A Silver Mine and A Very Unique Nightclub.

A trip down Mina El Eden combines culture with a great night out. The retired mine in the city of Zacatecas is now a tourist attraction which runs educational tours and hosts one of the world’s most unique nightclubs.

Revellers arrive at El Malacate Discotheque via a small train which runs through the 600-metre La Esperanza Cavern inside the mine. La Esperanza translates as Hope in English and many who venture into these parts hope to find their own precious jewel. You might not meet the love of your life, but you’ll have a great story to tell.

History tells us that the original inhabitants of the region, the Zacateco people, knew of the mineral wealth beneath their feet but decided to keep it in the ground. The extraction of silver in the region of Zacatecas, in north central Mexico, began in the mid 16th century and transformed the city into one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the Spanish colonies.

El Eden produced millions of tonnes of silver ore but was closed in 1960 after flooding on various levels, and because the blasting from the mining operations were too dangerous for the inhabitants of the expanding city which was being built on top.

The current tourist attraction opened in 1975 and is one of the region’s most popular sites. It encompasses hanging rope bridges, stairs and models of workers.

A great amount of the silver mined in Zacatecas made its way to the Spanish royal family. Like all royal families, the Spanish crown grew wealthy and powerful off the work of others, especially indigenous people.

Special lighting areas highlight the methods used to extract the silver and the mine also hosts a demonstration of mining and a museum with a display of rocks and minerals.

Guests can hear stories of the adventures and misadventures of all of those who descended the seven levels of the mine, and a visit to this site provides tourists with the opportunity to wear a hard hat and a very fetching hair net.

The city itself is a World Heritage Site and rewards visitors with preserved colonial architecture and Baroque structures. Grabbing a seat on the balcony of a cafe or restaurant is a great way to admire the architecture and to watch the people go about their business.

The famous Mexican independence fighter, Pancho Villa, also marked his imprint upon the city. He captured the town in the Battle of Zacatecas during the Mexican Revolution in the 19th century.

Silver played a huge role in the development of Zacatecas and the state which bears the same name. The world’s largest silver mine, Penasquito, is in the state of Zacatecas and a Mexican slang word for money is ‘plata’, or silver.

Your journey does not end, however, once you finish exploring the underground mine. If you choose, you can continue on the funicular railway. This cable car will carry you high above the streets of Zacatecas from El Grillo Mountain to La Bufa, which is about 660 metres in total. The panoramic views are spectacular.

and you can leave a tip if you like…

Perhaps a donation of plata.

Skulls and Bones in La Quemada

Do you have a fascination with the dead? Do you find yourself contemplating your own mortality or possess a penchant for the macabre?

If so, you can indulge your morbid cravings at Zona Arqueologica La Quemada, an archaeological site in Zacatecas, central Mexico. On an elevated site outside of the city lies an excavation and display of many human skulls and bones.

La Quemada translates roughly as ‘burned or ‘the burned’, and refers to the burnt human remains which were discovered when the earth was moved during the construction of a hacienda on the site. It is also suspected that the settlement which occupied the site was eventually destroyed by fire.

Historical research indicates that the original inhabitants occupied the site between 350/400 AD to 1150 AD, and the site is regarded as the most important historical settlement in north central Mexico due to its architecture. Archaeological digs have discovered the grand columns from the former plaza, a field for playing a traditional form of football and a series of pyramids dominated by the pyramid Votiva, as well as sites for the worship of deities.

And the skulls?

Numerous historians believe the inhabitants engaged in human sacrifice. The Salon de las Columnas is thought to have been a large structure, of which only the columns remain, and historians theorise that this is where various forms of human sacrifice took place.

A short walk from the Salon de las Columnas leads to the Piramide de los Sacrificios, which clearly translates as the Pyramid of Sacrifices.

Detecting a theme here?

Evidence would suggest that human sacrifices were made on this site to please the deities. It does make one wonder how people were chosen for sacrifice.

Were locals persuaded that being sacrificed was an honour – perhaps in the same way that young men have historically been persuaded that giving their life in battle for their nation is an honour.

Were the sacrificed slaves or captives from other settlements or cities?

Did a caste system operate?

This is a source of conjecture and debate. What is more definite is the preserved remains of these people, which are on clear display to every visitor to La Quemada.

La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Mexico is unique. It boasts its own distinct cuisine, its own colloquial language and its own liquor. Musical genres such as Banda, Musica Nortena, Narco Corridos and Mariachi originated in the country and Charreria belongs to the state of Jalisco. It stands to reason then that Mexico would possess its own Virgin Mary.

How is La Virgen different to The Virgin?

La Virgen de Guadalupe has dark skin. In contrast to the white-washed version of Jesus, Mary and Joseph which dominates contemporary conceptualisation of the holy Christian family, Mexico’s sacred mother bears the skin tone of the mestizo people of her homeland.

La Virgen also took physical form in Mexico. Mary immaculate, according to accounts in the Bible, only existed in body in the Middle East, but La Virgen is authentically Mexican.

The popular account told to every Mexican child is that La Virgen appeared to St Juan Diego in 1531. St Juan Diego was apparently an Aztec who converted to Christianity and saw the apparition of La Virgen on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego is believed to have seen the apparition of December 9 and again on December 12, and on one occasion La Virgen requested that a shrine be built on that site in her honour.

As with any report of a miracle, religious authorities at the time demanded proof from the witness. Juan Diego was ordered by the Bishop to provide proof of La Virgen’s presence before they agreed to build a shrine, so she told the young man to collect roses. Juan Diego then fronted the bishop and opened his cloak to reveal dozens of roses which fell to the floor, and, more importantly, an image of La Virgen on the inside of his cloak.

The famous image now appears in the Basilica of Guadalupe which sits on Tepeyac Hill in modern-day Mexico City.

Visiting the Basilica of Guadalupe is a pilgrimage of significant importance for many Mexicans and a cultural experience for foreigners. Many locals, and even tourists, speak of the transformative experience of entering the basilica to witness the unveiling of the image of La Virgen.

I visited the Basilica. I’m reluctant to share my thoughts and reaction to the experience of viewing La Virgen because every person will react differently to a site and an image of such revered religious, spiritual, historical and cultural importance.

The experience should be personal and reflective.

El dia de la Virgen is a celebration and veneration held on December 9 and December 12 in various locations in Mexico City. Why are there two celebrations for La Virgen? Firstly, because La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego twice. Secondly, because It’s Mexico.

The influence of La Virgen is evident in daily life and explains why so many Mexican women are called Lupita. Thousands of Mexican women are christened Maria Guadalupe in honour of the virgin, and are known affectionately as Lupita, even into adulthood. It’s impossible to travel through Mexico without eating at a ‘Tacos Lupita’, ‘Loncheria Lupita’ or a stall selling pozole, enchiladas, burritos or sopitos prepared by Lupita.

Christmas has Santa Claus, and Easter has chocolate eggs and a bunny, so the site of La Virgen at Tepeyac Hill must also succumb to the inevitable lure of commercialisation. Visitors can buy religious iconography in the form of crosses, statues and rosary beads, but also take home pillows, key rings, T-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing the image of the virgin.

A visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe can be a spiritual transformation, a patriotic obligation, a glimpse into history or an immersive observation of contemporary Mexican culture. Whatever the motivation, it is a worthwhile stop on any visit to Mexico.

Run for Your Life.

“Corre!”

“Corre!”

They screamed

“Run, run.”

The crowds fled in mass panic up and down the narrow cobbled streets of Taxco. Terror gripped their faces and adults grabbed children before rushing them in to any hidden space which offered even the semblance of safety, because what followed the screams of ‘run’ came the most dreaded word in contemporary Mexico,

“Narcos!”

Drug traffickers had infiltrated the annual Easter parade in the small, colonial mountain town of Taxco. Now the attention of the people lining the streets to witness the religious devotees file through the town was gripped by the true rulers of Mexico – drug traffickers.

“Narcos!” they yelled and the word rippled through the town.

“Disparos,” muttered others.

Gun shots had been heard.

My heart instantly leapt a beat and I was swept along in the mass hysteria. I ran up the street towards the main square before colliding with people rushing away from the main square. I discarded the bag of snacks I had prepared for the anticipated night-long Semana Santa parade and I followed a large group of petrified locals running…somewhere.

I can’t get caught.

What will they do to me?

The we stopped.

Startled onlookers were now fleeing towards us, scanning the street for danger and safety. At the same time, religious devotees plodded up the streets praying and whipping themselves or carrying life-sized crucifixes. The blood streaming down the backs of the men shouldering heavy bundles of thorny reeds served as an omen to the people now attempting to outrun the most dreaded force in Mexico.

The macabre imagery incited even more panic in the minds of the crowd and they sought refuge wherever they could find it.

I knew I had to stop running and that I was too far from my hotel to make it back to safety, and simultaneously wondered why I thought my hotel room was safe. Narcos baulked at nothing to win their turf wars and protect their profits.

I then noticed people ducking into buildings, any building they could reach, before closing the door rapidly behind them and imploring their children to hush and avoid detection. No one wanted to become another statistic.

A slither of light shone on the darkened street and I saw a door left ajar for a fraction of a second. I dashed towards it just before it was closed and ducked into a dimly lit room occupied by numerous families and frightened locals.

Murmurs and whispers surrounded me and the one word which surfaced in every hushed utterance was ‘narcos’. A tense conversation then began between two people disagreeing over whether to leave the light on or to plunge us into total darkness. In the dim light I detected white powder on the floor and some of the benches, and I was immediately reminded of the white powder which fuels the drug wars and the narco terrorism throughout Mexico. Except this was a different white powder. I was in a bakery.

The discussion then turned to whether anyone else should be offered refuge in the tiny room. If there were a dozen people packed into the bakery, it was definitely a baker’s dozen.

The overcrowding heightened the tension. A sentry of sorts peered through the faded glass window onto the streets and attempted to update us on the situation. He struggled to distinguish between the hectic scene before him, which was still nothing more than a blur of screams, shouts and rapid footsteps.

The only discernible figures, which even the rest of us could make out from our hiding spot further into the bakery, were the slow-moving shapes. The devotees lugging the crosses and flagellating themselves in a public display of piety, splitting apart their blood-stained skin in acts of self harm.

Cofradias wore long cone-shaped hoods which have been appropriated by the KKK. Barefooted women bent double with horse hair clothing and barbed-wire-like belts pricking their skin.

Shirtless, faceless men cradling crosses ambling through the streets with their feet chained to the rest of the gang had no hope of outrunning ruthless and nimble drug traffickers. Perhaps this is why they didn’t bother, why they continued their holy pilgrimage, perhaps in the surety that a death at the hands of evil during a holy display of devotion would ensure entry into heaven. Perhaps this was the ultimate proof of their faith.

And to think, only moments before, the most incongruous sight on that evening in Taxco was the young women in short skirts tottering past the devotees in high heels ‘al rumbo a la fiesta’.

The participants clearly believed their acts of devotion would please the lord and persuade him to save them from the insidious and indiscriminate crimes of the ‘narcos’, because they trudged on wards through the streets shielded only by their prayers.

Did they know that Narcos would administer pain far worse than anything the devotees could inflict upon themselves – and send them to meet their maker much sooner.

Chaos reigned outside the bakery until one of its prisoners suggested we leave. He claimed we were no safer in here than on the streets, and that being crammed in like sardines made us an easier target. This sparked another tense, hushed discussion but noone moved. Children became visibly more anxious and petrified parents did their best to calm the young ones, while all of us wondered what kind of carnage had been perpetrated on the streets.

A young man forced his way into the bakery. A frenzied look covered his face and most of us instinctively raised our hands.

Take our money, take our watches, phones, whatever you need, but just leave us unharmed. Leave us alive.

“Esta bien, no soy narco,” he reassured us, and we lowered our hands.

We were comforted by his clarification that he was not a narco, but the children were startled anew by the mention of the word and parents blasted the young man for his insensitivity. Everyone was on edge.

I don’t know how long we sheltered in the bakery, but at some point the mood changed. Screams and shouts became conversations outside. Footsteps sounded measured and the sound of prayer filled the air once again.

Hesitantly, one of our party squeezed the door open and surveyed the scene. It was safe. The streets had returned to normal and we filed out of the bakery slowly, wishing each other good luck and good night.

I saw the parade continuing. The mood had changed but the piety remained.

I wandered up towards my hotel and asked a passer by what had happened. Where were the narcos, who had been shot, where were the dead bodies?

“Fue una chispa en las cables de luz,” he explained.

There were no narcos, no shots fired and no dead bodies.

An electrical surge had caused sparks to fly from an overhead electrical cable. Nothing more.

Dios Mio!

Image: Luis Villasmil

God bless my Taxi.

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We craned our necks for the source of the excitement. We could hear it but we couldn’t see it.

What was it?

Horns blaring, engines roaring, people shouting, music blaring, bells ringing.

From atop the hill we had a great vantage point over Zacatecas and its surrounds, yet we still couldn’t determine the source of the noise.

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Was it a protest, was it a celebration, a festival, a fiesta, a beauty contest, a football game…?

It’s often hard to tell in Mexico, as any event seems to be a perfect pretext to become boisterous. Any day, any time.

The origin of the pandemonium eventually revealed itself. A fleet of brightly decorated taxis rounded the bend and climbed the hill in a convoy of commotion. Vehicles were draped in streamers, covered in balloons and painted or wrapped in the national flag. Red, white and green dominated the scene as more and more taxis wound their way up the hill to the church.

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Why?

To be blessed, of course.

On this particular day, the taxis of Zacatecas were receiving their annual blessing from the priest and, through him, the almighty. They were asking for protection and, no doubt, many lucrative fairs for the next 12 months.

Patriotically-adorned taxis and motorised mayhem lined up outside the church and the noise eventually subsided as the drivers and their family and friends waited for the priest to bless every vehicle in turn.

While the event certainly surprised me, it was not entirely unexpected. Sure, I’d never seen taxis blessed in my own country, but I had noticed during my time travelling in Latin America that taxi drivers would bless themselves every time they drove past a house of worship.

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The procession of taxis had interrupted our quiet inspection of La Quemada archaeological ruins, so we decided to return to the city. With tired legs and the burden of history upon us, we realised the best way to return to the city safely, and saintly, was by taxi.

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