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.

"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.

Mexican repast

At night some of the vendors will auction their kitchenware, rapid-fire voices booming through the streets and echoing up into the hills.

For an afternoon meal of authentic Mexican food, sit down at the tables in front of the small Fonda Las Palmas in the heart of the mercado. Here owners Bernabe Hernndez and Mercedes Ortega will serve delicious soups, enchiladas, salsas, rice and beans, and other traditional foods.

Other restaurants we enjoyed include La Hacienda, just off the zcalo, a little noisy, but clean and offering delightful breakfasts of huevos rancheros, fresh fruit, toast, and orange juice. For dinner, Sotavento has courtyard tables under dim lights, but the meals are delicious and the restaurant is a popular place among college students.

Located on the edge of town, the Taxco branch of UNAM is a language and art school housed in the Hacienda del Chorrillo, one of the earliest homes built here, and beautifully maintained. Sitting under the cool trees can be refreshing on a hot day. Classes are also offered here in silvermaking.

When it comes to buying silver, go to established shops where families have worked the craft for years such as the Castillo family, with two locations.

In town, Emilia Castillo maintains an elegant shop, known for extraordinary ceramic bowls designed with tiny flecks of silver. You'll pay top prices here. Another established shop is Pineda's Taxco.

A short taxi ride out of town brings you to the silvermaking workshop in the gardens of Emilio Castillo, where father and son, Wolmar, direct the making of rings, necklaces, and silver containers and silverware.

When we join a silver buyer from Philadelphia for lunch one day in Taxco, she tells us to always look for ".925 " stamped on the silver, a designation meaning the content is .925 silver, and mandated by the Mexican government.

"Never pay more than 50 cents a gram for silver," says the buyer. Often silver shops will weigh each piece and base the price on the gram weight.

Caveat emptor

But prices vary, and in most shops bargaining is expected. How do you know if the blue stones in a necklace are turquoise or plastic? If the stone is a too bright blue with no imperfections, be suspicious. Don't hesitate to ask if it is plastic, and go to another shop if doubts persist

If the pursuit of silver is risky for you, switch to wood.

For the best selection of colorful wooden masks made in surrounding villages, D'Avila's shop, not far from the zcalo, has hundreds.

All are hung on walls of a courtyard entrance, and continue up stone walls by a staircase leading to a blank wall. Mrs. D'Avila will show you Mexican folk art books with photos of masks from each village.

Where to Stay

* The Hotel Posada San Xavier where we stayed is small with beautiful gardens, and has flowers and trees on several terraces. It has a swimming pool, and in addition to comfortable, clean rooms, there are apartments for long-term rentals. Between $30 and $50 a night. Phone: 011-52-762-2-31-77

* The Hotel Los Arcos, a former monastery with a small, exquisite courtyard, has comfortable but basic rooms. It is closer to the zcalo, and therefore somewhat noisy at night. Rates are from $22 a night with a double bed to $40 for a suite. Phone: 011-52-762-2-18-36

* The Hacienda del Solar, an older hotel outside of town has 22 rooms, a swimming pool, sweeping vistas, and deluxe accommodations including fireplaces, some domed brick ceilings, and lots of Mexican tile. Rates range from around $90 to $170, depending on the season. Phone: 011-52-762-2-03-23

* The Hotel Posada de la Misin has 150 superb rooms featuring suites with fireplaces, a colonial atmosphere, plus tennis and golf. Rates start around $100 a night. Phone: 011-52-762-2-00-63.

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