A Travellerspoint blog

Tlacotalpan: The "unknown" UNESCO World Heritage site

semi-overcast 35 °C


We read about this little town, and thought it sounded perfect. Situated on a river near the Gulf of Mexico, and just south of the bustle of steamy Veracruz, it seemed ideal to visit for a couple of days as we begin our drive north. As we turned off the highway and headed toward town, we were stuck behind endless convoys of trucks hauling basket-style carriers of sugar cane. Earlier we had passed big smokestacks - turns out they are sugar refineries.


Tlacotalpan had been slated to be the premier trading port on the Gulf coast; by 1821 it had established trade routes with New Orleans, Havana and Bordeaux. Its position on the Papaloapan River was strategic: it was easy to defend from pirate attack, and was successfully defended from the French. It became prosperous, with fine homes, several public squares, three stately churches, and a theatre.


Then, in 1905 the railway bypassed Tlacotalpan for Veracruz, and all commerce stopped. The town has withered economically, and after a number of hurricanes and floods, including a particularly disastrous one in 2010, the area is one of the poorest in Veracruz state. The main economic activity now is sugar cane, cattle ranching and the tourism brought on after UNESCO gave the entire town a World Heritage site designation in 1998.


So where are the tourists? In Mexico, a UNESCO or Pueblo Magico designation is usually money in the bank. For some reason, this little town has not drawn in the throngs of tourists that would help bring it out of the doldrums. We can't figure it out - there is easy proximity to Veracruz, to Gulf beaches, and to a well-paved toll road leading to other major centres. There is not a lot going on here, but that is a chicken and egg conundrum - until the money starts rolling in, there will be little investment in making this a more interesting destination.

We think we are the only tourists here. We don't even know where the residents are - streets are empty, restaurants are empty, but for one or two tables, there are few cars. When we walk by, people stare. They must think we're lost. Even the sleeping dogs lifted their heads to have a look.


The tourist police, on the other hand, were very happy to see us. There appears to be four of them, and they ride around town on bicycles. Two of them stopped us to talk, and then we spent the rest of the day waving at them as we wandered about.


We booked our room at La Casa de la Luz, a two-storey guesthouse, owned by a gentleman from San Francisco, who has just sold this property, is retiring and moving to Oaxaca. Our suite is beautiful and spacious - Bill has figured out how to combine turquoise, purple, red, pink, green and yellow on one space and make it pop. I'm inspired for some painting projects once we're home again. This is Bill's guesthouse - reminds me of my dream home in New Orleans.


The architectural designs of the homes are very tropical - they would be just as easily found in the Caribbean islands as in Mexico. Most of them are quite modest, one-storey homes, but what makes them distinctive are the bright colours, tile roofs, and broad colonnades that connect some of the homes to one another. It is possible to walk several blocks under the protective shade of these buildings. These three photos are a mix of stores, hotels and private homes, all located on the main street by the river.




Yesterday, we headed out to explore the town. Tlacotalpan is not large and runs along the river in a grid pattern, with the main churches and plazas set back one street, and the river road lined with small restaurants. Houses run back from the river, east and west according to economic status.



As soon as we found our way to the river, we were approached by Capitán Ricardo, who wanted the honour of taking us on a tour in his flat-bottomed boat with canopy. In spite of the fact that he spoke not one word of English, we managed to understand quite a bit, and he talked constantly.


The Papaloapan River has a feel of the Mississippi to it - broad, deep, murky and spilling out to the Gulf. Ricardo encouraged us to taste the water - "dulce" - sweet, and it was. Not sure I'd want to drink a glass, but it was surprisingly tasty. He steered upriver first, and pointed out the fancy summer homes of various families by name, as though we'd know them.


Fishermen catch blue crabs, sea bass, lake trout, mojarra, shrimp and grouper in the river, and there are a large number of birds in this habitat as well. We saw a couple of fantastic huge birds, called Saint-Martins, with vivid pink beaks and legs and blue feathers, but alas, no photos. We did catch this white heron, not as dramatic, but still beautiful.


We crossed over to continue our tour downstream. This side of the river leads to the haciendas, but we had signed on for the shorter tour, so we saw just glimpses from the boat. This small house is part of a hacienda operation further back.


Cattle ranching is very big business in this area. Today we saw a massive feedlot about half an hour out of town - it ran for a kilometre along the highway and as far back as the eye could see. I was mouth-breathing for the duration - imagine thousands of cattle (and their waste) in 35 degree heat. These happy cows have not met that fate yet.


As we swung back toward shore, the houses changed again - from summer homes to shacks.


This stark contrast in fortune is common throughout Mexico. But this area has a high percentage of residents in "dire poverty", and these homes bear that out.



There are some very fine buildings as well - the Teatro Netzahualcoytl is a great example. After the flood of 2010, water rose in this theatre to the stage. It has since been restored to its full glory, and is back in operation as an active theatre.



Today, we had planned to take a circle tour - drive over to a waterfall, then head up to the Gulf beaches, and back down again to town. Luckily for us, when we stopped at a small store to buy water, the woman asked us where we were going, and warned us to stay away from the road to the beaches, because there were roadblocks and the police were involved. She assured us the waterfall was fine. We were very grateful, because we would otherwise have driven a long way out of our way.

We already knew we would have to pay a "donation" to have our car watched at the waterfall parking lot, but we had no idea that we would be pounced upon at least four or five times on the highway. The strategy is simple - fasten a rope across the road where there is a tope ( the speed bumps that force drivers to stop). Pull up the rope and ask the driver for money. We paid out a couple of times - 10 pesos each time, and refused the other two times.

Parking lots are a different story. If you are interested in returning to find your car, tires and paint job intact, you treat it as a simple parking fee. Today we were approached by three young men and one older man, who asked Stephen for 20 pesos as he pulled up and parked. He negotiated to 10 pesos, which, surprisingly, they accepted with good humour. They joked with him, and he thanked them for taking good care of our car, and we headed down toward the waterfall. These men who have nothing and no power in the world, have the ability to make our lives very difficult. The strange thing is, we knew our car would be fine. Stephen has mastered the art of being calm and respectful and unruffled, and it always works out. They all waved at us as we returned to leave.

The waterfall is not half as wide, nor as high as Niagara, but still made a powerful impact. It is called El Salto de Eyipantla; reached by climbing down (and back up) 250 steps. Naturally, you hear it before you see it - and as we got closer, the cold spray was very welcome.


The vegetation around this area is so tangled and voluptuous, with vines and flowers and glossy leaves, and dozens of butterflies flitting about.


We leave tomorrow morning to go to our second-to-last destination in Mexico. We're heading to Xalapa , home of the jalapeno pepper, as well as a magnificent museum of anthropology, a huge eco-park, and a vibrant downtown scene, thanks to the university there. Also - cooler temperatures as we climb back into the mountains. We'll be there for three nights - talk again soon.

I'll leave you with a photo that sums up Tlacotalpan for me - pretty, sleepy, tied to the river.


Posted by millerburr 14:57 Archived in Mexico

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


I enjoyed the photos and am glad you explored this town and shared your findings with us. A mix of beauty, history, poverty, lawlessness, and kindness.

by Patrick Ward

Really enjoying your most informative dialogues!!! Keep them coming. I feel like I'm there!


by Carol Martin

Here's the church, here's the steeple but where's all the people.

by Robert

Such beauty and so few people to appreciate it. What a shame. Thanks to you though, we got a chance.

by Heather

Fascinating, Ginny. I think you will have to blog about the contrasts of Gabriola when you return! Always a treat to read you.

by Shelagh

But then I'd have to move...

by millerburr

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.