Almost 2500m above sea level and crammed into a narrow gully between two hills, the old silver town of ZACATECAS is overflowing with ornate colonial architecture and intriguing museums, ranking alongside Guanajuato as the Bajío’s finest destinations – the obvious wealth projected by its fine stone buildings makes this another city that seems plucked straight out of classical Spain. Zacatecas is especially known for its high-quality art museums and subterranean tours of the old silver mine, Mina El Edén, but the main highlight is the ornate cathedral, from which all other main sights are within walking distance. Just a few paces from the market and from the important junction of Juárez and Hidalgo, the Jardín Independencia is in effect the city’s main plaza, where people gather in the evenings, get their shoes shined and wait for buses. West of the Jardín Independencia is the Alameda, a thin strip of stone benches, splashing fountains and a bandstand that makes a cool retreat from the heat of the day.
Zacatecas hosts several exuberant fiestas – here are some of the best:
Festival Cultural Zacatecas (March/April). For two weeks around Semana Santa the city celebrates this enormous arts festival, with daily events all over town including everything from high-quality Mexican rock acts and even a few foreign bands to folkloric dance, opera and ballet. Most events are free.
Festival Zacatecas del Folclor International (late July–early Aug). Mexico’s top international folk festival with around fifty nationalities represented, mostly performing in the plazas around the centre.
La Morisma de Bracho (weekend closest to Aug 27). Festival with up to ten thousand people engaging in mock battles between Moors and Christians, acted out on the Cerro de la Bufa.
Feria Nacional de Zacatecas (Sept, first two weeks). Zacatecas’ principal fiesta features bullfights and plenty of traditional carousing. The activity happens at La Feria, 3km south towards Guadalupe.
Zacatecas is dominated by the Cerro de la Bufa (2612m), with its extraordinary rock cockscomb crowning the ridge some 237m above the Plaza de Armas; at night it’s illuminated, with a giant cross on top. A modern Swiss cable car connects the summit with the slopes of the Cerro del Grillo, opposite – an exhilarating ride straight over the heart of the old town.
Another thrilling attraction on the Cerro de la Bufa is Tirolesa 840, a zip line that whips you across a gorge on the north side of the mountain (around 1km total).
It’s well worth basing yourself in Zacatecas to explore the immediate surroundings, not least the silverware at the Centro Platero de Zacatecas, the sumptuously decorated church in Guadalupe, the ruins of the great desert fortress at Quemada and the picturesque town of Jerez, a pleasant day-trip anytime but essential for the cowboy festival on Easter Saturday.
Though we may never know for sure, Huichol legend seems to support the theory that La Quemada was built by a local ruling class. There was an evil priest, the story runs, who lived on a rock surrounded by walls and covered with buildings, with eagles and jaguars under his command to oppress the population. The people appealed to their gods, who destroyed the priest and his followers with “great heat”, warning the people not to go near the rock again. Quemada was probably destroyed by fire around 1300 AD and was never reoccupied; even today, the Huichol, in their annual pilgrimage from the Sierra Madre to collect peyote around Real de Catorce to the east, take a long detour to bypass this area.
If you can, time your visit to Jerez to coincide with the annual ten-day Feria de la Primavera (spring festival), celebrated around Easter since 1824 with charreadas (rodeos), bullfights, bands and much tequila drinking. The climax is the Easter Saturday procession when an effigy of Judas is burned. Festivities around the Día de la Virgen de la Soledad (Sept 8–15) are also worthwhile, with an opportunity to catch the Chichimecan plumes of the Danzas de los Matlachines.