Boondocking in a Colonial City – Vanlife Zacatecas, Mexico

After weeks of camping, climbing, and small-town living in northern Mexico, we were ready for a big-city adventure. We drove 7 hours from El Potrero Chico to the city of Zacatecas, a stunning colonial city built into a deep ravine on the Mexican Plateau. We chose this city for its temperate climate, colonial architecture, and its location along the route to our southernmost destination, the town of Patzcuaro.  In this post, we share what it’s like to boondock in one of Mexico’s most beautiful and least visited colonial cities.

About Zacatecas

The city of Zacatecas (the capital of Zacatecas state) was named after one of the most important Chichimecan tribes in the area. It was designated a city in 1585, shortly after the Spaniards learned of silver in the area. And although it was the Spaniards who established the extensive silver mines, the minerals were long before discovered by the indigenous people of the area. During the colonial era, the mines in Zacatecas yielded up to 1/5 of the world’s silver production, making it one of Mexcio’s wealthiest districts at that time. Mining remains an important economic activity to this day.

In 1993, the historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance as a silver mining district, architecture, and example of colonial settlement.  Within the historic backdrop, the city is alive with modern life. The streets are teeming with taco stands, street vendors, entertainers, dog walkers, marching bands, loitering teenagers, businesspeople, university students, and meandering tourists.

The Only Gringos in the City

I’m sure there must have been other gringos or international travelers somewhere in the city while we were there, but we didn’t find them. During our visit, we were surrounded by locals and national tourists from other parts of the state and country. I recently read a blog post that described Zacatecas as “just another incredible Mexican city with almost no foreign tourists”. With San Miguel de Allende as an exception, the colonial-era cities of north/central Mexico have relatively few international tourists.

We love visiting these colonial cities, immersing ourselves in the culture, and being forced to use and improve our deficient Spanish skills. It boggles my mind that Zacatecas remains so undiscovered, despite its UNESCO designation and the fact that it consistently ranks on ‘top 10’ lists. Perhaps it’s because Zacatecas isn’t a tropical destination. Or maybe it’s because the city isn’t easy to access – located equally far from big cities like Monterrey in the north and Mexico City in the center. Or conceivably it’s the doomsday government travel advisories resulting from ongoing cartel activity in the region. Whatever the reason, the lack of international tourism has helped to preserve the city’s authentic Mexican culture, a boon for tourists who prefer to avoid destinations shaped heavily by American influence.

Boondocking at Cerro De La Bufa

Our “campground” for 3 nights was the parking lot atop Cerro de la Bufa, the site of Pancho Villa’s battle of Zacatecas and the highest point in the city. There are other options for boondocking and camping but we chose this one for a few reasons: it’s free; it’s secure (police have a small station at the top and a 24-hr presence; the views are fantastic; and it’s a short walk or teleferico (cable car) ride into the heart of the city. There are numerous vendors at Cero de la Bufa and therefore plenty of snacks, drinks, and nearby bathroom facilities.

The walk into town from Cero de la Bufa is a pleasant descent into an architectural paradise. The local dogs didn’t approve of Walter but most of them were trapped on their rooftops. They made their displeasure known as we walked by but could not give chase (phew!). The walk back up to the van at the end of the day, however, was all about stairs, stairs, and MORE stairs. After hours of wandering around the city sightseeing, the hike up was a slog. If you’re interested in self-preservation, a teleferico ride back up to the top would be an excellent alternative. We hesitated because we didn’t think they would accept dogs and, more importantly, we needed to work off at least some of the delicious calories we consumed all day while wandering around town.

The Best Attraction in Zacatecas

The best attraction in Zacatecas is without a doubt, the city itself. We spent 3 days strolling through the old city, admiring the architecture, peeking through hidden alleys, popping into shops, sipping coffees, and sitting in parks and squares. The photos below capture some of the best moments and views of our time in the city.

Churches, Churches & More Churches

With every corner we turned, we found an incredible, old, ornate church. We’re not specifically interested in churches but the detail, colour, and style of the churches in Zacatecas – inside and out – are undeniably impressive. At just about every church there was a shady square with trees, benches, and food vendors, calling our name.

Eating & Drinking

As a tourist, it’s impossible to go hungry in a Mexican city and Zacatecas is no exception. In addition to the numerous restaurants, there are bakeries, taco stands, fruit cup stalls, and vendors selling ubiquitous chips with hot sauce. We ate our way through Zacatecas with the goodies from the local bakeries being some of our favourites.

Visiting Mercado Genaro Codina El Laberinto

The Mercado Genaro Codina El Laberinto doesn’t look like much from the street, but the deeper you venture in, the bigger, busier, and more chaotic it gets – fruits, veggies, cheese, eggs, seafood, and every kind of meat – including the pig’s entire head! We love visiting local markets because it transitions us out of the tourist realm and into local life and routines. It’s also the best place to pick up fresh produce. We always go overboard on the fruit, forgetting that we must haul it all back to the van in our backpacks. The little public square surrounded by the market was an ideal spot to people watch and eat fresh donuts, but also the chosen place to feed pigeons. There were pigeons everywhere and I was terrified that Walter might snap one right out of the air. We kept our visit there short 😉.

Buying Silver

 Zacatecas is THE place to shop for silver… when in Rome, as they say. I (Nat) am not typically a jewelry shopper (or any kind of shopper for that matter), but I do love silver, so I made it a point to pick up a few items. My favourite silver shop was the Plateros de Zacatecas, across the street from the Plaza de Armas. The staff was friendly, helpful, and patient with my Spanglish. Over the span of multiple indecisive visits, I picked up 2 silver chains and a silver ring, all of which I just adore.

Is Zacatecas Safe?

Unfortunately, cartel violence in the state of Zacatecas is on the rise. This is in part due to a war between two of Mexico’s major cartels as we understand it. As a result, the Canadian government advises “avoiding unnecessary travel” and the US government advises “avoiding all travel” throughout the entire state, including Zacatecas city. Many Mexicans are also weary of visiting this state. However, during our stay in the city center, we felt very safe as international tourists. The locals were friendly, there was a strong police presence, and we didn’t experience any uncomfortable situations.

Stay Tuned…

From Zacatecas, we continued on to this year’s southernmost destination, the town of Patzcuaro, Michoacan. Our time in Patzcuaro started with some significant drama; life on the road is anything but boring. More about that in our next post.

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