This article is from the July 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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South of Zacatecas
a fascinating archaeological site,
a colonial gem, and a
scenic route to Guadalajara

by Tony Burton

Tony Burton, an author, educator and travel consultant, moved to Canada in 1997 after working 18 years in Mexico. He returns several times a year to revisit his favorite places and lead specialized tours to such destinations as the Monarch butterflies, Paricutin volcano and the Copper Canyon. His book, Western Mexico — A Traveler’s Treasury, is reviewed in this issue. He wrote an article on Zacatecas which appeared in the April 1998 issue of The Mexico File. To see more of his work, check out his internet web site at

Two sites within an hour’s drive south of Zacatecas make it well worthwhile to linger at least an extra day when visiting this splendid colonial city. The two sites in question are La Quemada (The Burnt) and Jerez (Sherry).


Even though Zacatecas is a major city and a frequently-chosen overnight stopping place on many driving routes south, from the U.S. and Canada to western and central Mexico, it is not easy to get to by air. For most people, Mexico’s second city of Guadalajara, with its wide range of international air routes, is the easiest air gateway to Zacatecas, though the industrial city of León is also well served by several carriers.

From Guadalajara or León, first class bus service to Zacatecas is frequent, but unfortunately does not allow for easy access to either La Quemada or Jerez. Hiring a car is a preferable alternative, especially if you want to explore at your own pace. It also allows you to drive a completely different route home.

A good road map will suggest various possibilities for the round trip. For example, the 4-lane toll highway 80D is the fastest route from Guadalajara northwards. Shortly after San Juan de los Lagos, it links to highway 45, the León to Zacatecas road (partly toll, partly free) which goes via Aguascalientes. Highway 45 enters Zacatecas from the east. Alternative routes for the way back include the much traveled highway 54, with its very winding and sometimes slow section through the canyons north of Guadalajara and the much less well known (but equally scenic) highway 23, which runs parallel to the 54 and slightly further west.

La Quemada and Jerez, the two sites described here, can easily be included in your return drive via highway 23, provided you make an early start from Zacatecas. Alternatively, take more time and enjoy them at a slower pace, by making them your choice for a daytrip out of Zacatecas, returning to the city and its creature comforts, for another night before continuing on your travels.

While it makes little difference which order you see these sites in, let's assume that you've decided to have a real adventure and visit them before returning towards Guadalajara by highway 23. In this case, you first visit La Quemada (some maps use "Chicomostoc"), about 60 kilometers south of Zacatecas, then double back part-way, as far as the highway intersection for Jerez. The route from Jerez back to Guadalajara is briefly described in the last section.


La Quemada grew into the largest pre-Columbian settlement known in southern Zacatecas. Its original name is unknown; it was christened La Quemada by the early Spaniards who found evidence of a great conflagration.

Like centuries ago, it remains an impressive sight. In 1535, Spanish explorers described a "large depopulated city of sumptuous edifices built of stone and lime. The streets were wide, well laid out and of imposing appearance.... In the centre was a cué (tower) of great height, and fronting it was a fountain pouring forth a stream of limpid water pretty to behold (quoted in Terry's Guide to Mexico)." Today, the "streets" and ruins are graced by a modern site museum, opened in 1995, whose scale model shows more than fifty terraces and about one square kilometer of constructions. First occupied between about 200 and 300 AD, La Quemada's population peaked after 500 AD, before the site was abandoned about 1000 AD, 1000 years ago.

Most structures originally had a layer of barro (earthenware) and vegetable fibre "plaster." and were finished with a wash of cal (lime). Both plaster and lime have now been all but eroded away, together with the mud mortar that served to bind the rocks. The site served as an unofficial building supply store for a thousand years, losing perhaps fifteen percent of the original constructions.

Some eighteenth century historians conjectured that this might have been the legendary Chicomostoc, one of the places the Mexica originally settled on their peregrination from Aztlán to found Tenochtitlan, site of present day Mexico City. But the constructions are clearly too extensive, and the quality of architecture too high, for La Quemada to have been only a temporary settlement. Twentieth century radiocarbon dating suggests that La Quemada is contemporaneous to Teotihuacan, but prior to the Toltec settlement of Tula.

Because of its diversity of constructions, La Quemada has been variously interpreted in the past hundred years, not only as Chicomostoc, but also as an enclave of Teotihuacan culture, a Toltec market site, a Tarascan fort, a Caxcán center, an independent development, and the capital of indigenous groups based on the north bank of the Santiago river. Perhaps the real answer is some combination of the above!

La Quemada was built at different times, successive stages covering parts of previous constructions. Delimiting the northern part of the site is a great wall, 900 meters long, 3.80 meters high and 3.60 meters wide. The wall suggests a defensive role for La Quemada but the buildings have civic-religious functions. La Quemada is perhaps best described, therefore, as a fortified ceremonial site, situated in the frontier zone between Mesoamerica (with its great cultures and wide variety of resources including all kinds of foods) to the south and Aridoamerica (mainly desert and semi-desert areas where foodstuffs are scarce) to the north. Presumably, it would have been a natural location for the exchange of provisions and raw materials. A network of "roads," built of stone slabs and clay, extends from La Quemada to some 200 minor sites on the Malpaso valley floor.

Who were the first settlers here? Little is known about their origins. They may have been migrants or perhaps they were "home-grown." For a center of this size, they needed a resource base including ample food supplies. Evidence from the valley floor indicates the cultivation of maize, beans, squash and maguey, supplemented by the use of amaranth seeds, tomato, nopal leaves and fruit as well as other wild plants.

Trade links must have been very important. Between 500 and 700 A.D., it seems likely that La Quemada had close ties to other key sites, including Chalchihuites to the northwest, then with mining activities never previously equaled anywhere in Mesoamerica. La Quemada apparently became a trade centre for the collection and redistribution of raw materials like salt, minerals and shells. Such relationships were in a state of constant flux and readjustment, owing to competition from other large sites which led to conflicts and skirmishes. Meanwhile, after about 650 A.D., turquoise from New Mexico (Cerillos) was entering the zone from the northwest, demonstrating that interconnected routes extended more than 1000 km further north.

Among advanced construction projects undertaken between 650 and 850 A.D. was the Chamber of Columns (41 x 30 meters, 5.60 meters high, and with 11 supporting columns), one of the largest roofed structures yet found anywhere in Mesoamerica. Only the columns remain today. The great fire cooked the mud mortar and pressed the collapsed roof beams into the ground.

After 850 A.D., La Quemada went into decline. Some residential areas were abandoned and some stairways partially blocked off to prevent too many people from being able to ascend them at the same time. The "Great Wall" was built, presumably for defense and the site was abandoned completely shortly after 900 A.D.

Why the decline and abandonment? Did climatic change cause the valley to dry out? Were trade or military conflicts the reason? Perhaps the people who left La Quemada founded the Toltec site of Tula in around 900 A.D.? Whatever the reason, and wherever they went, they left us an enigmatic statement of their prowess as architects, tradespeople and builders.


Much easier to interpret than La Quemada is the undiscovered colonial gem of Jerez, about 50 kilometers away by road. Incredibly, most guidebooks give it no more than a passing mention, if it is even included at all!

Jerez, at an altitude of 2000 meters (6500 feet), was founded in the mid-sixteenth century to help protect the silver trading routes connecting the silver mines of Zacatecas with cities like Guadalajara, from attacks by the wild "Chichimeca" Indians. In time, the city became known as "The Athens of Zacatecas,", and today is a National Historic Monument where the stones still tell their stories...

Starting from the central plaza, the self-guided walking tour which follows includes many of the major sites. The central plaza is more correctly called the Jardín Rafael Páez. Its wooden, moorish-looking nineteenth century kiosk has the half-moon of Islam, Star of David and some Roman bells decorating it, presumably symbolizing the union of civilizations.

West of the Garden is the Palacio Municipal (Town Hall). An earlier version was destroyed by fire in 1913 with the loss of valuable archives. The arcade north of the Garden is the Portal Inguanzo, which includes the facade of the house of the wealthy Inguanzo family, owners of El Tesoro Hacienda, and an ice-cream store, "El Paraíso," where a selection of old photos of Jerez are on display. Off the north-east corner of the Garden is the sandstone "La Nacional" building. The south arcade is the Portal Humboldt.

A few steps from the Garden is the nineteenth century Santuario de la Soledad sandstone church with twin towers and a lovely main doorway. A stylish wrought iron fence surrounds its atrium. The main altar is home to the most revered statuette in Jerez. The annual fiesta in her honor is in the first half of September, ending just in time to begin Mexico's Independence Day celebrations. As you might imagine, therefore, September is not a very good month for getting business done in Jerez!

The elaborate "De La Torre" building across the street from the church has wonderful cedar doors, carved by Severo Revilla, an Indian child abandoned in Jerez after an abortive attack by the "natives." Revilla was raised and named by the local priest. The building is the work of master stonemason Dámaso Muñetón. Originally a school for girls, it is now the Cultural Institute.

The five arches on the north side of the "Small Garden" or Jardín Hidalgo belong to the Teatro Hinojosa, also built by Muñetón, and architecturally one of Mexico's finest theaters. Its restoration was completed in 1987. Its lovely three-tiered interior features a huge central chandelier that had to be regularly lowered to fill its many lanterns with petroleum. A mirror at the back of the theater reflected the chandelier light back onto the stage as a spotlight. If the interior of the building looks familiar, perhaps it is — because it is supposed to be an exact replica of the Ford Theater in Washington D.C.

Walking back past the Edificio De La Torre, you pass several stores selling crafts and collectibles, including more antique flatirons than you're ever likely to see elsewhere. A few steps more and you arrive at Plaza Tacuba. On one side is the "doves doorway," named for two stone doves beak to beak. Legend tells how a century ago two powerful hacienda owners organized an arranged marriage between their respective offspring. Mortified, the children did marry but agreed a joint suicide pact which they carried out right here.

Beyond Plaza Tacuba are the eighteenth century parish church of the Immaculate Conception and, hidden behind a newer construction, the museum honoring Ramón López Velarde, born here in 1888, who became one of Mexico's best known poets.

If you are lucky enough to visit Jerez during Easter week, then don't miss the town’s Judas competition, in which competition entries of stuffed effigies are hung aloft and then set on fire by horseback riders who charge in, carrying flaming lances.

The many sights of La Quemada and Jerez will soon make you realize that even if most guide books say there's nothing worth seeing south of Zacatecas, that probably only proves that their writers have never been here! But there's more to come! Remember we promised you an alternative, less traveled route towards Guadalajara? Well, here it is.


This leisurely and scenic route starts from Jerez. Heading south from Jerez, highway 23, a two lane paved road, gently winds through small picturesque villages and cuts across mountain ranges. Geographically, the road crosses back and forth between the states of Jalisco and Zacatecas and it is often almost impossible to know which state you’re in. The small villages along the way have their own stories to tell, even if you don’t have time to stop and explore, and don’t be put off by the plethora of similar-sounding village names — this route is very easy to follow.

One of the first villages you drive through is Tepetongo (in Zacatecas), which has a nineteenth neogothic church and a well-preserved ex-hacienda, Víboras, very close-by. Then comes Huejúcar (in Jalisco), on the River Huejúcar, a tributary of the Bolaños river which drains rugged mountainous mining country, home of the Huichol Indian people, to the River Santiago and thence to the Pacific. The pueblo of Santa Maria de los Angeles has a pretty little plaza nestling close to the cliff walls. Next is Colotlán, on a river which is also a tributary of the Bolaños. Momax, the next village, is back in Zacatecas. East of Momax is the Los Pilares canyon with interesting rock pillars and northwest is the San Miguel Mesa, an unexplored archaeological zone. Tlaltenango, has an old church and is on fertile land next to a river.

After Tepechitlán, the road rises into Mexican oak forest with panoramic views over the mountain ranges and majestic gorges of the Huichol Indian Sierra. Then comes Teúl de González Ortega, "house of the gods," with nearby archaeological vestiges of a fortress (El Teúl) and ceremonial site, still intact when the Spanish first arrived. García de la Cadena, is named in honor of nineteenth century governor of Zacatecas.

Finally, the road sweeps downward to the bottom of the canyon systems at the little town of San Cristobal de la Barranca in Jalisco, where it crosses the great Santiago river, now meandering its way from Lake Chapala to the Pacific. The spectacular next section of the road rises out of the barrancas (canyons) through wild mountain scenery and, suddenly, though it may be hard to believe, you're only a few minutes from the edge of Guadalajara. This is a wonderfully scenic route but has relatively few services, so gas up early, pack a picnic lunch and enjoy!

© Copyright 1998 by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.