Sunday, October 4, 2009

Zacatecas Part 1: Treasure of the North

Viva Mexico! Zacatecas celebrates the War of Independence. Carole and I joined with 3 other people in a 2-car caravan to visit the northern colonial silver-mining city of Zacatecas in late September. The other folks were a couple named Denis and Julika, and single woman named Verena. Denis is originally from Ireland, and Julika and Verena are originally from Germany. All are currently full-time expats in the Lake Chapala area. We looked forward to the trip because we enjoy Denis, Julika and Verena's company, and because we thought traveling with such an international group would provide some interesting perspectives. When we arrived in Zacatecas, late in the afternoon, the city was still festooned with the banners and flags you see above from the Independencia fiesta which had just finished.

The trip from Lake Chapala to Zacatecas took about 5 hours, but it was nearly all on cuotas (superhighway toll roads), so the driving was smooth and beautifully scenic. The only spot where we anticipated driving difficulties was Aguascalientes, about 2/3 of the way to Zacatecas. Aguascalientes has a reputation for terrible traffic and confusing streets. However, we took a bypass road to the east (Avenida Siglo XXI) and encountered only light traffic. This may have been because we drove up on a Sunday, but when we returned the same way the following Wednesday, the traffic was still reasonably smooth.

Aerial view of El Centro. Zacatecas is the capital of the Mexican state of the same name. It is a thriving small city of about 123,000. The name Zacatecas means "place of abundant grass" in the nahuatl language of the indigenous people living there when the Spanish arrived. The city, at a breath-taking 8050 feet, perches on the sides of a deep ravine surrounded by high desert hills. Shown above is El Centro, the old town, seen from La Bufa, a famous mountain overlooking the city. I'll have more about La Bufa in a future post in this series.

The city was founded in 1548, about 2 years after silver was discovered by conquistador Juan de Tolosa at the base of La Bufa. In the center of the picture is the Cathedral. Immediately to the right is the red roof of the Palacio Gobierno (Government Palace). The red roofed building to the left of the Cathedral is Mercado Gonzalez Ortega which was built in neoclassical style between 1886-1889 on the site of the old public market place. The Mercado is now an up-scale set of stores selling fine silver, wines and other expensive goods. The Mercado also contains the Acropolis, a very nice restaurant where we ate a couple of times. Immediately above the red roof of the Mercado in the photo is a block of 3 multi-story buildings, the center one of which is cream-colored. That was our hotel, the Best Western Argento Inn.

Best Western Argento Inn, our base of operations in Zacatecas. Denis (L.), Julika (M.) and Carole (R.) wait to cross the busy street in front of the Argento Inn. We enjoyed our stay at the hotel, and found the staff to be very attentive. Our friends in Ajijic had warned us that English-speaking visitors to Zacatecas had better have some Spanish capability. To our surprise, many of the hotel staff were able to speak very good English. We had actually delayed our visit to Zacatecas until we felt our Spanish was sufficient to manage routine needs. Again and again in Zacatecas, we found that our Spanish was answered with good English, generally by someone who had lived in the US. While we enjoy practicing our limited Spanish in Mexico, it is helpful to deal with an English speaker when there are complications.

The Argento Inn was about what one might expect from the Best Western chain: not overly artistic in decor, but containing all the modern conveniences and everything works. A very important convenience was off-street parking, included in the bill. Zacatecas is a difficult town to drive in, much less to find parking. We really didn't need our car to get around in the city itself, because the Argento Inn is located in the middle of El Centro, less than 2 blocks from the Cathedral. We could walk almost anywhere, and cabs were cheap and plentiful when we didn't want to walk. For more information about our hotel, click here.

Zacatecas was one of the world's great silver-mining cities. Over the last 400 years, the city's mines produced more than 1.5 billion ounces of silver. Mexico still produces more than 17% of the world's silver and Zacatecas is a major source of this ore, as well as gold, copper, lead, and other minerals. The monument shown above commemorates the Indian miners who lived and died in the mines, producing enormous wealth, almost none of which ended up in their hands. The average lifespan of an Indian miner was between 30 and 40 years, and once they entered the mines, they never saw daylight again, beginning work before dawn and ending long after sunset. They were immediately indebted to the mine owner and could not leave until the debt was satisfied, which it almost never was. A miner's son inherited the debt and was bound to work in the mine when his father died. It was slavery in every way but name.

Alley of the Sad Indian. I encountered the sign for this callejon (alley) before I heard the story of the Indian miners, and wondered at its significance. Later I understood.

No sad Indians here! Despite the gloomy name, the Callejon del Indio Triste rang with the laughter of children playing along its length. The photo above gives an idea of how narrow these ancient alleys are. In the background, the city is built up the sides of the ravine below La Bufa. El Centro is criss-crossed with these callejones, which are not all straight but often snake around natural features of the land. This is an easy city in which to get lost, on foot as well as in a car.

Red limestone glows in the evening light. I noticed this wonderful rose colored building while standing under some portales (archways) across the street. I thought the arched portal would make a nice frame for the limestone building. Zacatecas is known for this wonderful rosy limestone, called cantera, which the Spanish discovered to be an excellent building material.

Monks on the move. While wandering the streets, I encountered these two monks striding purposefully up the street. Zacatecas is full of old religious buildings erected by various religious orders including the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and others. I was amused to notice that, under his robe, the front monk wore bluejeans and sneakers.

The old and the new, juxtaposed. Everywhere we go, in the cities or the smallest villages, we find cyber cafes, offering internet access to the locals. Above, the elaborate doorway of a Spanish colonial building is decorated with a 21st Century sign. Much of Mexico is "plugged in" and wireless service is found in many places.

A busy winding street in El Centro. Hidalgo street runs in front of the Hotel Argento. Above you can see how narrow the old stone-paved streets are. Because of this narrowness, many streets are one-way, invariably the wrong way when you want to drive on them. Of course, the streets were made for horses and carriages and foot traffic. The original engineers never envisioned the use to which they are now put.

Another steep, stone-paved callejon. This one leads from Hidalgo street up to the church on the hill above. Living in Zacatecas, one would develop the legs of a mountain goat from climbing all the callejones leading up the steep hillsides.

The alphabet soup restaurant. While wandering the byways of El Centro, I got separated from Carole and our companions. I was preoccupied with photography, turned and simply found them gone, disappeared down some side street. I searched fruitlessly through the area for a while. They were searching for me too, as Carole told me later, at length and with some heat. Hungry, I finally gave up. I almost passed up this little Mexican buffet, the Sopa de Letras, but two young Mexican waiters enticed me inside. They were working so hard to drum up business that I thought I'd give it a shot. The food, a wide variety of Zacatecas specialities, was excellent and the waiters took good care of me. They seated me at a table behind the flag in the balcony seen above, where I could view the intricate stone work of the Cathedral entrance just across the street.

Luis admires the evening view. Luis was one of the two at the front door. As I came in, I made some small comment in Spanish and he immediately answered "I speak English, you know." As Luis saw to my every need, I struck up a conversation with him, learning that he had spent many years in Los Angeles and Washington State, and had only recently returned to Mexico. He told me about the great view available from the roof of the restaurant, and when I expressed interest in the photo possibilities, he secured the permission of the restaurant manager to take me up. In the photo he is admiring the facade of the Cathedral across the street. The Mercado Gonzalez Ortega can be seen behind him. Just to the right of the two columns are the windows of the Acropolis Restaurant, another excellent eating place. His striking profile reminded me of some of the carvings I have seen on ancient Mexican ruins.

Plaza de General Auza. The statue is of General Miguel Auza Arrenechea, hero of the mid-19th Century Reform War between Liberals and Conservatives, and of the Battle of Puebla in 1863 against the invading French. The victory at Puebla is celebrated as Cinco de Mayo. Gen. Auza was born in the State of Zacatecas and numerous sites and towns bear his name. The little plaza itself was charming, cozy, and lined with trees. The soft colors of the old colonial homes around it showed nicely in the late afternoon sun.

The center of El Centro. The Cathedral with its bell towers and dome, and the Palacio Gobierno on the left, are "ground zero" of El Centro. Since one can see the Cathedral spires and dome from almost anywhere, they form a great landmark for someone lost in the intricacies of the winding callejones. The Cathedral was constructed from the same rosy cantera limestone seen in my earlier photo.

The Palacio Gobierno, as the afternoon shadows lengthen. The "grito", or cry for independence which triggered the revolt against Spain, is a traditional part of the independence celebration. The grito this year was probably delivered by the Zacatecas governor from the balcony over the main door above, to the people massed in the plaza below. Mexicans are a patriotic people and large crowds show up for these events. Behind the Palacio, La Bufa looms, topped by the Observatory, and to the right, the white Santuario de La Virgen del Patrocinio, the patroness of Zacatecas.

The governor's mansion was formerly a colonial home. Immediately to the left of the Palacio, at a right angle, is the governor's mansion. The mansion is another example of the fine work with red cantera limestone.

Corner detail of the governor's mansion. This section was probably added on after independence, because it has a distinctly 19th Century appearance. The lines and colors of the cantera blocks show very nicely here.

Callejon tunnel runs under the Palacio Gobierno, where it joins the Cathedral. Whoever built the Palacio apparently didn't want to block access from the next street and simply built the Palacio over the callejon, creating an interesting tunnel leading to Hidalgo street.

Main entrance of the Cathedral. The style of the entrance was Churrigueresque, a style that has become a synonym for "lavish" and "over-the-top". The stone carvings are fantastically intricate, and were so expensive at the time they were accomplished that a church seldom had its whole exterior done this way. Usually only the entrances were so decorated. What's more, all the details had religious meaning, often relating to other details in obscure ways. A tour guide spent at least a half hour just explaining the main features of this front entrance. This was my view from my widow seat at the Sopa de Letras.

The upper part of the main entrance is equally intricate. The figures between the columns represent each of the twelve apostles (the remaining four are in the picture above). Christ is in the center at the top. To the right of the figures on the top row, you can see a blank space in the design, where the coat of arms of the Spanish crown was originally carved. According to Antonio, our tour guide, the emblem of Spanish authority was sliced off the facade during the independence struggle. Nothing else ever replaced it, making it perhaps the only blank space in the entire design.

Detail of the Cathedral facade's columns. The Churrigueresque style was named after Jose Benito de Churriguera (1650-1725), a Spanish architect and sculptor. He attempted to achieve what was called "supreme order" in his creations. The lavish style gradually was supplanted in the 19th Century by neoclassic style with a cleaner, more sober design. Construction on the Cathedral began in 1730, on a site that had been occupied previously by two other churches. The Cathedral officially opened its doors in 1752. Much of the funds to build the Cathedral came from wealthy mine owners.

Bell Tower of the Cathedral. The red limestone tower looms against the deep blue of the sky. The colors here were irresistible to me. Notice how unadorned the Bell Tower is below the top. One of the bells was purchased through the donations of jewelry and coins by the faithful.

Teatro Calderon repeatedly experienced disaster. Originally built in 1832 on the site of an old penitentiary, the building burned to the ground in 1891. The Teatro was rebuilt in 1897, and orchestras and opera companies performed before audiences gowned in satin and dressed in white tie and tails. This was Mexico's version of the Gilded Age, and its excesses ended in the bloody revolution of 1910-1920. During the fighting for Zacatecas in 1914, the Teatro was partially destroyed when explosives stored next door blew up. Little was done for the next 70 years to rebuild the great structure, or protect its treasures. Then, in 1985, a burst of civic pride resulted in the rehabilitation of much of Zacatecas, including the Teatro we see today.

The intricate scroll work on the columns frames stained glass windows. We were not able to examine the interior of the Teatro because an important conference was under way. Apparently, former US Vice President Al Gore was giving a lecture on "An Inconvenient Truth" to Mexican students and environmentalists. The event appeared to be well attended.

This completes Part 1 of my series on Zacatecas. In Part 2 I will take you up to the top of La Bufa for the stupendous view of the city and a look at the place where Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa won his bloodiest victory. Please feel free to forward the link for this site to friends and relatives. If you have a comment, please leave it in the comments section below, or email me directly at if you have a question.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. What a great adventure you're having. Fabulous photos...

  2. guess we have to go to Zacatecas!

  3. Wonderful pictures and writing!
    Thanks for your Blog.

  4. Hey, what's the name of the church made by Jose Benito Churriguera?

  5. TO: Anonymous #2

    The church I think you are referring to is the Catedral de Zacatecas, dedicated to the Virgen de la Asunción. Jose ıenito Churriguera didn't actually build it, he was the creator of the style in which it was built: "Churrigueresque".


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim