This article is from the June 1997 The Mexico File
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The Town of Taxco, and a Couple of Things You Will Need
by David Simmonds
Is there a more scenic town in Mexico than Taxco? Maybe, but I'm not sure what it would be. Usually, a town has to have an ocean by it to rank on my "most scenic" list, but with Taxco I make an exception. As it snakes up the side of the Sierra Madre you soon are aware that every room has a view. You also realize that both of your legs better be in extraordinary working order, something along the lines of a stump-legged sherpa. This would be a good place to spend a week prior to competing in your next Ironman triathlon or your next trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles to re-register your auto. Taxco will whip you into shape, friends. Either that or kill you.
Cardiac risk factors aside, this town is a lot of fun and a pleasant place to spend some time. Sitting some 6,000 feet in altitude, the town has spread out in all directions from its center since my first visit in 1975. I have seen the population listed at anywhere between 60,000 and 150,000. Regardless, it doesn't feel like a large town.
The name Taxco is derived from the Nahuatl word "Tlachco," which translates to "the place where ball is played." What kind of ball you could play on the side of a mountain, I'm not sure. The Spaniards first discovered the wealth of minerals in the area as early as 1524, just three years after the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan had been conquered by Hernan Córtes. Córtes, always looking for the road to riches, heard that the area was laden with gold and silver. This resulted in the excavation of the first mine in the New World, Sovacón del Rey, located on the present site of the zócalo and the beautiful Santa Prisca church.
The original mines were soon sucked dry, however, and not a whole lot happened for the next one-hundred and fifty years. Then, in 1708, Francisco and Don José de la Borda showed up from France, picks in hand, and commenced on working the mines. Francisco died, but Don José discovered the vein of a lifetime, named San Ignacio, and soon attained the wealth he had sought. A devout Christian, he paid to have the Santa Prisca church built, which today dominates the town with its intricate baroque architecture. The undertaking nearly bankrupted him, but the final result is one of magnificence.
After a nice run of sustained silver production, the veins once again went dry. The town nearly emptied and stagnated until the arrival, in 1929, of an American professor, William Spratling. He had come to write a book, but his publisher went broke, so he started a silver workshop. Some people have a knack for starting the right business at the right time. I would have probably opened something like a trampoline center. Anyway, Spratling got into silversmithing, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today there are over 300 silver shops in Taxco, which brings us to the other item you will want to bring on your visit (the first being usable legs). Sunglasses, because when you walk into one of these silver shops, the glitter and shine are intense, exceeded only by the room in which Liz Taylor keeps her personal jewelry.
I'm no expert on silver, but I was repeatedly told that the pieces available in Taxco are of better quality and more unique than that can be found anywhere else. The usual, less expensive bracelets and necklaces are available as well, but many of the better shops have pieces that are considered to be more like works of art. These superior pieces are not necessarily sold by the gram as much of the silver is, but are priced for their inticracy and uniqueness of design.
If you are buying silver that is being priced by the gram, ask to see it being weighed. But first, explore a few different shops and find out what the general consensus is for the price of a gram. The shops right around the zócalo tend to be more expensive that others more on the fringe, and the marketplace may be the cheapest of all.
I'm not a real accomplished shopper, especially for something I know nothing about...which includes a great many items, but most definitely includes silver jewelry. So I bought a beautiful (I think) necklace for my wife in the first store I entered just because I liked the salesman and thought he was honest. I did let him know I expected his cheapest price or I was walking. We went back and forth several times, finally settling on his "absolute lowest price, I swear to you before God" (he lives near San Diego half the year, and speaks excellent English). This particular necklace was not one that was priced by the gram because of its workmanship, but still cost less than $1 US per gram ( I had them weigh it, out of curiosity)...and I later found this to be a good price. So, there you have your first course in Jewelry Buying 101 from a jewelry moron.
The store I have referenced is Plateria Gloria, located at Plazuela de San Juan No. 7, a very short distance from the zócalo. The salesman was Francisco Javier O. Salgado. If he robs you blind, I'm not responsible, but I think of him as honest and reliable and I liked him.
THINGS TO SEE
There are three museums and a few other buildings worth a visit. Located in an unimpressive building right behind the church of Santa Prisca at Calle Delgado 1 is the Museo de Taxco Guillermo Spratling. This is mainly filled with pre-Columbian artifacts from Spratling's private collection. There are some interesting pieces, if not major in importance, and the tour will take you around half an hour.
Just around the corner, at Calle Juan Ruíz de Alacrón 6, sits one of the oldest colonial homes in town, Museo de Arte Virreinal, better known as Casa Humboldt. This is in reference to the German explorer Baron Von Humboldt who spent one night here in 1803. For this he gets a house named for him. (Does this mean that our White House will soon be named Casa Streisand)? The contents are mainly colonial religious art. And unlike so many of Mexico's museums the information placards are in English as well as Spanish.
The most interesting of the museums is the Museo de la Plateria (Silver Museum), located on the zócalo, or Plaza Borda. This is the place to learn about silver-making and to see some classic pieces, including some of those by William Spratling. I highly recommend a visit to this museum for its beauty and information about the history of silver in Mexico.
You may want to take a ride on a Swiss-made cable car, located just a short walk east of town. The view is spectacular. But bear in mind that the cars are Swiss-made and Mexican maintained, a thought that was ever-present during every lurch and bump on the ride. The trip ends at the top of a hill at the Hotel Monte Taxco, generally regarded as the nicest hotel in town, although not by me. It's a nice enough setting, but the rooms are Holiday Inn unimaginative and you have to take a taxi to get to town and back. They have tennis courts and even a nine-hole golf course that is in poor condition and has an asphalt airstrip running through two of the fairways right about where your drive would be landing. For the most part, wealthy families from Mexico City were staying here.
The marketplace is one of the most unusual in Mexico, not because of the products, but more for the logistics involved in viewing the wares. It is essentially a narrow, alley-like maze winding down the hillside from the Plaza Borda. This would be a good time to have a burro at your disposal.
There is not a great deal of nightlife in town, although there are a few semi-lively restaurant/cantinas on the Plaza Borda. And, of course, the plaza park benches are always a good place to spend some time and get a feel for the town and its people.
One small warning: beware the nightclub music from space. It's not actually from space, but it is sometimes hard to determine its source when you are laying in your bed, the occasional mosquito buzzing in your ear, wondering when you will finally sleep. There is something about the thin air and the many walls of buildings that carries loud sounds bouncing in all directions.
I attempted to sleep in the wonderful ex-convent, Hotel Los Arcos, unwillingly listening to the rock sixties and seventies sounds of Ray and Claudio, unsure if they were in the room next to me or on stage a mile away. And although the music was pretty good and well played, I wanted sleep. This was a Saturday night and I rationalized the inconvenience to that fact and was fairly well-rested when I woke up Sunday morning.
I was told that there would be some fine entertainment in the plaza at 4:00 in the afternoon and was looking forward to a cultural Mexican scene. And sure enough that evening the crowds gathered in gaiety. Families from toddlers to the old folks were in rapt attention when the music began...the music of RAY AND CLAUDIO. It was rock and roll time in old Taxco.