Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Mexico: The Silver City of Taxco


If I learned one thing about travelling in Mexico, its that your onto a winner of your companions are blonde. You can spot blondes a mile off. In Taxco, for instance, I round a corner and suddenly find myself engulfed by a kaleidoscope of colourful market stalls descending down stepped alleyways to the depths of the "Old Town". To my left and right, grizzled old women and bow-legged codgers are patiently hawking herbs, radishes, fruits, yoghurts, calculators, rosary beads, wheelbarrows and, above all, silver. A pair of toddlers swiftly grasp my kneecaps in a game attempt to sell me a sombrero for a US dollar. I dust them off and clamber into a passing café.

From here I survey a rapidly increasing throng of olive-skinned shoppers through a haze of helium balloons, blow bubbles and fluttering black parrots going nuts in the branches of a maple tree. To my left, a wrinkled old man in a purple tea cosy yawns in a rocking chair. An earnest young boy spits on his shoes and polishes them to a mirror-like sheen. To my right, a raven-haired beauty confides in her mobile, sweet red-lipped smiles and brown eyes that dart away. A velvet voiced mariachi strums an open-air bar across the street. As I watch the blondes order up some corn-on-the-cobs in the distance, I feel a wave of gentle nostalgia wash over me.

Taxco (pronounced Tash-ko) is a mountain town of white washed, terracotta roofed houses, situated in Guerrero State, midway between Mexico City and Acapulco. There have been people living here ever since we first grew toes and clambered from the murky swamps. By the time Brian Boru was axing his way around Clontarf, the Taxco community had become pretty adept at mining the town's foremost mineral - namely silver.

Not surprisingly, the Spanish adventurers got wind of this lucrative business when they invaded Mexico in the early 16th century. Thus, in the spirit of Christianity, they enslaved the native population, added a bunch of African slaves for good measure, and put the whole lot to work mining the silver that would go on to grace the churches and palaces of the good Catholic hierarchy back in Madrid and Seville. (If Sir Francis Drake and his merry men didn't seize it en route).

In the early 18th century, a French-born entrepreneur called Jose de la Borda discovered a new vein that propelled Taxco to the forefront of Mexico's vast silver-mining industry. With the discovery of silver elsewhere in the world, the Taxco Silver Rush calmed down during the 18th century and the town was in danger of acquiring a ghostly reputation.

And then, in 1929, along came William Spratling, a Communist architect from New Orleans, who restored the mines, established a series of artistic workshops and turned the place into one of the world's greatest centres for silversmiths.

With such a history, Taxco's tourism industry inevitably consists of much domestic traffic from the wealthier suburbs of Mexico City. This generally translates as wide-eyed silver-hunting senoritas being pursued, at a distance, by increasingly wary senors. There are presently over 200 silver shops (platerias) in Taxco. Most are supplied by one-person "factories" and local artisans.

The range of goods is unique and imaginative - cream jugs, ice buckets, chess sets, ear rings, crucifixes, rude nudes that click together, all available for perhaps a quarter the price you'd find them in Europe. The quality is second to none but, if you're on the hunt, know your quarry. Authentic silver is marked with the official government stamp on each piece - ".925" or "sterling".

Away from the silver shops and market stalls, Taxco is a gorgeous enclave of winding cobblestone alleyways and town squares, flanked by walled gardens, splashing fountains and stately buildings such as the Silver Museum and the icing on the cake, for cake it surely is - the magnificent Church of Santa Prisca, arguably the best examples of the Churriguere style in Mexico.

And anyone with a fondness for VW Beetles or Comby vans will possibly explode with excitement at the number of them struggling up the town's steep hills on full throttle. These streets were designed for donkey carts in an age when congestion was something that happened if you ate too much. Even so, there's still something reassuringly comical about the sight of ten Beetles in a row.

Yep, its all go in Taxco in the daylight hours. And there's plenty of merriment to be had by night too. But I sat out on my balcony late one night and Taxco was sound asleep. Excepting the gentle hum of industry somewhere in the hills beyond. Even today, the Taxco mines employ upwards of 400 people, working shifts, around the clock, 24 - 7, because this world adores silver and Taxco thrives on that adoration.

This article was published in Abroad in 2005.