Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Quick Trip to Zacatecas..... Beautiful!

Zacatecas is where my husband comes from and so we visit quite a bit, in fact, we were ready to move there in March instead of settling in Puebla but we decided on a larger University town instead for the time being but it's still very much on our list. My husband's family has been in Zacatecas for many generations, his great-grandfather was the first Secretary of the Treasury and a lot of his family's history is firmly anchored there. But even if this wasn't the case, there are so many other reasons to visit Zacatecas that I'm sure you'll find it a great vacation destination.

It's located in the Northern Central area of Mexico, North of Mexico City, and about a 7 hour drive from Puebla. Known for it's altitude and cold winters, arid soil and amazing Colonial buildings.... also for beautiful women with great legs (due to their having to walk up and down twisty-windy streets full of steep steps), the number one area for silver and precious metal mining and rich history in our country's events since the 1500's..... when you walk the narrow cobblestone streets it's like being back in Spain.... You will see why it was Voted a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The architecture is highly protected so there is no new construction permitted in the downtown area and the original structures must be maintained which means you won't see any modern buildings, electric signs or advertisements to take away from the full effect. There is also a proud tradition that no two wrought iron window or door designs are duplicated and you see a wonderfully rich assortment of complementing styles. You can sum it up in just one word: Beautiful!

Anyway, it was my husband's Aunt's birthday (who brought him up) and the family would celebrate in a big way! She's a real powerhouse and I love her dearly, so a big family get-together was organized and everyone made plans to meet in Zacatecas, it was fantastic seeing everyone again, cousins and nieces and nephews of all age groups. One day, we will definitely settle here, but for now we look forward to these reunions.

Even tough Zacatecas was founded in 1580 it didn't reach it's full splendor until the 18th Century when the architecture it's famous for came to be causing the social climate to change, making families settle in the area and so constituted a real city. This progress continued all along, reaping riches and prominence for the state and especially the capital of Zacatecas until the Revolution came and a lethargy descended on most of the country until the events that detonated this momentous happening were left behind, and while the fallout from these violent times claimed much of the progress that had been achieved, many years passed until Zacatecas once more saw real and sustained growth.

During the present times, and due to all these events which transpired so long ago, we were left with a Colonial city that reminds us of times gone by, yet progress has definitely made it's mark, although discreetly since technology is very much there, offering modern services needed for our times, yet these improvements are kept in the background so the classic essence of the city is not so much affected. All you see is fantastic architecture, small alleyways where lover's meet or "estudiantinas" (the musical associations dating back to Mother Spain that walk around playing traditional songs under wrought iron balcony's - I myself belonged to one such organization during my school days playing the guitar and wearing traditional garb complete with satin capes and plummed hats..... yes, really), cobblestone streets, carved stone facades and flowers spilling out of the balcony's. Traditions are still evident in this part of the country during the many holidays so favored by Mexicans all over and still practiced here. Plus festivals of all types during the year: music, theater, art and more.

We stayed at the Hotel Emporio located in the main street of downtown Zacatecas, almost across the street from the Cathedral and a stone's throw from the Municipal square and other government buildings. There was a "Cultural Week" going on and we got to experience a fantastic Opera concert under the stars in the plaza which was reminiscent of those we had a chance to see in Italy, it was a real treat. If your budget allows I would recommend staying at the world famous "Hotel Quinta Real de Zacatecas" (or any one of their other properties, this Mexican chain is incredibly good and their properties are fantastic, take my word for it), in this case the Zacatecas property is a converted bullring completely restored which won a world architectural prize that is amazingly beautiful...... Nowhere else could you have the opportunity of staying in the oldest bullring in the America's right next to the original aqueduct!

Worth noting in Zacatecas (and other parts of Mexico too) is that all the mining brought not only silver and gold to the forefront, but over twelve different colors of "cantera" stone, a limestone that is prevalent in elaborately carved facades; these colors cover a range from whites, grays, yellows, greens and pinks of amazing beauty. Zacatecas is a wonderful representation of all of these colors used to cover the front of many buildings all along the downtown area and added to the artistry in the wrought iron details, well..... you can imagine how lovely all this is.

Also worth mentioning is that the many convents built by the different Catholic orders have been restored and taken over by the government and turned into museums that not only offer valuable cultural expositions, but the buildings themselves are worthy of visiting with their graceful archways and tranquil gardens that make for a perfect contemplation moment not only for the appreciation of art but for the nurturing of the soul as well. My favorite of all these and one I never fail to return to is the Rafael Coronel Museum. The gardens here make me take more than a moment, they are awesome, yet this museum is known for it's amazing mask collection which is unique....

Zacatecas, being an arid climate area also has different foods to offer, a nice change from the more tropical places. This is a major chile growing region and is renowed for its "chile guajillos" and other variations which color and flavor many a dish with rich sauces. Having a cold climate (although summers here offer a cooling respite from the hot weather elsewhere and turn the surrounding countryside glorious with cactus of all species and tranquil mountain scenery), cold weather fruits are the norm, like: quince, pomegranate, cactus candies, apples and nuts of all varieties, as well as the breeding of pork and sheep, create a unique culinary tradition that you will enjoy. Look below for a traditional "Asado de Boda Zacatecano" recipe.

There are many places to stop and have an expresso and take a rest from touring, like the famous "Acropolis" cafeteria owned by some relatives where we never fail to find some lively conversation along with tasty food, it's open all day so it's convenient. Close to the Cathedral and the main area of town you will find more places to eat typical food from this area, like "gorditas" (masa pockets stuffed with a full range of flavors, a kind of fast food), "enchiladas Zacatecanas" (red enchiladas) and don't forget to try the "Asado de Boda Zacatecano" (pork cubes in a rich, flavorful stew sauce with a citrus touch), "nopales asados" (roasted cactus), "capirotada" (bread pudding with nuts and fruits) or "chicharrones en salsa verde" (pork skins in green sauce).

Another interesting place worth visiting is the "Cerro de la Bufa" which is an imposing stone outcropping, prominent in the Zacatecan landscape which offers a wonderful view of the city below and also has the "Rotunda of the Illustrous Men" as wel as the "Capilla de Nuestra Senora del Patrocinio", a 16th Century Chapel visited by the faithful. You can also ride the arial tat aram which comes from the city, giving you a unique bird-eye-view of the magnificient city below.

You won't see throngs of English speaking tourists in Zacatecas, as this area seems to draws a more international group interested in the cultural offerings the area is known for and even though there are discos (visit the "Mina del Eden", the original silver mine turned into a great disco, all underground and quite unique) and night spots for every taste, this is not a party town at all, but a great representation of what provincial life can be like in Mexico.

So next time you're thinking about destinations for your next vacation, consider Zacatecas, you'll be glad you did and come see why we all love it here!....

Asado de Boda Zacatecano.- A rich stew, full of favor and beloved in this region.....

3-4 lbs pork leg or loin, cooked with half an onion, an oregano and thyme sprig, 2-3 bay leaves. Cover with water and cook until tender.
3 tbl pork lard

For the sauce:
2 lbs tomatillo (green husk tomatoes), husked, cut in quarters
4-5 chile anchos, dried, cleaned & deveined
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled
2-4 bay leaves
2 oregano sprigs or 1tbl dried
2 thyme sprigs or 1 tl dried
1 tbl orange zest (no white pith)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp cumin powder
1-2 cups broth (from cooking the meat)
1 1/2cups orange juice
salt and pepper to taste

Sauce: Put a tsp of lard in a pan on high heat and fry the dried chiles and spices untl fragrant.
then put everything into a pan, cover with some of the broth until everything is cooked. You let it cool a little and then put it all in a blender and mix until smooth. Run through a sieve and retun to the pan with a little of the lard and cook for 5-10 min. Taste and adjust seasonings, set aside.

Once the meat is tender, cut in small cubes and stir fry with some of the lard which should be hot and in a a large pan on med-high heat. Add the sauce and allow the flavors to come together, on med-high heat, until bubbling then reduce to simmer and heat 10-15 min. Serve.

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