Mexico's colonial silver-mining cities -- San Miguel, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas -- lie northwest of Mexico City in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental. These cities have colonial settings with backdrops of rugged mountains, an ideal climate, local handicrafts, good food, and many memorable vistas.

These cities are close to the Mexican capital by modern standards, but at the time of their founding, this land was the frontier. In pre-Columbian times, the great civilizations of central Mexico never established more than a tenuous sway here. Mountainous and arid, this was the land of the Chichimeca, a large nation of nomadic tribes that occasionally banded together to raid their civilized neighbors to the south. After the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521, the conquistadors turned their attention to this region in search of precious metals. The Chichimecans resisted the encroachers, but epidemic diseases brought from Europe soon decimated the native population. The Spanish established mining cities in quick succession, stretching from Querétaro (established in 1531) north to Zacatecas (1548) and beyond. They found quantities of gold, but silver proved so plentiful that it made Mexico world famous as a land of riches.

For 3 centuries of colonial rule, much of the mines' great wealth went to build urban centers of impressive, enduring architecture. It's wonderful to stroll through these cities and view them, not one building at a time, but in broad views of colonial cityscapes. Of the five cities, four (Guanajuato, Querétaro, Zacatecas, and San Miguel) have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Life in this part of the world is lived at a relaxed pace. If you're of a disposition to handle matters quickly and get things done, try to slow down or you might get frustrated with this region's slower rhythms. Also, these cities have intimate and close-knit societies. Many people have ancestors who lived here at least a century ago, and they maintain a broad network of kinfolk, friends, and acquaintances. I've walked down streets with locals who would greet every third or fourth person we passed. Often I've had conversations in which I mention someone from a completely different context, only to hear something like, "Oh, he's married to my cousin."

Public Security -- This region of Mexico has largely avoided the violence and mayhem that is occurring in other areas. Travel to these five cities doesn't expose one to heightened risks or the potential disruptions caused by gang conflicts. During the last 2 years there were a few high-profile assassinations and kidnappings in the area, but not the repeated attacks that disrupt the daily life of residents or make them fearful for their safety. Of course, reliable information on the number of kidnappings and extortion cases is notoriously difficult to come by, but one can gauge how bad things are by tapping into the local gossip and by reading the unofficial statements in the local press. When concerns for safety reach a certain point, they find expression, but this was by and large not the case in early 2011. Travelers should still take the usual precautions, especially when driving on the highway. And they need to be aware of recent events, but they don't need to avoid this area on account of what's happening in other parts of the country.