Mexican Colonial town
Last Easter I took a trip to Taxco (pronounced "Tasco") in Guerrero with a friend. This picturesque pueblo mágico is well worth the 3-hour bus trip from Mexico City, a ride which takes you into the dry, silver-mining mountains to the south east of the metropolis. We took the Turibus which leaves from outside the Auditorio Nacional, a sleek comfortable coach with an informative tourist guide, lunch, a bottle of water, a carton of juice and an energy bar thrown into the package.
As we approached the town and drove around the last bend on the winding mountain road, there tumbling picturesquely down a steep mountainside were hundreds of small houses all dressed in uniform... whitewashed walls and chunky terracotta-tiled roofs. The effect was rather bewildering. For a second, I felt as if I'd got lost by mistake in Southern Spain or Tuscany in Italy. I couldn't pick out any typical Mexican lime greens, fuchsia pinks or electric blues on the walls and there was a certain air of harmony to the place. Of course, it's not surprising since Taxco is essentially a colonial town, more or less founded by the Spaniards... and has managed to keep its look intact over the years despite the mass of black spaghetti masquerading as electric wires overhead.
The Turibus coughed us out at the Posada La Misión, a fitting first stop with its distinctive colonial atmosphere, complete with an old stagecoach in the lobby. Every nook and cranny was filled with objects from that historical period, accompanied by the musty scent of history. Arches, tiles, forged iron items and heavy wooden furniture were combined with some Mexican touches. You could almost imagine a bunch of Conquistadores or Spanish nobles strolling in, and their horses clattering over the stony path outside.
But that wasn't the only reason this particular posada was a good place to start. Our guide led us outside to the gardens and restaurant lower down which smugly boast one of the best views of the town. The Church of Santa Prisca stood out over the whitewashed houses, like a proud pink mother hen brooding over her little white chicks. High on the mountainside was the Cristo Monumental, a 5-metre high statue of Christ with outstretched arms. Behind us was a sparkling swimming pool, rather inviting in the heat, bordered by a historical mural created by Juan O'Gorman, dedicated to the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtémoc. The mural is fascinating, made of locally found multi-colored stones. We had certainly begun with a lesson in history.
To really savor this town, you need to walk around it even though the steep inclines might push your lungs out of your mouth as you gasp for breath, especially if you want to make it to the top. Alternatively you could squeeze yourself into the back seat of one of the scores of white VW Beetle Bugs (aka taxis) scampering up the narrow cobbled streets but you would miss a lot of details. Chances are your eyes would probably be tightly closed most of the time to avoid witnessing any close encounters on the way up. But to be honest, it's far more fun wandering around under your own steam, peering into the small shops on either side of the street, stopping to admire the views, and sneaking a peek into mysterious patios and gardens. Neither would you want to miss the kids with their cheeky smiles, the vendors selling baskets and other trinkets, the odd mariachi band, the balloon sellers, and a thousand more sights and smells to delight you on your way.
Silver has been mined in Taxco since before the Conquest and although reserves have long been depleted, it is still responsible for the town's fame and provides its main livelihood. When the Spaniards heard about the silver, they rushed down here but their success was short-lived. Things calmed down until the 18th Century when French/Spanish miner José de la Borda (Joseph de Laborde in French) struck it rich when he discovered a vein of silver. It was this man who was responsible for building the Church of Santa Prisca and other mansions. Presumably the Café Borda is named after him. After another quiet period, the silversmith business saw a boom with the arrival of William Spratling (called Guillermo Spratling here). An American architect and writer, he set up a jewellery workshop, harnessing the skill of the locals and incorporating pre-Hispanic designs into his pieces. Taxco eventually became world famous for its silver artwork. As we wandered along the streets, we came across numerous platerías, shops selling silverware, but it didn't take me long to remember that I had some kind of allergy to this metal and so declined offers to buy anything.
We still hadn't even arrived at the plaza principal, dominated by the Taxco's most outstanding landmark, the Church of Santa Prisca. That was still to come. The first church we came across was a rather a solid-looking former monastery, San Barnadino de Siena, whose claim to fame lies in the fact that it was the first Franciscan monastery and one of the oldest in America, dating back to 1592. After a fire, it was re-built in neo-classical style in 1804. Curiously, behind it are some rather sombre figures of penitentes, dark hooded figures dragging crosses and flagellating themselves. Apparently, the macabre Medieval practice of penitence was brought over to Mexico from Spain and it was quickly adopted here. Although in general this tradition has largely been suppressed in Mexico, it is still very much alive and well in Taxco. The processions of the black-hooded brotherhoods during Semana Santa or Holy Week continue to startle unsuspecting tourists.
As we continued to walk towards the centre, every now and again, the cobbled streets surprised us with their designs in the shape of flowers or jaguars or Aztecs playing the game of pelota. In fact, it is thought that the name Taxco derives from the Nauhuatl word Tlachco meaning "a place for playing ball". I just hope no-one sent the ball flying down into the valley below. It would be a long way down to retrieve it. When we finally arrived at the small Plaza Borda, it took us all of three seconds to run for the cool shady benches and restore our hot souls. The short rest gave us the chance to marvel at the façade of the pink-hued iglesia said to be the most beautiful Baroque-style church in the whole of Mexico. And to catch our breath.
...(continued in Part 2)