Zacatecas: The Ultimate Guide

Last Updated on: 18th December 2023, 09:21 pm

As with nearby Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí, the city of Zacatecas grew immensely wealthy as a mining town, with much of that wealth being reinvested into beautiful buildings. As we’ll cover in the following Zacatecas guide, from Baroque architecture to an old mine to top-class art museums, this city has something for everyone.

In the 16th century, Zacatecas was even the most populous city in New Spain after the capital which gives you an idea of its former splendor. To see everything in the list below, you’ll need at least two full days in town, while you should also add another day to visit the fantastic ruins of La Quemada.

Be sure to check the end of the article for tips on transport and accommodation, along with a question on many travelers’ minds: Is Zacatecas safe to visit?

Around the Center

Simply put, the center of Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s most beautiful historical districts. A majority of the attractions featured in this Zacatecas guide are in the center, while visitors will also enjoy aimlessly exploring its windy, hilly streets.

Zacatecas Guide

Catedral Basilica de Zacatecas

If there was any single piece of architecture that came to people’s minds when they pictured Zacatecas, it would be the Catedral Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Zacatecas, or just the Catedral de Zacatecas for short.

Zacatecas Guide
The Catedral de Zacatecas as seen from the top of Cerro de la Bufa

The stunning Baroque church was built between 1729 and 1752, though it wasn’t fully completed until 1904. It’s arguably one of the finest examples of the style in the country. 

Looking at the front facade, there are a near endless amount of details to take in. Unfortunately, there’s no ideal place to stand and stare, as the nearest sidewalk is narrow and often crowded. It’s also difficult to photograph the entire facade without an especially wide lens.

Zacatecas Guide

In any case, you’ll want to walk by this UNESCO World Heritage Site at least a few times throughout your stay in Zacatecas. As we’ll cover below, you can enjoy alternate views of the cathedral from the teleférico, as well as from atop the Cerro de la Bufa.

Zacatecas Guide

Museo Zacatecano

For those looking for an overview of both the history and culture of Zacatecas, there’s no better place to start than the Museo Zacatecano, located in the city’s former mint. 

The building was constructed in the 19th century, and like the other museums in this Zacatecas guide, the setting is just as much of an attraction as the museum itself.

Zacatecas Guide

The museum begins with a small archaeological section. While largely inhabited by semi-nomadic Chichimecas throughout pre-Hispanic times, Zacatecas was also home to numerous settlements, both large and small. 

Notable among them are the ruins of La Quemada just outside the city, along with Altavista in the northern part of the state.

Next, you’ll learn about the city’s illustrious past as one of Mexico’s premier mining hubs, in addition to its role in the Mexican Revolution. But more on both of those topics further below.

Zacatecas Guide

The upper floor is perhaps the most interesting. It largely focuses on the Huichol culture, one of the main indigenous cultures in the region. Many Huichols continue to live in Zacatecas, while they can also be found throughout the Bajío area and the Pacific states of Jalisco and Nayarit.

Zacatecas Guide

As opposed to the civilizations further south, the Huichols have long been semi-nomadic and have thus been able to maintain many of their ancient traditions through the colonial era and into the present.

At the museum, you’ll learn about Huichol art, sacred pilgrimages to places like Cerro El Quemado, and the importance of the peyote cactus to their culture and religion.

Museo Pedro Coronel

Zacatecas Guide
The 16th-century Parroquia de Santo Domingo, just next to the Museo Pedro Coronel

Pedro Coronel was a famous Mexican sculptor and painter who was born in Zacatecas in 1921. And throughout his life, he amassed a huge private art collection of his own which he donated to this museum shortly before his death in 1985.

Zacatecas Guide

The museum would open the following year, but the building is obviously much older. It was once known as the Real Colegio y Seminario de San Luis Gonzaga when it was founded as a Jesuit school in 1616.

It was then taken over by the Dominicans in the following century. And before its conversion to a museum, the building was even used for decades as a jail.

Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide

The huge collection spans various styles, eras and geographical locations. For example, one remarkable section contains no less than 42 works by Catalan Surrealist painter Joan Miró.

But a lot of the pieces are much older. You’ll find an Egyptian mummy case, for example, in addition to numerous Buddha statues from Southeast Asia, including a bronze image from Sukhothai.

Zacatecas Guide
A Buddha statue from Sukhothai, Thailand

While those coming from the United States or Europe may be accustomed to seeing international fine art collections at museums, it’s actually quite rare in Mexico from my experience.

If you enjoy the subject matter here, don’t miss the next attraction in this Zacatecas guide, which happens to have a very similar name.

Museo Rafael Coronel

Rafael Coronel (1932-2019) was Pedro’s younger brother and would go on to become an influential painter in his own right. He’s also known for marrying architect Ruth Rivera Marín, which made him Diego Rivera’s son-in-law.

Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide

As with his brother’s museum, Museo Rafael Coronel is also situated within a fascinating historical building. Located in the northern part of the historical center, the structure was once the Convent of San Francisco de Almoloyan y de Asís. 

Built in 1567, it burnt down in 1648 and largely remained abandoned until its restoration in the 20th century. The museum’s visiting route encourages guests to walk through some of its courtyards and corridors, which is a highlight of the visit.

Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide

Like Pedro Coronel’s museum, this one also features exotic art from Asia – mainly from India, in this case. Who would’ve thought that Zacatecas, of all places, would be the best place in Mexico to see traditional Asian art?

Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide

Another room focuses on paintings by Rafael Coronel himself. They demonstrate a much more realistic style than the abstract and colorful paintings of his brother. Overall, these striking paintings could be described as ‘dark’ but also highly symbolic.

Zacatecas Guide

Compared with the Museo Pedro Coronel, this one has a much greater focus on Mexican folk art.  One entire room, for example, features nothing but traditional masks crafted throughout the country.

Zacatecas Guide

Masks have played a significant role in the local culture since pre-Hispanic times, but back then they were exclusively worn by members of the elite, such as rulers and soldiers.

During the colonial period, masks became important to traditional dances, with many pre-Hispanic legends and rituals being discretely kept alive in the form of masks and costumes.

For those with an interest in masks, don’t miss the National Museum of the Mask in San Luis Potosí a few hours away from Zacatecas.

Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide

This museum will also delight archaeology lovers. In one hall, you’ll find artifacts from a wide variety of Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Olmecs, the Zapotecs, the Tarascans and more.

Just be forewarned – the Museo Rafael Coronel houses over 16,000 items and is accordingly massive, making it easy to get lost!

Zacatecas Guide
Tarascan vessel
Zacatecas Guide
Olmec figurines

The Aqueducts

To the south of the historical center, you can find remnants of Zacatecas’ old aqueducts, which were started near the end of the colonial era.

Nearby, you’ll also encounter a monument dedicated to Jesús González Ortega (1822-1881), a soldier and politician who was born in the city.

Zacatecas Guide

Also in the area is yet another art museum, the Museo Francisco Goitia. As it was closed during my visit, I never got the chance. 

Just around the corner from it, meanwhile, is the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Fátima, constructed in 1950.

Mina El Edén

Mina El Edén was largely active in the 17th and 18th centuries and actually remained in use until as recently as 1960. During the colonial period, it was one of the most prominent mines in all of New Spain.

It’s been a tourist attraction since 1975 and, while there are several other mines throughout the Bajío region for tourists to visit, this is by far the largest.

Zacatecas Guide

Today, a visit to the mine costs $100 MXN and it’s mandatory to go as part of a guided tour. No advanced reservations are required, and you’ll just be placed with the next group upon buying your ticket. But as far as I can tell, tours are in Spanish only.

Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide

The main minerals mined here were silver and gold, and indigenous people from around Mexico were sent here to essentially work as slaves. As the Spanish crown received 20% of all profits, it was easy for them to turn a blind eye to the terrible conditions.

Throughout the tour, the guide will tell you about the history of the mine along with various local legends. Realistic statues, meanwhile, help you envision what was going on here during colonial times.

As much of the mine is now flooded, you’ll occasionally have to walk along bridges to bypass the water.

Zacatecas Guide
A shrine dedicated to children who tragically died working in the mine
Small traces of gold remain on some of the rocks

One of the most interesting parts of the mine is a geological museum featuring eye-catching rocks and crystals – not just from the local area but from around the world. It’s a must-visit for all geology lovers.

At the end of the tour, visitors are supposed to be able to ride one of the old mine cars back to the entrance. But if there’s not one there waiting for you by the time you leave the museum, you can also just walk back on your own.

Zacatecas Guide
Zacatecas Guide

All in all, Mina El Edén felt a bit too much like a theme park attraction, and I also didn’t like the fact that you can’t explore independently. And despite the mandatory guide fee being included in the ticket price, the guide begging for tips at the end left a bitter taste in my mouth.

If you have two full days in Zacatecas, Mina El Edén is worth the visit. But with only one, I’d focus on the architecture, museums and Cerro de la Bufa instead.

Cerro de la bufa

Cerro de la Bufa can be seen from all over central Zacatecas and is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks – both historically and visually. Accordingly, ascending the hill is one of the most popular things to do for those visiting the city.

Zacatecas Guide

Despite it having been sunny for most of the week, the day I planned to ascend Cerro de la Bufa turned out to be cold and gloomy. 

While I decided to go anyway, I canceled my original plan to hike to the top, which can normally be done beginning in Parque Matamoros (see the AllTrails app).

Instead, I decided to go via the most popular method: the teleférico. You’ll find the lower station not far from the Mina El Edén (see map above). At the time of writing, the roundtrip journey costs $160 MXN.

While the views along the way are great, you can also enjoy excellent views once you reach the top. Be sure to bring a zoom lens if you have one.

Another option to reach the top, meanwhile, is to simply order an Uber.

Zacatecas Guide

Frankly speaking, aside from the views, there isn’t really all that much to do once you reach the top. The main landmark here is the Capilla de la Virgen del Patrocinio, an 18th-century church dedicated to the patron saint of miners.

Just behind it, meanwhile, is the Museo Toma de Zacatecas, dedicated to the city’s most significant historical event.

Zacatecas Guide
The Capilla de la Virgen del Patrocinio

During the Mexican Revolution in 1914, Zacatecas saw fighting between the rebel troops of Francisco Villa and those of President Victoriano Huerta. And fighting took place at various hilltops around town, including La Bufa.

The rebels would ultimately emerge victorious in what was considered one of the most decisive battles of the war. But tragically, thousands of troops on each side died, and many historical buildings were sacked.

Zacatecas Guide
Inside the Museo Toma de Zacatecas

Back outside, you’ll also encounter various statues of notable figures from the war, including Francisco Villa, Felipe Angeles and Pánfilo Natera.

If you’re hungry, the top of the hill also ha sa few restaurants as well as a small food court area.

Zacatecas Guide

Additional Info

Zacatecas is pretty well-connected by bus, especially if you’re coming from elsewhere in the Central Highlands region. I had no issues reaching the city from San Luis Potosí and also had a smooth trip onward to Aguascalientes.

The main bus terminal is too far to walk from to the historical center, but Uber works well in the city.

Another option is to fly, but the local airport only has connections with Mexico City and Tijuana.

The city is not particularly large, and to visit all the attractions in the Zacatecas guide above, you’ll be fine staying anywhere within the historical center.

Popular midrange options include Hotel Casa Faroles and Emporio Zacatecas, both of which are located in beautiful colonial-era buildings.

As I was on a budget, I stayed at Hotel Plaza Bicentenario, which, as the name suggests, was right next to Plaza Bicentenario. Though I’d originally booked a room overlooking the plaza, I didn’t realize that my room would be right next to a noisy market.

Fortunately, as I was staying for a couple of weeks, the kind owner moved me to a quieter (and even larger) room for no extra fee.

Another popular budget option at the opposite end of the center is OYO Hotel Meson de la Concepcion.

Wherever you stay, note that Zacatecas stands at 2,440 m above sea level and is one of Mexico’s coldest cities. If you’re visiting in winter, you may want to check whether or not your hotel has heating, though many of them probably won’t.

Before addressing the question of safety in Zacatecas, it’s important to remember that Zacatecas is both a city and a state. The Zacatecas guide above solely focuses on the city, though if a tragedy occurs elsewhere in the state, people will often just say it happened in ‘Zacatecas.’

While I’m no expert on the situation, from my understanding, the state of Zacatecas has recently seen fighting between rival cartel groups which has resulted in numerous killings and kidnappings. It’s now considered one of the most unstable states in Mexico.

It’s probable that a large majority of these killings and kidnappings are targeted and not random. Like most of Mexico, if you’re simply minding your own business, you’ll likely be fine (at least during the day).

With that being said, you probably shouldn’t venture out to small rural towns, as these are where much of the violence occurs. Zacatecas city, on the other hand, is relatively stable.

While I can only speak from personal experience, I spent two full weeks in Zacatecas city and it felt calm and laidback. There didn’t seem to be any tension in the air and no obvious security presence. Families were out enjoying themselves and the locals I interacted with were kind and friendly to me, and I would never guess that Zacatecas had a bad reputation had I not read about it.

Of course, that was just my experience, and one could always argue that just because I felt safe, doesn’t mean that it really is. And that’s a valid argument, but you could also apply this same logic to all of Mexico.

In my opinion, the average tourist isn’t any more likely to have problems in Zacatecas city compared with most other cities in Mexico. At least at the time of writing. The situation could always suddenly take a turn for the worse with no warning, so it’s necessary to keep yourself up to date and use your best judgment.

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