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Dave and Jan's travels, day 167:

2nd November
Zacatecas was founded in the colonial era, and started as a silver mining town. The Spanish mine-owners made a lot of money: the benefits of which can be seen today in the large numbers of beautiful colonial buildings and picturesque public spaces. See the baroque cathedral at right for an example: every inch of the front is intricately and masterfully carved. And there are countless other churches throughout the town, most with acres of precious metals (at least where they haven't been looted at some point). The downside of silver mining is also visible, because you can still tour the old mines where 5 Indians used to die every day. The exploitation was quite horrible, although in the defence of the church it does seem that it was priests who eventually curbed the worst excesses.

Anyway, today it's a bustling prosperous town of about 200,000 people and a very nice place to be. It seemed like everywhere we looked in Zacatecas people were either dancing or singing, or both. The town contains two spectacular museums: the Pedro Coronel and the Raphael Coronel. These two artist brothers both bequeathed their collections to the town and what collections! Pedro had managed to accumulate a startling collection of contemporary artists including Picasso, Chagall, Bonnard, Miro, Goya, Kandinsky: and some of his own stuff isn't bad either. Meanwhile Raphael focused on native work, including a stunning collection of some 2,000 masks - see the devils at the right. Both museums are lovely places to spend time.

Music: our first night we walk out the hotel door and find a procession of people following a steel band singing 'Ave Maria'. We move on a couple of blocks and find 25 guitarists, a couple of bass players and a bunch of people singing and cheering every number. See the Durango page for more details on the way that this particular muscial style works. The second night, we took in the University Jazz Quintet, who were OK but taking it rather too seriously. Since when did a Jazz group have lengthy scholarly introductions to each song? Mind you, the keyboard and sax players obviously felt the same way, as they disappeared off the stage each time the leader started talking. Presumably they had a strategically placed hip flask... Finally, the third night, we returned to our hotel around 8p.m. to find a bunch of our fellow guests sitting around a guitar player, singing their hearts out, fuelled by mezcal and coke. Seconds later we found ourselves armed with a cup of this rather high octane liquid, and an enormously entertaining hour soon passed. Everyone seems to have a loud and melodic voice and know all the words. We also managed to have a conversation with a couple of 10 year olds who were listening to the music. I can tell you that his represents quite a step forward for us, although given that examples of the Spanish sentences that we can actually manage are 'what is your name?' and ' how old are you?', this was the perfect audience.

Food: yum yum. Lots of juice bars. We also had gorditas for breakfast most days. A gordita is the Mexican equivalent of fast food, they're like a little pancakey thing of fried maize dough stuffed with whatever, and dead good when freshly cooked. Another culinary standout was a "little of everything" local speciality that David ordered. Most of the contents went down very well, but the largish lump of raw pork was a bit of a surprise. And we found a place to buy proper coffee (this is quite a red-letter moment, I may be slowing down a bit as life gets quieter out here, but no caffeine for two weeks has been a problem).

It really is a nice place to be. We spent a lot of time just wondering around the backstreets, which are never dull. I think that we've already talked about this, but it is great fun to be in a country where people do stuff out of doors. Some of the excitement I think was due to the big fiesta for the Day of the Dead on the 2nd November - we saw a lot of small kids trick-or-treating in halloween costumes, just running from shop to shop in the market place. But I suspect that a lot of outdoor activity just happens every day.

Finally, we did also take the cable car up to the nearby hill La Bufa, named because it is reputedly the same shape as a Spanish deerskin wine bottle. In any case, on top there is a statue of Pancho Villa, hero of the Spanish revolution (see right). The reality of this guy is that he was a murdering small-time bandit who happened to be in the right place at the right time for his particular stock in trade, and then he got some rather fortuitous PR. Still, he certainly seems to have been quite the master tactician, and has a reputation for boisterous fun.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

The cathedral

Raphael Coronel Museum

Masks in the Raphael Coronel Museum

Pancho Villa