This article is from the November 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Our Trip to Zacatecas

by John Cain

John Cain has this to say about himself: "In 1969, I graduated from the University of Texas with a degree I never even contemplated using. I live with my family on Canyon Lake, Texas, which is in the Texas Hill Country southwest of Austin. I have worked for the State of Texas for about 20 years, and two other outfits only slightly more reputable, and have traveled to Mexico countless times — by train, bus, plane, sailboat and car. (Even though I wouldn't dream of it, I know people who would count the times I crossed the Rio Grande on a little raft in the Big Bend National Park, and then rode a burro into Boquillas, Mexico. I think that's in the state of Coahuila.) Although I have never written a travel article (until now), I have written one poem — and I only have one ex-wife."

Our family just returned from a very enjoyable trip to Zacatecas. Having read a recent Mexico File article on this colonial city in the Sierra Madre (cf Mexico File, April 1998, "Zacatecas" by Tony Burton), I was not surprised at what we found there. A couple of our friends had been there as well and had wonderful words for the beauty of the mountains, the town and its people. We were not prepared for the weather. Yes, we knew the altitude was around 8000 feet above sea level and, being frequent travelers in Mexico, we knew how cool it is in other cities in the mountains — but we were traveling from the San Antonio area where we were enjoying the hottest summer on record. It was very difficult to think about taking a jacket to Mexico in July. But we did take jackets and we were glad. I don't think the temperature reached 80 degrees during the trip. It was into the 60's in the evenings.

Our journey to Zacatecas was born of an aborted trip to Veracruz. Every year, around the end of May or the first part of June, the Galveston Bay Cruising Association organizes and sponsors a sailboat race starting in Galveston, Texas. On even-numbered years, the race ends in Veracruz. In 1996, I was a crew member on "Aimless," a magnificent 42-foot Hinckley captained by Judge Phil Hardberger, Chief Justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio. While the race was fantastic (we won), the four days of parties which followed made me wish my family were with me to share in what I was experiencing. So I arranged for my family to meet me in Veracruz this year. Well, it just wasn't in the cards and it didn't happen — but, to make up for it, we took the trip to Zacatecas. I don't think our original plan could have been better.

Still, the trip to Zacatecas probably would not have taken place if Ed Conley, a Houston lawyer (it's OK, he doesn't act like a lawyer), friend and fellow Mexico File subscriber, had not asked me to accompany him to San Miguel de Allende to deliver a car to his wife Susan and their children — who had rented a house there for the entire month of July. He didn't want to go by himself and he couldn't find anyone in Houston dumb enough to go with him, so he asked me. He knew I was dumb enough. (He did have

another motive in asking me. He knew I had studied Spanish in Mexico for a month several years ago. He erroneously assumed that I was fluent. It usually takes me at least three days to feel relatively comfortable again after being away from Mexico for months at a time. He accused me of fraud but he discovered it too late to do anything about it.)

The trip began on a Sunday, at Canyon Lake, Texas. Ed and I drove south to Laredo in separate cars. We met at the Laredo airport where I left my car, and we proceeded across the border in his. Ed had gone to Triple A in Houston the week before and had all of his papers processed (car registration, etc.). The trip to Triple A probably saved us at least an hour at Customs (Aduana). (It is important to know that a lienholder must give written permission to take a car across the border. The permission must be notarized. It is also VERY important to know that all minor children, traveling with just one parent, must have a notarized affidavit from the other parent. They will not allow you into the country without it. And, if you do not have a passport, you must have an original birth certificate. Voter registrations are no longer accepted.)

Saltillo and Aguascalientes

We traveled the toll roads to Saltillo. It took us about two and a half hours after clearing customs. We spent the night in a hotel which was across the street from a hotel I knew about but which no longer exists. I don't remember the name of the hotel but it wasn't a place I would recommend anyway. There are other hotels out on the highway. Saltillo even has a Holiday Inn Express in Saltillo but it wasn't on the plaza and that's where we wanted to be. When we left Saltillo the next morning, Monday, the temperature was 67 degrees F. It did not hit 80 all day. Not much traffic on the highway from Saltillo to Zacatecas. And it's fairly straight all the way, except for a few curves close to Saltillo. The countryside looks much like the countryside between Phoenix and Kingman — you know, around Wikiup. The big difference is that Wikiup is really HOT in July. We arrived in Zacatecas just after noontime. We parked and walked around until we found a hotel we liked. We checked into the Continental Plaza Hotel which is right across the street from the Governor's Palace, the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral. The rooms were nice and the service was wonderful. We had dinner at a very good Argentinean restaurant, El Rincon del Gaucho. The next morning, we drove to Aguascalientes, about 75 miles south, where I was to meet the rest of my group, Ruth and son Matthew. They weren't expected until the next day, Wednesday, so Ed and I checked into the worst hotel I have ever even seen. It was worse than a motel we stayed in once in Louisiana where I found an old pizza under the bed. The next morning Ed commented; "It's OK, ‘cause it's just one more story I can tell. ‘We stayed in a place so bad that John Cain had to sleep in all of his clothes, including his shoes, and he wasn't even drunk.’" We did have a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called El Borrego. The next morning Ed left to pick up Susan and the kids and I checked into the Hotel Rio Grande which is very good and right on the Plaza Principal. Ruth, Matthew and I stayed there that night, and headed back to Zacatecas on Thursday by bus. The trip took about 2 hours and was very pleasant. The movie was in Spanish and we think it was pretty good.

In Zacatecas

In Zacatecas, we stayed at Posada de Toloso Thursday and Friday nights and at the Meson de la Merced on Saturday night. The latter was very good and right next to another Argentinean restaurant El Garufe. El Garufe was wonderful. Beef dishes are their specialty, but they did have a good pasta dish. (Matthew is a pizza/pasta freak).

There is plenty of literature on things to do and to see in Zacatecas. However, it is all in Spanish so I had to struggle and refer frequently to my dictionary. It was worth every minute. The museums are much better than I expected. The Museo Francisco Goita is excellent and well worth the 10-peso boleto. A short walk through a very pretty park takes you to the Hotel Quinta Real. Any traveler who doesn't stay here must go see it. I had read and heard about this place but words cannot do it justice. A very imaginative architect saw potential in an old abandoned, crumbling bullring — which is now the courtyard for this elegant, five-star hotel. The hotel’s guest rooms, conference rooms, restaurant, bars and shops surround it, but the identity of the old bullring is unmistakable. Ruth and I had dinner there on the Fourth of July. Not because of Independence Day in the US, but because the Fourth was our 18th wedding anniversary. Matthew didn't want to accompany us as he had found Viva Pizza just around the corner from the Posada de la Merced. (We tried it and he’s right. It's really good pizza.)

We were told by several people not to go to Zacatecas without making a short trip to the village of Guadalupe. It's only about 7 km (about 4 1/2 miles) and a 15-peso taxi ride from el centro. There’s a quiet, pleasant plaza, some huge trees and a museum which shouldn't be missed, the Museo de Guadalupe. I would recommend spending a couple of hours there. On a hill on the north side of the city of Zacatecas is an old convent, which is now a museum and worth another couple of hours.

The most conspicuous landmark in Zacatecas is La Bufa, a mountain on the north side of town. On top are museums, a restaurant, two mausoleums, some vendors, a church, some monuments, some guides who may or may not speak English and a 360-degree spectacular view of Zacatecas and the surrounding area. There are two ways to reach the top of La Bufa. (three if you’re into hiking). You can take a taxi for about 10 pesos or you can take the Telefericom — which is a gondola, leaving from another mountain, El Grillo, up and over the top of the city of Zacatecas to La Bufa. It’s 5 pesos, one way.

As in most Mexican cities, in our opinion, the most enjoyable pastime is to just walk around. It seems that something is always going on. We don't know what's going to happen, as the Mexicans do, so it seems spontaneous to us. On our way from a museum back to the hotel to pick up Matthew for dinner, (he was taking a siesta), we heard Mozart...very clearly. The music was coming from a courtyard across the street from the Teatro Calderon (a must-see as well). Ruth stayed behind to listen while I sprinted ahead to get Matthew, who is a Mozart freak almost as much as he’s into pizza. (Well, I said "almost.".) When Matthew and I returned to the scene of the music, Ruth was in the window of a restaurant overlooking the courtyard and the Zacatecas Municipal Orchestra. The waitress brought us a glass of wine and a music program. It was wonderful, but the next day, in the very same courtyard, from the very same restaurant window, we watched the product of years of study and practice — the Ballet Folklorico — performed by children from the ages about 8 years old to about 18 years old. It must have been a dance recital. If so, the teacher must be a genius. The children were very good, very talented, very well taught and beautiful, a trait which seems to be common to the people of Zacatecas.

I cannot end this little essay without mentioning the callejoneadas. I do not know the history of this phenomenon but I have never seen it anywhere else in Mexico. Just before sundown, usually near a prominent plaza or hotel, a group of musicians appears. The ones we saw consisted of men playing a couple of trumpets, a trombone, a saxophone and one or two drums. A few people gathered around to listen and then a few more. The audience had a common trait. A few of them may have been tourists, (Mexican tourists, not US, except for us) and a few may have been locals, but they ALL had a string attached to a little clay cup around their necks. After enough people gathered, the musicians began strolling up one of the alleyways (callejones) playing their music. The spectators follow the band up the alleyways for awhile until they reach a clearing or a wider part of the street. Here everyone dances with everyone else and everyone’s cups are filled with mescal. After everyone has a little mescal and a little dance time, the band makes its way up, or down, another alleyway, all the way, playing music, and then to another clearing with more mescal, more dancing and so on. This seems to last for a couple of hours. And it's not unusual for one group to run into another group. Whatever this is and whatever the origins, it is a lot of fun. Mescal is not my favorite drink, but with a deal like this I could learn to like it.

We visited El Meson de Jobita in Zacatecas. We did not stay there, but we did have two or three meals there. We looked at some of the rooms too. This is truly one of the nicest places we have seen. It is a small hotel with the ambiance of an elegant hacienda. At the front desk (and I hate to call it that because it's more like someone's living room), a woman, Alejandra, recognized that we were foreigners with questions and, even though we were not guests in El Meson de Jobita, offered to help us in whatever way she could. We love hotels with that kind of hospitality and when we return to Zacatecas, there's no question where we will stay. I think it means Hobbit’s House — in Mexico?

On Sunday morning, we went to church in the cathedral, had breakfast in the Hobbit’s House and spent the rest of the day going to museums, walking around and eating. At 9:30 PM, we boarded Omnibus de Mexico for Nuevo Laredo. An old troubadour got on the bus and sang to us until we left at about 10:00 PM. Matthew was afraid he was going to sing all the way home. That would have been all right with me but Matthew wanted to watch the movie. The troubadour got off the bus and we watched a really awful movie called "Alien Nation" with James Caan, in English, after which, we went to sleep. The bus

stopped in Saltillo at about 2:30 AM and Monterey at about 3:30 AM. We pulled into Nuevo Laredo about 6:30 in the morning, took a taxi across the border back to our car, and got back home to Canyon Lake at noon — 100 degrees of temperature and 100 percent humidity.

Does anyone know how I can make a living in Mexico? I’d go back tomorrow.