Zacatecas, the gate to the North of Mexico

A route through Mexico is usually focused on Yucatan. If time permits, it can be extended to Chiapas or Mexico City and its surroundings. All of them wonderful places. Zacatecas, in the north-central area of the country, is also one, but beyond the local tourist, it is not known or visited as much. On this sixth trip to Mexico, the place with the most stamps in my passport, I wanted to pay off my debt with myself by following the route of the country that had been defining itself for years, the one that I really wanted to do, and that due to different circumstances eluded me.

Zacatecas has elements of central and northern Mexico, so it is possible to consider it as the gate between the two of them. The definition of this city was built in my imagination from fiction, cartoons, soap operas, movies, which I watched during my childhood (remnants of Chilean television programming from the incipient post-dictatorship), and was consolidated with the discursive promise of an ephemeral summer fling of visiting this city, cultural heritage in his family and the humanity, when I returned to Mexico. Words of the moment, I returned to the country several times, we did not see each other again, but twelve years later I materialized those memories and I arrived at Zacatecas, after eight hours on two buses and one stopover.

To get to Zacatecas it is possible to fly from Mexico City, but a recommended way (which was the one I did) is to take a land route from the capital through the interior of the country, where it is possible to visit magnificent places like Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Morelia, or Guanajuato, among others. In my case, I took a bus from this last city to León, where I combined with another bus to Zacatecas. The other traditional land route is to travel from Guadalajara. By the way, the buses in Mexico are excellent, very comfortable, modern, punctual, and clean, and the roads are in excellent condition.

The route from León, making a stop in Aguascalientes, is amazing itself. The landscape and urban transition can be seen, as the number of intersecting towns progressively decreases as the road moves to the north, while the predominance of green scrub on the land fades and the semi-desert landscape, with different shades of brown, rock formations, cacti, and imposing hills, it becomes the most visible scene. Traveling these hours by bus I felt inside the novel ‘Los detectives salvajes’ by Roberto Bolaño, confident and trusting that the same fate as the characters in the novel would not happen to me.

Zacatecas is, actually, two cities, both interesting: the city of the same name, which is the historic one, and the city of Guadalupe, to the east. Due to time constraints, I only visited the main city, its center, and its nearby attractions, leaving me wanting to return to the north of Mexico and, in addition to visiting Guadalupe, going to other nearby places such as Sombrerete, Pinos, Jerez de García Salinas and, in special, to reach Durango, the next state capital to the north, and which forecast a new visit to Mexico.

My arrival, at 4:00 p.m., was punctual, like all my bus experiences so far (and from now on). We parked at the bus station, in the southern part of the city on the edge of the urban area, I took a taxi to the center and, on the way, we talked with the friendly driver about the New Year’s Eve parties in the city (it was December 22) and sports (despite football being the most popular sport in the city, Zacatecas has not had a team in the first division). After leaving my things at the hotel, I wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly through the streets of the city, opting to do the circuit of visits that I had planned the next day.

Zacatecas has an urban peculiarity: it is the only large city in Mexico that does not have a central square from which the rest of the city is organized. I later learned that Zacatecas was not a planned city, but was formed spontaneously from the work in the silver mines in the area, whose influence is evident to this day (in fact, here I hoped to buy the silver necklace that I wanted to take as a gift to my mother). My hotel, Reyna Soledad, was ideally located next to the cathedral, on a street parallel to the main one, so it was also very quiet, given the festive atmosphere in December and the nightly family fairs.

The cathedral, called Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, is what could be called the starting point of the city, and although it lacks a central square, it does have a smaller side square. The Cathedral is imposing and possibly one of the most beautiful in the country. It is built with pink quarry, a very popular material in the hills of the area, and it is in the Churrigueresque style, typical of the colonial baroque. Apart from the beautiful color of the cathedral, what makes it impressive is the number of perfectly sculpted figures on its central façade.

The only thing that I could consider unfortunate, being picky, is the difficulty of capturing a perfect image of the cathedral with the camera, since, as it does not have a square in front of its façade, the greater distance in which the camera lens it can capture it is only the sidewalk opposite the street, no higher than 8 meters. Fortunately, my photographic ambition is low, so I didn’t complicate myself in taking the usual photos, in order, on the contrary, to preserve the real experience of the cathedral on the retina. However, the external image is not very consistent with the interior experience of the cathedral, which reveals a more modern church that did not attract my attention, nor did it encourage me to go back inside the next day.

On the north side of the cathedral, there is a side square, which at that time was full of games for children, like a Christmas fair. Since I don’t have children, I didn’t stop there and decided to walk to the north of the city center, in its narrow streets with even narrower sidewalks and facades with a particular identity. In the city, the businesses do not put signs with their names, but these appear drawn at the top, with black letters and a sober typography, which give an authentic appearance to how the city and all this area could have been in the past. That precious sobriety evoked the audiovisual scenes from my childhood that motivated me to come to this part of the country, and at times I felt like I was in an old city in the American West (which, actually, may not have any connection, but there was in my head).

After having visited several cities in central Mexico, arriving in Zacatecas meant not seeing foreign tourists, but a lot of local tourism. It felt like a more authentic Mexico, that I really wanted to experience. But despite the focus is not foreign tourists, the city maintains, like others in the country, impeccable order and cleanliness, and subtle ornamental elements in its alleys, balconies, and precious lighting. Garlands of lights covering little streets. Balloons or other figures hanging from them. And suddenly a pair of sneakers. Sneakers? I immediately evoke the mantra: if you see sneakers dangling from the wires, stay away, it’s a gang area. But two blocks from the main street of the city? And with this calm? Will I be prejudiced (and rude, how ugly)? I prefer not to confirm it, turn back, and return to the main street.

I hadn’t had lunch! But it’s 17:00! And there is nothing open to eat! Or yes, a very simple place run by an old lady, whom I interrupted while she was cutting vegetables and watching a soap opera. Very loving, she tells me that I’m not interrupting her, so she offers me the only thing she had at the moment: gorditas. Before this trip, I didn’t know them, but since I ate them my first day on this trip, I loved them. They are corn tortillas with a filling. They are exquisite (and if they are made of blue corn dough, they are also beautiful). Obviously, I stay and eat some delicious gorditas, while I watch an addictive soap opera (what a marvelous current Mexican fiction is, and how much I respect the old ones!).

I keep walking north, but since it has already started to get dark, I prefer to leave this area to see it more in depth the next day. I walk to the south of the cathedral, but it is a more commercial area that does not attract my attention. I go back to the hotel to rest for a while, and when I go out an hour later to eat something (I wasn’t very hungry, but eating in Mexico is an experience in itself) I find a night tour bus, at a very good price. Although I avoid this type of full tourist activity, this time I decide to take a tour of the city on the panoramic bus, after a tasting and a brief class on typical Zacatecan sweets (the guava and agave ones are exquisite). The guide on the bus asks the few tourists that we were from, and, not surprisingly, I was the only foreigner, so I became the automatic recipient of a lot of information, both from the guide and from the other passengers, not only from Zacatecas but also from Tabasco, Nuevo León, and other states.

The tour was worth it. I learned about the history of the city, its urbanism, some important historical figures, which allowed me to better understand my visits the next day. In addition, from above the bus, it was possible to access other photographic angles of the cathedral and other interesting buildings. After the experience, back in front of the cathedral, I walk a little north to look for my dinner at a taco cart. According to the atmosphere of a children’s Christmas fair, most of the carts had sweets or candies that did not interest me, but in a small place a little further north, right on the corner of Av. Hidalgo and Callejón Osuna, there was a long line of people wanting to buy tacos al pastor, the only product they sold, and therefore, I deduced, they had to do it perfectly. The taco al pastor is Mexico’s quintessential taco, and features pork, pineapple, onion, cilantro, and achiote seasoning. It’s a delight. And here it was even more, so it’s an excellent decision to stand in line and wait, with prices typical of a street cart. Perfect dinner, which I repeated the next day.

The next day starts early, looking for my breakfast in the street… that I found less than 20 meters from the hotel, next to the cathedral, with a lady and her basket: three tamales, one red (a little spicy), one green (spicy), and one mole (chocolate), obviously delicious, plus atole (a drink of corn, water, and milk) of guava, equally exquisite. The city was waking up, so I had the streets practically to myself, with very few cars, to walk and photograph at a slow pace. I repeated the same route as yesterday, but since the businesses were closed, the facades of the buildings looked intact, sober, and beautiful.

In this part of the walk, some monuments stand out in the streets, such as the Fuente de los Conquistadores, the Monument to the Barretero, the Plazuela de García, the Rafael Coronel Museum (of imposing construction, being originally a convent, and an attractive patio in front). I arrived until the flat area began to turn into a hillside, to the Temple of Jesus and, since no more traditional architecture could be seen upwards, I turned back, but instead of continuing towards the cathedral along Av. Hidalgo, I took the detour up through Genaro Codina street, which I had not walked the day before and which leads to a, it seems, wealthier area of the old town.

Along this street, only two blocks west of the cathedral, is the Parroquia de Santo Domingo, with an impressive inside and outside, and possibly the building that I liked the most in the city. The location is peculiar, since the façade overlooks a kind of square that is not a square, and the church is entered through a pair of stairs. Unfortunately (as a visit), the parish was under restoration, with scaffolding inside, but it can still be perceived as imposing, very imposing, as it is unexpectedly quite large, dark, and mysterious, with an aged floor, that is, with all the atmosphere of antiquity that the cathedral lacks. I loved it.

The street forks here again, and through both it’s possible to reach another area of squares and interesting buildings, such as the Pedro Coronel Museum, the Zacatecano Museum, the State Congress building and its square, the former San Agustín temple, the Plaza Miguel Auza, and the quiet and beautiful Jardín Juárez. But my head was already in another place at that moment, which I immediately headed back through the same streets.

Mina El Edén and Cerro de La Bufa are essential in a visit to Zacatecas. Mina El Edén has two entrances, one in the southern part that faces the Alameda Trinidad García de la Cadena and another in the northern part that connects with the cable car that leads to Cerro de La Bufa. My idea was to enter the mine through the northern entrance but first visit the hill. For that, you have to leave the main streets and enter a residential area and go up its narrow streets. Or take a taxi for these four blocks. I, as an Andean guy, did it walking, despite the heat and the fear that a fierce stray dog might appear, which did not appear. The arrival at the entrance of the mine and the cable car is anticipated by the vendors who settle in the street that leads to it, and despite it is easy to get lost going up, in the end, you must reach this point no matter what path is taken.

The cable car is worth it itself, since it crosses Zacatecas from the western hill, of the mine, to the high eastern hill, of La Bufa, and you can see the city without a center, of houses with pastel façades without signs but named with black letters, with winding streets between the small hills. After less than five minutes you reach the other side, and on the way to the monuments on the hill I see a group of artisans selling their art. I had not seen works like this, and I found them extremely beautiful, and with a lot of work involved. Later, I found out that the artisans belong to the Huichol community, which is in the north of the state of Zacatecas. Their artistic works were mostly paintings made of beads, which are small colored balls that are joined to form colorful mosaics. They really were beautiful, and I would have loved to buy some, but, on the one hand, I had many more days of travel, with a high probability that the painting would break, and, on the other, I imagined that the prices would not be low, and therefore it would escape my budget (a job with that detail and beauty does not deserve to be marketed at a bargain price).

Cerro de La Bufa is not just a hill. Although it is itself a natural viewpoint from which a large part of the city can be seen, it also houses a sanctuary of the Virgen del Patrocinio, and the Toma de Zacatecas Museum, in homage to the homonymous battle of 1914 of the Revolución Mexicana. In fact, the revolutionary spirit completely fills the atmosphere of the hill and made me stay there for a long time. Spirit complemented musically.

When I remember Zacatecas, and write this article, the instrument resonates in me, similar to a ukulele, a charango, a requinto, a small guitar, but I don’t know exactly which one it was, belonging to an older gentleman who, to the shade of a tree and a few steps from the sculptures of Pancho Villa, Felipe Ángeles and Pánfilo Natera, essential men of the revolutionary period in this part of the country, he played constantly, while he sang popular songs from the local northern Mexican songbook that I did not know.

After the complete visit of the hill, I decided to sit a few meters from this gentleman and look at the city while listening to him play and sing. The hot weather. The hill with stones and cacti. The pastel city. Music. The singing, with a fragile and firm voice at the same time, of an older person with life experience, passionate about his art, his identity, his homeland, his history. The pink quarry stone of the sanctuary and the museum. Half an hour that I associate with Zacatecas, which consolidates the worthwhile experience of arriving in this part of the country. I leave a silent tip to the gentleman in his box, and, happy me, he talks to me. He asks me where I’m from. He tells me that he is from Zacatecas, that he worked in the mines, that he has always lived in Zacatecas and that he wants to die here. He transmits to me, now with words, his love for his homeland. Real, unexpected, and deep cultural immersion.

By the way, in the southern part of the hill, there is a small path that leads to the Mausoleo de las Personas Ilustres de Zacatecas. The short walk is worth it. It is also possible to go up a bit, in a mini hike, on the rocks behind the statues of Villa, Ángeles, and Natera. And in the northern part, near the parking lot, there is a small zipline that connects two hills and crosses an undeveloped area of the city.

After this experience, I take the cable car back to the mine. This visit, which must be guided, is also worthwhile since it’s possible to learn a lot about the work of the miners in the city and its mining history. The mine itself works as an interactive museum that makes the visit, as well as interesting, entertaining. There is also a permanent exhibition of precious stones from Mexico and other parts of the world, which is quite complete (and with beautiful pieces). And, in addition, it has a bar that is open some days of the week, which is accessed through the south entrance. By the way, to get to this part you must ride a train inside the mine since the visit is made in the northern part, which gives another entertaining element to the visit.

At the mine (again I was the only foreigner) I talked a lot with a Mexican family, from the capital, who were touring this part of the country and who would later go to spend the New Year holidays with relatives in Jalisco. Since it was the last day for both of us in Zacatecas, we agreed to meet at night for dinner. But the ‘tragedy’ came to my trip (yes, it’s an exaggeration, it was just a great discomfort that activated plan c). Since I would be in Mexico for almost a month and I had to pay for the 4-day excursion in the Lacandon jungle in cash, I decided not to take too much money from Chile and withdraw at ATMs as needed (that is, what most people normally do from quite some time ago).

But unfortunately, both of my debit cards didn’t work. One is supposed to act in case the other fails, but both failed. And the banks from Chile do not understand why they fail, which should not happen. But it happens. And that disbelief doesn’t help me at all. I wasted the entire afternoon trying to fix this problem, failing, and missing dinner with the family. Rage. Rage. Rage. And hungry, I had not had lunch. Fortunately, the taquería from the day before was available and just as delicious. Double portion, deserved and enjoyed.

Little more about Zacatecas. Between leaving the mine and the disaster with the cards, I made the visits that were pending, but without any special sensations. To the south of the cathedral is the Parque Sierra de Alicia, around which there are four interesting places. On the one hand, the aqueduct, which although only a small part remains, is worth looking at. Ideally, you can enter the Hotel Quinta Real, which is an old bullring converted into a hotel, and which maintains a part of the aqueduct inside. And, at the other end of the square, is the Francisco Goitia Museum, of contemporary art, and, behind it, the Templo de Nuestra Señora de Fátima, a recent neo-Gothic church built with pink quarry, which unfortunately was closed when I wanted to visit it (consequences still post-pandemic).

Zacatecas is not exactly the north of Mexico, but it is a very worthwhile first approximation. It is easily communicated with the center of the country if what is done is a bus trip and as part of a larger circuit, it is very friendly with the visitor (well, it is Mexico, nothing is unfriendly with travelers).

With this stop, the first third of my trip ends, and on the morning of December 24, I take a plane to Mexico City (how far is the airport from the city, luckily Uber is not expensive there) to start closing this 2021 and prepare to receive the new year in the second stage of my trip: Chiapas and the Lacandon jungle (and the encouragement of the Jaguares/Caifanes band as an emotional motivation to come here since my adolescence). I would go back to Zacatecas to buy Huichol art and continue to Durango and see the nature of this area. See you then.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *