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Mexican charm off the beaten track

Find your way to these twin hills 190 miles northeast of Guadalajara, and prepare for an auspicious introduction.

Your first proper view could be of the aerial tramway, its tiny twin cabins strung above a tile-roofed mining town that dates to the 16th century.

Or you may keep your eyes on the road as you enter the city, then glimpse the early morning shadows dancing amid the stone curlicues chiseled into the facade of the 240-year-old cathedral.

Or you could skirt the city center altogether, proceed to the bougainvillea-draped ruin of the old San Francisco convent _ and find a collection of 2,900 fearsome face masks.

But on the night I arrived, most of the place was obscured by darkness. And so, for the introductory experience, I settled for the grounds of the Hotel Quinta Real.

Which used to be a bullring.

It lay, its ocher hues floodlighted, beneath 39 towering sandstone arches of the town's 18th-century aqueduct. The hotel features a bar in the stonewalled pens where bulls once snorted, and a two-level restaurant overlooking the ring.

In other words, no matter when or how you arrive, little-known Zacatecas is likely to present a lasting first impression.

Set in rugged hills at about 8,000 feet elevation, the city has air that's thin and clear, though dramatic clouds did convene above town each afternoon of my two-night visit. And afternoon showers are common in the warm summer months.

The architecture is aged and rosy, thanks to a wealth of pink-orange stone that is quarried nearby. The population is about 110,000, much of it spread among suburbs some distance from the city center. There are more handsome old churches than it is reasonable to name, let alone describe, and one can walk to almost every attraction in town. The hotel rates for double rooms are often under $50 nightly.

The Indians of the area discovered its mineral wealth, but in 1548, the Spanish took over.

Starting in the middle of things and climbing southward, a visitor now finds first the cathedral, built over a period of 140 years and finally completed in 1752. Its striking facade faces the main drag of Avenida Hidalgo.

A block farther along is the Teatro Calderon, designed in the closing years of the 19th century as an odd combination of Spanish colonial and art nouveau architecture. Almost directly across the street from the stained-glass windows of the theater stands another architectural hybrid, the Mercado Gonzalez Ortega. Once a working-class marketplace made elegant by ironwork and high skylights, the Mercado is now an upscale collection of boutiques, gift shops and a terrace restaurant.

Southward from there, the main drag climbs and bends, flanked by busy commercial enterprises.

Which brings us back to the lobby of the Quinta Real Hotel. The night I arrived, my first act was to stagger forward to a picture window.

"This bullring is from 1866. In 1975 was the last bullfight," recited the young bellman.

Beyond him curved the main hallway. Below, the floor of the bullring lay adorned by a star pattern of cobblestones and turf. In the former bleachers stood picnic tables and parasols and hulking planters spilling over with red-orange geraniums. The 53 guest rooms were arranged around a courtyard on the ring's periphery, each stocked with hand-painted furniture and a fireplace, most overlooking a fountain _ most, to answer your foremost question, fetching $165 nightly.

Its prices put the Quinta Real among the most costly properties in the country. But if any lodging in Mexico matches the novelty, drama, adaptive design and attentive service of the place, I'd be surprised. If there were a pool and tennis courts, and if there weren't Muzak versions of Country Roads and Tiny Bubbles seeping into the dining room during dinner, I'd say the place was ideal.

In any event, those whose budget doesn't have room for $165-a-night lodgings have an easy option: Stay elsewhere for one-half or one-fourth as much, and stroll up to the Quinta Real around sunset for dinner or a drink.

And do make time to stroll across the street to lush Cerro de Alicia Park, which has a bandstand and the inspiring view of yet another pink stone church tower, Our Lady of Fatima, a few blocks farther to the south. The park figures prominently in the fine regional custom of the callejoneada:

Usually on a Friday or Saturday night, someone hires a marching band, provides for large amounts of alcoholic drinks, and over ensuing hours traces a route through the city streets, singing, laughing, sometimes disrupting traffic.

Some cities, including Guanajuato, post signs designating official callejoneada routes, and some organizers hire mules to carry their alcohol. The processions usually begin and end at a city landmark _ in the case of Zacatecas, in Cerro de Alicia Park.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Zacatecas' La Calera Airport is about 17 miles east of town. Mexicana Airlines offers a nonstop Los Angeles-Zacatecas flight with restricted fares beginning at about $330 (but it leaves at 12:15 a.m. PST and arrives in Zacatecas at 5 a.m.). Taesa and Mexicana airlines fly nonstop Tijuana-Zacatecas daily (restricted fares, about $165 round trip).

Where to stay: Quinta Real Zacatecas (Rayon 434; from U.S. telephones, (800) 445-4565 or 011-52-492- 291-04); 53 rooms, restaurant, bar, spacious public rooms, no pool, tennis or golf; double, $165 nightly.

Radisson Paraiso Hotel Zacatecas (Ave. Miguel Hidalgo 703; phone (800) 333-3333 or 011-52-492-261-83, fax 011-52-492-262-45). Opened in 1989 across street from Cathedral and Plaza de Armas; 115 clean, simple rooms, restaurant, bar; double, $94 nightly.

Hotel Posada La Moneda (Ave. Miguel Hidalgo 413; phone 011-52-492-208-81). On the main drag; 36 somewhat weathered rooms, restaurant; double, $40.

For more information: Contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 128 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134; (305) 443-9160 or (800) 44-MEXICO.

Los Angeles Times photo by ANACLETO RAPPING

SKY-HIGH: From atop Cerro de Bufa, the "teleferico" overlooks the city of Zacatecas.

Up next:TODAY'S QUIZ

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