A Weekend in the ‘Magic Town’ of Cuetzalan
It took me four years of living in Mexico to visit Cuetzalan, but it was worth the wait — and the winding, three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to get there from the Puebla capital. The tiny town, carved into a mountainside in the state’s Sierra Norte, is surrounded by natural beauty: Its thick tropical forests conceal waterfalls, grottos, and coffee plantations. And, although the area is frequently blanketed by the clouds, mist, rain, or fog typical of the region, on clear days visitors can see for miles across the gorgeous peaks and valleys that stretch east toward the Veracruz border.
I arrived at the Cuetzalan bus station early on a sunny October afternoon and walked down the town’s steep cobblestone streets toward its main square. After admiring the view — wow — and wandering around a bit to get my bearings, I checked into Hotel El Encuentro (Av. Hidalgo #34), which appeared clean, seemed safe, and cost an affordable 320 pesos ($24) per night. It turns out that the group that runs the hotel also operates the Xoxocitc Botanical Garden, which maintains orchid, heliconia, and butterfly gardens, as well as a collection of endangered tree ferns. After stowing my bag, I set out to find lunch and to explore what makes Cuetzalan one of Mexico’s longest-running “magic towns,” or pueblos mágicos.
I ordered a plate of chicken enchiladas at Mesón Don Chon, and it would have been a lovely meal had I not been badgered by countless vendors who wandered in off the street. They were relentless, so I ate quickly and returned to the main square. I checked out the massive Parroquía de San Francisco de Asis, which took 200 years to build and decorate (1790-1990) and, perhaps because it was finished so recently, boasts a vibrant interior that seems wonderfully ostentatious for a church founded by Franciscans. As I took it all in from the front pew, I decided that any house of worship that could successfully incorporate a grapevine motif into its altar decor was OK by me. Shortly thereafter, I met up with my travel-savvy friend Freda. We grabbed a beer at the retro-kitschy Café Época de Oro, a restaurant that also serves as a museum of coins, antiques, and movie posters from the golden age of Mexican cinema. According to the newspaper Sierranorte, owner Oscar Rubén Rivera Dáttoli is not only a meticulous collector, but also quite a local character who plays 17 musical instruments and likes to write and act in Vaudeville skits.
The café offers an excellent view of the main square, but we were drawn outside by the high-pitched flute sounds of the voladores. These “flyers” dress in colorful costumes (which are traditional except for the tourism-board shirts), scurry up a tree trunk that’s at least 60 feet tall, and then — tied by their ankles to ropes wound around the tree — jump off as if they were scuba diving in mid-air, backward and head-first. Four people soar around the tree as the rope unwinds, while a fifth person dances on a tiny platform at its top. The impressive, death-defying ritual expresses people’s harmony with, and respect for, the natural and spiritual worlds. Although its precise origins are unknown (and hotly debated), its importance to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was recognized by UNESCO in 2009.
We strolled around town a bit more, peeking inside churches, hotels, and the cultural center, before capping off the evening with, well, a nightcap. We sampled a shot of yolixpa, a locally made herbal liquor with a strong anise-like flavor, and then washed it down with some tequila at Bar El Calate (Morelos #9B).
On Sunday morning, I got up early to go to the weekly market. Nibbling on a freshly made hotcake from a street vendor, I carefully negotiated the steep steps and bustling walkways. The market occupies the entire main square and flows into the adjacent avenues, beckoning buyers with ripe papayas and melons, recently butchered pig heads, shaved tree sap for starting fires, and delicate jewelry made from seeds and beans. One particular decorative bean — nicknamed vaquita for its black-and-white spots that resemble a dairy cow’s — also happens to be delicious when boiled with garlic and bay leaves. So my search for a bag of these beans began and, with the help of a young mom who knew her way around the market, it ended successfully, and I bought a necklace from her as a thank-you.
Travel tip: Bring walking shoes. Your calves are going to get a workout while traversing Cuetzalan.
A few hours later, after hauling our bags up to the bus station and leaving them in storage, we hired a Mototaxi by the hour to take us to a few spots outside of Cuetzalan, including the ruins at Yohualichan and the waterfalls Las Brisas and El Salto. Yohualichan is a village and archaeological site about 5.5 miles outside of Cuetzalan that’s reachable via a rustic, bumpy road. The first people here were the Totonacs, who built the site’s houses, ceremonial buildings, and ball court between 400 and 800 A.D. The temples paid tribute to water and forest animals. According to legend and the INAH’s sign, the Totonacs also constructed the pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan and El Tajín. Yohualichan was subsequently occupied by Toltecs, Chichimecas, and Nahuas, who ransacked the previous settlements and re-purposed the materials to erect their own buildings, some of which still exist today.
Off an even rougher (unfinished) road closer to Cuetzalan, our intrepid driver-cum-guide led us on a hike to two of the area’s waterfalls. Although the path was narrow, muddy, and filled with tree roots, rocks, and other obstacles, I managed it in slip-on shoes, with a helping hand when the going got rough. After about 15 minutes, we were rewarded with an almost-private glimpse of the Las Brisas and El Salto waterfalls. We’d hiked to the middle, putting us at the top of one and the bottom of one, where, if we’d planned ahead, we could have taken a dip in the pool. Another tourist jumped in wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and I shuddered to think of the chafing on his hike back to the road. I decided to stay dry. We hiked back out and made it back to town in time to grab lemonade and a torta for the 4 p.m. bus. —Rebecca Smith Hurd
Cuetzalan is located about 110 miles northeast of the city of Puebla. The Vía bus line, operated by ADO, offers frequent departures seven days a week from the main bus station, CAPU. Tickets can be purchased at the station or online from Ticketbus (in Spanish only). To get there by car, take the Puebla-Orizaba highway (150D) to Amozoc, exiting onto the toll road toward Perote (140D). From 140D, head north on federal highway 129 toward Zaragoza to 575. Follow 575 through Zacapoaxtla to Cuetzalan.