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Zacatecas Mexico, Solo – On My Own and Loving It

Text & Photos By Susan Sanford

Zacatecas has everything I want and more: a beautiful and historic city Susan Sanford and friend stock up on agua miel.with great weather, a vibrant street life, low living costs, world-class museums, and music everywhere. At an elevation of 2,445 meters (over 8,000 feet), this UNESCO world heritage site sits between mountain ranges in the middle of the desert plateau of central Mexico. It's a little off the standard tourist route, but I never regret the extra effort to get there.

Famous for its silversmiths and fine museums, Zacatecas is a delight of 17th and 18th century Spanish colonial architecture. Yet this city of 120,000 is no stuffy museum – its inhabitants are warm, lively, and very much engaged with modern life, Mexican-style.

Clean and Safe

I have often heard that Mexico is dirty, impoverished, and crime-ridden, but in my opinion, Zacatecas is as clean and safe as any city in the world.

Every morning I sloshed through water as neighbors washed their stoops and sidewalks. I followed wandering minstrels into the night with nary a concern.

"Is it really as safe as it feels?" I asked another single woman who lives there. She replied that she has never felt unsafe in Zacatecas.

There was a parade every day I was there – a political protest, a lively religious festival, or a cultural celebration with people dressed in exuberant costumes.

The center of Zacatecas is its pink sandstone cathedral, renowned as the finest example of the extravagant Mexican baroque style known as churrigueresco. In the late afternoon sun, the ornate facade seems to glow with an inner light.

Every evening I sat on a wide staircase descending to the Plazuela Francisco Goitia among Mexican families listening to the city band, musical performers, or watching the antics of mimes and clowns.

The place to see and be seen for breakfast or lunch is the large and bright Café Acropolis just south of the cathedral. Here you sit among businessmen and politicians conferring at the round tables, and the coffee is terrific.

Favorite Places

My favorite neighborhood is around the lush Jardín de la Independencia. Folks lounge around the plaza on tree-shaded benches listening to guitarists with the fountain splashing in the background.

Across the street is La Unica Cabaña, a huge, crowded taquería with its menu painted on the wall. The high arched colonial ceilings contrast with the purely functional decor. This is the place to get good, fast, reasonably priced food and watch the locals stream in and out.

Just up the street is Arroyo de la Plata (Street of Silver) and blocks of wonderful open-market browsing. Across the street, Huichol Indians sell their wares from tables and blankets. I arrive early and buy a cup of agua miel (honey water), the unfermented juice of the maguey plant, from earthenware jars carried on the back of a burro.

Silver jewelry and artifacts on display throughout the city recall the great mining history of Zacatecas. I bought my silver directly from the artisans at the Centro Platero, a school where the silver craft is passed on to the new generation.

Party-on in Zacatecas

The callejoneada is the uniquely Zacatecan way to party. A ragtag band It's always good form to join a callejoneada of horns and drums leads the way, followed by a raucous group of merrymakers; the barrels on the back of a donkey dispense mescal, the fermented juice of the maguey. The group stops occasionally to play and dance then wends its way through the back alleys to the next rendezvous. If you encounter a callejoneada in the streets, it is always good form to join the fun.

A cable car swings up to a stony outcropping looming hundreds of feet over downtown Zacatecas, offering unparalleled views over the city and its surroundings. The monuments at the top celebrate the capture of Zacatecas by Pancho Villa in 1914. Brown-toned photos of bandidos with enormous sombreros and bandilleras crossed on their chests are a familiar icon of the western cinematic myth; explanations hardly seem necessary – we know this story.

One of my favorite museums ever is the Rafael Coronel mask museum, housed Grounds of Rafael Coronel Museumin a partially ruined ex-convent. Crumbling arches and lush grounds make the perfect setting for a picnic or a siesta; the masks are a fascinating historical, cultural, and artistic tour of Mexico.

Zacatecas is known as the place everybody wants to return to. Access is easy, with direct flights from Chicago and Los Angeles several times a week. Once you get there, you won't want to leave, and when you leave, like me, you'll be planning your return.

When to Go

Zacatecas is striving to become a tourist destination, but I met almost no norte- americano (US or Canadian) visitors. The biggest crowds of the year are found during the week before Easter when streets are closed to traffic and overflow with markets, parades, and street performances.

Getting There

While there are direct flights to Zacatecas from US gateway cities, I prefer to travel by first-class bus when alone; I have also driven by car to Zacatecas but not on my own. I would not be comfortable driving alone on Mexican highways.

Approximate prices are given in US dollars.

By Plane: Mexicana Airlines flies nonstop from Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles. Within Mexico, Mexicana flies nonstop from Mexico City, León Guanajuato, and Tijuana.

By Car: From the south, toll road 45D goes through Querétaro, León, and Aguascalientes. Highway 54 takes 5 to 6 hours southwest from Monterrey, and 4.5 hours northeast from Guadalajara.

By Bus: I love traveling by bus in Mexico. It is comfortable, safe, and relatively fast, as well as a great way to get outside the "gringo" routine. First-class buses have restrooms and air-conditioning, and often provide snack meals and movies. Buses leave regularly, and reservations are only necessary during holidays.


Day Trips

Convento de Guadalupe, located about 8 km from Zacatecas, is a large Franciscan convent and evangelical college that houses an exceptional collection of colonial paintings, some of the greatest painters of New Spain – Cabrera, Villalpando, Correa, and others.

Chicomostoc Ruins. Also known as La Quemada, this archeological site was built on an important north-south trading route of the Mesoamericans about 1000 AD. The ruins are located off-the-beaten path in a valley about 55 km south-east of Zacatecas. For that reason, it will be a challenge getting there and back without a vehicle.

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Comment on this article

>> From Nadine Pilz: My grandson and I are invited to spend some time with a family that live outside the city of Zacatecas. It is some kind of ranch. We know very little about them or what their living conditions are. One person told me to to pack toilet tissue as that is what she does when visiting her husband's family in Mexico. We don't want to offend them by asking if they have adequate bathroom facilities or what we should be sure to pack. Can you tell me what we might expect since they are not in the city. Any information would be so appreciated.

Editor: Your question goes beyond the scope of this article, but I'm certain that ranches in Mexico do range from rustic to luxurious. Personally, I see no issue in inquiring about weather, clothing, activities, transport or any general topic related to your trip. As for "adequate bathroom facilities," why ask? Instead, stay on the sure side by packing any necessities and toiletries you can't do without, including tissue.

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