Zacatecas is a city of enormous beauty and unabashed Mexican pride. This fabled silver city lies 4.5 hours north of Guanajuato and is a detour into history no visitor will regret. At 8,100 feet above sea level (making it Mexico’s second highest city), Zacatecas will quite literally take your breath away. The city’s stunning architecture includes many religious and civil buildings from the colonial era: the cathedral, clearly dominates the center of town.
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Since its establishment as a mining camp in the 16th century, Zacatecas has long been valued for its rich deposits of silver and other minerals. On January 20th, 1548, the Spanish prospector, Juan de Tolosa, along with Diego de Ibarra, Cristobal de Oñate, and Baltasar Temiño de Bañuelos, officially founded the city. One of the world’s largest silver mines, Fresnillo, is only around 30 miles from Zacatecas. Also close by is the village of Plateros (which, incidentally, is Spanish for “silversmith”). Many make pilgrimages to Plateros at Christmas time to bring toys to the local patron saint, Santo Niño de Atocha, a symbol of Zacatecas and the protector of miners.
Some mines have been adapted for tours, including El Eden, part of the Zacatecas “From Earth to Sky” circuit. The tour offers a cable car ride to the legendary Cerro de La Bufa (Bufa Hill), where visitors can admire striking rock formations, mineral colors, and underground machinery. With a mix of curves and straight lines, the city center architecture is certainly distinctive. Its avenues are punctuated by alleys, each boasting its own legend. The Callejon del Indio Triste (Alley of the Sad Indian) tells the story of the obsessive love of Xolotl, Lord of Panuco, for Xuchitl, the last Chichemec Princess. Other notable Zacatecas alleys are Mantequilla (Butter), Gallos (Cockerels), Merceditas (Small Mercies), San Francisco (St. Francis), Santero (Faith Healer), Mono Prieto (Dark Monkey), Tenorio (Womanizer), and Resbalon (Slip). The city’s history is nothing if not lively.
Though inhabited in pre-Hispanic times, Zacatecas was officially founded by the Spanish following the discovery of a rich silver lode. Zacatecas reached the height of its prosperity in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the late 16th century, several religious orders (Dominicans, Jesuits, Agustins, and Franciscans) began constructing churches with the help of local silver barons. As you’ll see, its historic center is a tight clustering of magnificent churches, abandoned convents and sturdy colonial architecture. By the early 18th century, Zacatecas was producing one-fifth of the world’s silver.
For centuries, Zacatecas served as the northern frontier of Spain’s New World empire. Religious crusades into Mexico’s hostile northern territory (what today is the southern U.S.) were launched from Zacatecas. Its wealth and strategic position were coveted by warring factions throughout the 19th century, and in 1914, one of the Mexican Revolution’s greatest military battles took place here, as Pancho Villa’s troops defeated an army of 12,000 soldiers under General Huerta. Several features set Zacatecas apart from its colonial sister cities. First, its setting: the city is nestled in a ravine between two imposing hills, Cerro de La Bufa and Cerro del Grillo (Cricket Hill). Its narrow cobblestone streets and pedestrian alleyways wind upward past manicured parks and colonial buildings built from soft pink and peach-colored stone.
The second distinguishing factor is that Zacatecas is home to one of this hemisphere’s finest collections of ancient art from around the world. The city’s cultural sightseeing options are a suitably eclectic mix: its museums are some of Mexico’s finest, while several tranquil parks offer quiet seclusion when you’ve had enough of the city buzz. If you’re in search of excitement, this colonial gem offers two of Mexico’s most enjoyable touristic adventures: a trip into an underground silver mine and a bracing ride on the aerial tramway that soars above the city’s streets.