Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017
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Diamond in the Rough

Mexico's Zacatecas is a colonial gem waiting to be discovered

Most travellers to Mexico would probably not venture the 600 kilometres north of Mexico City to little-known Zacatecas. But then they'd never know the charms of the place, both a state and its capital city, in the northern heart of Mexico. Its colonial buildings and 19th-century churches are striking in shades of regional pink cantera, the stone changing hues with the weather and time of day. The streets and typical narrow alleyways, in the shadow of the hill, the Cerro de la Bufa, are attractively paved with large smooth cobblestones.

When dusk falls, city dwellers stand by the doorways of shops and cafeterias, mingling on the streets. The old silver-mining town, now a city of 400,000, lights up its pink face and its silver heart as well.

The rhythm is different here and it's one of the reasons to make the trip. No one is in a rush. The locals are smiling and friendly. There are no shopping malls, billboards or fast-food chains. The only traffic you'll see is at the fair, the Feria de Zacatecas, each September.

You're more likely to cross paths with an old wizened man on a donkey selling agua miel, a refreshing drink of pineapple and cactus juice, than to get stuck in a bottleneck. The streets wind and wander, so it's a real pleasure getting lost in callejones, the typical alleyways, or stumbling on a square where men converse over crates of tuna, the succulent prickly pear cactus fruit. Head out of town into the countryside, and you'll see them growing by the roadside, vibrant reds and oranges dotting the landscape.

OLD SILVER

Zacatecas started out as a mining town in 1546, founded by Juan de Tolosa, a soldier who claimed to have found silver. Few believed him but he was soon proved right and Zacatecas became a major city in Spain's New World empire. The silver mines provided the wealth to build the beautiful pink colonial architecture the town is known for.

Zacatecas was also a centre of religious influence. Among the orders based in the area, the Franciscans alone controlled 58 monasteries from
the town. The Colegio Propaganda de Guadalupe on the outskirts of the city was founded by 1707 and served as the point of departure for Franciscan missionaries who set out to convert northern Mexico. You can visit the convent and its church, the Templo de Guadalupe; its 19th-century chapel has stunning 23-karat gold neoclassical decorations. The convent also houses one of the most important collections of colonial paintings in Mexico, some works dating as far back as the 17th century.

Before you leave the city, though, there is much to explore beyond the pretty pink facades. The 18th-century Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción in the centre of town is a good place to start. Though in this case, it's the ornate Churrigueresque facade you're likely to appreciate; the interior is nothing out of the ordinary.

Just off the cathedral, the vast Plaza de Armas provides a perfect place to sit and soak in the atmosphere. Or over on Hidalgo Avenue near the cathedral, shops sell one-of-a-kind silver jewellery and trinkets. Zacatecas is known for its silver, leatherwork and wrought ironwork. The Mercado Gonzalez Ortega marketplace in the centre of town is one-stop shopping for leather, silver and handicrafts. Another good place to buy silver jewelry is the Centro Platero de Zacatecas, a workshop and school for silversmiths.

Or head to the Plazuela Goitia, just over from the covered marketplace, and try to catch a local performance of traditional dance. Everyone crowds around to watch young dancers swirling in their vividly coloured costumes. After the show, drop into the Italian Renaissance-styled Teatro Calderón, across from the plazuela. Amid pastel-hued ceilings and walls, marble floors and stained-glass windows, locals seated on high stools sip coffee and take in the activity that goes on against the backdrop of pink cantera buildings across the street.

MEXICO UNMASKED
For a provincial outpost, Zacatecas lays claim to a surprising number of excellent museums. Local artist brothers Rafael and Pedro Coronel each have a museum dedicated to their work and collections. The Pedro Coronel museum features an eclectic mix of works by Picasso, Miró, Dali and Goya -- to name just a few -- as well as by Pedro himself.

But it's the Rafael Coronel museum that ranks as the most impressive in Zacatecas. The younger Coronel collected over 10,000 masks, though only half of this impressive collection is displayed. Rafael was married to Ruth Rivera, daughter of acclaimed Mexican artist Diego Rivera and inherited some of the collection from his father-in-law. Carnival, Aztec, devil and animal masks are exhibited throughout the old Convento de San Francisco, whose grounds have their own strange beauty. All the masks have been worn, making this museum true to its name of the Face of Mexico.

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