Zacatecas: The City of Stairs and Silver

Much of Mexico still remains a mystery to me, due in part to its large size but it has always captivated me. Of the places that I have visited this country continually captures my imagination and brings back warm memories of childhood. Zacatecas City is close to where my father grew up and upon visiting the State of Zacatecas to visit relatives, my family also decided to go north to this city, a place forever etched into my memory for its impressive architecture and friendly people.

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Flights of stairs, followed by more stairs

At an elevation of  2,440 meters (8,010 ft) he city of Zacatecas is comparatively higher than most North American cities. Surrounded by mountains of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the temperature in Zacatecas remains temperate throughout the year but can get close to freezing during the winter months. Due also to its elevation and construction among several hills and peaks, there are very few straight roads other than a few in the city center. The rest of its roads curve along hills while pedestrian walkways quickly become one flight of stairs after another, which is a good workout but not exactly ideal in the high elevation.

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Ornate detail of the cathedral’s facade

The city was founded by the Spanish in 1548 but it had been an important area since pre-Columbian times due to its massive sources of silver. Indeed much of the city’s current wealth comes from the continued output of silver from the mines surrounding the city with some saying that as much as 70% of all the world’s silver comes from the mines of Zacatecas. It’s this reputation that made the Mexican peso so valuable and more reliable than currencies such as the dollar in the years following independence, up until the adoption of gold as the standard. Of course this wealth is not without its negatives, in order to fuel further silver mining the Spanish brought in thousands of slaves to labor daily in the deep darkness. The now-closed mine of  El Eden for its part offers an interesting glimpse of the colonial past, it boasts an underground railroad that goes along tunnels and unique rock formations as well as including a museum with many different mining tools and even a nightclub within its labyrinth of tunnels.

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Silver-work is the city’s specialty

As a result of the wealth from mining, Zacatecas became second in importance only to Mexico City during the colonial period and gradually increased in population. Many religious orders came to establish Zacatecas as a center of evangelistic with expeditions north to California and Texas originating from there.The wealth of the city is reflected on the impressive baroque architecture of its churches and other buildings. The Cathedral of Zacatecas with its ornate decorations of angels, plants, saints and other religious iconography etched into its pink-stone facade, it has become a true architectural marvel. Due to its status as one of, if not, the best example of baroque architecture in Mexico the cathedral has a place in UNESCO as a world heritage sight along with many of the important silver mines of the city.

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Historic Center of Zacatecas and its narrow stone roads

 

The historic center of the city sees a large collection of buildings reflecting the colonial legacy of Spain while also blending the indigenous character of the past. A large aqueduct built by the Spanish cuts through the center of the city, towering over houses and ending at a park near the city’s center. Large multitudes walked around the city’s narrow streets, many visiting for the annual international baile folklorico (folk dancing) competition that brings competitors from around the world to show off their own traditional dances. Towering over the city was the Cerro de la Bufa, known for the battle of Zacatecas during the Mexican Revolution. Nearby was the  aerial tramway which offers impressive panoramic views of Zacatecas and its surroundings as it crosses from one high point to el Cerro de la Bufa.

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View of Zacatecas from Cerro de la Bufa

Through its pink stone buildings lining the streets and due to its origins in silver, Zacatecas is called “con rostro de cantera rosa y corazón de plata” (face of pink stone and heart of silver). Walking along you will fine countless artisan shops with silver-work items and religious iconography harkening back to its peak of glory in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I had not thought at first that I would come to enjoy this city as much as I did but yet I did. Often I reminisce and think of what it would be like to live in such a calm and relaxed city with such a colorful past.

 

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