On an unusually warm day in mid-November, I paused to rest on a traffic island in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Zacatecas.
La Fuente de los Faroles (“the Fountain of Lanterns”) served as the island’s centerpiece and attracted visitors and patrons of the local businesses, who used the landmark as a photo background. Its ornate lanterns point in each direction and serve as an ideal prop. Passersby used the slow pace of the vehicles to walk through the gaps in traffic, ignoring the lights on the opposite corners. Other people converged in the various shops that lined the streets around me.
The area around the fountain attracts attention with its distinctive use of yellow earth tones, a wide palette of browns, and rose quartz. Lanterns with wrought-iron fittings are attached to numerous buildings and are switched on in the evening to create a warm candlelight glow. Streets made of cobblestone resemble similar streets in the small medieval towns in Spain or Tuscany.
Origins Of Zacatecas
When I arrived, I did not know of the Indigenous, Spanish, and African people who all shared space as ladrinos (an outdated Castilian Spanish term for citizens) of what would become Zacatecas — “where there is abundant grass.”
Before the Spanish conquest, the area was inhabited mostly by the Indigenous Zacateco, Guachichil, and Caxcan peoples. The land rich in silver, it had been a longtime mining site.
In 1546, Zacatecas was reached by Spaniards, who met with Indigenous people and found the various silver lodes. Various Spanish groups settled in communities to find wealth and build societies based around life in the mines. King Philip II of Spain declared it an official Spanish city in 1585.
During Zacatecas’s formative years, both Castilian and Indigenous languages were used in everyday life as the various groups intermarried, including enslaved Africans who were forced to work in the mines. As all the groups gradually settled down, families grew by using their acquired or collective wealth to purchase plots in the mines. Even Indigenous women owned plots while tending to blood relatives or abandoned children.
Eventually, Zacatecas developed and consolidated the various surrounding communities. Today, it is the capital of the Mexican state of Zacatecas.
Due to the present-day layout of the town, it is fairly walkable with a few inclined passageways to upper or lower streets. The best part of the city is that these passageways lead to plazas with interesting finds.
Using Fuente de los Faroles as a starting point, head west on Tacuba (which starts at the fountain), and on you will find:
1. Plazuela Goitia
This plaza is flanked by the Mercado Jesús Gonzalez Ortega, which in the 19th century was the main market. You will find various shops with goods such as clothing, books, and local wines. You will also find a visitors booth offering maps and advice at the main entrance. The Tacuba side offers a great view of the street below. If you have not eaten yet, the Acropolis Café is an ideal place for coffee and a light breakfast.
On the other side of the plazuela is the Neo-Renaissance–style Teatro Fernando Calderón. Completed in 1897, the theater has had various uses, ranging from a political soapbox to cockfights.
The plaza is best visited at night when locals gather there for entertainment ranging from American rock cover bands to opera. Numerous vendors offer inexpensive fare, while bars sit parallel to the mercado. If you are looking for a taste of the United States, head to the Bar Elvis Rock & Roll around the corner for a consistent calendar of rock acts.
2. Plaza De Armas
Continue west on Tacuba — or if you decide to cross the Plazuela Goitia, continue west on Avenida Hidalgo — where you will find the Cathedral Basilica of Zacatecas.
Built in stages throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries with donations of various mine owners, the current cathedral replaced earlier churches.
As the centerpiece of the city, the cathedral’s floor plan is a Latin cross, and its design is Baroque with vaulted roofs and Tuscan influences. Most visitors pop in to take a quick photo and leave. I recommend wandering around to admire the effort put into its construction.
Next door is the Palacio de Gobierno, where numerous governors lived until the 19th century. Today, it is a government building. On occasion, you will find a press conference taking place in front of this building — or you’ll find a holiday display, depending on the season. Inside is a mural of the history of Zacatecas. You will also find the Residencia de Gobernadores, which was also used as the governor’s home until the mid-20th century.
Across the street is the Palacio de la Mala Noche (“Palace of the Sleepless Night/Bad Night”), one of many buildings constructed for the wealthy mine owners.
3. Parroquia De Santo Domingo
Head north on the inclined passageway of De Veyna, then take a left. You will be staring at one of my favorite landmarks: the Parroquia de Santo Domingo, built in the late 1740s. It is now a Dominican church and convent after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. Next to the church, you will find the Museo Pedro Coronel, which houses collected arts.
If by this time you are in the mood for some local cuisine, stop by Brick, or continue down the same street and stop at Santino Pizza to try one of their micheladas, a Mexican cocktail I could not get enough of.
4. Mina El Edén
A 9-minute inclined walk from Santo Domingo, you will cross residential neighborhoods during your journey to Mina El Edén — a mine (now museum) that was established in the 1500s and operated well into the 20th century. Take Aquiles Serdan to its endpoint, then to De Ramos, which will stop at Del Grillo. From there, take a right to find the entrance to Mina El Edén. If you are parched, there is also a small shop here that sells beverages.
Pro Tip: If you are not in the mood to tackle the incline on foot, you can take a local taxi.
Learn about Zacatecas’s history and the experiences of the various people who worked in the mines via a mix of mine cars and walking paths. Various stations highlight the people who often gave their life or health to the mines. Personally, one of the most striking images was of the children who worked the mines, carrying off rocks with very little clothing and no shoes.
Toward the end of the tour, the guide will ask where you would like to exit, either at your origin point or the secondary entrance. I recommend returning to your origin point.
5. Teleférico De Zacatecas/El Cerro De La Bufa
If you did not notice them upon your arrival, look for the signs pointing in the direction of the Teleférico. There will be a few local vendors selling items along the path. My favorite is the final shop selling Zacatecan mezcal, which locals proclaim is the best type.
The oldest cable car in Mexico allows you to see all of Zacatecas from overhead. Undoubtedly you will have noticed it passing in the distance throughout your journey, and now you get to experience it yourself.
Once you are up there, you will get a better idea of how the city developed over the centuries, as you can see the various churches that once formed the centers of various smaller communities.
On the other side is El Cerro de la Bufa, bufa meaning “pig’s bladder” in Aragonese. From this hill, you get great views of the city; and for the adventurous, a zip line goes to an adjacent hill. Various statues of national heroes dot the hill, and a hiking trail will take you further up for better views. The Shrine of Our Lady of Patronage, with its gorgeous courtyard, is also worth a visit.
6. Extra Stops In Zacatecas
History lovers should stop at the Museo Toma de Zacatecas to learn about the Battle of Zacatecas (1914). Inside, you can view the various weapons, battle strategies, and a virtual Pancho Villa who will detail the city’s importance in winning the Mexican Revolution. Fun fact: Antonio Aguilar performs a great ranchero song recounting the battle (La Toma de Zacatecas).
Iglesia San Agustin is another worthwhile visit. It harkens back to the Reform Wars (1858–1860). Another favorite is the Museo la Casa del Inquisidor, which details the various devices used during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Acueducto de Zacatecas, Jardín Independencia, and the Museo Francisco Goitia are all stops to add to your list if you have interests in art and architecture.
Pro Tips: Exploration out of town leads to Guadalupe, which has its own vibe distinct from Zacatecas. Their local market is fun to explore as well as its green spaces. And La Quemada (or Chicomóztoc) in nearby Villanueva is an archeological site that dives deep into the pre-Hispanic civilization of Central Mexico.
The Secret Of Zacatecas
Although Zacatecas is a small city, time is best spent simply wandering its streets and locales. The most memorable part of my time in “where there is abundant grass” were the people, drinks, and foods shared by the vecinos, or neighbors, in the various neighborhoods.
Late-night fatties at Gorditas Doña Julia, the grilled and buttered maize from street vendors at Plazuelta Goitia, and the topped burgers from the vendor behind La Fuente de los Faroles. All became go-to stops along my route back to my hotel after the day’s adventure was done.
Zacatecas draws you in with its European aesthetic and leaves you with the feeling that you’ve uncovered a secret place that most travelers overlook.