Beautiful and cold. That has been the received wisdom about the city of Zacatecas during all my years in Guadalajara.
Just last week, when I tagged along on a four-day tour for about a dozen people organized by Charter Club, I was finally able to see for myself if “La Ciudad con Rostro de Cantera y Corazón de Plata” (the city with a face of sandstone and a heart of silver) lives up to expectations.
The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is that Zacatecas exceeded my expectations and provided enough twists on them to keep things interesting.
Take the matter of the cold. Chilly weather is said to go hand-in-hand with the city’s elevation, 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) – one of the highest cities in Mexico, our knowledgeable guide Rosy informed us. Zacatecas is even higher than Mexico City and Toluca and much higher than the highest city in the United States. (Interestingly, over one-third of the world’s 73 highest cities, with populations of over 100,000, are in Mexico.)
I wasn’t looking forward to the cold and came over-prepared with Arctic gear acquired in my northern home state: down vest, snug windbreaker, boots, etcetera. Some of my fellow travelers pranced around in shorts and sandals at first – after all, weren’t we in the Tropic of Cancer and at almost the same parallel as Hawaii? But most of us, except for one hardy fellow, felt chilly as soon as the sun got low or the wind started to blow.
The latter happened our first morning in Zacatecas. I headed out the revolving hotel doors to the city’s main plaza right across the street, with the idea of catching some rays and reading a book on a bench that is a stone’s throw from the cathedral, next to one of those lifelike, bronze statues of some city father. But a startling blast of wind, no doubt sucked down from the lower stratosphere by the cathedral spires, quickly had me literally holding my hat and scurrying back inside the hotel – the thousand-star Emporio – which, incidentally, was always comfortable, even though the closets in its guest rooms contain thick comforters for every bed.
To banish the windy plaza from my mind, I settled into an easy chair in the hotel’s six-story-high patio, below a white canopy that stretches across its top and lets the vibrant, blue sky peek through at the edges. This quiet, wind-free spot with its gurgling fountain, perfect for reading a book, gives the impression that the whole city outside is calm and sunny. Similarly, many of the attractions in Zacatecas – museums (there are plenty), mines, jewelry workshops and even restaurants (also abundant and very international) – have this remarkable quality of isolating you from what might be termed a rugged city (due to its altitude and its plethora of rocks and minerals).
An exception to this womb-like atmosphere that characterizes some Zacatecas attractions was the impressive, pre-Hispanic pyramid site that lay about an hour outside Zacatecas in an isolated area. While the weather at La Quemada, or “The Burnt,” was sunny and not extremely windy, our half-hour walk along pretty, desert paths leading from the visitor center to the pyramid wore some of us out, with the exception of one hardy fellow, who, when we arrived at the ancient ball court outside the pyramid, gamely climbed the stone stairs and soon became a speck heading off to parts unknown, only to miraculously reconnect with the group about 30 minutes later.
However, in contrast to La Quemada, El Eden Mine, the main attraction on our itinerary the first day, did indeed have a womb-like quality. Visitors feel isolated in a dim area that is very realistically arranged, with wax figures that represent workers and give a clear idea of how inhumane their labor was in such an environment. And this arduous work was all done, someone commented, simply for the purpose of pumping up the Spanish treasury, which in the end threw a wrench into that colonial nation’s economy. (Still, despite that dramatic, centuries-old lesson, greed has apparently not yet gone out of style.)
But another of the prime attractions of Zacatecas – the soaring gondolas leading to El Eden Mine – most emphatically did not have the mine’s soothing quality. The aerial gondola system of Zacatecas can be seen from many streets in its centro. The cables stretch high overhead – and I do mean high – as they transport tourists back and forth to a promontory called La Bufa, which includes El Cerro de Grillo (Cricket Hill) and the mine.
We were set for a gondola trip the first day, with some group members eager to go, while a few (including tu servidor) quietly decided they would pass. However, the aforementioned high winds meant the gondolas were grounded that day, and they remained alternately operational and grounded during our entire trip, meaning that at least one coward did not have to put her gutlessness on full display.
Many of the other places we visited, such as several wonderful museums, a complex of silver workshops, and especially the cathedral across the street from the hotel, had the same tranquil, protective feeling as the mine and our hotel lobby. Of course, churches often exude a meditative quality. And museums, considering their air of quiet contemplation and the fact that many people visit them on Sunday, seem to be the temples for art worshippers.
It is worth mentioning that Zacatecas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which says a lot about its charm. And besides being full of picturesque, cobbled streets and alleys and graceful, stair-stepped plazas that rival Guanajuato and Italy, Zacatecas is noticeably clean and litter-free. In fact, I saw much more cleanliness in the cities we passed through on the trip, including the industrial Aguascalientes, than in Guadalajara, causing me to realize that litter is not necessarily the norm in this country and that many Mexicans value their pristine cities.