By Harriet Hart


zac_0117Sunday morning when we pulled up to the Pemex on the lakeside libramiento there was already a line up of three circus trucks containing one lama, two tigers and a lion cub. Was this a sign that today’s trip to Zacatecas was going to take a bizarre turn? The gas jockeys were smiling. I imagined they were tickled by their sneak preview of the big top.

An hour later we were stuck in Guadalajara while a marathon ran past; the next five hours we drove a scenic but winding road which we shared with a cow, her calf and dozens of aspiring Formula One drivers. We made a detour that took us to the centre of Villanueva on market day. When we reached the outskirts of Zacatecas we breathed a huge sigh of relief only to become instantly and hopelessly lost.

We missed every single giant blue and white sign pointing to Centro, drove straight past our destination and had to backtrack ten kilometres. I whimpered like a lost puppy in the passenger seat while Paul cursed Mexican signage and hurled F sharps at the windshield before we found the cathedral and then our hotel.

That evening in Zacatecas we were treated to a music and light show featuring a giant contraption suspended high above our heads by a blue industrial crane. Acrobats, drummers and bell ringers dressed in Venetian costumes rode this human music box that twirled and played against the cathedral, a pink stone confection glowing against the night sky. I recalled my childhood ambition to be a trapeze artist when I spent hours hanging upside down from a backyard swing, training to be a trapeze artist like Gina Lolobrigida in the movie Trapeze.

La Finca Los Mineros is a small hotel two blocks north of the cathedral. Our room was on the interior courtyard and won my personal award for the quietest Mexican hotel room we’ve ever slept in. Despite the comfortable king-size bed and the peaceful atmosphere, we slept fitfully. Paul spent the night composing poisonous letters to our investment broker while I tried to justify spending what money we had left on a river cruise down the Danube. We were both awake before the 42 cathedral bells called the faithful to Mass.

When we walked past the municipal palace there wasn’t a trace of the previous night’s music box: no giant blue crane, no contraption with swings for the trapeze artists. “Carileon Celestial” had vanished.

We began our tour of Zacatecas with the Museo Rafael Coronel. Housed in a former Franciscan mission, it is now partially in ruins thanks to Pancho Villa. What remains is a pink birthday cake of a ruin. The setting, the building, the 3000 masks on display and the tiger swallowtail sipping from a puddle on the walkway to the entrance all combined to intrigue us. This must be the finest collection of masks in the world, all scowling, grinning or leering down from their positions on the stone walls.

There was room after room of them—pigs, cows, rabbits, tigers, devils and conquistadores. These masks were worn in dances and fiestas, meant to frighten and delight. Next were the puppets. Did these matadors and picadors, these mariachi bands and military men on parade, these souls burning in the fiery pit all entertain crowds on the streets of Zacatecas in days gone by?

We rode the cable car to the summit of the Cerro de la Bufa to take in a panoramic view of the city. At the summit we popped into the Capilla del Patrocinia, the church where a miracle-performing Virgin is supposed to preside, but she did a disappearing act, leaving just an empty glass case behind. The hike down to the centre of town was not for the out-of-shape or caffeine deprived.

Lunch restored our strength sufficiently to visit another museum, Museo Zacatecano. Here the extraordinary work of the Huichol Indians was enough to make me want to experiment with peyote myself. Drug induced visions decorated the walls and visions of another kind, Christian ones, could be seen in a room containing hundreds of retablos depicting saints and martyrs, virgins and the Holy Family.

My head filled to overflowing with blue deer and peyote blossoms, the Eye of God, saints and martyrs. I stumbled out onto the street. Sure enough, the real world of getting and spending was still out there, the citizens of Zacatecas were chatting on their cell phones or hurrying down the sidewalks to appointments or romantic liaisons.

We returned to our hotel to recharge our batteries and those of the camera. After a late siesta it was back out onto the streets. In front of the legislative assembly an enthusiastic crowd was gathered to watch the “Rhapsody of Giants,” a young couple on stilts, flirting, twirling and waltzing, not easy things to do when you’re wearing hoop skirts over your stilts. We went for an early dinner at a nice little spot where the waitress gave us an English menu and then babbled at us earnestly in Spanish. When we left the couple on stilts was still dancing.

Our second day began with another museum, Museo Pedro Coronel. Pedro was an artist and collector: works by Picasso, Kadinsky, Chagall, Dali and Miro are on display in a former Jesuit monastery. Coronel must have been a very wealthy man because he also collected pre-Columbian Mexican ceramics, Indian and Oriental artefacts and some fabulous African pieces.

Back outside in the midday sun, we walked to the Alameda Park and on to the Mina El Eden, until recently a working silver mine. Here were figures of miners being hoisted down rock faces in cages; mining was brutal work. According to our guide as many as eight miners were killed daily at the height of production and the average life span of a miner was 26 years. This World Heritage City was built on the backs of the wretched.

After lunch we limped to one last museum, Museo Francisco Goitia. What a perfect place. The rose garden made me stop to smell the roses, twice. The building once served as official residence of the governor and contains the works of Francisco Goitia and several modern Mexican painters. There were two traveling exhibits, one in honour of Alfredo Zalce, who painted the mural in the municipal palace in Morelia, and one titled “Presencia y Evocacion,” portraits from the National Art Museum.

Our last stop was to see the renowned Quinta Real Hotel built around the former bull ring with a view of the city’s original aqueduct. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the bullrings in the world could be transformed into hotels?

The drive home was harrowing. The night before we watched The Fallen, a movie starring Denzel Washington, in which a good cop is possessed by demons. The same thing happened to Paul half-way through Aguascalientes. He began cursing Mexican signage once more: the signs hidden by trees, the ones obscured by orange construction signs and the ones that were just not there. He even swore at our map that put Aguascalientes on the page fold.

We made good time and rolled into Ajijic to be greeted by big blue circus tents. We were home. I wondered where the lions are.

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