What is Zacatecas?

The sky immediately soothed me. We’d landed in Zacatecas as evening came on, and the airborne vista’s agricultural monotony had caused some slight trepidation, but on the short drive to town I was immersed in the jewel toned vibrance of a desert sky going to night. Imperial purple already owned the east, reaching through oceanic blues that floated ripe red clouds in patterns, stripes, and swathes to bow down before the utter gold of the western sunset.


But what was the town like?


Orderly businesses on the outskirts spoke well of the local economy but were hardly the sort of place I’d want to hang out. We passed a Dominos. I cringed. Our off-ramp tunneled under the freeway to emerge in the kind of narrow winding streets that developed in the centuries before urban planning, when happenstance and livestock set the rules. (Zacatecas dates to the 1500s.) Traffic is instant in such capillary streets, so we were soon part of the evening flow.


Zacatecas street vendorsA light flow of people passed vendors selling syrup-sweet churros rellenos, bags of fresh fruit, and just-boiled elote ears of corn. Most shops were closed up for the night, only the nail salons and barbershops still doing brisk business. We crossed a small plaza, central statue and benches along the geometric paths, people of all ages relaxing in the evening calm, and I set my tired mind to record how to get back there. Seven seconds later we stopped at my hotel. Good start.


The room was spartan and immaculate, perfect, and it was time to meet Zacatecas on foot. Within half an hour I stood amazed in yet another clean, well designed park. This town was a dream.


Zacatecas street in eveningZacatecas was a combination of two lineages. On one hand, it reminded me of the great Italian cities, perhaps part Venice and part Florence, with Baroque architecture clustered close, stone streets curving in boulevardal elegance, and basilica spires rising above the rooftops to balance those of the top dog cathedral. Merged with this, I felt the calm of a small mountain town, few buildings above 2-3 stories, independent shops because that’s still how it’s done here, and the assumption that all the kids of a given age know one another at least by sight.


All of that, set in a solid context of Mexico. The smell of tortillas and savory meat, the rumbling buses with their plumes of exhaust, and the sort of hospitality where people entering a restaurant room will wish you “buen provecho” immediately, the beautiful Spanish version of our more familiar “bon appetit.”

Zacatecas park at night

I stood in the cool January evening and watched people walk their dogs (which were hearty and happy, with nothing of the character of the diseased strays I remembered from other Latin American travels) and teenage couples holding hands while rollerblading. Rollerblading! All of this under trees hung with endless Christmas lights and a horde of tiny music boxes playing Christmas carols, albeit with the sort of tinny high-speed of that toy Grandma gave your kid and you made sure to “lose” as soon as you got home. They were placed so abundantly that their musical umbrellas overlapped, creating a somewhat cacaphonic but wonderfully exuberant overplay of Hark! Joy to the Silent Night of We Three Jingle Bells.


This medley contrasted the calm of the rest of the town. Even the traffic cops blew their whistles with a sort of low sonorous “your turn” instead of the strident “pay attention, damnit!” that one associates with the tool. All of it combined to give me the sense that Zacatecas, though home to perhaps 150,000 people, was the sort of small town where I could relax and wander.


I was no longer worried about spending a week here. Instead I was curious. What would I do with those seven days?