Mexico's Mountain High

While Starbucks dukes it out for control of Tully's in Seattle and battles for new business in India, its store in Zacatecas, Mexico is no match for Patricia and Rosita Torres' Panificadora tucked into a cozy storefront near the pink-stone cathedral in the historical center. Zacatecas is a former silver mining town in the Mexican high sierras. Everything feels and tastes a little differently at 8,000 feet, including the coffee. We were happy to find ours' here, along with delicious homemade pastries baked daily by Patricia (working the espresso machine in the back), who trained in San Francisco. She and her sister-in-law, Rosita, opened the cafe seven months ago, installing wooden cabinets for their pastries, restoring stone archways, adding brass chandeliers and a few tables.

I liked the cups with the spoons attached, something I've not seen at Starbucks. Most customers come in and order the Mexican way, picking up a pan and a pair of tongs and choosing their own selections from the cases. We sat down and lingered over a cheese empanada, danish with apricot, a Chai and Americano - all for around $6. It was a great start to our first morning in Zacatecas after arriving by bus from Guadalajara. The ride took about five hours on a first-class bus, with just two stops, one at a town along the way, and another a security checkpoint where everyone was asked to get out while dogs sniffed around the baggage hold. Bus security is interesting. Women are asked to open their purses before boarding. Men are frisked.

Zacatecas is a World Heritage Site, with heaps of preserved colonial buildings, churches and museums to explore in a narrow valley flanked by steep, winding streets and alleys and lots of stairs. Many of the building facades are made from elaborately carved pink quarry stone. Above is the Templo de Santo Domingo,

a baroque church built by the Jesuits in the 1700s. Notice the carved, gold gild work surrounding the statues. It's unusual to hear sounds while inside a church, but I noticed the wooden floor creaking and a faint, low howling sound. At 8,000 feet, Zacatecas is a Windy city and often chilly, even this time of the year.

A 16th century ex-convent is the home of a museum housing a collection of Mexican folk art that belonged to artist Rafael Coronel, the son-in-law of Diego Rivera. The garden and grounds resemble well-kept Roman ruins.

Inside, the highlight is a collection of more than 3,000 masks from around the world. Zacatecas has done a really nice job of repurposing its historical buildings as museums. We spent some time in a historical museum inside the former mint, and later a couple of hours inside a contemporary art museum that was once a seminary and later a prison. Most of what's on exhibit there is the work of Zacatecas abstract artist Manuel Felguerez whose paintings and sculptures are displayed on walls along steel catwalks and in former cells.

Most of the Mexican people we've met mention Obama. They love him, especially the people of Zacatecas. He visited last year and toured the Eden Mine, a silver, gold, zinc and copper mine opened in 1586. There are still many working mines around Zacatecas, but this one closed in 1966. We toured the third and fourth of seven levels, entering by elevator and leaving by miniature train. There were just three of us, so Daisy, an English-speaking guide, gave us what amounted to a private tour. We regretted not timing our visit to a weekend when the mine turns into Club Mina, a nightclub that holds 400. Patrons line up to go underground by train and drink and dance the night away until 3 a.m.

The wind stopped long enough for us to take us cable car to a top of a mountain called Cerro de la Bufa, the Basque word for wineskin, according to Lonely Planet, which is what the mountain is supposed to resemble.

The fanciest hotel in town is the Quinta Real, built around the city's former bullring, with views of an ancient aqueduct. We wandered in looking for a quiet place for an afternoon snack. The bar was closed (tables are set in niches that were the bull pens), but a waiter invited us to sit on the terrace where we were the only customers at 3 p.m. He brought us two beers and a plate of fresh guacamole, and we had the place to ourselves for about an hour, quite a contrast to the days when there were thousands of fans gathered here to watch the bullfights. This is a five-star hotel, so we expected five-star prices. Surprisingly, the bill came only to around $10, about what we'd paid for the same snack at a busy corner cafe in town the day before.


  1. Great photos and story Carol. Look forward to hearing more about the trip after you and I get back to the Pacific Northwest. We are exploring Hawaii's culture for a bit longer.

  2. Hi Carol
    Very interesting story and excellent photos. After reading I would like to return to Mexico once more.