Museum-hopping and shopping in Zacatecas

Contributing editor Carla Hunt recently visited the city of Zacatecas, located 90 minutes by air from Mexico City. Her report follows:

ravelers who step out of the traditional circle of colonial centers strung out between Mexico City and Guadalajara will stumble upon a real find when they wander north to Zacatecas.

Zacatecas is one of those places to explore on foot.

The main attraction on the plaza is the 18th century Cathedral de Nuestra Senora de Asuncion.

With an ornate facade adorned with three tiers of sculpted apostles, angels and floral motifs, the cathedral's exterior makes the interior look plain by comparison.

Strict preservation laws govern the maintenance of the city's colonial buildings, churches and convents -- built with the regional peachy-pink sandstone -- while museums are endowed with some of the country's best collections of colonial and modern art.

For a provincial outpost, Zacatecas has a surprising treasury of excellent museums, two of which were founded by local artist brothers Rafael and Pedro Coronel.

The Rafael Coronel Museum, tucked inside the courtyards of the Convento de San Francisco, features some 4,000 Mexican ceremonial masks and an exhibition of puppets. The Pedro Coronel Museum features an eclectic mix of works from artists including Goya, Miro, Dali and Picasso as well as those by Pedro Coronel himself.

But the ultimate museum in town -- long on my wish list of places to see in Mexico -- is the Rafael Coronel Museum, tucked among the courtyards of a former convent.

Pedro Coronel collected more than 10,000 ceremonial masks, many inherited from his famous father-in-law, Mexican artist Diego Rivera; about 4,000 of them, once used in various festivals throughout Mexico, are displayed in the museum. There's also an interesting exhibit of puppets here.

Another favorite of mine is the Museo Zacatecano, which occupies a two-story hacienda that served as the city's mint in the 19th century.

The premises now are devoted to Huichol Indian art, featuring exhibits of traditional beadwork, votive paintings and ironwork.

For a look at the local contemporary art scene, clients can visit the Francisco Goitia Museum.

Once a governor's palace, it now showcases the works of six contemporary Zacatecan artists, including Goitia.

Visitors should find it worthwhile to travel by car six miles to visit the 16th century Templo de Guadalupe, where one of Mexico's finest collections of colonial-era paintings is housed in a Franciscan convent.

When clients plan for all this museum-hopping, it's really important for them to note closing days, which for most museums are Mondays; however, the Pedro Coronel Museum is closed on Thursdays and the Rafael Coronel Museum on Wednesdays.

Among the unusual attractions at the edge of the city is the El Eden silver mine, which operated for almost 400 years before closing in 1960. The mine now houses a popular disco.

You can take a small train into the depths, then embark on a guided walking tour (offered in Spanish only) through the shafts. At night, the lights come up on El Malacate Disco.

A short walk away from the mine's entrance, the teleferico (tram) glides up and across the city to the summit of La Bufa hill, for both a bird's-eye view of the city and a chance to visit the Toma de Zacatecas museum, which deals with the history of the Mexican revolution, and the chapel honoring the city's patron saint.

In addition to sightseeing, sitting beneath the arches of a colonial aqueduct that runs above the park near the Quinta Real Hotel and stopping for a coffee at the stylish Il San Patrizio Caffe Espresso Bar near the cathedral plaza, shopping is another major activity in Zacatecas.

It's not surprising that some of the best buys here are one-of-a-kind silver jewelry.

Silver, discovered here in 1564, provided the wealth to develop the treasury of colonial architecture found here; by the late 18th century, Zacatecas commanded one-fifth of the world's total silver market.

There are many little silver shops along Avenida Hidalgo. This area near the cathedral features one-stop shopping in the arcade of the iron-frame Mercado Gonzalez Ortega, also a decent spot to stop and have lunch.

Other values here include well-priced leatherwork and wrought-iron items.

Another good place to buy jewelry is the Centro Platero de Zacatecas, a workshop and school for silversmiths.

Zacatecas stages many festivals during the year, such as the International Folk Festival in September and the Fall Music Festival in October.

This year Zacatecas also celebrates its 10th anniversary as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Zacatecas is a four-hour drive from Guanajuato, a 90-minute flight from Mexico City and a 35-minute flight from Leon/Guanajuato aboard Mexicana Airlines.

At the same time, a colonial circuit can begin or end in Zacatecas, using Mexicana's nonstop flights from the U.S., which operate four times weekly from Chicago and Los Angeles and three times weekly from Oakland, Calif.

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For more details on this article, see Hotel pick: Quinta Real.

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