Zacatecas – A Colonial Treasure

When one thinks of vacations, often the idea is to go to the beach. But, what about those of us who are not too beach lovers? Well, if that’s the case, why not visit Zacatecas, Mexico? Traveling to Zacatecas is like traveling back in time, as 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 world renowned mountains, La Sierra Madre Occidental and La Sierra Madre Oriental. This particular city boasts an incredible wealth of history and its yearly traditions are lessons in 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 language Náhualt 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 the inhabitants who were called “Zacatecas”.

The first inhabitants of this area were indigenous groups. It was first inhabited by indigenous Caxcanes and Guachichiles. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Spanish arrived and took over the land. Zacatecas was then founded as a city in 1546, although some historians argue that it was in 1548. But it was indeed 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 discovery of silver 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 hard and dangerous work. Soon the silver was shipped to Europe. In fact, if it were not 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 outlay of the precious metal was such that by 1600 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 for the next century, Zacatecas silver was ranked as the fifth largest producer of silver in the world. The 1800s brought with it the introduction of the railroad, known as the Central Railroad of Mexico, which in turn made it easier to ship silver. But this success was not eternal. Unfortunately, that same century that brought the railroad also brought the demise of silver mining for Zacatecas. The price of silver fell, so the mines were deserted. As a result, people began to migrate north and some even as far as what we now know as the state of Colorado, in the United States, to be exact. But do not regret too much, that terrible fate was not eternal either. Actually, to this day silver mining continues to be a profitable business but never quite the same as it once was.

Perhaps one of the most notorious events in Zacatecas occurred in June 1914, during the Mexican Revolution. “La Toma de Zacatecas” was the bloodiest and most gruesome event of the Mexican Revolution. It was the battle led by the world famous bandit “Pancho” Villa against the Federal Army headed by then President Victoriano Huerta. Villa’s troops, known as Los Dorados, were able 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 position themselves 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 choice but to surrender or die. Today, three great monuments to Pancho Villa and his two main generals (the three men on horseback) stand tall to celebrate and honor three of Mexico’s greatest protagonists. You can find these statues on top of the “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 only the platform of the monument to Pancho Villa, but also the journey through the narrow paths and rugged can transport you back in time. Having learned about the mining history of Zacatecas, you cannot leave without visiting “El Edén”, 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, as this is when the 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 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 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 Christians and Moors during Spain’s expulsion of the Moors 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 real 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 musical stage, which by the way is free, international artists such as Bob Dylan, Gloria Gaynor, Ricardo Arjona or La Oreja de Van Gogh have amazed the public with their timeless music.

Accommodation is very affordable and most hotels retain that traditional colonial style. Quinta Real was 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 enjoy the Baroque style even more, stay at the Hotel Emporio. Hotel Emporio has managed to preserve the colonial style of the city and from here you can admire the vitality of the city. Lastly, Hotel La Casona de los Vitrales is an amazing place to stay. As it is well called, “vitrales” means windows, the windows are brilliantly designed and decorated by a local artist. This has to be seen to be believed!

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); Teatro Ramón López Velarde, which is a bit more commercial, since theater companies from Mexico City usually 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 cinemas, 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 of them are abandoned or have been converted to something else. During the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, all these movie theaters were open, but once this era came to an end, so were 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 international artwork 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 have ever wanted to see the largest collection of masks in the world, why not visit the Rafael Coronel museum? However, if you like modern art, then visit the Manuel Felguerez Museum of Abstract Art (El Museo de Arte Abstracto 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), Juan García Ponce and Vlady, among many others. Native indigenous art, particularly from the Huichole tribe, can be admired up close and personal at the Museo Zacatecano. The churches in Zacatecas are like monuments or better yet, architectural art that has stood the test of time. One church not to be missed is the city’s cathedral, La Catedral Basílica de Zacatecas, with its Baroque style.

The lavish and fantastic details in carved red stone were carried out between 1730 and 1760. The carved images of the Apostles are almost unbelievable, not to mention the little details! Inside are the remains of San Mateo Correa, a martyr originally from Zacatecas canonized by Pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, the cathedral was looted during the religious persecutions of the early 20th century. However, it is an architectural marvel! Another architectural beauty that you cannot miss, and which coincidentally is almost in front of the cathedral, is the Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church. Like the cathedral, the Church of Santo Domingo is in the Spanish Baroque style. It was built between 1746 and 1749 by the Jesuits, although the Jesuits lost control of the church when they were expelled and the followers of Santo Domingo took control (hence the name of the church). The most spectacular thing about this building are the altarpieces carved in gilded wood, which house three naves. 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, because 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 cobbled and narrow and will remind you of the streets of France; but they are full of life and color unlike any other street you have ever seen. It’s not unusual to see local bands performing along the street on weekends. As for the cuisine, “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 your traditional Mexican food. Zacatecas comes alive at night and there is entertainment for the young and the youthful at heart. “La Otra España”, “Gaudi” and “Cactus” are three of the most popular bars among the youth, but places like “Cazadores” and “El Mesón de Jobito” (which used to be an old villa) have a kind of atmosphere much more traditional. Oh, and when you go out, don’t forget to savor the traditional drink of Zacatecas: mezcal, which is derived from the agave or maguey, a plant native to this area. Hello! Go check it out now at!

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