From copper to silver (Oct. 2009)

From copper to silver (Oct. 2009)

As our faithful readers know by now, this trip exposes the traveler to contrasts of many types. After many weeks in deserts and on Pacific beaches, we conquered the mountainous plateaus of the central Sierra (see our last post from the Copper Canyon) on our way to the colonial cities surrounding Mexico City.

Our craving for “culture” was entirely satisfied by extensive strolls through the likes of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Morelia, with their elaborate cathedrals, historic town centers (many on the UNESCO world heritage list) and busy urbanites. It’s impossible to give a complete account on this website of the historical, architectural and economic dimensions of these cities: the slideshow on this page nevertheless tries to share some impressions from our visits.

Two strands of history constantly cross our path these last weeks: the Spanish conquest and colonial life, and the struggle for independence. Impressive baroque cathedrals, elaborate town halls and palatial mansions of the nobility give a good impression of the past wealth of these cities. It is quite well known that this wealth originated in the gold and silver mines of Mexico, and that most of the production was shipped back to Spain (Spanish galleons were a favorite prey of pirates from all parts of the world). What we didn’t know was how exactly these precious materials were extracted at the time.

One visit to a mine (“El Eden” mine in Zacatecas in our case) is enough to subsequently leave a bitter after-taste each time you admire a richly-decorated cathedral, or the former palace of a Spanish mine owner. Mining is a tough business in any circumstances, but in this case, the workforce was composed of native Indian slaves and the mines were not much more than a deep whole in the ground. Indians, including children died by the thousands (at the rate of 5 per day in the Eden mine): no security, no ventilation, no mechanisation until the late 20th century, 80kg loads carried out of the 500m – deep shaft 14 hours a day…

Today, the mine is a museum, and the Indians’ fate is duly documented. But instead of a shrine commemorating their plight, the mine now hosts a fancy discotheque, a major attraction in the area. Meanwhile, the Indians populate the surrounding streets selling souvenirs…

The history of the Mexican independence movement is a fascinating tale. After visiting most of the sites where conspiration, heroism, personal sacrifice and intense battles took place, we’re now familiar with the stories behind street names that we have encountered in all Mexican cities: Hidalgo, Allende, Niños Heroes, Morelos, etc. All the initial conspirators lost their lives during the 11-year struggle, Hidalgo’s severed head was on public display for years in Guanajuato…

After stuffing our brains with all these complex subjects, we needed a rest: Morelia is just the place for a week of stationary life, before heading to Mexico City!

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