I paused to catch my breath, leaning forward to brace my hands on my knees. A small waterfall of sweat cascaded down my back as I sucked wind. Even after months spent living in the hills above 5000ft elevation, the mountainous city that is Zacatecas, set at just over 8000 ft, was becoming my nemesis.
Zacatecas. The name is something out of a fairytale, sounding more like a mythical place, than a real spot on a map. I loved to say it, the name rolling off my tongue. I had heard the name before, of course, but had no idea just how amazing this city, set high in the mountains of central Mexico, really was.
Thanks to Edye, our camp mate in San Miguel, we made sure to route our trip towards the coast allowing for time to take in a city she said was her favorite in Mexico. After our, too brief, time there I can understand her feelings.
Many travelers rave about Guanajuato. For a variety of reasons, that town just didn’t do it for us. Zacatecas, founded in 1546 when silver was discovered, suited us completely. Like Guanajuato, Zacatecas is a city built on the steep slopes of a narrow valley, creating dramatic skylines and a million steep streets. Also similar to the smaller town, it is a town of color with a seemingly endless display of shades of pastels. In other words, a photographers paradise.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, part of Zacatecas’ charm lies in the fact that an economic decline in most of the 20th-century resulted in little to no change to the original street grid. The 15 religious monuments, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, are largely intact and include several convents but the highlight is most certainly the baroque cathedral, built between 1730-1760AD. Several days we simply sat outside her walls and admired her in silence.
The charm of the town is undeniable. Due to the location in the valley, the streets are irregular and winding which, combined with the stunning architecture, found us wandering for hours. One of the principle settlements for silver mining from the Spanish period until the 20th-century, it was clearly an extremely wealthy city.
We wandered for hours, pausing often to catch our breath as the ever-present hills all set at over 8000ft elevation, quite literally, took our breath away. Winter is chilly at that altitude, and we often found ourselves meandering with few crowds, simply stopping here and there to sightsee or grab a lunch of street tamales.
The true highlight, however, was the Museo Rafael Coronel, located in the former San Francisco Convent. Part of the joy of this place is simply the convent itself. Some of the vast rooms were collapsing around the edges. One housed a, rather curious, assortment of Asian art, which seemed woefully misplaced. As we wandered the grounds we were more than a little bemused by several of the creepy monk statues, including one of two monks with another’s head.
A source of great beauty came in the form of a young girl having her official Quinceanera photos taken. Her young beauty draped in a pink silk ballgown and set against the backdrop of a collapsing monastery created a stunning vision.
The far reaches of the museum offer up diversity with everything from a puppet collection, to pre-Colombian pottery, to Diego Rivera sketches. But the best, our very favorite, part of the museum is the over 5000 Mexican masks. Room after room displayed masks ranging from amusing to downright terrifying.
A multitude of animal face masks were in attendance and all were brilliantly colored.
As the only visitors on the cold January day, we had the place to ourselves with one of the workers scurrying ahead of us to turn on lights and turn them off behind us as we went room to room.
A couple of days, and a million lung-busting hills, later, we reluctantly continued on our way, sure we would be forever in love with Zacatecas.