Mexico: The Silver Cities | Colonial romance in the hidden Mexico
For Mexican romance colonial-style, head inland and upland to the Silver Cities -- tiny towns perched on towering mountains where the country's indigenous roots and Spanish culture still flourish. Founded by Spanish silver prospectors in the mid-1500s, the colonial cities look more like European villages than like the boisterous beachfront resorts usually associated with Mexico. Rather than hanging out at the beach bar, you'll spend your time touring the towns' central plazas, or zocalos, each of which is still the heart of these three romantic towns.
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Morning begins early around the zocalo in San Miguel de Allende, the most Americanized of the colonial towns, located about 150 miles north of Mexico City. Box-cut laurel trees ring the raised-stone plaza; dark green cast-iron benches form a wider square around the trunks. Each morning you'll see expatriates from Texas drinking coffee under the trees, shading their eyes from the sun with the Mexico City News. On the south side of the square, the town's famous Gothic church, La Parroquia, rises up in tall, spindly pink peaks, like towers of dripped wet sand. Declared a national monument in 1926, San Miguel has a quiet, tranquil feeling, fostered by the ordinance against street lights, neon signs and fast food joints. The substantial expatriate population has infused the town with art classes, concerts, art galleries and boutiques. Pick up The Insider's Guide to San Miguel for the lowdown on the leisure life.
An hour north of San Miguel, the tourist-free town of Guanajuato is like a rug lifted at the corners -- all its buildings spill in toward the center. The triangle-shaped zocalo occupies one of the city's few flat expanses. In the afternoon, students gather on the steps of the baroque Tetro Juarez at the triangle's base. Lovers lean back against the railings of the central wooden gazebo to kiss and peer at the pink, orange, and yellow houses in the surrounding hills. The main roads twist and turn through tunnels beneath the city. Musicians dressed like 16th-century Spaniards stroll the narrow, above-ground streets. Called Cervantinos, these minstrels model themselves after the characters in Cervantes' novel Don Quixote. Watch it all from one of the elegant, open-air restaurants on the triangle's longest side while sipping a Guanajuato-style cappuccino -- layered with maple syrup, espresso, and foamed milk in a glass cup. Make time to see the Don Quixote Museum, the Diego Rivera Museum, and the creepy Mummy Museum, a building filled with the mummified bodies of townspeople who had been buried in the hot, dry earth.
Five hours farther north by bus, the 8,000-foot-high business center of Zacatecas springs to life when the sun sets. Families pour onto the zocalo to buy popcorn roasted over an open flame; toy lizards fashioned from pink and green foam; homemade potato chips drizzled with salsa; and ice cream made from condensed milk and frozen in silver, bullet-shaped cylinders. One of the most prosperous of the Silver Cities, Zacatecas feels more European than the others, with its modern businesses settled into the colonial-era buildings. But this is deep Mexico; though people tend to be friendly, you won't find many who speak English. Don't miss the Mask Museum, a collection of more than 3,000 indigenous masks housed in a crumbling ex-convent.
To get to the colonial cities, fly AeroMexico or Continental to Mexico City and take a "Primera Plus" bus to the town(s). You also can fly to Leon, about 30 minutes from Guanajuato, and take a taxi or bus from there.
Photo: Mexico Tourism Board