When you think of vacations, the idea is often to go to the beach. But what about those of us who aren’t too fond of the beach? Well, if that’s the case, why not visit Zacatecas, Mexico? Traveling to Zacatecas is like traveling back in time, because this city is one of the best preserved colonial cities in the world!
Zacatecas is located in the Mexican state of the same name. To be more specific, the city of Zacatecas is located in the most central part of the country. It is surrounded by vast mountainous terrain that includes two of the most famous mountains in the world, La Sierra Madre Occidental and La Sierra Madre Oriental. This particular city boasts incredible historical wealth and its annual traditions are lessons from its culture. It is this same wealth that has earned this city the designation of a UN World Heritage Site. The name of the city is derived from the indigenous Nahualt language and refers to the grasslands that are specific to the area. The nahualt word for grass is transliterated to “Zacalt” and evolved into the modern Spanish word “Zacate” or grass. However, at one point this beautiful city was called “Zacatlán” and it was its inhabitants who were called “Zacatecas”.
The first inhabitants of this area were indigenous groups. First it was inhabited by indigenous Caxcan and Guachichile. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Spanish arrived and took over the land. Zacatecas was founded as a city in 1546, although some historians will argue that it was in 1548. But it was in force in 1546 when silver was discovered for the first time in these lands. The population increased in the late 1550s, which was when the great silver discovery was really noticed. The silver mining business flourished and can almost be compared to a similar historical event, the “Gold Rush”. The Spanish used indigenous serfs and African slaves for the arduous and dangerous work. Soon the silver was shipped to Europe. In fact, if it weren’t for the silver from Zacatecas, the Spanish Crown would not have accumulated the wealth necessary to finance future wars.
Not only this, but silver had a general impact on the European economy. The disbursement of the precious metal was such that in the 17th century Zacatecas was recognized as the third largest city in Mexico, or “New Spain” as it was known at the time. The business continued to prosper and the success was such that by the following century, Zacatecas silver was ranked as the fifth largest silver producer in the world. The 19th century brought with it the introduction of the railroad, known as the Central Railway of Mexico, which in turn facilitated the shipment of silver. But this success was not eternal. Unfortunately, that same century that brought the railroad also brought the disappearance of silver mining to Zacatecas. The price of silver dropped, leaving the mines deserted. As a result, people began to migrate north and some even to what we now know as the state of Colorado, in the United States, to be exact. But do not regret it, that terrible destiny was not eternal either. In reality, to this day, silver mining is still a profitable business, but never quite the same as it once was.
Perhaps one of the most famous events in Zacatecas occurred in June 1914, during the Mexican Revolution. “La Toma de Zacatecas” was the bloodiest and most frightening event of the Mexican Revolution. It was the battle led by the world-renowned bandit “Pancho” Villa against the Federal Army led by then-President Victoriano Huerta. Villa’s troops, known as Los Dorados, managed to outwit and corner the Federal Army. This was mainly due to Villa’s intelligence and ability to use the mountainous terrain to his advantage. In fact, Villa used a deception technique, making the Federal Army believe that Villa’s people would attack from a specific point. Villa ordered the troops to be positioned the night before the battle to surround the Federal Army. Villa’s troops also blocked all exits from the city so that the Army had no alternative but to surrender or die. Today, three great monuments of Pancho Villa and his two main generals (the three men on horseback) stand rigid in celebration and honor of three of Mexico’s greatest protagonists. You can find these statues at the top of “Cerro de la Bufa”, which is exactly where this event took place.
When you visit Zacatecas, you will be surprised by the number of places to admire. In fact, you can ride an aerial tram or “cable car” to absorb the most magnificent aerial view of this beautifully preserved colonial city. A quick fact: the cable car was built by a Swiss company in the late 1970s. “El Cerro de la Bufa” is not just the platform for the Pancho Villa monument, but just the journey down the narrow and rough roads it can take you back in time. Knowing the mining history of Zacatecas, you cannot leave without visiting “El Edén”, an old mine that has been transformed into a museum and underground disco.
One of the best times to visit Zacatecas is in September, because that is when the Feria Nacional de Zacatecas (The National Fair of Zacatecas) takes place. This event is like the melting pot of cultural events. You will have the opportunity to witness art exhibitions, horse races, impressive culinary creations, bullfights, Palenque (small arena with musical guests, cockfights, horse shows), and even charreadas (an elaborate rodeo). Did I mention that the weather this time of year is only 70 degrees Fahrenheit? Another great celebration is “La Morisma”, which takes place during the last week of August. This particular event celebrates the battles between Christians and Moors during the expulsion of the Moors from Spain from the Peninsula. The most impressive thing about this celebration is that there is a live presentation of the battles; this includes actors in full medieval costumes using actual weapons (with blanks, of course).
They do an amazing job recreating this historic event; It’s like bringing history to life! The Zacatecas Cultural Festival (El Festival Cultural de Zacatecas) is another excellent event, but it takes place during Easter week. This event is mainly dedicated to the arts, including poetry, literature, music, painting, sculpture, and film. People from all over the world come to participate in this cultural event. In fact, just two years ago there were participants from more than 20 countries and more than 40,000 tourists attended. This is definitely a global event, as there are participants not only from Mexico, but also from Japan, Iran, Russia, Spain, England, and Austria, just to name a few. On the music scene, which by the way is free, international artists from Bob Dylan to Gloria Gaynor to Ricardo Arjona to Van Gogh’s La Oreja have amazed audiences with their timeless music.
Accommodation is very affordable and most hotels retain that traditional colonial style. Quinta Real used to be a bullring and has been transformed, for your enjoyment, into a five-star hotel. In fact, you will be surrounded by the bullfighting environment down to the smallest detail. If you want to continue enjoying the Baroque style, stay at the Hotel Emporio. Hotel Emporio has managed to preserve the colonial style of the city and from here you can admire the liveliness of the city. Lastly, Hotel La Casona de los Vitrales is an incredible place to stay. As it is aptly called, “vitrales” means windows, the windows are brilliantly designed and decorated by a local artist. You have to see it to believe it!
Unlike most cities, Zacatecas has only three performing arts theaters: the Fernando Calderón Theater, which was completed in 1897 and is based on purely French architecture (pretty amazing if you ask me); Ramón López Velarde Theater, which is a bit more commercial, for Mexico City theater companies they often perform there for the general public; The IMSS Theater is the third theater in the city, but unlike the other two, this one is dedicated to providing entertainment mainly for children. As for movie theaters, there is only one in the whole city! This is called MM Cinemas. There used to be more movie theaters in the city, but most are abandoned or have been turned into something else. During the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, all of these movie theaters were open, but once this era came to an end, so did the movie theaters.
But why watch a movie when there is so much to see, including 24 museums? For example, the Pedro Coronel museum (named after Diego Rivera’s son-in-law) features pieces of international art from Egypt, China, Mexico, Japan, and Africa, to name a few. You can take your time and admire original paintings by Picasso, Dali and Delacroix! If you’ve ever wanted to see the world’s largest collection of masks, why not visit the Rafael Coronel museum? However, if you like modern art, visit the Manuel Felguerez Museum of Abstract Art (The Manuel Felgurez Museum of Abstract Art). This particular museum is the most important in Latin America and features modern and abstract art by Manuel Felguerez (for whom the museum is named), Juan García Ponce, and Vlady, among many others. Native indigenous art, particularly from the Huichole tribe, can be admired up close and in person at the Zacatecano Museum. The churches of Zacatecas look a lot like monuments or, better yet, architectural art that has stood the test of time. A church that you should not miss is the city’s cathedral, La Catedral Basílica de Zacatecas, with its baroque style.
The splendid and fantastic details in carved red stone were carried out between 1730 and 1760. The carved images of the Apostles are almost incredible, not to mention the small details! Inside are the remains of San Mateo Correa, a martyr from Zacatecas canonized by Pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, the cathedral was looted during the religious persecutions of the early 20th century. Yet it is an architectural marvel! Another architectural beauty that you cannot miss, and that turned out to be almost right in front of the cathedral, is La Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzmán. Like the cathedral, the Church of Santo Domingo has the Spanish Baroque style. It was built between 1746 and 1749 by the Jesuits, although the Jesuits lost control of the church after their expulsion and the followers of Santo Domingo took control (hence the name of the church). The most spectacular of this building are the wooden altarpieces carved in gold, which house three ships. It really is an extraordinary sight!
If you want to take a walk around the city, the best street is Avenida Hidalgo (Avenida Hidalgo). This is the most important and captivating street in Zacatecas. It literally takes you through time, since on your walk you will find colonial buildings, colonial-style squares and even a shopping center of the same style (Mercado González Ortega). In fact, most of the streets in Zacatecas are narrow and cobbled and will remind you of the streets of France; but they are full of life and color like no other street you have seen. It is not unusual to see local marching bands performing along the street on the weekends. As far as gastronomy is concerned, “La Leyenda” is one of the most famous restaurants in Zacatecas and its specialty is a dish called “El Minero Platero”.
You can also visit “El Barretero” (El Minero) which has live music to accompany its traditional Mexican food. Zacatecas comes alive at night and there is entertainment for the young and the youthful soul. “La Otra España”, “Gaudí” and “Cactus” are three of the most popular bars among young people, but places like “Cazadores” and “El Mesón de Jobito” (which used to be an old town) have a kind of atmosphere much more traditional. Oh, and when you go out, don’t forget to savor the traditional Zacatecas drink: mezcal, which is derived from the agave or maguey native to this area. Health! Go see it now at http://www.patawalk.com!