Silver City

Colonial Zacatecas will leave clients breathless

By: Laurel Delp

Zacatecas took my breath away. Not just because it is 8,000 feet above sea level on Mexico’s high- desert plain, but because I was staying in a beautiful hotel constructed around Mexico’s first bullring, right next to an aqueduct that would have made a Roman proud. And, to top it all off, this colonial city was home to 10 museums and some very good art galleries. Who knew?

Well, as it turns out, not many North Americans do. So for your clients who love Mexico’s colonial cities and art but don’t much care for herds of fellow norteamericanos, Zacatecas is the place.

Zacatecas was the first of Mexico’s great colonial-era silver mining cities. By the end of the 16th century, only Mexico City was larger or wealthier. Zacatecas was also the launching point for missionaries to the often-hostile north, so monasteries proliferated. The cathedral in Zacatecas is considered one of Mexico’s most magnificent. The state of Zacatecas is also a source of cantera, the soft salmon-toned stone that lent itself so perfectly to the baroque style of intricate carving, as seen in the cathedral.

Downtown Zacatecas was declared a UNESCO World History Site in 1993. By itself, the colonial center is enough to satisfy any architecture hound. It’s easy to walk; basically two main thoroughfares that open onto plaza after plaza connected by passageways that range from narrow streets to stairways. Shopping for silver here consists of an almost ludicrously large choice, including a wonderful collective of artisans working in their own shops. The city has a vibrant arts scene too. Teatro Calderon, built in the 1890s, is like time suspended, with its cramped seats and art nouveau touches, but it tends now to host more avant-garde productions. A number of art galleries are housed in elegant old townhouses, and the former St. Augustine church is now a gallery as well.

Two of the city’s most notable museums were founded by local brothers, both renowned artists themselves. The Museo Pedro Coronel, in a 17th-century Jesuit college, houses the modern art collection of the late artist, who spent many years in Paris accumulating works by friends like Picasso, Chagall and Kandinsky. His brother, who married the daughter of Diego Rivera, founded Museo Rafael Coronel, containing his collection of ceremonial masks in the ruins of a 16th-century convent.

The Museo Zacatecano has a permanent collection of Huichol art. And then there’s the museum housed in the 18th-century Convento de Guadalupe. Here, galleries are filled with colonial religious art.

Zacatecas may have few American visitors but it’s beloved by Mexicans, and the tourist infrastructure is surprisingly sophisticated. The city can best be seen from the cable-car that transports passengers to the top of the rocky peak Cerro del Bufo, where equestrian statues of Pancho Villa and two other heroes of the revolution stand guard over an exquisite chapel. By day, the former silver mine (practically in the center of downtown) Mina Eden offers a fascinating look into the history of silver mining, but on weekend nights, it’s home to a modern though deep underground discotheque.

The Museo Zacatecano has a permanent collection of Huichol art. And then there’s the museum housed in the 18th-century Convento de Guadalupe. Here are galleries filled with colonial religious art.

Twenty-eight miles out of town on the road to Guadalajara is La Quemada, the still mysterious ruin of a sophisticated civilization that between 300 and 1200 A.D. ruled from a city atop a hill with sweeping views of the Malpaso Valley. No one knows exactly whom they were, or how they came to an end, but there’s evidence of a massive fire.

On the way back to Zacatecas, it’s customary to stop in the sausage-making town of Jerez for a chorizo sandwich, which is especially good after a day of climbing the ruins.


Quinta Real Zacatecas has one of the world’s most romantic bars, built in the former stalls where the bulls were kept. Most weekends there’s a wedding in the old ring. Doubles start at $167. Commission 10 percent.

Santa Rita Hotel is a chic new 35-room boutique hotel on the main street between the Teatro and the Cathedral. Doubles start at $152. Commission 10 percent.