San Miguel Topilejo in neighboring Tlalpan.