On an unusually hot day in mid-November, I stopped to rest on a traffic island in the UNESCO-listed city of Zacatecas.
The Fuente de los Faroles (“The Fountain of the Lanterns”) served as the centerpiece of the island and attracted visitors and customers from local businesses, who used the landmark as a photo backdrop. Its ornate lanterns point in every direction and make an ideal accessory. Passers-by took advantage of the slowness of the vehicles to cross gaps in traffic, ignoring the traffic lights at opposite corners. Other people converged on the various stores that lined the streets around me.
The area around the fountain commands attention with its distinctive use of yellow earth tones, a wide palette of browns and rose quartz. Lanterns with wrought iron fittings are attached to many buildings and are lit in the evening to create a warm candlelight glow. The cobbled streets resemble similar streets in small medieval towns in Spain or Tuscany.
Origins of Zacatecas
When I arrived I did not know the indigenous, Spanish and African people who all shared the space as ladrinos (an obsolete Castilian Spanish term for citizens) of what would become Zacatecas – “where there is grass in abundance”.
Before the Spanish conquest, the region was mainly inhabited by the indigenous Zacateco, Guachichil and Caxcan peoples. The silver-rich land was a long-time mining site.
In 1546 Zacatecas was reached by Spaniards, who met indigenous people and found the various silver veins. Various Spanish groups settled in communities to find wealth and build societies based on life in the mines. King Philip II of Spain declared it an official Spanish city in 1585.
During Zacatecas’ formative years, Castilian and indigenous languages were used in daily life as the various groups intermarried, including enslaved Africans who were forced to work in the mines. As all the groups settle, the families expand by using their acquired or collective wealth to buy plots in the mines. Even indigenous women owned plots while caring for blood relatives or abandoned children.
Eventually, Zacatecas developed and consolidated the various surrounding communities. Today it is the capital of the Mexican state of Zacatecas.
Due to the current layout of the city, it is quite easy to walk with some inclined passages to the upper or lower streets. The best part of the city is that these passages lead to squares with interesting finds.
Using Fuente de los Faroles as your starting point, head west on Tacuba (which starts at the fountain), and you’ll find:
1. Plazuela Goitia
This square is flanked by the Mercado Jesús Gonzalez Ortega, which at 19e century was the main market. You will find various shops offering products such as clothes, books and local wines. You will also find a visitor stand at the main entrance offering maps and advice. The Tacuba side offers a great view of the street below. If you haven’t eaten yet, the Acropolis Café is the perfect place for a coffee and a light breakfast.
On the other side of the plazuela is the neo-Renaissance Teatro Fernando Calderón. Completed in 1897, the theater has had a variety of uses, from a political grandstand to cockfighting.
The square is best visited at night when locals gather there for entertainment ranging from American rock bands to opera. Many vendors offer cheap food, while bars run parallel to the mercado. If you’re looking for a taste of the USA, head to Bar Elvis Rock & Roll around the corner for a consistent schedule of rock acts.
2. Place d’Armes
Continue west on Tacuba – or if you decide to cross Plazuela Goitia, continue west on Avenida Hidalgo – where you will find the Cathedral Basilica of Zacatecas.
Built in stages throughout the 18e and early 19e centuries thanks to the donations of various mine owners, the current cathedral replaced the earlier churches.
As the centerpiece of the city, the floor plan of the cathedral is a Latin cross and its design is Baroque with vaulted roofs and Tuscan influences. Most visitors come in for a quick photo and leave. I recommend taking a walk to admire the effort put into its construction.
Next door is the Palacio de Gobierno, where many governors lived until the 19e century. Today it is a government building. Occasionally you will find a press conference in front of this building – or you will find a holiday exhibition, depending on the season. Inside is a mural of the history of Zacatecas. You will also find the Residencia de Gobernadores, which was also used as the governor’s residence until the mid-20e century.
Across the street is the Palacio de la Mala Noche (“Palace of the White Night/Bad Night”), one of many buildings built for wealthy mine owners.
3. Parroquia De Santo Domingo
Head north on the inclined passage of De Veyna, then turn left. You will be looking at one of my favorite monuments: the Parroquia de Santo Domingo, built in the late 1740s. It is now a Dominican church and convent after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. Next to the church, you will find the Museo Pedro Coronel, which houses works of art.
If at that point you’re craving some local food, stop at The Brick or continue down the same street and stop at Santino Pizza to try one of their micheladas, a Mexican cocktail I couldn’t get enough of .
4. Mina El Eden
A 9-minute incline walk from Santo Domingo, you’ll pass through residential neighborhoods on your journey to Mina El Edén – a mine (now a museum) that was established in the 1500s and operated until the 20e century. Take Aquiles Serdan to its end point and then to De Ramos, which will stop at Del Grillo. From there, take a right to find the entrance to Mina El Edén. If you’re thirsty, there’s also a little shop here that sells drinks.
Pro Tip: If you’re not in the mood to tackle the incline on foot, you can take a local taxi.
Learn about the history of Zacatecas and the experiences of the different people who worked in the mines via a mix of mine wagons and walking trails. Various stations highlight people who have often given their life or health to the mines. Personally, one of the most striking images was that of children working in the mines, carrying stones with very little clothing and no shoes.
Towards the end of the tour, the guide will ask you where you would like to exit, either at your point of origin or at the secondary entrance. I recommend that you return to your point of origin.
5. Teleferico De Zacatecas/El Cerro De La Bufa
If you didn’t notice them when you arrived, look for the signs indicating the direction of the Teleférico. There will be a few local vendors selling items along the way. My favorite is Zacatecan’s last store selling mezcal, which the locals proclaim to be the best kind.
Mexico’s oldest cable car lets you see all of Zacatecas from above. You will no doubt have noticed it passing in the distance throughout your journey, and now you will experience it yourself.
Once up there, you’ll get a better sense of how the town has evolved over the centuries, as you can see the various churches that once formed the centers of various small communities.
On the other side is El Cerro de la Bufa, goofa meaning “pig’s bladder” in Aragonese. From this hill you get great views of the city; and for the adventurous, a zip line leads to an adjacent hill. Various statues of national heroes dot the hill, and a hiking trail will take you higher for better views. The sanctuary of Our Lady of the Patronage, with its magnificent courtyard, is also worth a visit.
6. Additional stops in Zacatecas
History buffs should stop by the Museo Toma de Zacatecas to learn more about the Battle of Zacatecas (1914). Inside you can see the different weapons, combat strategies and a virtual Villa Pancho which will detail the importance of the city in the victory of the Mexican Revolution. Fun fact: Antonio Aguilar performs a great ranchero song recounting the battle (The Toma of Zacatecas).
Iglesia San Agustin is another interesting visit. This dates back to the Reform Wars (1858-1860). Another favorite is the Museo la Casa del Inquisidor, which details the various devices used during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Acueducto de Zacatecas, Jardín Independencia and Museo Francisco Goitia are all stops to add to your list if you are interested in art and architecture.
Pro tips: Exploring out of town leads to Guadalupe, which has its own distinct Zacatecas vibe. Their local market is fun to explore as well as its green spaces. And La Quemada (or Chicomóztoc) in nearby Villanueva is an archaeological site that delves deep into the pre-Hispanic civilization of central Mexico.
The secret of Zacatecas
Although Zacatecas is a small town, it is better to spend your time strolling through its streets and places. The most memorable part of my time in “Where There’s Grass Abundant” was the people, drinks and food shared by the neighborsor neighbours, in different neighborhoods.
Bad jokes and stories over a drink at Cervecera Madre Liebre. The view of the Sierra Madre from the balcony of Rockabilly Burgers after the sun goes down and the streetlights come on.
Late-night grease at Gorditas Doña Julia, grilled and buttered corn from street vendors at Plazuelta Goitia, and topped burgers from the vendor behind La Fuente de los Faroles. All of them became essential stops along my journey back to my hotel once the day’s adventure was over.
Zacatecas draws you in with its European aesthetic and leaves you feeling like you’ve discovered a secret place that most travelers overlook.