Zacatecas and around

The capital of Zacatecas state, founded in 1546, this picturesque up-and-down former mining city is built in a ravine with pink stone houses scattered over the hills. The largest silver mine in the world, processing 10,000 tonnes of ore a day or 220 tonnes of silver, is at nearby Real de Angeles. Silver has bestowed an architectural grandeur on Zacatecas that surpasses that of Guanajuato. Many travellers believe it to be the most pleasant town in this part of Mexico, if not of all of Mexico. Less oriented towards (and much less overrun by) North American retirees and backpackers than San Miguel de Allende or Guanajuato, Zacatecas' laid-back atmosphere, multitude of cultural attractions, and ideal climate make it the rival of several better-known cities. You could spend several days soaking up the atmosphere. There's also a lively nightlife with bars and discos.

Tourist information

See www.turis mozacatecas.gob.mx.

Sights

For a city of fewer than 150,000 inhabitants, Zacatecas has a disproportionately large number of sights, especially for those interested in colonial architecture and history. Built between 1730 and 1752
cathedral
, is the centrepiece of town with a fine churrigueresque facade, considered by experts as one of the best in the world. At night its illuminated front facade is breathtaking.

To the immediate right of the cathedral and set back is the
Museo Galería Epsicopal
, which contains a sterling collection of Episcopal vestments and liturgical items (many of the latter of pure gold or silver) dating as far back as the 17th century and quite rare. There are also exhibits on the upper floor of 18th- and 19th-century carved saints and processional banners.

To the west, on Dr Hierro is the former ex-convento
San Agustín
, constructed in 1617 (now an occasional art gallery maintained by the Autonomous University of Zacatecas), with only the dome, a high wall and a few interior carvings left. The meaning of the fascinating allegory carved on its north side has been deciphered by scholars and is related to Augustine's dream which led to his conversion to Christianity. The clue to unravelling its mystery, which had intrigued experts for decades, was that the words spoken by an angel to a sleeping Augustine were carved backwards, an indication that the scene was intended to represent a dream, which in turn placed the image within the context of Augustine's autobiographical writings.

The
Palacio Municipal
and the
Plaza de las Armas
, in front of it are the former house and grounds of the counts of Santiago de Laguna, who for many years were the power brokers of Zacatecas. The building was constructed in the early 18th century, and is the best preserved baroque structure in the city. Inside are murals (unfortunately not at all aesthetically in keeping with the style or ambiance of the building) by Antonio Rodríguez, representing the struggle for Mexican Independence. The Plaza de las Armas is still where important civic announcements are made and also the venue for many cultural events.

Also worth seeing in the centre is the
Casa Moneda
, better known as the Tesorería. Founded in 1810 and used as a national mint until 1905, it has long been considered the city's most beautiful secular building apart from the theatre. It was severely damaged in the shelling by Zapata's forces in the Battle of Zacatecas. The interior is cavernous, with wonderful patios and a central fountain. By 2010, the building will house the city's new 'Citadel of Art' complex.

The
Teatro Calderón
 built in the 1890s at the request of Zacatecas' 'leading citizens', is one of the architectural crown jewels of the city. Its enormous floor-to-ceiling mirrors were put there so the theatre's patrons could admire the figure they cut in during intermissions.

A couple of blocks to the south, east of the ex convento San Agustín, in a wing of the former
Casa de Moneda
(National Mint), is the
Museo Zacatecano
. Containing religious paintings, ex- votos, Huichol handicrafts and some colonial items, it is primarily famous for housing some of the rarest pieces of Huichol beadwork, embroidery and tapestries in the world; this collection alone is worth the visit.

A few metres before the theatre and also on Avenida Hidalgo is the
Portal de Rosales
, a former Augustinian monastery later used by the Spanish to stockpile munitions during the long fight for Mexico's Independence. In 1813, the insurgent Victor Rosales made a daring strike and captured the building and its arms. Rosales was later killed, but the action gave the rebels a moral boost (and many weapons) to continue the fight. Converted to a market soon after Independence, it is a perfect example of post- Independence architecture.

The
Palacio Legislativo
, was constructed of fine local marble in only 1984-1985, but it blends in seamlessly with Zacatecas' colonial architecture and ambiance. There are murals inside by Alejandro Navas. The main hall is roofed with an amazing stained-glass window by Pedro Coronel.

The imposing Jesuit church of
Santo Domingo
, built 1746-1749, features eight gorgeous baroque
retablos
(ask the sacristan to turn the lights on). It is the oldest church in continual existence (apart from a brief period after the expulsion of the Jesuits) in the city.

A much newer construction, and some say the most beautiful church in town, is the
Templo de Fátima
, begun in 1950 and finished exactly a half-century later. This spectacular, staggered-steeple Gothic Revival jewel, constructed of orange-pink marble from nearby quarries, took so long to build because it was paid for by its parishioners. While out of the centre, the famous
Capilla de Los Remedios
or Sanctuario del Patrocinio (1728), at the very top of the Cerro de la Bufa , is one of Zacatecas' most important religious monuments and a well-known shrine. In it is Zacatecas' most treasured image, a small statue of the Virgin known as
El Patrocinio
('The Patron'). Every year between 3-15 September thousands of
zacatecanos
visit the shrine, many making there way on their knees up the steep gradient of the Bufa.

The
Mina del Edén
, is an old mine with a short section of mine railway in operation. The tour is in Spanish and lasts one hour. In the mine there is also a disco on Thursday, Friday and Saturday 2200-0230, with varied music. You can leave the mine the way you went in or work your way through to the end and the Swiss-built
El Teleférico
, a cable car which carries you over the city, with spectacular views, to Cerro de la Bufa and the Capilla de Los Remedios.

On the Cerro de la Bufa, best visited after going through Mina El Edén and El Teleférico, is
Museo de la Toma de Zacatecas
. Built on the grounds of the former state asylum, the museum commemorates Pancho Villa's victory over Huerta's forces in 1914.

The hill, northeast of the centre, is recommended for views over the city. It is a pleasant walk, although crowded on Sundays. There are equestrian bronze statues of Villa and his generals Angeles and Natera, an observatory and the
Mausoleo de Los Hombres Ilustres
as well as several food stands.

Located in the former Jesuit colegio and dating to 1646
, Museo Pedro Coronel
, houses an excellent collection of European and modern art (including the largest collection of Goya and Miró outside of the Prado in Madrid, and several by Hogarth, Daumier and Picasso), as well as folk art from Mexico and around the world. All of these pieces - nearly 1500 in total - were gathered together by Pedro Coronel (to whose life and art a room is dedicated). There are also unique collections of coins and pre-Hispanic pipes, as well as the Elías Amador Library, which houses more than 20,000 rare texts from the 16th century through to the 19th century.

To the north of the centre is the
Museo Rafael Coronel
. As if the Museo Pedro Coronel were not enough testament to one family, this mega-museum was once the
collection of his brother Rafael. This wonderful old ex-monastery (dating to the 16th century) holds the world's largest collection of masks and puppets, primarily Mexican, an astonishing
collection of pre-Columbian ceramics, some extremely rare Japanese scrolls, silver and
tableware from the Manila Galleon trade, beautiful Porfiriato marble sculptures and wrought
iron work, and has an attractive garden perfect for a small picnic. What's more, in a separate part of the building (the former sacristy) but still part of the museum, is one of the largest
historical archives in the country: a priceless record of the city and country's colonial past; and
the
Ruth Rivera Gallery
, containing works by Diego Rivera, José Chávez Morado and Nahuli Ollin, amongst many others. There is also a
Pre-Hispanic Art Gallery
and a
Folk Art Gallery
.

Heading south, near the fine old Acueducto El Cubo, is the
Museo Francisco Goitia
, www.museofranciscogoitia.com, housed in what was once the governor's mansion, by the Parque General Enrique Estrada. The museum has modern paintings by
zacatecanos
, many of whom are acknowledged as the greatest artists of 20th-century Mexico. Its main attractions are the paintings of small-town poverty in Mexico by Goitia, who was born in nearby Patillos.

Outside of the centre, the
Centro Platero de Zacatecas
(Silver Centre of Zacatecas), is well worth a visit. For centuries Zacatecas led New Spain in the output of silver, and even now several of its mines still operate. While Taxco is better known outside of Mexico for silver, it pales in comparison to what Zacatecas offers. Prices are more reasonable here as well.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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