My visit to Zacatecas in February was most unusual and very rewarding. I knew before going that it was the most northern of the silver cities, the second highest city in the country, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Few foreign tourists go there and indeed I met none.
I took the bus there from Guanajuato: Omnibus de Mexico, M$455, 4.5 hours. Security was stringent: bags thoroughly checked, photo taken. The bus was direct with no stops other than police checks where the police got everyone off the bus and went through hand luggage and a police dog sniffed through the luggage compartment.
The taxi driver who took me from the bus station to my hotel (Hotel Emporio Zacatecas, not worth the splurge) spoke excellent English, telling me he had worked in the US as an illegal immigrant until caught and sent back. His wife is still there as is his US-born son. She can’t visit him in Mexico because she is also illegal and US immigration told him that he would get 2 years in prison if caught in the States again. So he hasn’t seen his family in 5 years. Not unusual but so sad. The driver also told me that it is much safer in Zacatecas than it was 4 or 5 years ago.
I asked a local bus driver who spoke excellent English (having also worked in the US) why so many people were out on the street, sweeping and washing windows. He told me a TV station encourages people to do that; that on certain days everyone goes out and picks up garbage and makes everything spiffy. They are also told, so he said, to be friendly to visitors because maybe they’ll remember how friendly everyone is and come back. He also said that four years ago you wouldn’t want to be on the street after 5:00 pm.
The third and last person I met who spoke English (he learned his English at the local university and works in a museum bookstore) agreed that it is safer than 4 years ago but that there are still problems with violence.
My first impression of the city is that there are very few police around given all the travel warnings. The Historic Centre is impressive and most of the colonial buildings have been completely preserved. The Spaniards started to build the city in 1546 after a very rich silver deposit was found nearby. It’s in a narrow valley and the slopes are steep so buildings seem to be molded to the landscape. There are a few main streets and narrow lanes run up the hills, sometimes opening on small plazas.
Sections of an aqueduct still stand that was built to take water over the roofs of buildings and compensate for the unevenness of the land.
Zacatecas, along with Guanajuato, became the most important mining towns of New Spain. It also became the base for colonization and the spread of the Christian religion. This is a town with impressive religious structures.
The Historic Centre is quite something to see after the sun has gone down.
Zacatecas is also known as the ‘city of the museums’ and they are most impressive. The Museo Rafael Coronel is set in a restored convent and houses the most incredible display of traditional Mexican masks—several thousand of them.
The Museum Pedro Coronel is housed in a former Jesuit college. It was named after Pedro Coronel, a sculptor and painter whose work was exhibited in Europe and United States and well as Mexico and who donated his art collection to the city. It is considered to be one of the best art museums outside of Mexico City.
The Abstract Museum is named after Manuel Felguérez who was born in Zacatecas and donated more than 100 of his works, and of other artists, including those he did for the Mexican Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Exhibition in 1970. Felguérez was one of Mexico’s first abstract painters. I love how the building was restored, how they showed images of the restoration, and how the director kept an eye out to make sure I didn’t miss a space.
I took the tourist bus up to the Cerro de La Bufa, an imposing mountain where you go for splendid views of the city. I expected the view but not the history for it was here that the largest and bloodiest battle of the Mexican Revolution took place. The battle is known as La Toma de Zacatecas (The Taking of Zacatecas) and it left 7,000 soldiers dead and 5,000 wounded. There’s a small museum (Spanish only) and bronze sculptures, and you can see the holes where the bullets went through and so on.
There’s also a small memorial in the downtown about those who toiled in the silver mines in very bad conditions, both children and adults. You can go down in a mine if that suits you.
I took the bus from here south to Guanajuato, not a direct route but easy nonetheless. There was no security at all for this ride. Is that because drugs travel north?
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses™ 2015