Voices Of The Past In Zacatecas

You wouldn't expect a museum guard to have much job-related anxiety, but Mauro Martinez sure did when he started working at the former Convent of San Francisco in Zacatecas, Mexico. Built in 1593 at the height of Mexico's silver boom, the structure is filled with folk-art masks--including hundreds of leering devil faces illuminated by red beams of light. "At first, I dreamed about these faces every night--I couldn't get them out of my mind," Martinez says. "But I got used to them. We Zacatecans are very closely linked to our history."

Everywhere you stroll in this town, a seven-hour drive, or one-hour flight, northwest of Mexico City, you are confronted with ghosts. There's the Palace of the Bad Night, where a passionate 18th century suitor was discovered by his love's disapproving father. The two killed each other, and as the girl leaned out a window, she fell to her death.

Then there's the Cerro de la Bufa, the hilltop site of Pancho Villa's decisive battle against dictator Victoriano Huerta in June, 1914. Larger-than-life bronze statues of Villa and cohorts astride their horses and memorabilia from the revolutionary era make a fascinating museum.

"OLE!" But where the voices of the past truly resound is in the historic San Pedro bullring, next to a towering stone aqueduct that was the main waterline 200 years ago. Some of Mexico's legendary matadors fought bulls in this ring, built in 1866. Today, as you climb the 12 steep, quarrystone levels, you can imagine the cries of "Ole!" that once echoed here.

The bullring has been transformed into a unique hotel, the Quinta Real (800 445-4565). Architects preserved the ring, including the bull-holding pens, where visitors can sip drinks in cave-like surroundings next to graffiti messages left by the matadors. Around the ring's upper edge, the designers added a stunning smattering of rooms in the rich ochre tones of the region's farmlands. It's a spectacular hotel, where one can sit spellbound for hours.

But there is much more to see in this beautiful town, founded in 1546 by Spanish conquerors whose mines produced more than one billion dollars' worth of silver. The colonial architecture and art treasures that Zacatecas has preserved are outstanding. The pink sandstone cathedral, with its ornate facade, is one of the richest examples of Mexican baroque architecture.

SECRET GARDENS. This is a city for walking, offering endless surprises in the form of cobblestoned alleyways, charming parks with canopies of purple bougainvillea, and hidden markets. Tour the now-defunct Eden mine, crossing wobbly suspension bridges that span three-story drops.

Considering Zacatecas' wealth of silver, it's surprising that the jewelry and relics for sale are disappointing. You can find better silver souvenirs in San Miguel de Allende, a charming artists' colony favored by Americans that lies 41 2 hours south by car. But if you seek out-of-the-way spots with few tourists, don't pass up Zacatecas. Traveling in this part of Mexico, while more expensive than five years ago, is still a bargain.

Before leaving Zacatecas, visitors shouldn't miss another unusual collection of folk art at the San Agustin museum. Fantastic papier-m ch monsters called alebrijes have brightly painted bodies, wagging tongues, and sweeping wings. They were created by artist Pedro Linares, who as a child fell deliriously ill and dreamed of monsters pursuing him. He and his family transformed the monsters into whimsical folk art beasts--perhaps to purge the ghosts of the past, or perhaps to keep them alive for future generations.

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