Destination: Texco : Treasure of the Sierra Madre : Prospecting for Silver, and More, in an 18th-Century Hill Town
In this country’s fabled “Silver City,” every moment of the day centers on the precious metal--beginning at 6 a.m., when a fire siren blares a wake-up call to miners across the city.
Forty-five minutes later, a second siren sounds, one that reminds the workers it is time to be out the door. And a third blast--persistent enough to wake the most resolutely restful tourist--marks the start of the shift at 7 a.m.
The miners don’t have much of a commute: The tunnels containing the dull ore, which produce about a quarter of the nation’s silver, are located directly beneath this city of nearly 200,000 nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains about 110 miles south of Mexico City. The results of the miners’ labors are celebrated everywhere--from the rosy towers of the Santa Prisca cathedral, a baroque masterpiece built 200 years ago with the silver earnings of a colonial adventurist, to more than 200 shops where the refined metal is hammered into everything from trinkets to works of art.
It was silver that drew me and my family to Taxco (TAHS-ko) last November. Ready for a break from my Spanish language studies in nearby Cuernavaca, I figured we’d spend three or four days shopping for bracelets and brooches before moving on to Oaxaca.
As it turned out, three days stretched into three weeks.
Each Sunday evening, we headed to a cinder-block arena on the outskirts of town where the weekly rodeo ended with a two-stepping free-for-all once the bulls had been rounded up.
The first Monday in November, we watched the entire town turn out for the annual Jumil festival, a regional picnic at which the main course is a squat, black insect that looks like a stinkbug. My two young children took a pass, but my wife and I were game: Ground live into salsa and served with tacos and copious quantities of cerveza, the bugs turned out to have a bitter but not-unpleasant tang.
And every moment of every day, we reveled in Taxco itself--a city that seems almost to defy gravity as its narrow streets and alleys twist and rise up a mountainside to ludicrous heights.
Whether bathed in the first light of sunrise or the gaudy dazzle of spotlights that seem to glow throughout the night, the city’s panorama is stunning--a cobblestone-and-whitewashed stucco look that has been carefully primped ever since the city was designated a national monument in 1928 as a relic of the 18th Century.
Taxco owes its fortunes to the rise and fall--and rise once again--of silver.
Soon after conquering the Aztecs in what is now Mexico City, Hernando Cortes pushed into the mountains of the Sierra Madre in search of riches. His Spanish explorers struck a huge silver vein, and the city was founded in 1522--a settlement that evaporated only two decades later when the silver “ran out.”
For the next two centuries, Taxco lay dormant, until the Frenchman Jose de la Borda found another silver lode and tapped the deposit with a zeal bordering on fury.
Borda’s newfound wealth triggered a boom of construction--convents, judicial palaces and colonial mansions--and culminated with construction of the city’s extravagantly gilded cathedral, for which Borda made a huge bequest with the now-famous words, “God gives to Borda; Borda gives to God.” But by the 1780s, the silver era went bust, and Taxco became all but frozen in time.
It remained unchanged and impoverished until the 1930s, when a New Yorker named William Spratling set up shop as a silversmith--and triggered a boom among craftsmen that continues to flourish.
My wife, Lynn, had visited Taxco about 20 years ago and remembered a jumble of shops selling jewelry of varying workmanship and authenticity. We still saw plenty of tourist traps, outfitted with grotto interiors and hung with plastic stalactites dipped in glitter. And we knew before we arrived that Taxco silver prices weren’t any lower than what we’d be able to find elsewhere in Mexico. Still, Lynn was sufficiently impressed to snap up more than $1,000 worth of silver items during our stay.
For a look at some of the best silver craftsmanship Taxco has to offer, we headed six miles south of town to the Spratling Ranch, where silversmiths create replicas of Spratling’s distinctive designs. One of his more famous signature pieces, an eight-inch-long, fish-shaped box with an elaborate set of silver scales, costs about $600.
We also enjoyed browsing at Los Castillo, a store located just off the Plaza Borda, the pretty town square lined with Indian laurel trees. Prices here ranged from the astronomical ($3,600 for a two-foot high, toucan-shaped pitcher of silver inlaid with semi-precious stones) to the quite-reasonable (about $25 and $50 for a pair of simple earrings or beaded silver necklace, respectively).
Early on during our stay, we met one of the hundreds of silver buyers who converge on Taxco to snap up jewelry that will be shipped to stores throughout the world. His advice: Check to make sure that sterling silver objects are stamped .925 (a sign of authenticity) and don’t be afraid to bargain. He also told us to ask for a “price by the gram” rate on large purchases, which we found worked out to be at least a third less than the showroom price.
When we weren’t bargaining for handsome belt buckles or picture frames (which we found in the shops along Pasaje Santa Prisca for about $13-$40 each), we wandered.
Our home base, about a 15-minute walk east of the Plaza Borda on a hill overlooking the city, was the funky but delightful Hotel de La Borda. For $50 a night, we got a vintage-1950s room trimmed with slate and mahogany and decorated with midnight-blue walls and star-shaped lights twinkling from the vaulted ceiling. In the afternoon, professional silver buyers--many of them friends of the American hotel owner--gathered by the palm-bordered pool for drinks and to keep tabs on their competition. And our two boys, ages 1 and 5, splashed away to their hearts’ content.
Despite its size, Taxco has the feel of a small town. The 5,850-foot altitude helps create a spring-like climate year round. All paths lead to the Plaza Borda, past balconies dripping with bougainvillea and songbirds in ornately carved wooden cages.
We woke early each morning, watching the miners walk to work as we stood in line for the fresh-squeezed orange juice sold on almost every corner. And after several days of wondering what those silver-laden tunnels were like, we visited what we figured would be a close relative: a stellar cave, known as Las Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, located about 20 miles north of the city.
Although devoid of silver deposits, the natural cave offers gems of another sort: a spectacular and well-lit series of gigantic chambers, some with domed ceilings that rise more than 80 feet.
The cave has been a hide-out for everyone from Aztec chieftains to bandits and counts among its most famous visitors Mexico’s onetime empress, Carlota, who marked the occasion in the 1860s with some graffiti that is still visible today.
We enjoyed our underground foray, but were glad to trade the humid cave for the crisp air of the Sierra Madre--and the indelible stamp of silver.
For Silver Seekers
Getting there: The easiest way to reach Taxco is via Mexico City. Aeromexico, Mexicana and Delta fly nonstop from LAX to Mexico City. Round-trip fares start at $326.
From Mexico City, it’s about a three-hour drive to Taxco via the new, four-lane toll road that connects Mexico City and Acapulco. Several bus lines run first-class buses daily to Taxco from Mexico City; fares are about $10 per person one way.
Where to stay: We stayed at the Hotel de la Borda, Cerro del Pedregal 2, about $50 per night double; telephone 011-52-762-2-0225. Another moderately priced choice, popular with families, is the Hotel Agua Escondida, Plaza Borda 4, about $45 per night double; tel. 011-52-762-2-0726. The Hotel Montetaxco (Fracc. Lomas de Taxco; tel. 011-52-762-2-1300, toll-free within Mexico 9-1-800-98-000) is about $109 per night, double; a special three-night package is about $150 double.
Where to eat: We enjoyed several Italian meals at La Taverna (Juarez 8; local tel. 2-5226). Less than $30 for two, including wine. Another favorite was the restaurant at the Hotel Agua Escondida, where our family of four spent about $20 for a dinner of typical Mexican specialties, including wine.
Shopping and other diversions: The Spratling Ranch Workshop is six miles south of Taxco, off the old highway, about an $8 taxi ride from town. Open Monday-Saturday, no admission. The Castillo workshop, five miles south of town, is open to the public Monday through Friday. But sales are limited to the retail outlet, Los Castillo, located off the Plaza Borda at Plaza Bernal 10; tel. 2-0652. The Cacahuamilpa caves are located about 20 miles north of Taxco; Admission is about $1 per person.
For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067; tel. (310) 203-8191.