A soft dusk has settled over the cobblestone streets of Zacatecas and we can hear the sounds of the fountain in the small garden across from our hotel and smell the sweet Mexican tuberose which only blossoms at night. Petals from the purple jacarandas drift down, covering the sidewalk. It is a lush, full night and the garden entices one to linger.
But Liliana and I are on a different mission than just enjoying the sweetness of a spring night in Zacatecas. We have left the wonderful Meson de Jobito, with its ochre and yellow stucco walls, courtyards and winding walkways, to walk the streets of downtown Zacatecas in search for the ultimate in street food.
Liliana, who is from Puerto Vallarta but now lives in Chicago, speaks flawless English and Spanish (and passable Mandarin but that is a different story), has talked to all the hotel’s personnel in search of the best sweet tamales, semita (bread) and taquerias.
Even though most of the stores are closed, Zacatecas is filled with both people and energy. The outdoor cafes are busy, people crowd the plazas and vendors line the calles or streets.
But Liliana is particular. She tells me as a young girl, she and her sisters would buy semita to dip into chocolate caliente (hot chocolate) before going to bed.
And so, after consulting the list she has put together, we follow a meandering street that twists and turns with the best of any Medieval European city. But that, in a way, is what Zacatecas is. A Colonial city in the highlands on the slope of Cerro de la Bufa, Zacatecas was founded in 1546 and for centuries was rich with the affluence of the silver that sits beneath its surface. The riches of the underground translated to magnificence above. The Spanish called the shots during this period of affluence and during that time the Catholic Church built 12,000 churches and cathedrals throughout the country. Today, Mexico has more Spanish Colonial era monuments, museums, architecture and art than any other place in the world including Spain. You can see it everywhere in Zacatecas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – in the elaborate wrought iron filigree baloneys, the Churrigueresque style façade of the ultra elaborate soft pink catera stone Cathedral with its two peak towers and in the Palaza de Armas, just across the street, formerly a private residence built in 1727 and now a public building.
In the daytime we had crossed the wide plaza to enter the Palaza, to view the multi-dimensional mural painted by Antonio Pintor Rodriguez. We were accompanied on that trip by Arturo Villanueza, a professional guide working on his doctorate in Mexican history. Villanueza seems to know an immense amount about everything including intricate details of this two story, three wall mural which depicts the state of Zacatecas’ history.
But in the evenings we are less interested in art and much more about food. Zacatecas boasts wonderful restaurants and we’ve eaten in many including La Cuija with its wonderful Moorish style arched stone ceilings and El Mural at the Santa Rita Hotel both in the historic downtown. But Liliana and I, who have become friends in part because of our love of Mexico, decided to leave our group back at the meson, believe that one way of really being part of a culture is through food.
We talk to several women (or really Liliana does since my Spanish is muy poquito) about their tamales before Liliana finally tells me I can hand over my ten pesos in exchange for one made with coconut and pineapple. Then we stop in a paneria. Picking up a plastic cafeteria tray and tongs (that’s how they do it here); we travel from case to case choosing pastries. But the semita Liliana wants and remembers isn’t up to snuff here and so after paying, we’re back out on the streets, taking more twists and turns and then, in front of a small taqueria where meats and vegetables are sizzling on two huge comals, she sees the semita we want. The cost? Five pesos or fifty cents for the large bun and it is big enough for both of us to share.
We return to the Meson de Jobito with our haul and enter the fine dining room with its white table cloths and pianist playing tunes on the grand piano. We order chocolate caliente which takes ten minutes to make—no powder added to milk here. It is served in large brown clay cups with flowers painted in bands around the center. Dipping my half of the semita into the lush creamy brown liquid, I take a taste.
Our street odyssey has taken an hour as we wandered this centuries old city. I know it is a journey I will repeat every night I spend in Zacatecas and long for once I return home.
For more information, visit visitmexico.com/en/zacatecas