Taxco in the wink of an eye

An unconventional visit to the 'silver capital of the world.'

Ernesto Acher's view of Taxco in 1978 from the artist's website www.ernestoacher.com

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If the smell of burning sugar cane is the olfactory trigger that returns us to Brasil, the smell I will associate with Taxco is the slight waft of sewage.

Perhaps the odor is all that remains of the old Taxco of the 30's to the 60's. Today there's little left that's reminiscent of the town described by a host of authors of the old school who wrote about a Mexico that once was.

It must have been a heady place indeed in those times with all the literati and movers and shakers that passed through its cobblestone streets. These were the decades that brought together artists of all nationalities and mixed them up with a crazy bunch of true eccentrics. The air itself must have been charged with creative fire.

The vivid descriptions of life during those times were enough to set us out from Pátzcuaro on the convoluted bus connections needed to by-pass Mexico City en route to Taxco. Unfortunately the last bus out of Toluca had left ten minutes before we started our ticket search meaning we ended up on a bus to Mexico City anyway and an unexpected overnight stay. As often happens when things start getting a tad weird on a trip, misfortune trips all over itself setting up a series of events that gets the traveler more than frazzled. This was certainly the case for us and by the time we finally ventured out of our Taxco hotel later that week, I started to visualize a few relaxing moments sipping a margarita at Bar Berta's.

 

One of the bar's former owners is said to be the inventor of this, Mexico's signature drink, and the bar has been described as a place Hemmingway would have loved. I had yet to sample a margarita in Mexico and had no idea what kind of bar would be appealing to Hemmingway but at that point in the journey, I was game to find out.

Alas, this was not to be as the doors to Bar Berta's were closing as we headed across the Plaza in its direction. Since it was barely 10:00 PM , I figured it was a good thing Hemingway was not around as he never appeared predisposed to 10:00 PM bar closings.

 

Given that my initiation into ‘Margaritaville' was destined to be postponed, dessert seemed to be a fitting compensation.

Mariachis waiting outside Bar Berta. Either they are counting the day's take or waiting for the place to open.

Dessert in Mexico can present its own challenges once one has explored the multiple variations on the theme of ‘flan'. If one is not inclined to hit the elegant venues of haughty waiters where scrumptious pastries can be found at times, the next best bet is to look for funky.

Café Sasha on Ruíz de Alarcón across from the Hotel Los Arcos easily falls into the category of funky. Besides being zapped into a time warp returning you to the 60's, you get good desserts.

The impromptu concert by the nouveau hippie ensemble playing music from the Andes came between cappuccinos. Now travelers to the Andean states have often been reported to offer money to many such musical groups in order to get them to stop playing. The creaky voice belting out corridas on an out-of-tune guitar in Mexico in no way prepares you for badly played pipes and flutes.

The musicians in the Café Sasha did not realize that my husband had spent almost three years in Bolivia before anyone in their group had been born, which meant that the "obscure" songs that were introduced and explained had at least one knowledgeable listener in the crowd.

The group did all right, though, so that when the hat was passed, a solitary contribution failed to clink as it joined the others. One wouldn't think that a 20-peso bill could so raise the mood but once the fellow with the hat returned to his compatriots, a few whispered words were exchanged. Rather than packing up the instruments as expected, the musicians moved into a rousing rendition of Carnavalito , spirited enough to draw the blues out of anyone there and more than enough to compensate for a missed trip to Bar Berta's.

But then what was I thinking? People aren't going to Taxco to hit Berta's anymore. Nor are they going to hear itinerant musicians.

They go to Taxco to buy silver. And if you have an abiding need or urge to buy silver, Taxco sure is a purty place to do it.

The inside of one of the many, many silver shops that line Taxco's streets.

The town is said to owe all its fame to silver, tourism and William Sprattling, the American who brought the silver trade to town. Tourism would undoubtedly have arrived without the other two. The place is a natural stop on the snazzy toll-road that makes mincemeat of the mountain ranges that rear up between Mexico City and Acapulco . The red-tiled buildings with their whitewashed walls filled with brilliantly-colored flowers cascading down the sides would naturally attract the tourist eye. Add the cobblestone streets and you're well on your way to the quaint version of Mexico certain tourists seem to love. Throw in photogenic and you definitely have a winner, winner, winner.

 

 

Stanton Delaplane and Robert de Roos wrote in DELAPLANE IN MEXICO in 1960, “The natives…run burros up and down the streets. And have been light-metered so much they can take a look at the sky and tell you the camera setting. In English.”

Several photos in this article come from a great site www.galenfrysinger.com

This fellow has been all over and taken photos everywhere. He obviously knows his way around the world and a camera. If you want a virtual tour of just about anyplace, check it out.

 

Even today when cars crowd out burros on the street, tourists still come and gush which is one reason there are so many cars in the first place.

All visitors have not reacted the same way, however. The sardonic view of the Delaplane & de Roos was undoubtedly due to the fact they overdosed on noise.

They were awakened by the early morning drum and bugle practice of a group of soldiers, followed by the shrill blast of the mine whistle and then the gonging of the bells in the twin towers of Santa Prisca, the pink cantera church with its equally light-metered Churrigueresque façade that faces the main plaza.

After enduring so much cacophony before the morning coffee, they were ill-prepared for the assault of the "loudest jukeboxes ever heard" that seemed to follow them throughout the day.

I can sympathize with Delaphane and de Roos. In one of our extended visits to Mexico during the 70's, our rented house abutted the soccer field of the nearby prepa or high school. Every Saturday, soldiers with drums and bugles assembled to salute the sun's arrival and the raising of the flag with repeated versions of the same anthem. Drums are hardly ever a problem since the rhymically-challenged are drowned out by the solid beat of the rest but bugles are another matter. The leader's notes ring clear and true and are invariably followed by way too many in the contingent who have not studied their instrument as diligently as the leader but make up in volume what they lack in expertise.

We all have our breaking point. In Taxco, mine was stairs.

It's true that the place has been saved from the ugly ring of development that often presents a terrible eyesore as a traveler enters a picturesque town. All businesses in Taxco follow the quaint motif for which the town is famous. The kicker is that whether you need a ring job or a ring, you climb up and down picturesque streets and picturesque stairs.

Lots of streets that go up and many, many stairs to climb to get from one part of the town to the other. Soon they do not seem so picturesque.

Those stairs were enough of a hassle that we broke our hard and fast traveling rule that gives each new destination on our itinerary at least a week of our lives. For many travelers, a town in a day does not seem an excessively short visit. Today the goal is often to travel the most distance possible in the allotted time, seeing and doing ‘everything' along the way. In these days of sound bites and 30-second news segments, two half days would be more than enough to "do" Taxco . After all, one can buy only so much silver.

Thanks to William Spalding, silver is everywhere. When he came to town in 1930, there was only one silversmith hammering out the occasional spoon or fashioning the isolated saddle ornament. Almost on a lark, he contracted with a group of goldsmiths from Iguala and one way and another started an industry.

The Spalding workshop in Taxco and silversmiths of that era working.

Spalding was not in the least bit shy in heaping praise on himself. Not only did he take credit for the invention of Bar Berta's margarita, but he accredited the entire craft renaissance in Taxco to his efforts…furniture, textiles, ceramics, baskets, the whole enchilada besides the silver. He must have been a busy little devil since he was also a big fan of entertaining and hobnobbing with anyone whose name could later be dropped with effect.

However it all began, there's no disputing the fact the town now has a LOT of silver. Even during Spalding's time, Taxco managed to produce a tremendous amount, partly due to the fact that World War II reduced the traditional sources supplying luxury goods for the fancy U.S. markets.

If your taste and income coincide, you can find handcrafted pottery with inlaid sterling silver designs, pick up handmade sterling flatware to bring the grub to your mouth and purchase a hand hammered sterling silver goblet for your wine or Gatorade.

 

Fancy sugar and creamers are also available to round out the set. You might as well be Henry the Eighth.

If Henry the Eighth's lifestyle requires a tad more loose change than you have lying around, you can simply admire the workmanship. There is, after all, no charge for looking. It is possible to consider the town one large museum and ramble about almost endlessly from one "display" to another.

Although many items offered for sale run well into the thousands of dollars, you might still be able to pick up a pair of earrings for around ten pesos.

It's interesting to note that in other areas of the country where silver has an active role in the economy, Taxco is routinely downplayed with great gusto. In Guanajuanto, we overheard a tour guide go into conniptions at the idea that Taxco silver was the only silver to buy in Mexico . When I apprenticed with Jesús Cázares, one of Pátzcuaro's silversmiths famous for producing traditional Purepecha jewelry, the maestro maintained a running diatribe against the silver of Taxco. He insisted in no uncertain terms that the imprint of .925 silver was as phony as the metal on which the impression was stamped.

Maestro Cázares, in his taller or workshop in 1980.

The town does make a silver purchase hard to avoid, however. Guides, or the less favorable term "touts", abound like the time-share hawkers found on almost every corner of Puerto Vallarta. Storefront after storefront displays a dazzling selection from fine art to pure junk. Supposedly, it's impossible to visit Taxco without succumbing to the urge to buy at least one piece of silver.

It is a puzzle, however, where one goes to buy the ordinary stuff for living. I even saw a normal guy, wearing normal clothes, walking a large normal dog. The distinguishing factor was the dog's silver collar and chain. I got the impression the man had made it. In Colonial times horsemen were known to shoe their steeds in shoes made of silver rather than with the more expensive and imported lead. I suppose if you are a silversmith in Taxco today, it's easier to make a silver leash than go about town looking for a leather or cord one.

With only two half-days, our exposure to Taxco was so short that it almost allowed for boredom. And it left me dissatisfied since what could I really say about the place? Eat the desserts at Sasha's? Listen to a roving band of Andean folk singers? Are you kidding? Funky places as well as most every other eating establishment everywhere can change cooks faster than some women change their makeup. Roving musicians tend to do exactly that…rove. Actually, however, Sasha remains in business so I could still go to Taxco to eat a good dessert.

So what did I discover about the silver capital in such a short time? Taking the bus from Pátzcuaro proved to be far more complicated than one would reasonably expect looking at the map or perusing a guidebook.

The hotel was a medium-priced Colonial charmer whose appeal dimmed somewhat each time we climbed the three flights of stairs to get to our charming room.

The view in any direction from anywhere in town was stupendous.

The food was adequate to good but no item was memorable. Except dessert at Sasha's.

The streets were crowded with a tremendous congestion. We were told this was nothing compared to what happens on weekends when the streets are totally clogged with the cars of capitalinos, Mexico City residents seeking a Saturday /Sunday reprieve from the capital.

As opposed to what one would expect after hearing the old joke that a Mexican turned down an invitation to Taxco because he didn't speak any English, few gringos were in evidence. This paucity must have been the reason that the one gringo we did meet while checking out another hotel revealed a great deal more of his life than would normally be expected when all we asked in passing was, "Is the water in the pool warm?"

People were very pleasant and cordial, a quality that may or may not be inherent in the populace. Since much of the town's population appears to be actively involved in the sale of silver, it could just be good business sense.

The sheer amount of the silver I saw was overwhelming. But Maestro Cázares would have been pleased since I left town empty-handed.

Back in Pátzcuaro, an anthropologist friend told me I was terribly and completely wrong about Taxco . He maintained that it was a place brimming with fascinating activity and events unrelated to silver. There is no doubt in my mind that the man was absolutely correct in his comment. Two half days is just not enough time. Like A VISIT TO DON OCTAVIO's author, Sybille Bedford said, "I do not like to go anywhere for the day – it is always too long and too short."

Even though Miguel Angel has friends in Taxco and knows the town well from numerous visits, I could have made a stab at finding the nitty-gritty of the good stuff if I had given myself more time.

The thing is I should have given myself more time when I was still in possession of two strong knees. Like Solovino (our blind stray mutt), I just don't do stairs. Not if I can help it.

 

Mexico...in small bytes: is taking time out to watch the 2006 World Cup and will return after the finals. ¡Qué vivan México y Italia! Que vivan Mexico y Italia!

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