travelog 74

Taxco de Alarcón

White-washed houses, too narrow and too steep alleys, strolling people, silver shops, lines of VW beetles and busses, clouds of exhaust fumes, blue sky over craggy mountains, all this and much more is Taxco de Alarcón, Guerrero, probably the most famous silver city in all of Mexico. We have already visited this place twice, each time with masses of other tourists. The first time, at the end of November, we managed to be there at the Feria de Plata, the annual silver fair. On our second visit at the end of December, the city was inundated with tourists from Mexico City spending the holidays there. It is probably impossible to experience Taxco without tourists but it's advisable for people who don't like too much commotion to avoid visiting this city during holidays or on weekends.

The Tlahuica Indians who lived in the area around Taxco, a place they called Tlachco, payed their tribute to the Aztecs with silver and gold bars. After the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, Cortes explored the area and really found huge quantities of gold and silver. The first mine built by the Spaniards around 1530 in the New World was in Taxco. On its site, the church Santa Prisca, on the main plaza in Taxco, was later constructed. Around 1930, Taxco finally became famous for its silversmith artists. William Spratling, an American professor who originally wanted to write a book in Mexico, ended up in this city and signed up some young artists to start Taxco's first silversmith business. Over the following years, his pupils opened up their own businesses and the art of silversmiths now is passed on from generation to generation in various families. Nowadays, Taxco is probably THE silver city in Mexico where the streets are lined with silver shops and where you can buy everything from silver dolphins to key chains, cutlery, busts, Aztec gods, earrings, ashtrays, and much more, briefly and succintly, everything that can be made of silver.

Taxco lies at an altitude of about 1650m (5400 feet) and enjoys a great climate all year long. During the winter the sun warms locals and tourists alike on the many small public squares and view points. The narrow, shady alleys provide coolness in the summer. It's best to go around town on foot or in one of the local taxi cabs to avoid getting annoyed by the incredible traffic. At the beautiful tree-lined main square of Taxco one can admire the richly decorated church of Santa Prisca. Just behind the church one can get lost in the labyrinth of the market. This market probably started out as a small place with a few stalls, but over time it grew into the many surrounding alleys and streets. It's easy to get lost and for sure you'll never get out of the maze of stalls at the same point you came in. In the area of the fondas, small low price restaurants, you'll find something to eat all day long. In the morning the cinnamon scented cafe de olla is served with bone-dry sweet breads. For lunch you can choose between many things. There are, for example, the chiles rellenos, fried cheese-stuffed chiles in an egg batter that are served with tomato sauce, or the many other regional dishes like different types of mole, hot sauces prepared with meat, or a pozole, a thick soup made with white corn kernels and pork meat that is very popular in the state of Guerrero. At the market you can buy everything your heart desires. Booming music comes from a corner where you can buy illegal copies of CD's and DVD's for a very good price. Just before Christmas plastic toys are very popular. Around the corner you can buy bags filled with moss and Tillandsia usneoides, used by Mexicans for decorating the nativity scenes in their homes. Of course you can also get all kinds of fruits and vegetables, various beans and spices, and medicinal herbs and dried chiles. Another of Taxco's specialties is only available at the end of the rainy season from October to December. It's the jumiles, small bugs. Women with large plastic bags filled with crawling jumiles sit on stairs and stools at strategic corners of the market. They punch holes into smaller bags and pack the little bugs in portions including some green leaves as food. Jumiles are either eaten alive or roasted and prepared in a mortar with tomatoes, onions, garlic and chile to make a delicious spicy salsa. One can also find these little critters as a filling in tacos. We tried the jumiles in a salsa at the restaurant "Santa Fe" and can say that their consumption didn't do us any harm but that we Europeans (and for sure Americans too) have a barrier in our heads against having crawling animals on our plate. By the way, the Latin name for these small bugs is Atizies taxcoensis and they belong to the stink bugs, another thing that you better not know because it doesn't make their consumption any easier. These bugs have a high iodine content and are a good source for the vitamins riboflavin and niacin. In Taxco the locals even have a big party to the glory of the jumiles, among other things by celebrating mass at the cross on the Cerro del Huizteco. After this digression into the world of Mexican delicacies we are back on our expedition through Taxco.

Taxco is not very suitable for visitors in wheelchairs or tourists with cardio-vascular disorders. It's a very beautiful city that one can explore for hours on journeys through small alleys. You hike uphill and downhill, wander around a hundred corners, climb over steep steps up stairs and down stairs. You share the narrow streets with VW beetles and small VW busses, probably the most popular means of transport in Taxco. Often you have to jump to one side quickly to avoid being run over by a VW beetle coming around the corner at full throttle to get up the climb without loosing any of its power. From a safe corner we observe a car puffing up an extremely steep alley getting slower and slower. To our surprise the car makes it up the hill with all its passengers and without another car coming down the same street. Another cab driver has less luck. On a very narrow and steep part of a street where even we pedestrians have troubles climbing up, he meets another taxi coming downhill. Over the totally worn out cobblestones he slides down backwards to the closest place where it is possible to have the other car pass. Then he has considerable troubles to get back to his original speed and move up the hill with his passengers. Now, if you noticed that the rules of driving say that the car coming downhill has to back up, you're absolutely right, but in Mexico some things work differently and whoever gives in first while driving a car doesn't have a hope. If there's construction on one of the streets of Taxco, other streets have to be made passable in both directions even if they're not suitable for it. Police officers with walkie-talkies are positioned at strategic corners where they try to conduct traffic. Of course this never works perfectly because some people always are in a hurry and step on it hoping for the best. That's when you meet in tight curves and the following is a delicate piece of manoeuvering. As a passenger in a taxi cab at least you never have to worry about the paint or the mirrors of your own car. On one of those steep streets we climb up into the higher parts of Taxco. At a small chapel with a huge square we have a fantastic view over the hills which make up the city. Far below the two pink stone towers of Santa Prisca rise up into the blue sky and one can look over the labyrinth of alleys. Besides one gets a glimpse of the normal houses of Taxco, the ones that are bizarrely stacked up and fit together. Laundry dries on a rope; the parking for the family's car occupies the terrace with the best views of the city; children play in a shady courtyard; a woman waters her many potted plants, and dogs are yapping from roof tops. On our way back we explore other corners of Taxco and follow winding streets along hillsides to climb back down into the center of town over stone stairs.

When in Taxco one should not miss visiting some of the more or less 300 silver shops. Everybody assures us that they only sell real silver and this for the best price in town. The selection is huge and there's a lot of kitsch being offered but with a little bit of time and enough patience everyone can make a find. Towards evening traffic seems to increase. At one of the important intersections in town, a beautiful square with a fountain in the middle, traffic is almost life-threatening to pedestrians. Taxi cabs and VW busses are standing bumper-to-bumper and no one is willing to give in only a millimeter because that would give a car from another street the possibility of squeezing into the gap. Pedestrians march in single columns along the walls from store to store. The narrow streets fill with the smell of exhaust fumes and the noise of running engines drowns out every other sound. When nothing moves anymore, the chorus of hooting starts but of course this doesn't help either. That's when it's best to try to find a nice place to sit down and enjoy a beer. Our favorite is the restaurant "Santa Fe" because they serve the cheapest beer in the neighborhood of the main square and offer inexpensive, good, local food. We are almost the only tourists at this place as well. By the way, this is the place where you can ask about the jumiles. The cook is always willing to prepare this specialty for you in one or the other way!

If you have had enough of the commotion and the strolling around, you can explore the surroundings of Taxco. The caves, Grutas de Cacahuamilpa for example, are worth a visit. As we live relatively without time restrictions, we manage to choose a Saturday for our visit. We just miss the first guided tour at 10 AM and have to wait patiently for the second tour at 11 AM. On the huge grounds of the parking lot which slowly but surely fills up with tour busses releasing way too many people there are souvenir stalls and small restaurants. Efficient women circulate, rattling off the menu of their restaurants to the waiting crowd. Other vendors are festooned with hundreds of necklaces and pendants. Particularly the childern of the many school classes waiting for their special tours buy the necklaces in vast quantities, proudly marching around like the most famous rapper of all. At 11 AM sharp comes the announcement over the loudspeakers that we should all have our tickets ready and gather at the gate. With about 50 other people we set out for the entrance to the cave, passing more souvenir stalls. We enter the cave through a big hole in the carstic mountain. We have to walk about 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) in three hours, they announce over loudspeaker, and we wonder about all the aged members of our group, some of whom have at least bought a cane from the street vendors. The paved walkway is lit on both sides with small lanterns. The magnificent formations, stalactites and stalagmites, are tastefully illuminated but every time the guide finishes speaking he switches off the lights and we go on almost in the dark. That's when we really start to appreciate the dim light along the walkway on which we move deep into the mountain. Only at the entrance a group of stalactites is lit up with kitschy colorful lights, the rest of the cave is tastefully illuminated. Our guide could have been employed anywhere in the world, only that here he rattles off his crowd cheering talks in Spanish. Through his microphone he sounds almost incomprehensible to us. At least we don't miss some of the names of the formations he shows us in the different rooms of the cave. Apart from the usual bird heads, dinosaurs, cats, elephants and mice, we admire Benito Juarez, a former Mexican president of Indian origins, Dante, pope John Paul II, King Kong, the virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, and many more well-known personalities of showbusiness and the Catholic church. Still, we like the cave best when we are either at the very end or the beginning of the group to admire the wondrous vagaries of nature in the form of stone formations. The rooms with stalactites and stalagmites are up to 40 meters (131 feet) wide and at least as high. Although we were advised to go on the tour wearing only a t-shirt, temperatures drop to pretty cool the further we advance into the mountain. Again and again our guide makes a move to involve us in a conversation in English. We suspect he hopes for a big tip since we are almost the only foreign tourists in his group. Reaching the last of the rooms of the cave we get away from our group unnoticed and walk back on our own in the dark. We are glad to reach the warming sunlight after 3 hours in the underground. In the meantime all hell has broken loose on the parking lot and we have a hard time fending off the vendors.

Another rewarding excursion is the Cañón de la Mano south of Taxco but we will describe this place to you in our next travel report. Of course there are many more things to do in and around Taxco. Some places are reachable by bad roads with many potholes, others are comfortably located along the main highway, but it's best to find out for yourselves when you go and visit. Taxco de Alarcón awaits you!

December 2006

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen