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Zacatecas – A Colonial Treasure

Zacatecas – A Colonial Treasure

When one thinks of vacation, often the thought is about going to the beach. But, what about for those of us, who are not too keen of the beach? Well, if that’s the case why not visit Zacatecas, Mexico? Traveling to Zacatecas is like traveling through time, for this city is one of the best well-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 center-most part of the country. It is surrounded by vast mountainous terrain including two of the world’s renowned mountains, La Sierra Madre Occidental and La Sierra Madre Oriental. This particular city boasts of an incredible wealth in history and their yearly traditions are lessons in its culture. It is this same richness which has earned this city the designation of a UN World Heritage Site. The city’s name is derived from the indigenous Nahualt language, and it refers to the grasslands that are specific to the area. The Nahualt word for grass is transliterated to “Zacalt” and evolved to the modern Spanish word “Zacate” or grass. However, at one point this precious city was called “Zacatlan” and it was the inhabitants who were called “Zacatecas.”

The early inhabitants of this area were indigenous groups. It was first inhabited by Caxcan and Guachichile natives. It wasn’t until the 16th century when the Spaniards arrived and took over the land. Zacatecas was then founded as a city in 1546, although some historians out there will argue that it was in 1548. But it was in effect in 1546 when silver was first discovered in these lands. The population increased in the late 1550s, which was when the huge discovery of silver was truly noted. The silver mining business boomed, and can almost be compared to a similar historical event, the “The Gold Rush.” The Spaniards used indigenous serfs and African slaves for the arduous and dangerous labor. Soon the silver was shipped to Europe. In fact, if it wasn’t because of Zacatecas’ silver, the Spanish Crown wouldn’t have accumulated the wealth necessary to finance future wars.

Not only this, but the silver had an overall impact in Europe’s economy. The disbursement of the precious metal was such that by the 1600s Zacatecas was recognized as the third largest city in Mexico, or “New Spain” as it was known at the time. Business kept thriving and the success was such that by the next century, Zacatecas’ silver ranked as the 5th largest producer of the world’s silver. The 1800s brought about the introduction of the railroad, known as Mexico Central Railway, which in turn made the shipping of silver easier. But this success wasn’t everlasting. Unfortunately, that same century that brought the railroad also brought the demise of silver mining for Zacatecas. The price of silver declined, so mines were deserted. As a result, people began immigrating to the north and some even as far as what we now know as the state of Colorado, in the United States, to be exact. But don’t feel too sorry, that terrible fate wasn’t eternal either. Actually, up to this day silver mining continues to be a profitable business but never equal to what it once was.

Perhaps one of the most famous occurrences in Zacatecas took place in June of the year 1914, during the Mexican Revolution. “La Toma de Zacatecas” (The Taking of Zacatecas) was the bloodiest and most gruesome event in the Mexican Revolution. It was the battle led by the world-famous bandit “Pancho” Villa against the Federal Army led by then President Victoriano Huerta. Villa’s troops, known as Los Dorados, were able to outsmart and corner the Federal Army. This was mainly due to Villa’s intelligence and ability to use the mountainous terrain for his advantage. In fact, Villa used a technique of deceit, 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 so as to surround the Federal Army. Villa’s troops also blocked all the city’s exits so that the Army had no other alternative than to surrender or die. Today, three large monuments of Pancho Villa and his two main generals (all three men on horseback) stand rigid in celebration and honor of three of Mexico’s greatest protagonists. You can find these statues at the summit of “Cerro de la Bufa,” which is exactly where this event took place.

When you visit Zacatecas you will be amazed by the quantity of places to admire. In fact, you can ride an aerial tramway or “teleferico” in order to absorb the most magnificent aerial view of this beautifully-preserved colonial city. A quick fact: the aerial tramway was built by a Swiss company in the late 1970s. “El Cerro de la Bufa” is not only the platform for Pancho Villa’s monument, but just the trip through the narrow and rugged roads might take you back through time. Having learned about Zacatecas’ mining history, you can’t leave without visiting “El Eden” which is an old mine that has been transformed into a museum and an underground nightclub.

One of the best times to visit Zacatecas is in September, for this is when Zacatecas’ National Fair (La Feria Nacional de Zacatecas) takes place. This event is like the melting pot of cultural events. You will have the opportunity to witness art expositions, horse races, impressive culinary creations, bullfighting, Palenque (small arena with musical guests, cockfights, equestrian shows), and even charreadas (an elaborated rodeo). Did I mention that the weather this time of year is just in the cool 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 the Christians and the Moors during Spain’s expulsion of the Moors from the Peninsula. What’s most impressive about this celebration is that there is a live presentation of the battles; this includes actors in full medieval costumes using real weapons (with blanks of course).

They do such an amazing job at recreating this historical event; it’s like bringing history to life! Zacatecas’ Cultural Festival (El Festival Cultural de Zacatecas) is another excellent event, but it takes place during the week of Easter. This event is mainly dedicated to the arts including poetry, literature, music, painting, sculpting and cinema. People from all over the world come to partake in this cultural event. In fact, just two years ago there were participants from over 20 countries and more than 40,000 tourists attended. This is definitely a world-wide event, for there are participants not only from Mexico but from Japan, Iran, Russia, Spain, England, and Austria, just to name a few. On the musical stage, which by the way is free, international artists from Bob Dylan to Gloria Gaynor to Ricardo Arjona to La Oreja de Van Gogh have marveled audiences with their timeless music.

Lodging is very affordable and most hotels preserve that traditional colonial style. Quinta Real used to be a bullfight arena and has been transformed, for your enjoyment, into a five-star hotel. Indeed, you’ll be surrounded by the bullfight environment up to the most minuscule detail. If you’d like to further indulge in the baroque-style then stay at Hotel Emporio. Hotel Emporio has managed to preserve the colonial-style of the city and from here you can admire the city’s liveliness. Lastly, Hotel La Casona de los Vitrales is an incredible place to stay. As it is aptly named, “vitrales” means windows, the windows are brilliantly designed and decorated by a local artist. This you have to see to believe!

Unlike most cities, Zacatecas has only three performing arts theaters: Teatro Fernando Calderon, which was finished in 1897 and is based on purely French architecture (pretty astounding if you ask me); Teatro Ramon Lopez Velarde, which is a bit more commercial, for theater companies from Mexico City often perform there to the general public; El Teatro IMSS is the third theater in the city, but unlike the other two this one is dedicated to providing entertainment mainly for children. As far as movie theaters, there is only one in the entire city! This is called the MM Cinemas. There used to be more movie theaters in the city but most are either abandoned or have been turned into something else. During the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, all 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’s so much to see out there including 24 museums! For instance, the museum Pedro Coronel (which is named after Diego Rivera’s son-in-law) features international art pieces from Egypt, China, Mexico, Japan, and Africa to mention 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 museum Rafael Coronel. However, if you’re into modern art then visit the Museo de Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguerez (The Museum of Abstract Art Manuel Felgurez). 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 after), Juan Garcia Ponce, and Vlady among many others. Native indigenous art, particularly by the Huichole tribe, can be admired up close and personal at the Museo Zacatecano. The churches in Zacatecas are much like monuments or better yet, architectural art that has withstand the toll of time. One church you must not miss is the city’s cathedral, La Catedral Basilica de Zacatecas, with its baroque style.

The lavish and fantastic detailing out of carved red-stone took place between 1730 and 1760. The carved images of the Apostles are almost incredible, not to mention the tiny details! The remains of San Mateo Correa, a martyr original of Zacatecas canonized by Pope John Paul II, can be found inside. Unfortunately, the cathedral was looted during the religious persecutions of the early 20th century. Nevertheless, it is an architectural marvel! Another architectural beauty you can’t miss, and which happened to be almost right in front of the cathedral, is La Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzman. Like the cathedral, 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 upon their expulsion and the followers of Santo Domingo took control (thus the name of the church). What is most spectacular about this building is the gold wood-carved altarpieces, which are housed by three ships. It really is an extraordinary sight!

If you’d like to take a stroll through the city, the best street is Hidalgo Avenue (Avenida Hidalgo). This is Zacatecas’ most important and captivating street. It literally takes you through time, for on your stroll you will encounter colonial buildings, colonial-style plazas, and even a shopping center of the same style (Mercado Gonzalez Ortega). As a matter of fact, most of the streets in Zacatecas are stone-paved and narrow and will remind you of the streets in France; but, they’re full of life and color unlike any other streets you’ve seen. It is not unusual to see local marching bands performing along the street on the weekends. As far as cuisine is concern, “La Leyenda” (The Legend) is one of Zacatecas’ most famous restaurants and their specialty is a dish called “El Minero Platero” (The Silversmith Miner).

You can also visit “El Barretero” (The Miner) which features live music to accompany your traditional Mexican meal. Zacatecas come to life at night and there is entertainment for the young and those with youthful souls. “La Otra Espana” (The Other Spain), “Gaudi,” and “Cactus” are three of the most popular bars among the youth, but places like “Cazadores” and “El Meson de Jobito” (which used to be an old villa) have a much more traditional type of environment. Oh, and when you go out don’t forget to savor Zacatecas’ traditional drink: Mezcal, which is derived from the agave or maguey plant native of this area. Salud! Go see it now at http://www.patawalk.com!