Mex2010 Blog 8 Tale of Two Cities

Mex2010         Blog # 8 A tale of two cities                           29 November 2010


In due course Linda and I progressed from the mining towns of the far north to the mining cities of the mid-north: Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. We had been in Zacatecas at once before, nearly two decades ago, but had stayed in a modest modern hotel a considerable distance from the historic center, an

d hadn’t explored all that much. The problem is that while Zacatecas is gorgeous, it is a somewhat daunting place into which to bring an automobile. The city is tucked into a deep gully between two soaring hills: La Bufa (Wineskin Hill) and El Grillo (Cricket Hill). The only difference between this gully and thousands of others that knife through the endless mountains of the arid north, is that La Bufa and el Grillo proved to be nearly solid silver. The first strike was made in 1548, and by the end of the century Zacatecas was the second city of New Spain. As in every boomtown, most miners struggled and starved; most of the merchants, innkeepers, whores, and tavern proprietors who served them achieved a modest prosperity; while a few lucky dowsers found themselves catapulted into the elite. Like the nouveau riche everywhere they spent to boast: mansions, theaters, emporia, civic buildings, most of them in glowing pink sandstone, soon lined the bottom and then the sides of the gulley. And since —remember that this is a Catholic viceroyalty of Spain in the prosperous years of the Counterreformation — they got right with God by erecting church after ostentatious church.


The problem: the gulley sides are steep and meet at the bottom in a V. All the reasonably flat roads run parallel to each other north-south in or above the gulley. Most of the east-west alleys that run between them are flights of stairs. I counted one of sixty steps and one of seventy-two between two major streets (i.e., wide enough to fit one car at a time, with an occasional wide bulge to let two cars pass). The system presumably worked well in the age of mules, but in the age of Honda sedans, Ford pickups, and the occasional garbage truck, it is … well, respect-inducing. None of the locals seem to mind, and after a blood-pressure raising first few hours, neither did we.


The Baroque church façades glow. The narrow plazas bustle with commerce, with young girls marching in formation, and with teenage revolutionaries preaching to deaf passers-by. One plaza off of Calle Hidalgo, two blocks from the Cathedral, hosts a concert three evenings a week by diverse groups and always seems to draw crowds who don’t seem bothered by the nip in the evening air. Zacatecas is at nearly 2500 meters (about 7800 feet).


With some internet assistance we stumbled onto the best modest hotel in all of Mexico, the Mesón de la Merced, which we recommend to anybody with $45 a night to invest. Beautiful rooms, lovely patio, free parking, accommodating staff, and the best included breakfast we’ve ever found. We stayed five nights, while I nursed my cold and Linda worked on the final touches of her paper —due in Spain toward the end of this week. Once I could breathe again, I troubled my leg muscles on the hills, consulted at the Zacatecas State Historical Archives, and toured the Mina Edén, the one mine that permits visitors. Actually, Eden is a little hokey, not nearly as interesting as the open mine in Real del Monte, though it has a spectacular collection of minerals from all over the world on display: even a Herkimer diamond.


Zacatecas also has a cable car that runs from the top of El Grillo to the top of la Bufa, and once Linda was satisfied with her footnotes, we took a taxi up to the Grillo station, gawked at the city views during the seven-minute glide over to La Bufa, and wished that my camera’s batteries hadn’t gone suddenly dead.


A tale of two cities: best of times and worst of times, and all that. A

s we were walking down from la Bufa some accomplished purse snatchers, more agile and fleet of foot than these old timers, got Linda’s bag and my wallet. No one hurt. Only modestly shaken. Slightly embarrassed (we probably should have taken a cab down … but the views were SO spectacular and the day was SO beautiful). And of course we are majorly inconvenienced at the disappearance of credit cards (we had reserve cards stashed elsewhere), phones, Linda’s (but not my) camera, and some cash. We’ll try to be even more prudent in the future. And meanwhile, we’ll set about reconstructing our lost stuff. Bother!!


The second city, 200 kilometers southeast and 2000 feet lower, is San Luis Potosí. It started as a mining center, soon found that there was more money to be made in growing vegetables, corn, and wheat, and raising cattle, and trucking it all north to Zacatecas, Sombrerete, Chalchihuites, Mazapil, and a couple of dozen other mining centers in the northern deserts.

Again: most labored for poverty wages, modest merchants grew modestly wealthy, and the few with savvy and land grew wealthy and ostentatious. Today SLP is a large city of gorgeous churches and palaces, lovely plazas humming with kids and clowns, balloon-men and hand holding lovers, old folks strolling and paleta vendors hawking their popsicles. Just the thing for a Sunday afternoon. It is really the best of times after all.


David & Linda