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Destination: Texco : Treasure of the Sierra Madre : Prospecting for Silver, and More, in an 18th-Century Hill Town

August 28, 1994|CURTIS RIST | Curtis Rist is a reporter for New York Newsday

TAXCO, Mexico — In this country's fabled "Silver City," every moment of the day centers on the precious metal--beginning at 6 a.m., when a fire siren blares a wake-up call to miners across the city.

Forty-five minutes later, a second siren sounds, one that reminds the workers it is time to be out the door. And a third blast--persistent enough to wake the most resolutely restful tourist--marks the start of the shift at 7 a.m.

The miners don't have much of a commute: The tunnels containing the dull ore, which produce about a quarter of the nation's silver, are located directly beneath this city of nearly 200,000 nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains about 110 miles south of Mexico City. The results of the miners' labors are celebrated everywhere--from the rosy towers of the Santa Prisca cathedral, a baroque masterpiece built 200 years ago with the silver earnings of a colonial adventurist, to more than 200 shops where the refined metal is hammered into everything from trinkets to works of art.

It was silver that drew me and my family to Taxco (TAHS-ko) last November. Ready for a break from my Spanish language studies in nearby Cuernavaca, I figured we'd spend three or four days shopping for bracelets and brooches before moving on to Oaxaca.

As it turned out, three days stretched into three weeks.

*

Each Sunday evening, we headed to a cinder-block arena on the outskirts of town where the weekly rodeo ended with a two-stepping free-for-all once the bulls had been rounded up.

The first Monday in November, we watched the entire town turn out for the annual Jumil festival, a regional picnic at which the main course is a squat, black insect that looks like a stinkbug. My two young children took a pass, but my wife and I were game: Ground live into salsa and served with tacos and copious quantities of cerveza, the bugs turned out to have a bitter but not-unpleasant tang.

And every moment of every day, we reveled in Taxco itself--a city that seems almost to defy gravity as its narrow streets and alleys twist and rise up a mountainside to ludicrous heights.

Whether bathed in the first light of sunrise or the gaudy dazzle of spotlights that seem to glow throughout the night, the city's panorama is stunning--a cobblestone-and-whitewashed stucco look that has been carefully primped ever since the city was designated a national monument in 1928 as a relic of the 18th Century.

*

Taxco owes its fortunes to the rise and fall--and rise once again--of silver.

Soon after conquering the Aztecs in what is now Mexico City, Hernando Cortes pushed into the mountains of the Sierra Madre in search of riches. His Spanish explorers struck a huge silver vein, and the city was founded in 1522--a settlement that evaporated only two decades later when the silver "ran out."

For the next two centuries, Taxco lay dormant, until the Frenchman Jose de la Borda found another silver lode and tapped the deposit with a zeal bordering on fury.

Borda's newfound wealth triggered a boom of construction--convents, judicial palaces and colonial mansions--and culminated with construction of the city's extravagantly gilded cathedral, for which Borda made a huge bequest with the now-famous words, "God gives to Borda; Borda gives to God." But by the 1780s, the silver era went bust, and Taxco became all but frozen in time.

It remained unchanged and impoverished until the 1930s, when a New Yorker named William Spratling set up shop as a silversmith--and triggered a boom among craftsmen that continues to flourish.

My wife, Lynn, had visited Taxco about 20 years ago and remembered a jumble of shops selling jewelry of varying workmanship and authenticity. We still saw plenty of tourist traps, outfitted with grotto interiors and hung with plastic stalactites dipped in glitter. And we knew before we arrived that Taxco silver prices weren't any lower than what we'd be able to find elsewhere in Mexico. Still, Lynn was sufficiently impressed to snap up more than $1,000 worth of silver items during our stay.

*

For a look at some of the best silver craftsmanship Taxco has to offer, we headed six miles south of town to the Spratling Ranch, where silversmiths create replicas of Spratling's distinctive designs. One of his more famous signature pieces, an eight-inch-long, fish-shaped box with an elaborate set of silver scales, costs about $600.

We also enjoyed browsing at Los Castillo, a store located just off the Plaza Borda, the pretty town square lined with Indian laurel trees. Prices here ranged from the astronomical ($3,600 for a two-foot high, toucan-shaped pitcher of silver inlaid with semi-precious stones) to the quite-reasonable (about $25 and $50 for a pair of simple earrings or beaded silver necklace, respectively).

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