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The long and winding road to Cuetzalan: well worth the trip

overcast 18 °C

I think we could get lost in a crowd of three. Leaving Puebla was supposed to be easy, but somehow we missed a sign and found ourselves on the road to Tlaxcala, which was about a 2-hour detour to our ultimate destination, and not a scenic one at that. No matter - we shrug off such inconveniences as being "adventures." Little did we know that the mountain road to Cuetzalan was the real adventure. High up into the Sierra Madre Orientals we went. The road twisted and bucked and climbed and swooped down again - with great numbers of potholes thrown in for good measure.


Some of the mountain roads aren't great, but they're a real experience to drive. You have to pay attention, but they are exhilarating. We couldn't capture the many layers of the mountains as we drove around hairpin turns - no place to pull over to take photos, and no safe place to simply stop. These remote roads turn up some remarkable sights and elicit many questions - most of them unanswerable, such as: " Who lives up here?" "Are there schools? " (We see women and children walking on the road.)


After we had driven for an hour or so, and passed through a number of small settlements with ragged dogs, tin shacks and roadside chickens, we came upon this remarkable sight. To whom did this handsome car belong? A lovingly customized VW in the middle of nowhere - it seems as unlikely as a spaceship.


We arrived in Cuetzalan, and once again were set upon by a small army of young boys determined to "guide" us to our hotel. Perhaps we looked like we could use the help. We hadn't booked ahead, and eventually, after driving slowly up and down steep one-way streets, we stopped at Meson Yohualichan. Cuetzalan is a Pueblo Magico (a designation that is handed out like candy it seems, but is intended to suggest that a town has particular cultural, artistic, architectural, historical or geographical significance). In this case, it certainly fits -it is a photogenic town that is frozen in time.

Steep, twisting streets are paved in broad, shiny stone.


Most of the population is indigenous, with 70% speaking Nahuatl. While many women dress in traditional garb - white blouses and
skirts with colourful sashes, most residents are in more modern dress - and cellphones have found their way to this remote town. As we arrived, the market in the zocalo was wrapping up, but a few vendors still remained.


Two staples of every plaza - young lovers and old men


The other staples of every zocalo - the cathedral and the municipal office. Cuetzalan's town centre is picture - postcard perfect - stone steps leading to the square in the middle and two sides ringed with shops, cafes and flower stalls. Every Sunday this area is filled with market vendors from neighbouring villages, which unfortunately we will miss.


In such a traditional town, we were surprised to discover Cafe Epocha D'oro - a combination restaurant/museum with a young clientele. The food was great and the beer was cold, and we started to settle in to the feel of the place.


Dozens of birds chirped away outside, flitting from tree to tree in the zocalo and this was the view from our table-side window.


The next day, we drove out to Las Brisas, a waterfall that is one of a series of falls in the area - about a 20-minute drive away. The Cuetzalan region is geared to outdoor activities: we could have rappelled waterfalls, zip-lined, ridden horseback, or climbed down into caves, but we stuck to a more sedate pursuit - hiking. Once we left the "main" road, the signs for Las Brisas pointed us down a road so narrow, we thought there must be a mistake. We had missed a sign again! But no, we were on the right track, although our small car barely squeezed through.


We arrived and began our descent - down hundreds of steps to the bottom.


As waterfalls go, this one was underwhelming, but we waded in the cold water and admired the view. Those large hanging things that look like long cactus are actually petrified water formations.


We discovered this information from the very charming family that arrived shortly after us, along with their young son and triplet daughters. Steve could not resist taking their photo in black and white - they struck us as being so old-fashioned, with their identical side-parted bobs. I know I had a little coat like that as a child. Once again, we remarked on how well-behaved their kids were - which is almost always the case with Mexican children out in public. The parents and proud nonna kept a watchful eye, but chatted among themselves, and let them be.


On the way back, before we hit the stairs, we stopped for a break by the creek.


Another gorgeous shot from Cuetzalan's rooftops. Apparently this region gets one of the biggest rainfall amounts on Earth and tons of fog, so we were very lucky to get the weather we did. As you can see from the folds of mountain ranges, Cuetzalan is quite isolated.


Because of that isolation, many of the prehispanic traditions remain unchanged, including language, clothing and dance. The two most famous dances are practiced here on special holidays. These paintings by local artist Gregorio Mendoz Nava capture their costumes. The Dance of Quetzales is related to the stars and the moon, and dancers wear the penoche - the magnificent headdresses made of bamboo, metallic papers and feathers.


The Dance of the Voladores originated in this region, but it is performed in many areas of Mexico - many of you may have seen it. Dancers climb a very tall pole, attach rope to themselves, and begin their descent upside down, spinning in complicated patterns. There are so many rituals and beliefs attached to this dance, it has been deemed to have "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO.


Cuetzalan is a major coffee-growing region, and there is a local cooperative that supplies most of the town's beans. We tried to go to a nearby coffee plantation, but it was not clear if visits were permitted, so we contented ourselves with chatting with this gentleman, who was grinding beans the old-fashioned way.


Today we visited the Jardin Botanico, in nearby Xoxoctic. We were guided through by the knowledgeable and friendly Raoul, who is a Nahuatl native, and very proud of his work with the plants. He went to school for his training, but as he said to us, "I learned most of what I know right here." The garden is huge, and its specialities are orchids, bromeliads, coffee and spices - impossible to take it all in - it took us about an hour to get through.

Ginny and Stephen on the trail, with Cuetzalan in the background.


Raoul in front of a stand of bamboo - they typically grow about 100 feet a year.


A bromeliad and some unusual plants - I've forgotten the names, but I've never seen them in Canadian nurseries.


Coffee beans and flower - the scent of the flower is intoxicating. The next plant is vanilla - the pods will mature in spring.


Raoul demonstrating how cinnamon is carved off its stalk, and then dried to the pieces of whole cinnamon we are familiar with back home.


The all-important Mexican meliposa bees - we walked through a swarm of them without incident - they do not sting.


Whew! Such a vibrant mountain life in Cuetzalan - a compelling example of an area and culture in Mexico that has managed to preserve its way of life from the past to present. We leave tomorrow for Tepotzlan, a town just south of Mexico City. After such a whirlwind visit, it's time for a siesta.


Posted by millerburr 14:38 Archived in Mexico

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You've sold me on a visit to this community! Now, if I can just get myself to travel to other parts of Mexico than Oaxaca! I did that for years, mostly by bus, and a few plane flights included when necessary, for just a few weeks each summer when I wasn't teaching. Then I fell in love with Oaxaca and stopped my other wanderings. You've rekindled my traveling interest! Gracias :)

by Marilyn Horn

I love reading these posts. You're very brave to explore such a remote area on your own. It sounds like you're having a wonderful adventure.

by Patrick Ward

I think after your experiences driving in Mexico you could drive just about anywhere! As for Cuetzalan, I love the fact that it has managed, at least in part, to preserve its way of life - something that is becoming more rare these days.

by Heather Scott

OMGosh! I feel I'm riding on your shoulders, eyes and ears tingling!

by Carol Martin

Thanks for the escape from snow and slush...your pictures and descriptive are an elixir.

by Nanc

I am a bit carsick after reading your blog -and full of admiration for your courage. I think Jon would be game to drive those mountain roads but I am even leery of being a passenger. However you have convinced me to give Mexico another try -maybe far from the madding crowd. Was charmed by this pueblo -your photos certainly did it justice.

by linda ogle

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