This article is from the April 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Zacatecas, a labyrinth of riches, a difficult love

by Tony Burton

After 18 years working in Mexico, Tony Burton, an author, educator and travel consultant, moved to Canada in 1997. He returns several times a year to revisit his favorite places, leading specialized tours to such wonders as the Monarch butterflies, Paricutin volcano and the Copper Canyon. To see more of his work, visit www.mexconnect.com

The city of Zacatecas in northern Mexico is not only a veritable labyrinth of winding streets but also a fascinating labyrinth of artistic and cultural treasures.

Arriving in the New World, the early Spaniards pushed northwards searching for legendary treasures, silver and gold. Behind came missionaries determined to bring their faith to the thousands of potential "new souls." Zacatecas bears witness to both kinds of colonists.

The city's definitive founding came in 1536 after a native Indian gave Juan de Tolosa a nugget rich in silver, explaining that it came from a place that was fully fifteen days' walk away. Filled with ambition, Juan de Tolosa hurried on. Within a month, settlement began; within a year the first stones of an ore-processing hacienda de beneficio were laid. More prospectors and miners moved in; a "silver-rush" began. In 1585, Spain's King Philip II awarded Zacatecas its city title. The silver "aristocracy" was well on its way. As Federico Sescosse, the historian and respected leader of the city's architectural conservation movement, has so aptly put it, "The first four millionaires in the Americas, which in those days was like saying in the whole world, lived in Zacatecas." Zacatecas quickly became one of the foremost mining centers in New Spain.

A portion of this new-found wealth was expended on magnificent monuments. Miners' collective fear inside the mines became transformed into collective festivity outside. As one eighteenth century Inquisition censor, José de Arleguí, put it, "Where there is no silver, there is no religion." As mining and religion developed, the local hills were denuded of trees—mercilessly hacked down so that their timber could prop up the roofs of mine shafts and fuel the ore foundries and homes. Today's landscape of rolling hills covered in semi-arid scrub is completely different from the wooded scenery explored by the early Spaniards.

Built between hills and on steep slopes, Zacatecas (the name is derived from zacatl = grass and tecatl = people) is one of the few Mexican cities to have a maze-like street plan which makes wandering it a delight, even if it is easy to become disoriented!

Not that the local people get lost or have lost their way. Zacatecans have preserved and restored so many of the city's ancient architectural and artistic monuments that in 1993, UNESCO added their city to its select list of "Humanity's Cultural Treasures." The result is a happy city, with relatively few above-ground utility poles and no billboard advertising in the historic center.

A Walking Tour of the City

Let's take a walking tour of the city center, beginning from the main plaza, beside the cathedral....

The cathedral's mid-eighteenth century façade, depicting Christ and the twelve apostles, is one of the finest examples of Churrigueresque architecture in Mexico, with a masterfully-carved rosette window in the center. The building's richly adorned southern doorway is said to have been the work of a stonecarver sentenced to death for some serious crime. His execution was to be delayed until he finished his task. He proceeded to work calmly away at this doorway well into his old age—to the end of his divinely-allotted time on this earth!

The cathedral's interior once included a font of solid silver. Unfortunately, in 1859, General Jesús González Ortega found himself in the financially-embarrassing position of being unable to pay his troops. To prevent a mutiny, he ordered the font to be melted down and turned into silver coin.

On the south side of Zacatecas' austere main square or Plaza de Armas is the State Government Palace, an eighteenth century building with murals adorning its rear stairway.

Across the main street, on the northern side of the plaza—or, more strictly-speaking, north-western side, no two streets being quite square in Zacatecas—is the intriguingly-named Palacio de la Mala Noche (The Bad Night Palace), built by Manuel de Rétegui. According to local lore, Rétegui arrived in Zacatecas a pauper but got the chance to work a new unnamed mine north of the city. Rather than choosing a name of uncertain destiny, Rétegui waited, hoping the mine would be baptized by an unusual event. Day after long day, his workers toiled, following veins of silver which promised much but delivered little. Rétegui was on the verge of giving up. Deep in debt, he decided his only way out was suicide. Writing farewell notes to his family, his pistol lay ready on the table. Suddenly, the door burst open and amidst cries of "We've struck silver!" the mine was christened "Bad Night." A bonanza followed and Rétegui built this palace.

Lest you think this ramble into the past is diverting us from our intended walk through the city center, such rambling, meandering routes are precisely what Zacatecas is really all about—every building has a multitude of stories and memories. Zacatecas is a city to wander through, slowly savoring the glimpses and insights it offers into the past; it is a city to stroll around, admiring how centuries-old buildings have found new functions as charming, multifaceted gift stores, offices, hotels and small family-run restaurants. Even the city-center multistory car park on Miguel Auza street maintains its original 250-year-old facade!

Back on our walk, along from the Bad Night Palace is the former Hotel Frances, now a tourist information office with friendly staff and touch-screen computer monitors that allow basic information to be quickly accessed in either English or Spanish. Make this office one of your first ports-of-call in the city and be sure to find out what special events, promotions and seasonal attractions are taking place during your stay.

While in the tourist office, double-check the opening times of local museums, since they also take vacations from their regular schedules at certain times of the year. Zacatecas museums do not all close every Monday (the general rule in Mexico). Here, opening hours vary and some museums take a daily midday siesta.

A few blocks along Hidalgo avenue, going away from the cathedral, is the former convent of San Francisco, now the Rafael Coronel museum (closed on Wednesdays). This wonderfully evocative building, still partly in ruins, provides a marvelous backdrop for fine exhibits including a world-class collection of Mexican masks and a display of nineteenth century puppets.

Leaving the museum, turn right and walk back towards the center along Genero Codina street as far as the Santo Domingo plaza. The church of Santo Domingo has a particularly interesting interior with several Churrigueresque gilded wooden retablos or altarpieces with fine sculptures and paintings.

On the high side of the plaza is the former Jesuit College, now the Pedro Coronel museum (closed Thursdays). Here is displayed this local painter's fabulous collection of art from around the world, donated to his native city shortly before his death in 1985. This museum is one of the "must-sees" of Zacatecas; its collection would not seem out of place in Washington D.C., Los Angeles or Rome.

Three ground floor rooms house the Elías Amador Library. Ownership marks burnt into the covers of the many books formerly gracing the shelves of convent and monastery libraries allow us to reconstruct the favorite bedtime reading of the nuns and friars. The portrait in the library's middle hall is of the Americas' earliest known journalist—Zacatecas-born Juan Ignacio María Castorena, editor of "La Gaceta de México y de Nueva España," which first hit the streets in 1722.

Upstairs is Coronel's phenomenal collection of world art, a collection which has been described as unique in Latin America. It includes treasures from every continent: Egyptian and Classical art dating back to 1400 B.C., terracotta and ivory figures from the Orient, masks from Africa and Oceania, Goya engravings and Miró paintings from Europe, and Mayan stela from the Yucatán.

Leaving the museum, cross to the lower (southwestern) corner of the plaza and walk along Ignacio Hierro street, past the former Casa de la Moneda (Mint) with its black and white mural. Then, consider entering the Zacatecan Museum (closed Tuesdays) to study its staggering collection of intricate embroidery done by the indigenous Huichol people as well as examples of their bead and yarn art.

On the next corner (beware of the traffic!) is the former temple of San Agustín, now being restored. Approaching from this direction, you first see its magnificent side doorway. The superb stonework depicts Saint Augustine, shown reclining, supported by his right arm, with a book in his left hand. The angel above the door is saying "Tolle et lege" ("Take this and read it")—the phrase's normal word order is reversed so that the first word spoken is farthest from his mouth.

At the end of Miguel Auza street (which starts from the front of the San Agustin church) is a charming small plaza, the verdant Jardín Juárez. Fronting this "plazita" is my favorite hostelry in Zacatecas—the Meson de Jobito Hotel. The "House of the Hobbit" has 31 elegantly decorated suites (some with a jacuzzi), an outstanding restaurant (try the giant shrimps in tamarind sauce if you don't believe me), and friendly, attentive service. Reservations can be made by writing to Hotel Meson de Jobito, Jardín Juárez 143, Zacatecas, C.P. 98000 Zacatecas, Mexico or by telephone/fax to either (492) 41722 or (only from within Mexico) 01-800-44000.

For visiting groups (and Zacatecas is a great place for conferences), any of the city's better hotels will arrange a special treat: a callejoneada... This is a carnival-like street dance "anything goes," led by a drum-banging band and fortified by swigs of fruit-flavored punch, liberally laced with something of an allegedly higher alcohol content... After a few drinks, dancing through the narrow, winding streets of the city won't seem like quite such a strange thing to do, though perhaps you should think carefully before transporting this custom back home—your suburban neighbors may think twice about your sanity. Here in Zacatecas it is THE thing to do and everyone—participants, musicians, singers and onlookers—have a "revellous" good time.

From the Jardín Juárez, a short steep pedestrianized street leads down to Avenida Hidalgo. Turn left and walk in the shade of the wide Rosales Arcade, doing some window-shopping as you go. Very soon, you pass the entrance to the Fernando Calderón theater. If rehearsal and performance schedules permit, don't hesitate to peek inside.

Opposite the theater is the González Ortega Market, dating from the turn of the century. Completely remodeled in 1982, its numerous small boutiques sell a variety of items ranging from antiques to T-shirts. The market's lower level now has several mid-priced restaurants serving tasty local dishes. Given that the market is next to the cathedral, and we've now walked full circle around the city center, it's time to choose one of these restaurants and enjoy a well-deserved mid-day comida.

Should you lose your way in wandering around the city, treat the extra sights you see as an unexpected bonus. It is almost worth getting lost, if only in order to explore recesses of Zacatecas that lie off the usual tourist trail. Indeed, I find myself recalling a short stanza by local poet Daniel Kuri Breña, often and appropriately used in the promotional literature put out by the Zacatecas State Tourism Department:

Zacatecas is a difficult city, it doesn't offer itself easily to anybody, neither to those from within nor without; it has to be won discovered and conquered just like a loved one.

True indeed! And, besides the city center, Zacatecas has several other interesting places well worth visiting. For example, during the course of your travels, you'll probably happen upon the graceful, eighteenth century El Cubo Aqueduct, built to bring water from the Cubo mine to the southern part of the city. Close to where Avenida Hidalgo goes beneath the aqueduct is the luxurious Hotel Quinta Real, which incorporates an old bull ring into its design. Nearby, where the aqueduct passes one end of Enrique Estrada Park, is a fine equestrian statue of General González Ortega by one-armed Manuel Contreras, Mexico's most famous nineteenth century sculptor. At the upper end of the park is the Francisco Goitia modern art museum (closed Mondays).

La Bufa

Further afield, overlooking the city is the 8590-foot La Bufa mountain. Once chosen by the local Zacatecos indians as the place to erect rudimentary huts, today it is the site of the Mausoleum of Illustrious Zacatecans, the Chapel of the Virgin of Patrocinio and a small Museum (closed Mondays) commemorating the Battle of Zacatecas (1914). This short nine-hour battle came near the start of the Mexican Revolution. Leading the victors was General Dorotea Arango (better known as Francisco "Pancho" Villa). After the battle, Zacatecas was sacked and left with a desperate shortage of light, water, medicine and police; it remained a small, provincial city until relatively recently.

La Bufa is the setting for a children's New Year legend. Inside La Bufa is a giant cave—if you ever find the entrance, you'll find a great palace, silver floors, gold walls and thousands of white-skinned, small-eyed gnomes. Their job is to care for and feed the New Years. Each New Year is a little child slumbering in a small padded box. If one ever dies, there will be no more New Years. Each December the gnomes choose which New Year will be offered to the people outside. Few people on the outside of La Bufa realize what is happening but as a shadow falls across the hill, and the Old Year returns from its travels, the New Year shoots up towards the stars in a momentary blaze of light.

There are obviously various ways to see La Bufa! While the hill is a short taxi-ride or a steep climb up from the city center, a more spectacular approach is to take the 650-meter-long overhead cable-car (teleférico) which links La Bufa to the upper entrance to El Eden mine, affording excellent bird's-eye views over the city center. The lower part of the El Eden mine, connected to the upper part by an elevator, is open to tourists. Regularly scheduled narrow-gauge trains take visitors more than a mile into the hillside. At the end of the line, a short 200-yard walk along a damp tunnel past mine shafts and one of Mexico's more unusual shrines leads to a small gift shop stocked with gems and minerals.

For a far more grandiose shrine, though still only an inexpensive taxi-ride from the city center, visit the magnificent Guadalupe Museum, formally known as the Museum of Viceregal Art (closed Mondays). This monastery, founded in 1707, was the base for the great Franciscan drive northwards during colonial times. Within its doors is a treasure trove of secret passages, cells, catacombs, sundials, enormous water tanks, chapels, corridors and doorways, with magnificent pieces of religious art of all kinds round every corner and on every wall.

The highlights here include a large crucifix, weighing only seven pounds, made four centuries ago of sugar-cane ground into crumbs and mixed with honey and egg whites, seventeenth century oil paintings in which the subject's eyes seek out the viewer regardless of the angle from which he or she tries to evade the saint's keen scrutiny, huge chorus books and the white and gold Nápoles Chapel, richly decorated with extraordinarily complicated motifs. The Guadalupe Museum is truly one of the "must-sees" of any visit to the city.

Running along the bottom of the narrow valley between the city and Guadalupe is a long linear park with jogging track, children's games and ample shade. The park is west of Lopez Portillo Boulevard, on which are several hotels including the Days Inn and the Park Plaza. This park is a pleasant place to take your morning exercise.

East of the Lopez Portillo Boulevard, more or less opposite the park, is the entrance to the Zacatecas Country Club (Club Campestre) with tennis courts and a well maintained 9 hole golf course. Green fees are very reasonable (about 20 dollars for 18 holes), clubs can be rented and caddies can be hired, so you have no excuse for not playing! Tucked away in the same general vicinity is the Centro Platero, the city's silver-working school where a good selection of silver items are for sale. While you try to sink an eight-foot putt in the shadow of an ancient hacienda, your partner can shop for jewelry!

It doesn't really matter what time of the year you visit Zacatecas, but should your visit coincide with summertime, you can join the many Zacatecans who let their hair down for three days in an entertaining fiesta ending the final Sunday in August. In colorful reproductions of period costumes, they re-enact the struggles of the Moors and Christians—La Morisma—on the hills above the village of Bracho.

Zacatecas is definitely a place worth visiting many times—on every visit you'll discover new delights, find new loves