Some of my favourite novels have a sense of place inextricably tied to their stories. I can’t think of The Count of Monte Cristo without thinking of Paris and Rome, Gatsby without Manhattan or Fifth Business without the mix of old Toronto and rural Deptford (aka Thamesvile). I loved the portrayal of Quauhnahuac (aka Cuernavaca), Mexico in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano – the heat, the weather, the people are all infused into the interactions of the three British ex-pat main characters.
I also chose Mexico as the setting for my novel, The Devil’s Gold*. In 1998 I spent the summer working in Zacatecas – Mexico’s best kept secret. Recently, I was in Mexico on business and I took a day off to fly to Zacatecas to spend a day to see the sites, take notes and breathe the city air again. Before the trip I used Google Earth, Google Street View and image searches to do the majority of my location research, which was very useful but it was no substitute for actually visiting the city. I had forgotten how beautiful it was and how much I loved the city. It is a small, colonial-style city, a U.N. National Heritage site and one of the oldest colonized cities in the Americas.
My first stop was the Quinta Real, an old bullfighting ring transformed into a luxury hotel and restaurant.
Although the bar was closed, I snapped a picture through a hole in the wooden door:
I walked out of the hotel and even though the streets are narrow and busy, there are so many park spaces and museums scattered throughout the city, constant reminders to slow down and enjoy what it has to offer. They were reminders that I really didn’t enjoy them enough last time.
Then I went to Cerro de la Buffa, a hill that overlooks the city, where Pancho Villa took the city of Zacatecas from the Federales.
My biggest regret of the day was going to see the hotel I stayed at in 98. It was at the opposite end of the city from the highway to the airport. It had changed hands since I was there (it used to be a Days Inn) and had become much more run down. Since there are several scenes that take place in the hotel I wanted to get the details right – Did it still have those clunky, heavy phones? Were the showers lined with limestone tiles? Was there wi-fi in the rooms/lobby? Could you smoke in the hotel? I went with no plan to see a room, I should’ve just jumped in an elevator and slipped a cleaning lady 50 pesos to let me have a look around. Instead my guide/cab driver went to the front desk and said ‘this guy’s a writer, he wants to see a room to put it in his book.’ They asked me to leave. I should’ve skipped the trip and made up a fictional hotel with the details I wanted, which is what I ended up doing.
I walked around the neighbourhood behind the hotel and then headed back downtown. Rush hour was underway and all the arteries leading into the city were clogged. Even though the city wasn’t designed for high traffic volume and had become steadily busier over the years, my cab driver found us a few empty streets.
I stopped by the Cathedral in the centre of town. It is intricately carved out of a volcanic rock tinged red by iron, the same metal that gives our blood its dark colour when it oxidizes.
I had to stop to eat at an Argentinian steakhouse called Garufa’s. I treated my cab driver to one of these:
Unfortunately, the detour to the old Days Inn (or the stop for steak) made me miss El Eden, an old mine turned into a museum and nightclub. I don’t know why I didn’t try to negotiate something with the security guard, but I wish I had the chance to go in.
This is what the inside of the club looks like. The day went by incredibly quickly, but I was thrilled to get the chance to see it again. If you ever find yourself in Mexico, I highly recommend a detour to Zacatecas. I certainly hope I get back there once my book comes out.
*If you’re interested in reading an excerpt, click here