This article is from the February 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Not In Kansas Anymore, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and Taxco

by Karen Kressin 

Karen Kressin, a frequent contributor to Mexico File, is spending a year in Ireland. She contributed this article before she left for her adventure abroad.  

Like Dorothy, I’m a Kansan, and happy to be one. But I am haunted by memories of three beautiful places made all the more fascinating by te logistics of city life on a steep mountainside. They are Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and Taxco, all perched high in the sierras of central Mexico. Each has its own special charms.  

Guanajuato is built in a canyon. In both directions away from the main street, one must climb steeply to reach houses and neighborhood shops. Transportation is by foot along callejones (alleys) which are really outdoor stairways zigging and zagging with irregular widths between houses that have one door on the first floor and another on the second floor, just 25 feet, literally, up the street. New floor tiles might have to be delivered by donkey. Irregular street intersections provide many excuses for plazas, so there is often a surprise. Buildings in Guanajuato are pastel and neon shades of green, blue, yellow, and pink, presenting a multicolored vista when viewed from a distance or from El Pipila monument’s panoramic overlook.  

The Jardín de la Unión is a perfect place to sit in the shade and watch tourists, locals, and itinerant vendors. Look out, or a mime might make fun of your haircut or chase you with a fuzzy artificial dog on a stick as you cross his public street “stage.” Guanajuato is famous for callejoneadas that roam the historic district in the evening – musicians in Renaissance garb leading wine-drinking, song-singing visitors and students around and up and down the callejones. Guanajuato is an engineering marvel, too – half its vehicular streets run underground in magnificent arched tunnels. There is an underground bus stop near the Mercado Hildago.  

Zacatecas is an elegant city in a precarious location. Its buildings are cut from pink stone (Guanajuato’s native stone is green) and they are arrayed in straight, dignified well-proportioned rows along with wide streets of the center of the old town. Neighborhoods climb steeply up twin hills that are connected by a teleférico that crawls along a cable above the town. Callejones are stairways in Zacatecas, too, and stores may have several steps to climb just inside the door. I am told that big jugs of bottled water cost the same high on the hill as at the bottom, but you can tip the man who carries it up on his back, “if you want.” Water lines and drain pipes run along the outside of houses and across stair steps. Electric wires jumble overhead and I wonder how often power goes out in windstorms. There are callejoneadas in Zacatecas, too, but the music is made by trumpets rather than guitars and mandolines. Visitors should have a drink or a meal in the Hotel Quinta Real, converted from the second oldest bullring in the Americas. It may actually be what it claims to be – Mexico’s most beautiful hotel.  

Taxco is primarily marketed as a day-trip from Mexico City, and visitors are usually hustled from one silver shop to another to line the guide’s pockets with commissions. A better way to enjoy this beautiful place is to stay over at least one night, preferably a weeknight. After the tour buses go back to the capital, Taxco regains all the charms of a Mexican town with the added benefit of a gorgeous setting. White buildings with red tile roofs cascade down the hillside and give a lovely Mediterranean look. Pots of bougainvillea and geraniums decorate balconies and terraces.

You need a sense of humor. Callejones that in Guanajuato or Zacatecas would be pedestrian-only stairways are streets in Taxco. Little VW bug taxis crawl up and down like real beetles, and all of them are prim-and-properly painted white to match the buildings. White stones are incorporated into gray cobblestones to make roosters, medallions, and center lines in the streets. One building housing a restaurant and two jewelry shops near the zócalo comes to a point at one end. Inside the pointy end there is a 20-inch wide stairway to a bedroom on the third floor. Taxco’s market may be the most picturesque anywhere. It’s located in a maze of alleys downhill from the church of Santa Prisca and it winds around under blue tarps, offering clothing, shoes, flowers, and all the produce typical of a market in Mexico, plus bags of rose of Castille petals and strawberries labeled “Product of California.”

My current thinking is that Taxco is the most beautiful, but it’s hard to choose. All are fascinating, drenched in sun, have great restaurants, and are in Mexico. What else can I say? I may have to click my slippers and go back soon.