The old Spanish colonial towns of Taxco, Guanajuato and Zacatecas are located not too far from Mexico City. They are the “silver cities” of Mexico, which are beautifully preserved like they were in colonial times, but now they thrive on tourism.
The great wealth produced by silver mining during the colonial times of the 16th to 18th centuries, financed lavish mansions for the “silver barons”, ornate cathedrals, theaters, and impressive government palaces that made New Spain truly a rival of the mother country.
Where to start your tour of the silver cities? Let’s try Taxco.
Taxco is a fascinating silver town located in the mountains about 160 kms south west of Mexico City.
Taxco town was settled in 1529 by order of conquistador Cortes. The first Spanish mine in the North American continent was started here in 1531. A rich lode of silver ore was exploited using underground techniques. This transfer of European mining technology to the New World eventually produced enormous wealth for the Spaniards.
Taxco is one of the best places to buy silver jewelry. It is a very hilly town with a maze of narrow twisting cobblestone streets. Day bus tours from Mexico City are popular and include a stop at Cuernavaca Cathedral (started 1526) with lunch and time for shopping in Taxco. Regular buses leave from Terminal Sur and the trip takes 3 hours.
The silverware range is enormous for variety and value. There are over 150 “platerias”, or silversmiths in town so competition for the tourist dollar is high. You will find silver jewelry set with malachite, lapis lazuli and orange fire opal from Queretaro. Some shops sell mineral specimens and beautiful crystals from the mines. The ladies go berserk. It is a good place to buy men’s silver rings which are an easily transportable memento.
There are lots of bookable tours in Taxco.
I recommend staying at Hotel Los Archos in Taxco.
North west of Mexico City, some 280 kms and 4 hours by bus is Guanajuato, which is the next “silver city” to visit. It is proud to be a UNESCO world heritage site.
Guanajuato is the most fascinating city in Mexico. It sprawls along the bottom of a narrow mountain valley and conveniently the main city streets and parking are underground. The nearby hillsides are a rabbit warren of old mines. The silver barons” became immensely rich and spent profusely on private and public projects. It is a city of fine mansions, theaters, churches, palaces and museums. The University of Guanajuato has a reputation for the promotion of the arts with over 15,000 students. The School of Mines and Mineralogical Museum are worth a visit by the geologically minded.
The minibus tour of the city sights is excellent. First stop is the macabre Museo de las Momias having about 150 wizened bodies on display in glass cases. You may encounter classes of school children being ushered through by guides, explaining the details about each corpse which were dug up from the local cemetery and all nicely preserved. Only the best are displayed, others not so good are cremated.
The Valenciana mine and adjacent Templo o Iglesia de San Cayetana (completed 1788) are on a hilltop about 7 kms out of town. The main head frame and shaft over 500 meters deep is still used by miners working in a cooperative venture. Tourist buses stop here for the many stalls selling silver jewelry and curios. There is a more extensive handicraft shopping area near the magnificent church some 300 meters away.
Returning down hill you stop off to explore the old mine “El Nopel” which is maintained as a tourist venture by students from the School of Mines. You don hard-hats with electric lights and follow a youthful guide for a 100 meters or so into the hillside. You are informed in Spanish how jackhammers work, and the ventilation and haulage system, roof propping, and visit the ancient stopes, which are huge open spaces left where the silver ore has been removed. You can pray for the miners in the underground capilla, or little chapel, complete with Christ on the cross and surrounded by burning candles.
In Guanajuato I recommend staying at Villa Maria Christina.
The next silver city is wonderful Zacatecas located about 600 kms north west of Mexico City and about 7 hours by bus. It is located on the barren Altiplano at 2445 meters above sea level, even higher than Mexico City.
The silver mines here were fabulously rich. The silver trail led to Mexico City, thence to Veracruz, the only port allowed to handle trade with Spain. Treasure-loaded galleons braved the pirates of the Caribbean and Sir Francis Drake got his share. Little did the European gentry know of the cruelty and bloodletting embodied in their easy wealth.
Mountains are on either side of the city which has a population of 110,000. A cable car, or “teleferico” stretches across the valley above the city center. It is a great way to get to the summit of the rocky Cerro de Bufa where you can admire the bronze statue of Pancho Villa on horseback, and view the sprawling city as if from an airplane.
Close to the bottom teleferico station is the tourist entrance to the old El Eden silver mine started by the Spaniards in 1585. It operated continuously until closure in the 1960’s. A miniature train travels 200 meters into the hillside. A mining student guide takes you along floodlit walkways across gaping stopes like some underground cathedral. One of the big chambers is now used for evening discos!
The upper levels were dug by the hands of enslaved Indians, destined to be crushed by rock falls, to die from exhaustion or else to succumb to the diseases of silicosis and tuberculosis. Here in the damp gloom you sense their tormented souls still lingering on, wondering whether they are in Heaven or Hell, when the El Eden underground disco whoops it up at the weekends.
In Zacatecas I recommend staying at Quinta Real Zacatecas.
Tourists are welcome at each of these silver cities of Mexico. They are fascinating and safe places to visit. Your credit card may take a battering but you will leave with wonderful silver mementos that will last a lifetime.