Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s colonial gems – some would say the finest in the country – yet few international tourists discover its charms. It is true that its relatively isolated position in the north of the country, at an altitude of 8,200 feet (2,500 metres), may discourage some visitors; but it is still only one hour’s flight away from Mexico City, or half a day by bus from Guadalajara.
The city owes its splendor to the vast mineral resources discovered in the area. The Spaniards quickly exploited these reserves, making Zacatecas one of the richest cities in New Spain. Churches and mansions of exquisite beauty were constructed from the proceeds, often in the local pink sandstone.
Stories of the golden ages are, however, tinged with sadness over the terrible conditions suffered by the Indian mine workers; several a day died in the tunnels at the height of production. Zacatecas is one of the few cities in Mexico where it is possible to take a tour of a silver mine – El Eden is open to the public and features a train ride through the old mine works and even an underground discotheque.
Today the historic center of Zacatecas appears to have changed little since its heyday – apart from the intrusion of vehicles on its narrow streets. Unlike many colonial cities, it was not possible to design the city on a grid pattern because of its location in a narrow valley between two rocky hills. Sturdy shoes are necessary for exploration of the steep callejones (alleyways) up the hillsides, though navigation on foot is the best way to appreciate the city.
Strolling through the city streets, take time to observe the ornate ironwork features of the pastel colored houses. No two balconies have the same pattern and even the simplest façade is graced with its own intricate example.
The Cathedral. Many people visit Zacatecas just to see this masterpiece – it is regarded as one of the finest examples of churrigueresque architecture in the country. It was built in the early 18th century when the silver mines were producing around one fifth of Mexico’s silver and wealth flooded into the city. Once upon a time the interior was almost as impressive, embellished with silver and gold leaf, but little remains now.
Templo de Santo Domingo. From the Cathedral, take the narrow and steep Callejon de Veyna to the Plaza de Santo Domingo – you’ll pass interesting artisans’ shops on the way. The Templo de Santo Domingo is also constructed of pink stone, and though nowhere near as elaborately decorated as the Cathedral, it is still very pleasing. It was built by the Jesuits, but after their expulsion in 1767 the Dominicans assumed responsibility for its upkeep. Take a look at the beautiful gilded altarpieces inside.
Museo Rafael Coronel Zacatecas is worth visiting for its museums alone, and this has to be one of the most unusual. Over 3,000 Mexican masks grouped by subject in staggering and colorful displays – fascinating for children and adults alike. Rafael Coronel was the brother of Pedro, who also has a museum in the city. This showcase is housed in the restored Convento de San Francisco, delightful in its own rights and surrounded by some particularly beautiful gardens. It is a pleasant walk from the town center, though you could take a taxi if Zacatecas’ altitude is making you weary. The museum is open 10:00am to 2:00pm and 4:00pm to 7:00pm and is closed on Wednesdays.
Museo Pedro Coronel. Pedro Coronel married Diego Rivera’s daughter Ruth, and was himself a highly regarded artist. His impressive collection of art was enlarged by exchanging his own sculptures for the work of others. There are some famous names here, such as Dali and Picasso – and some unusual exhibits from Africa and the Far East. The museum is open between 10:00am and 2:00pm and from 4:00pm to 7:00pm. Note that unlike many state museums, this one is open on Mondays but closed on Thursdays.
The Teleferico. For the best aerial views, take the “teleferico” or cable car that operates between the Cerro del Grillo and the Cerro de la Bufa. At the top of Cerro de la Bufa you can see a pretty church (La Capilla de la Virgen de Patrocinio) and the Museo de la Toma de Zacatecas, a museum dedicated to the revolution. You could walk down the Cerro, or take the return teleferico back to Cerro del Grillo. Back at the Cerro del Grillo, you’ll find the entrance to the Mina El Eden. This is one of the few silver mines in Mexico offering a guided tour to the public – including a tram ride and a tour of the mine shafts. You’ll gain a good understanding of the dreadful conditions experienced by the miners – there were up to five deaths a day at the height of production. There are rickety wooden ladders and shaky rope bridges across deep caverns, with the guide’s torch to light your way.
Palacio de la Mala Noche. Opposite the Palacio de Goberno across the Plaza de Armas is a building known as the Casa de la Mala Noche. It was home to a mine-owner and ‘la Mala Noche’ or The Bad Night, was the night before he was told of the discovery of a new vein of silver in his mine. He had been on the point of bankruptcy having invested all his money in the work, and had just given away his last peso. From the next day on, he was a rich man.
Convento de Guadalupe. A few miles east of Zacatecas is the Convento de Guadalupe, still in use by the Franciscan Order but partly open to the public as a museum. It’s a beautiful building, but especially worth the visit for the magnificent paintings on display everywhere, Many depict the events in the life of St Francis and some of the oldest works in Mexico are here. Be sure to visit the rooms above (and looking into) the neighboring church – from here you can see the Capilla de Napoles, a chapel of indescribable beauty decorated with 22 carat gold, and a library that looks like it has been untouched for centuries.
Our favorite bar in town is in the luxurious Quinta Real hotel, which has been constructed around the magnificently restored bull ring. The bar is located down in the old bull corrals and is incredibly atmospheric.