I came to Zacatecas expecting dust and cowboys, mines and mules. While exploring Zacatecas, I found majestic Spanish colonial architecture, world-class modern art museums, a mezcal industry that rivals Oaxaca’s, and a community that takes pride in their history and is eager to drive tourism to northern Mexico.
Zacatecas is a mining town, and has been since Mexico’s colonial period. So, in my mind, I imagined that it was like a really large version of Real de Catorce.
I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Zacatecas is still the world’s largest producer of silver. As it has been churning out silver for centuries, it was an astonishingly large city in colonial times (given its remoteness, of course) and it preserves its magnificient colonial architecture with pride. While wandering Zacatecas, I couldn’t get over how it should have had Pueblo Magico status, if it wasn’t a full-fledged city.
It turns out, it’s ranked higher than mere Pueblo Magico status. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. And it’s well-deserving of the distinction!
What is there to do in Zacatecas?
Zacatecas is a centuries-old city, with well-preserved colonial architecture. There were alleyways with arches, reminding me of Italy. The cathedral is a delicious mix of stately colonial and a tasteful modern altarpiece. One would think the two styles would fight each other, but the colors and styles blended together beautifully.
Being the silver capital of the world, there was plenty of silver stores (although nothing like Taxco, in the state of Guerrero). Our tour guide told us that if we were planning on doing much silver shopping, the real deals were to be found in Plateros, a small town near Fresnillo (not far from Zacatecas). Tour companies have plenty of tours that go out there, for those who would rather not drive.
We took a tour with Operadores Zacatecas. It made for an easy and convienient way to see the major sites without us trying to navigate Zacatecas’s narrow streets.
I was completely unaware that Zacatecas is a center of mezcal production. The quality of Zacatecas’s mezcal rivals that of Oaxaca’s (and it a whole lot easier to get to for those of us north of Mexico City!).
Be warned, Zacatecas is very hilly! My senior citizen in-laws were troopers, hiking up and down the steep streets and alleys with us.
As Zacatecas is trying to become a touristic hot spot, there are lots of quality restaurants and bars to choose from. We didn’t have time to try near enough of what Zacatecas had to offer!
Cerro La Bufa
El Cerro La Bufa dominates the landscape, looming over Zacatecas. Its strategic location was instrumental in a decisive battle in the Mexican Revolution. For those interested in learning more about the battle itself, there’s a small museum on top of the hill.
For those who simply want to explore (or get great photos overlooking Zacatecas), a climb to the top of La Bufa is a must. My not-so-adventurous children were able to pretend that they were intrepid explorers for about a half-hour, and I was comfortable enough carrying my three-year-old, who was adamantly against the idea of climbing to the top.
The views were breathtaking! And the wind could literally take your breath away!
Ride the Teleferico
Trying to redefine itself as a major tourist attraction in Mexico, Zacatecas has the oldest and best-known cable car in Mexico. It’s been running visitors between the end of the city center to the top of El Cerro La Bufa for about 40 years. It’s clear that they’ve been modernized and updated since then. I’ve got a serious fear of hights, but even I enjoyed the teleferico!
The view of Zacatecas from the cable car was absolutely worth getting over my fear of heights!
Next time, I might even need a round-trip ticket!
Tour a Mine
Everyone who visits Zacatecas takes the mine tour at El Eden. I assumed it was because there isn’t much else to do in Zacatecas.
The tours at El Eden are guided, and the guides explain Zacatecas’s mining history from prehispanic times through modern times. Every now and again, they have full-scale miners on display from various periods of Zacatecas’s history. They don’t gloss over the atrocities commited in the quest for silver, either. Mining is still a notoriously dangerous activity, and in the colonial period the miners were de facto slaves. Not legal slaves, of course. But somehow the owners of the mines found ways to proclaim that the indigenous miners were in debt to the mine owners (and, in the case of a miner’s death,
that debt was passed onto his children).
While mining is still a very dangerous business for miners (and still remains largely lucrative for the mine owners . . . not the miners themselves), conditions have improved dramatically.
The dark tunnels within the mine, the stories-high caverns, the underwater rivers that run through the mine, these are all impressive, and a sight that few of us ever get to see.
At the end of the tour, there’s small train that takes visitors to their gem museum, which has crystals and minerals on display from Zacatecas and other mines throughout the world. Then the train takes visitors back out to the daylight and the bustle that is Zacatecas.
Pedro Coronel was a world-famous modern artist from Zacatecas. He worked with a variety of mediums, and traveled the world. He amassed a huge collection of modern art, and before he died he bequeathed it all to Zacatecas.
For a remote, small city in northern Mexico, the breadth and depth and scope of the art and artists presented here was mind-blowing. Coronel had an extensive collection from Joan Miro. He traveled Japan and brought back a wing full of art. He had sculptures in a courtyard and Picassos lining the walls.
There are a number of other art museums in Zacatecas. I only had time for one during my visit, and I’m glad it was this one! But, next time, I hope I get the chance to visit the Rafael Coronel Museum (Pedro’s brother), and the Zacatecan Museum (folk art from the region).
Where to Stay in Zacatecas?
Zacatecas’s narrow, hilly, colonial streets were not designed for modern cars and SUVs. I am so glad we stayed in a hotel in the city center, so we parked the car on our arrival and didn’t get back in it until were were leaving. I highly recommend ditching your car as soon as possible while in Zacatecas!
We stayed at Hotel Casa Cortes, a short walk from the cathedral, and officially within the city center. They had a large room on the first floor where my kids and in-laws stayed comfortably. My husband and I hiked all the way up the third floor, because we rented a room with a balcony that had a great view of the cathedral, El Cerro La Bufa, and the cable cars running between the two.
There was no elevator in this hotel, no breakfast, and it was rather bare bones. But it was very clean, quiet, and the location was magnificent! They also had a parking lot where we were able to park the car and leave it for the whole weekend we were there (at no additional charge). The staff was happy to answer our questions, and recommend tours (which were great). I recommend this hotel, especially if you get that room with the balcony!
Where to Eat in Zacatecas?
Having visited Zacatecas a number of times, my father-in-law recommended that we eat our first meal at the Acropolis. Convieniently located just to the side of the cathedral, the Acropolis is something of a landmark in Zacatecas. Try to get there before mid-afternoon/evening, when everyone else wants to eat (particularly on weekends).
I could have been quite happy eating at the Acropolis for just about every meal. The menu offered a little something for everyone, and the food was good. (Not astonishing, just good.) But the real draw for the Acropolis is that it’s a feast for the eyes, as well as the stomach.
The walls of the Acropolis are filled with original pieces of art from major artists from Zacatecas (of course), Mexico, and international artists. While relaxing at a 50s-style booth, you could be gazing at an original Siquieros framed above your friend’s head. Pedro and Rafael Coronel were from Zacatecas, and they both have a number of pieces represented. But I also saw works from Orozco, Leona Carrington, Diego Rivera, Siquieros, Miro, Picasso . . . the quality of the art in that restaurant is astonishing!
For an additional treat, the Arcopolis is the only place that I’ve found chimichangas on a menu in Mexico. (They must be a northwestern Mexican treat, as that’s the one area of the country I haven’t explored!)
Meson de los Remedios
A block or so behind the Cathedral, Meson de los Remedios has an easy location to find. They have a more limited menu (and hours), but the food is great! We had a memorable breakfast with excellent chilaquiles and cafe de olla. The decor is relaxed and easy on the eyes. It’s a great stop for some authentic Zacatecan cuisine while staying well within the historic center.
While in Zacatecas, make sure you try Asado de Bodas. It seems to be “the meal” in Zacatecas, and they serve it everywhere!
I can’t believe it took me over 10 years of living within a few hours of Zacatecas to actually go visit. Now that I’ve been there I’m lamenting all the times we could have visited, but didn’t.
Zacatecas, you surpassed all my expectations. I can’t wait to visit again!