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A silver lining in Taxco

Colonial Taxco, a charming old mining town nestled high in the Sierra Madre Mountains about 100 miles southeast of Mexico City, is called Silver City.

Its citizens say 19 of 20 doors in town lead to platerias, or silver shops. That's an exaggeration, but Taxco (pronounced TAHS-ko) boasts more than 100 shops selling bracelets, bangles, jewelry, belt buckles, baskets, goblets, handbags, tea sets, vases, platters and other objects, all handcrafted from silver.

These shops surround Plaza Borda, Taxco's main square, and line the narrow cobblestone streets that wind through town and into the hills.

Bougainvillea blossoms cascade from balconies and terraced gardens, creating fields of purples and pinks against orange tile roofs. The profusion of color is a sightseer's delight, but Taxco's real luster is from its silver.

Taxco's silver industry pre-dates the conquest. Indians were taking silver from the Sierra Madre Mountains long before the Spanish arrived. Hernando Cortes founded Taxco as a mining base in 1522, and conquistadors came in great numbers to take silver home to Spain.

Taxco quickly became one of Spain's colonial crossroads. It also became an important stop on trade routes that brought luxury goods from the Orient to Europe _ by sea from Asian ports to Acapulco, over land via Taxco and Mexico City to Veracruz, then across the Atlantic to Spain.

Mine owners poured money back into the town, building mansions and ornate public buildings that turned Taxco into a treasury of colonial architecture. The gem is Santa Prisca Church, a baroque structure of carved stone. Inside are magnificent carved wooden altars of figurines, foliage and molding _ all gilded in 20-karat gold.

Santa Prisca's patron, Jose de la Borda _ for whom Taxco's main square is named _ owned the area's richest mine. When he built the church in 1759, he said it was in gratitude for his good fortune. It's opulence indicates just how good his fortune was.

Silver-mine productivity gradually declined, along with the town. Taxco was more or less ignored for a century, its colonial charm preserved fairly much in tact. Today, the town is a national historical monument, and its colonial appearance is protected by law.

In the 1930s, Taxco's fortunes rose when William Sprattling, an American silversmith, set up shop. He used traditional Indian motifs to make modern-looking jewelry, as well as silver platters and serving sets with rosewood handles. Sprattling also trained local craftsmen who eventually opened their own workshops.

Sprattling's pieces are now extremely expensive and rarely on the market. A collection is on display at the Sprattling Museum behind Santa Prisca Church. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

When fine silver is mentioned, the name Los Hermanos Castillo is bound to come up. You can visit the brothers' workshop and showroom in the center of town. Prices range from those that fit in with most travelers' budgets to hundreds of dollars for the more intricate items such as trays. Names of others well known for their designs in silver include Enrique Ledezma, Sigi Pineda, Salvador Teran and Antonio Pineda.

It's hard to resist buying silver, but the abundance of shops can cause confusion for tourists, especially because prices and quality vary on designs that look similar. When you shop, beware of unrealistic bargains. Also, beware of tour guides who sometimes deliver tourists to shops in exchange for generous commissions.

Make sure items you select are stamped "sterling" or ".925." Check that fastenings and hinges are well made, and get a receipt describing your purchase.

IF YOU GO

Tour operators offer trips from Mexico City to Taxco, some stopping in Cuernavaca or Acapulco, about 170 miles south of Taxco. Book tours through U.S. travel agents. For additional travel information, contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 128 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134, (305) 443-9160.

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