Zacatecas, capital of the state of the same name, lies at 8,100 feet in the Sierra Madre mountains of central Mexico. During the Spanish reign it was a center of silver mining and a wealthy colonial city. (Some mines still operate.) Elaborate old mansions and a stone aqueduct remind visitors of this bygone era.
An easy way to see all of Zacatecas at once is to ride the cable car (teleferico) to the top of Cerro de la Bufa (Wineskin Hill), 8,748 feet high, and the city's most distinctive landmark. At the top stands the Chapel of Our Lady of Zacatecas, built in 1728, and a mausoleum dedicated to "illustrious Zacatecano men." But the real reason most visitors make the trip is the wonderful panorama of the city below and surrounding countryside.
A more difficult, but still pleasurable, way to see the city is on foot. Except for the area near the main cathedral, it seems that one is always going either up or downhill. Some narrow "streets" even include steps to make the climb easier. At an altitude above 8,000 feet, many visitors may find themselves breathing a little harder.
The main cathedral offers an opportunity to catch one's breath while admiring the extravagant stone ornamentation on the main facade, designed in colonial days to show off the wealth of the city. Given this ornate entrance, one might expect similarly lavish decoration inside, but it is not to be. The interior is surprisingly stark, owning to having been sacked during one of Mexico's many wars. Similarly austere – desolate, in fact – is the Plaza de Armas on the northern side of the cathedral. It easily captures the (dubious) award for the least inviting plaza I have seen in Mexico. Most public gatherings, in fact, take place along a set of broad steps south of the cathedral (which came alive one evening during our visit with a well-attended performance by a Mexican pop group).
Just west of the cathedral, is the 18th century Church of Santo Domingo, which is much more richly decorated inside than the main cathedral. Next to the church is the Pedro Coronel Museum, with one of the finest collections in Mexico, set in a colonial building that alone is worth the price of admission. The museum houses pre-Hispanic, colonial, Chinese, Japanese, Greek and African art, plus works by Hogarth, Piranesi, Daumier, Miró, Picasso, and many others collected by Zacatecano painter Pedro Coronel (1921-1985). The museum, not surprisingly, also features paintings and sculptures by Coronel himself.
Several other points of interest in Zacatecas: Visitors can take a tour deep inside the Mina el Eden (Eden Mine) for a glimpse of the dreary conditions that faced Zacatecano miners. Untold numbers were killed or injured, especially during the harsh colonial era. A small chapel inside the mine reflects the miners' hopes for better times, perhaps in the hereafter.
On a brighter note, Zacatecas offers a relaxing, tree-filled park (Sierra de Alica) and nearby, the remains of an old aqueduct. In this same vicinity is the Quinta Real Hotel, the most upscale in Zacatecas, built around an old bull ring. The tiered restaurant in the hotel is part of the ring and overlooks its center, where events are held (during our visit a lavish wedding reception was just getting underway). Even if you don't stay or eat at the hotel, it is worth walking through the public areas to see the bull ring and how cleverly it has been integrated into the modern structure.