A Visit to 'Old Mexico' by Way of a Silver City
Sample the charming shops, cuisine, and jewelry of vibrant Taxco
Here in this hillside, colonial city of red-roofed, white-washed buildings along cobblestoned streets, silver is king. But in one of the city's 300 silver shops, a shopkeeper whispers a secret to me. "See that necklace with blue stones?" she asks. I nod, yes, touching the bright, turquoise-looking stones in the silver necklace.Skip to next paragraph
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"Plastic," she says. "You have to be careful when you buy silver."
Here in a nutshell, or at least in a necklace, are two characteristics of Taxco: the warmth and open charm of the people, and the sometimes shady intent to extract money from the pockets of unsuspecting tourists.
Such deceptions are hardly rare for struggling village economies anywhere that depend largely on moneyed tourists from the United States, Canada, Europe, and other countries.
And Taxco (pronounced TAHSS-co) - the silver capital of Mexico in the state of Guerrero about two hours south of Mexico City by car - has a history intertwined with silver that goes back to Hernando Cortes. The Spanish conqueror sent an expedition here in 1522 to check out the mineral possibilities.
In the 1700s a Frenchman, who renamed himself Jos de la Borda, found a silver lode that Cortes missed and mined it to exhaustion. In the 1930s, an American named William Spratling helped turn Taxco into a silver center by establishing an apprentice shop that boomed and sent the city into a silver orbit.
Stucco and bougainvillaea
Today, the silver veins are gone, but nearly all the 75,000 Taxco citizens are dependent somehow on the silver trade. My wife and I came here not to buy silver but to visit our daughter, who is studying Spanish at the Universidad Nacional Automoma de Mexico (UNAM).
At an altitude of 5,880 feet, and with virtually no sidewalks, Taxco is terraced with stucco architecture, churches, courtyards, bougainvillaea spilling over walls, a multi-tiered mercado (marketplace), little hotels, restaurants, a bustling zcalo (central plaza), and silver sellers everywhere. Beggars are also part of Taxco as poor Indians come to the city from rural locations.
But no neon signs, no fast-food restaurants, no multiplex movie theaters. This is old Mexico, an architecturally protected town, deemed so by the government. Little exposed wood is used in construction, so Taxco doesn't even have a fire department.
You should certainly visit Taxco's two museums - William Spratling's collection of pre-Hispanic art and the Silver Museum - but exploring the city on foot brings the rewards of rubbing shoulders with a different culture.
Wear sturdy shoes. The narrow streets and passageways can be steep and bustling. Volkswagen bugs are the city's taxis, and they zip up and down the streets as walkers press against buildings to let the little cars go by.
It will take a day or two to get used to an explosive Taxco tradition: fireworks going off day or night. With six churches in Taxco, and a proclivity to celebrate saints and others, citizens loft fireworks into the air without anything as mundane as a schedule. Fireworks are simply part of Taxco life - random, loud, and affectionate.
Spanish artist Jaime Oates, who lives in Taxco part of the year, says he once asked the city's mayor why he didn't control or halt the fireworks. "If I did, I would be the most unpopular mayor in the history of Taxco," answered the mayor.
Be sure to visit the central marketplace. Described by an American student here as covering a "cubic mile," the fascinating market is multilayered, twisting and winding through nameless lanes. Stalls and enclosed areas are jammed together in a maze of smells, sounds, and retail bargains from tourist trinkets to village masks to fruits and flowers.