October 14-22, 2003
Zacatecas is the best, most romantic Mexican city we have seen. [This was written before seing other colonial cites of central Mexico. Many of them are great too.] Its population is only 150,000 with a small nucleus of about 1 mile by 1/4 mile, meaning that everything of interest is easily accessible. And there is lots of interest. For example, we toured the mine that led to the city's founding with its ore of gold, silver, zinc, and lead; we took the cable car to Cerro de la Buffa, a distinctive rocky outcropping, for a fine view of the city and visit to the museum that celebrates Pancho Villa's capture of the city in 1914 (more later).
In the center along the main street are the exquisite baroque cathedral, several museums in converted convents and monasteries, and lots of romantic old Spanish architecture. The best hotel is the Hotel Quinta Real (www.quintareal.com, (492) 922-91-04) built over the former bull ring. The circular shape and the lower parts were retained while a circle of suites and restaurants and shops was built as new upper levels. We walked around and liked it a lot but didn't want to cough up the $250/per night room charge. Instead, we stayed in the center where we had a comfortable but noisy room in the 300-year-old Posada de los Condes for our usual $30.
Within an hour of Zacatecas are Guadalupe, Jerez, and La Quemada, all of which are worth an excursion. Guadalupe is a suburb six miles away with an excellent museum in a converted convent that has an amazing series of 20-30 wall-size paintings depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi and another series recounting the life of Christ. Don't come if you don't like religious paintings, but we think the building itself is worthy of a visit and happily spent three to four hours here. You get there by local bus that costs about 30cents each way.
Jerez is a mini-Zacatecas about 45 miles SW with three fine old buildings and a small community of retired Americans. It's one of the cleanest little towns we found and a very friendly place. According to the local ex-pats, life is very affordable. A four-bedroom house can be rented for $300/month. Smaller, less modern homes can be rented for as little as $100/month.
La Quemada is 25 miles S; it consists of a ridge-hill with some Indian ruins (400-900 AD) that are the finest we have seen yet in Mexico (but much better are the Mayan, etc., ruins in the far south) and a very nice and modern museum. We were expecting to have to hire a guide to visit the site, but were left to our own devices and happily wandered up the hill to the highest point from where we had a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside. Our only regret was having to rush down off the hill before we were ready because of closing time.
Here's the bottom line: if you are still looking for places to go try the above. They are comfortable, economical, and you can do them by yourself. And there are plenty of packages that include them. If you do things by yourself there are guided city tours that will get you around to all of the sites.
Museums that cover the life of General Francisco "Pancho" Villa are numerous in northern Mexico and rate very low on Jan's list of things to do. The first one you visit is interesting especially if you know the name but not the history behind it, but after the fourth or fifth time of grainy photographs and even grainier copies of newspaper cuttings accompanied by propagandistic statements worthy almost of the Vietnamese and Chinese communists, she throws up her hands in despair and says "Uncle!".
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