The colonial city of Zacatecas beats surging Mexico City in just about every way
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Zacatecas lies in the middle of Mexico, 392 miles (631 km) northwest of Mexico City POPULATION Around 140,000
VISITORS PER YEAR Around 1 million
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 50°F (10°C); Apr: 57°F (14°C); Jul: 63°F (17°C); Oct: 63°F (17°C)
Ask most Mexicans what comes to mind when they think of Zacatecas, and you’ll hear the word paraíso (paradise) more than any other. This jewel of a city, which is almost 500 years old and blessed with the best climate, finest architecture, lowest crime rate, and highest quality of life in the country, is still a relatively well-kept secret. If you want gridlock, unimaginable levels of pollution, and are willing to part with the contents of your wallet (sometimes unknowingly), stick with Mexico City. But if you want to get to know the real Mexico, head to Zacatecas.
The historic city was the first in Mexico to undergo a rigorous preservation project, and it shows. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, the downtown area is a faithfully restored Spanish colonial city like no other. Here you’ll find a richly decorated 18th-century cathedral, which is the finest example of Mexican Churrigueresque architecture in the world; many ex-convents that have been converted into first-rate museums; and a famous mint. These museums and the city’s countless monuments explore the role Zacatecas played in both the War of Independence (1810–21) and the early-20th-century Mexican Revolution.
Zacatecas plays host to innumerable festivals and events each year. The most vibrant of these is a cultural celebration held during Semana Santa (Holy Week) that is unrivalled across Mexico. The city also boasts a national folklore festival, an impressive charrería (traditional display of horsemanship), a national fair that doubles as a drinking contest at night, hot-air balloon festivals, street theater extravaganzas, reenactments of ancient battles, and centuries-old religious processions that are long-extinct elsewhere. Better still, most of these events are free to the public.
The city’s central location makes it an ideal base for trips to nearby attractions. The Cerro de la Bufa, which is located just outside the center behind the cathedral, is a beautiful hilltop with its own cable car – one of the only two cable cars in Mexico – and an enormous monument to the revolutionary general, Francisco “Pancho” Villa.
The countryside nearby is home to archaeological sites, indigenous Huichol communities famed for their imaginative art, and quaint villages that have remained virtually unchanged over the centuries. Zacatecas is also close enough to both coasts that Mexico’s fabled beaches are only ever a day trip away.
MAIN CITY SIGHTS
Cerro de la Bufa Climb or take the cable car to the top of this hill for fabulous views of the city. At the top you’ll find statues of revolutionary heroes, a chapel, and a museum dedicated to the Revolution.
Don’t miss the Tomb of the Illustrious Zacatecanos, a marble mausoleum where the remains of several famous Zacatecanos are enshrined.
Cathedral of Zacatecas Even the most jaded traveler will be impressed by this soaring spiritual monument, with its magnificent pink-stone facade.
Mina El Eden A legacy of the silver mines on which Zacatecas grew rich, this mine is now a museum and, rather unexpectedly, a disco at night. A cable car runs from here to the top of the Cerro de la Bufa.
Rafael Coronel Museum In a beautiful converted convent, this museum exhibits artworks from all over the world, including pottery, masks, and the largest collection of Miró works outside of Spain.
FORGET MEXICO CITY?
Still a major tourist draw, Mexico City is a sprawling metropolis and the country’s cultural, economic, political, and social heart. It’s been said that Mexico City has more to offer the visitor in one place than the rest of the country combined, and its historic center is one of the most famous destinations in the world.
Four words: pollution, touts, crime, and traffic. Mexico City has them all on an ever-increasing scale, and they take a huge toll on the city’s enjoyment potential. And once you’re outside the renowned city center – which isn’t all that well preserved to begin with – there’s very little of interest to see.
If you’re still keen on going, explore the city on foot and in daylight hours only. Start early, take in the grand Zócalo (central square) before it’s impassable, and don’t waste your time or money outside the center, where the sights are fewer and farther apart.
Getting There and Around
Zacatecas is served by major and local airlines and also has excellent highways from all major Mexican cities. The city is best explored on foot.
Where to Eat
The city boasts great restaurants, with French, Italian and Mexican cuisine predominating. Café Nevería Acrópolis, with its museum- quality art collection and high- street views, is a perennial favorite whether you’re after a Mexican or international dish.
Where to Stay
There’s no question that the Quinta Real is the leader here. The hotel, which is built into the ruins of a bullring, has a monastery-like subterranean bar and boasts five-star luxury.
When to Go
Zacatecas is gorgeous all year round, although its height above sea level – roughly 8,200 ft (2,500 m) – can mean chilly evenings. From March to August the temperatures are comfortable and the days long, sunny, and free from humidity.
Budget per Day for Two
US$175 a day inclusive of everything, though many travelers make do on considerably smaller budgets.