Archive for the ‘Explore’ Category« Older Entries |
Saturday, March 29th, 2014
This guest post was written by Margie Hord de Méndez, a Canadian expat who grew up in Honduras and has lived in Mexico for the past 40 years. She lives and works, as a teacher and a translator, in Puebla.
I’ve never seen San Baltazar Atlimeyaya mentioned in a tourist guidebook, which is unfortunate, because this sleepy mountain town makes for an easy, lovely day trip from the Puebla capital. Although one can pass through the city of Atlixco to get there, by trial and error we found it was faster to take the Cuautla turnoff (Siglo XXI) from Highway 190, which avoids quite a few twists and turns on small roads. If you’re lucky, you can catch some great views of the majestic Popocatépetl volcano as you grow closer and closer in proximity.
The next town to look for—about 5 km from Atlixco—is Metepec. Its Centro Vacacional y de Convenciones is a government-owned recreational center with a hotel, camping areas, sport fishing, swimming pools, and quadricycles for rent. Previously a hacienda that produced textiles, its late 19th-century architecture reflects its interesting history; guided tours of its Industrial Worker Museum are available in Spanish. From there, the same narrow main road, or camino vecinal, winds up into the hills toward Atlimeyaya. Lost? Head for the fake, graffiti-covered UFO on one little hill.
Entering Atlimeyaya, follow the signs to the giant ahuehuete tree, an ancient specimen of the conifer (the water-loving Montezuma cypress), which you can pay a small fee (10 or 15 MXP) to visit, just a minute’s walk from the entrance. Nearby, you’ll find springs of delicious cold water, which comes from the snow melting on the volcano. A sign declares that a chemist has declared the water very pure, but if you decide to drink from it, do so at your own risk—and before it reaches the troughs where donkeys and horses quench their thirst. Love horses? You can ride for half an hour or longer around the main roads, with a guide helping you if you wish. The dirt road continues into the foothills, but if you head further up the volcano, be aware that herds of goats and sheep frequently occupy the road, making progress slow.
Just before the ahuehuete, a road to the right that leads to a corridor of restaurants, which allow both indoor and—most popular—outdoor eating options. Choose one, such as La Cascada, near a flowing stream that splashes along in a canal. If you’re young or young at heart, you may enjoy swinging like Tarzan on the ropes over the stream or sticking your feet into the icy water. Keep a close eye on anyone who doesn’t swim. Most restaurants also have dry playgrounds for children.
Topping the list of favorite dishes in the area is responsibly farmed local trout. You can fish for your own nearby and pay to have it cleaned and prepared. Or you can simply order the day’s catch from the menu, either fried or empapelado (steamed in aluminum foil), with tempting flavors such as garlic, almond, or chile. Handmade tortillas help to round out an excellent meal. The fish comes from the adjacent Xouilin trout farm, where you can visit the raceways of royal, rainbow, and salmon trout in various stages of development as they splash around in the 13 degrees Celsius runoff from the volcano. An information center periodically offers videos that educate both children and adults. Admission is 15 pesos for adults and 5 pesos for kids. You can also purchase and take home extremely fresh fish (100 to 120 MXP per kilo); bring an ice chest if you plan to do so.
When you go, don’t be fooled by the fact that everyone will tell you Atlixco is always “a few degrees warmer” than the city of Puebla. Atlimeyaya is situated at a higher elevation (nearly 2,200 meters above sea level) and tends to be cooler, so bring a jacket or a wrap just in case. Mosquito repellent is a good idea, too. —Margie Hord de Méndez
To get to San Baltazar Atlimeyaya, 43 kilometers from the city of Puebla, head in the direction of Atlixco on the Atlixcáyotl toll road. You’ll find a Google map here.
Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
Fly-fishing probably isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when you think of Mexico, and even if it is, you’re most likely to imagine catching saltwater species such as bonefish or tarpon or snook off the shores of Quintana Roo. But anglers who prefer cooler climes and freshwater catches can find several attractive options here in the state of Puebla.
I know this not because am a fly-fishing expert — I’m merely a Pisces — but because my husband, Pablo, is a longtime enthusiast who has spent many, many hours casting and retrieving in regional lakes and streams. He even ties his own flies. The places he typically goes are so lovely that I sometimes tag along just to enjoy the scenery, often packing a camera, a book or a magazine, a picnic breakfast or lunch, and a blanket or a camping chair to sit on.
Pablo’s favorite spot is Amatzcalli, a recreational area that’s nestled behind the vacation and convention center in Metepec-Atlixco. On a clear, sunny day like those we’ve been enjoying lately, the views are stunning (all photos, this page). The small, privately run park offers both spinning and fly-fishing, as well as camping, picnic areas, and a playground for kids. A bait and tackle shop sells and rents gear and day permits for its man-made lake, which is stocked mostly with farm-raised brown and rainbow trout and sometimes black bass, bluegill, and white crappie. The on-site convenience store and restaurant sell beer, snacks, and sundries (or you may bring your own).
The park entrance fee is 55 pesos per person, with discounts for kids and seniors. Fishing permits are either 30 pesos plus 95 pesos per kilo (2.2 pounds) of fish caught or 285 pesos for catch and release (fly-fishing only). Gear rental and fish gutting/cleaning cost extra. The trout is locally and organically farmed up the road at Xouilin, which offers recipes on its website, in case you end up with more fish than you bargained for! To get to Amatzcalli from Puebla, take the toll road to Atlixco and, just before you get there, exit at Autopista Siglo XXI as if you’re heading to Cuernavaca; here’s a map.
A bit further afield, the Ex-Hacienda de Chautla and Arco Iris Sport Fishing are ideal spots for anglers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
When we have more time (which isn’t as often as we’d like), or when there’s a fishing tournament, we head farther out of town, although both of these destinations are also close enough to the state capital for day trips.
The Ex-Hacienda de Chautla, located near San Martín Texmelucan, occupies the grounds of a former estate and offers two large, glassy lakes for trout and bass fishing. Companions who don’t fish can rent a canoe, go zip-lining or mountain biking, or simply take a stroll around the lush grounds and visit the old hacienda and castle. Tents are available for camping, too. (For a list of services and prices, click here.)
Arco Iris Sport Fishing, located near the Mexico state line and on the edge of the volcanoes national park, is one of the few places in Puebla where river fishing is safe and legal. (It also has a well-stocked lake surrounded by forest.) Although Arco Iris caters to anglers, the site hosts a variety of other outdoor activities for the family, such as hiking, horseback riding, paintball, and miniature golf. Cabins that sleep up to six adults and two kids are available for overnight stays, and two restaurants and a spa with a temezcal help to “pamper” guests who aren’t big on cookouts and camping. (For more info and prices, click here.)
Need supplies? All three spots sell and rent gear on-site, but if you’d prefer to bring your own, Pablo recommends stocking up at Jamboree Hunting and Fishing (spinning) or Torreblanca/Narak Sport (fly-fishing). —Rebecca Smith Hurd
Tuesday, November 19th, 2013
This is a guest post by Margie Hord de Méndez, a Canadian expat who grew up in Honduras and has lived in Mexico for the past 40 years. She lives and works, as a teacher and a translator, in Puebla.
La Mixteca is a mostly arid zone in the southern part of the state of Puebla, where many communities still speak Mixtec, although Popoloca and Nahuatl are also prevalent. It’s not the kind of place I’d choose to live, because it’s known for scorpions, and at certain times of the year the dry heat can be oppressive. However, my husband’s family is from La Mixteca, and the region — which stretches into Oaxaca and Guerrero — has its own kind of surprising beauty, like the bright pink blossoms of the árboles de cabello (ginkgo biloba trees), with their hanging tresses, in winter. Near the rivers, some of which only have water part of the time, one can find the treasures of mango and other fruit trees.
One seldom sees international tourists in La Mixteca, but there are numerous sites of interest. Acatlán de Osorio is well-known for its pottery, especially figures of the sun and the moon and “trees of life” that represent Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Near Tehuacán, the biosphere reserve offers a wealth of ecological diversity; it includes the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollis, a fascinating garden where one can wander around and learn about the surprising variety of cacti and other desert flora and their medicinal or hallucinogenic properties. There is even a huge, ancient elephant’s foot tree (some 2,500 years old!). The species is considered sacred in Japan, and a Japanese prince is said to have had his ashes deposited here.
In Tepexi de Rodríguez, the Museo Regional Mixteco-Tlayúa displays fossils found in a nearby marble quarry, including marine animals, providing evidence that there was once an ocean in this desert. Previously, the site was known as pie de vaca (cow’s foot) museum, because of preserved footprints similar to those of cows, but experts now know they were left by now-extinct mammals related to camels. Though small and unassuming, this museum is important because of its fish and reptile fossils from the Mesozoic period.
Another sign of long-gone oceans is Zapotitlán Salinas, located in the biosphere, where salt water springs. The water is left to pool until it evaporates and the salt can be harvested. In a shop on the federal highway (125 from Tehuacán), we found artisanal bags of salt with different herbs or flavors, like garlic, added. The store also offered burnished pottery from nearby Los Reyes Metzontla, which is crafted by the Popoloca community using pre-Colombian techniques and has a unique, unadorned style.
On the way south, along the Puebla-Tepeaca highway (federal 150), is a turn-off that leads to the town of Molcaxac. A few kilometers beyond the town, it’s easy to miss the dilapidated signs indicating the way to the Cola de Caballo (Horsetail) waterfall and the Puente de Dios (God’s Bridge, pictured above), further down the Atoyac River. At the latter, visitors may park and, on foot, begin the long descent down hundreds of steps to the river below. Gradually, the climate seems to change and the heat dissipates, especially once you reach on the banks that flank the chilly currents. Large boulders strewn about make the path rather daunting, but they’re worth navigating to reach the Puente de Dios, a combination of huge arch, cave, and a sort of tunnel through which the river runs. Noisy birds swoop down into the canyon, adding to the magical feeling of a beautiful oasis of icy water in an otherwise arid area.
We also visited the nearby town of Huatlatlauca, where we understood there were still Nahuatl speakers. We came across a very old church, closed up except for the bell tower. It had the simple facade of an earlier Colonial church, but one could see vestiges of painted flowers that seem to have covered it at one point. Our son and his wife ventured up into the bell tower, a great place for photos, and she dared to pull on the bell rope. Ding! Fortunately, there were no repercussions, even though church bells can be used to sound an alarm, and outsiders’ meddling with them is generally unwelcome. This was on a dirt backroad, and we spoke to a middle-aged woman as she passed us. She said that the church was built by Augustinian monks. We asked whether there was a crafts shop in the town. No, people just keep their handicrafts at home and transport them to other towns to sell on special occasions. After we told her we were interested in her family’s creations, she escorted us to her home, where la abuelita (the grandmother, who spoke Nahuatl) worked away at weaving palm fronds into tiny figures.
In the past, we learned, artisans would go down into holes in the ground to weave, where there was more moisture, as the palm needs to be damp to be worked well. The old woman can no longer sit on the floor to weave petates (mats), as she used to. I purchased a lovely mat that was more beautiful than most because of the special designs in variegated colors that she’d woven into it. They told us that this particular small mat is called petate de chocolate, but they did not know why. Perhaps those mats are used for grinding cocoa in some regions; however, La Mixteca does not offer the tropical climate where cocoa plants flourish.
The Mixtecs are better known for their woven work than the Nahuas. It is a fascinating sight as they trudge along, weaving hats as they walk, hardly glancing down as their hands fly at work. In cities around Mexico, it is easy to identify Mixtecs, as they usually sell all sorts of woven items, now mostly made from colorful artificial fibers, in the streets. Each town seems to have a specialty. Chigmecatitlán has a museum in its main square, where one can appreciate samples of their miniature animals, nativity figures, and jewelry. We were impressed by a large sign made for the patron saint’s festival; upon coming closer, the letters turned out to be made of tiny woven figures. My father-in-law, from a different town, used to weave miniature palm objects such as scorpions, a wonder to behold.
On the way back from Puente de Dios, we pulled over to the roadside to see if we might buy some of the local fruit we saw for sale at little stands. There was no need to leave the car, as immediately—boom!—several women crowded around the windows offering samples of their fruit (chicozapotes, anonas, mamey, granadas chinas). The latter, literally a “Chinese pomegranate,” is an elongated orangey fruit with a sweet, slimy pulp and many seeds that look almost like frog eggs and slide down the throat easily.
This area is not frequented by many tourists, as its attractions are more subtle than elsewhere. Yet, for me, that adds to its appeal: What you see is what you get. There are no facades put up to look quaint or typical or old or native. Traditional markets are more common than craft shops. If you are looking for what’s genuine, not put on for show, you’ll find it in La Mixteca. —Margie Hord de Méndez
Photographs courtesy Esteban Méndez (Puente de Dios) and Refugio Méndez (church, woven figures)
Tuesday, January 1st, 2013
Mexico ranks fifth among the world’s nations in biological diversity, with nearly 29,000 plant and animal species living in its deserts, rainforests, mangroves, and mountains. The state of Puebla, known for its mild climate and varied ecosystems, is home to large percentages of this flora and fauna — including more than half of the country’s 1,100 different species of birds. A new e-book in English, The Birdwatching Hotspots of the State of Puebla, Mexico, provides a free field guide for novices and experts alike.
All About Puebla asked author Jajean Rose-Burney, a Peace Corps volunteer from New York who recently finished a two-year assignment here, how he got started as a birdwatcher, why he decided to write the book, what he’d like readers to get out of it, and where he likes to go birdwatching in Puebla. Here’s what he had to say.
AAP: How did you end up studying birds in Puebla?
Rose-Burney: My wife and I joined Peace Corps, a program of the U.S. federal government that has volunteers all around the world. We are both urban planners and were looking for a little break. During training in Queretaro, we were told that our assignment would be SEMARNAT, Mexico’s federal environmental agency, in the city of Puebla. I was devastated. I didn’t want to live in a big city, and I didn’t want to work in a big government planning office.
Fortunately, I got everything that I didn’t want — and am incredibly lucky. During the past two years, I’ve worked on some great conservation projects, including the establishment of a new natural protected area at the Valsequillo Reservoir. I’ve met and worked with great people. I had the opportunity to travel throughout the state and most of southern Mexico. And I have been able to turn my love of birdwatching into my work.
When did you start birdwatching?
I have been birdwatching as a hobby since before I started walking. My parents worked at nature reserves and ran a summer camp when I was little, so I grew up around the outdoors. I always brought my binoculars on family camping and hiking trips. Before coming to Mexico, I had never done birdwatching for work. It was always just a hobby. I have actually done more birdwatching while in Puebla than at any other time in my life. When we travel, whether it be to Cholula or to Tulum, we go birdwatching.
I helped start and was a guide for a recreational bird club, called the Club de Observadores de Aves de Puebla, which goes on monthly field trips to parks and nature reserves in the city and throughout the state. To sign up for the tours, you can contact the club.
What prompted you to write the book and, more specifically, focus on Puebla?
Many other places in Mexico are well-known for birdwatching. Although there are a few dedicated birdwatchers in Puebla, the state has been practically ignored by the outside world. Fortunately for me, Puebla is an awesome state to go birdwatching in.
As you will see in the book, Puebla is one of the most diverse states in Mexico, and trails only Chiapas, Veracruz, and Oaxaca in total bird species. Puebla has many migratory species, those that nest in the U.S. and Canada and winter in Mexico, Central America, and South America, like the ducks and herons in Valsequillo. Puebla has numerous endemic species — species that only exist in Mexico — like the Red Warbler in La Malinche and the Paso de Cortes. Puebla also has many really beautiful and attention-grabbing species, like the Blue-crowned Motmot in Cuetzalan.
What are your favorite places to go birdwatching in Puebla?
The Valsequillo Reservoir is my favorite place to go birdwatching within city limits. The large reservoir attracts thousands of ducks, grebes, herons, and other birds. On any given day, especially during the winter migration, you can cross the reservoir on the ferry boat (known locally as la panga) in San Baltazar Tetela and see at least 60 species of birds. Ease of access, diversity of birds, and beautiful views of the reservoir and surrounding volcanoes makes Valsequillo a must-see.
Picking a favorite place to go birdwatching in the surrounding state of Puebla is difficult. Rather than chose one site, I would say that the entire Mixteca region in southern Puebla is the most fascinating. Tropical deciduous forests and cactus forests — both more colorful in the dry season — reach as far you can see, while the river canyons are lined with majestic ahuehuetes, or Mexican cypress, a tall evergreen that is also Mexico’s national tree.
The Mixteca is home to numerous species that are endemic not only to Mexico, but also to the Mixteca itself, meaning that they exist nowhere else in the world. These include the Dusky Hummingbird, Grey-Breasted Woodpecker, Boucard’s Wren, and Bridled Sparrow, among others. There are also many emblematic species, like the ruby, emerald, and white Elegant Trogon, or the large, rufous-colored Squirrel Cuckoo, or the sparrow-sized Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. And then there are the beautiful people, the food, the languages, and the history…
What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?
I am a conservationist at heart, and everything that I do is aimed at promoting the conservation of nature. Low-impact, sustainable ecotourism — like birdwatching — can have positive impacts on conservation. When tourists visit a place, pay for a hotel, or a guide, or even just lunch, they demonstrate to a community that protecting natural resources can have greater benefits for them than using them up.
I want this book to inspire people to love nature, the outdoors, and birdwatching the way that I do. And I think that in order to love nature, you have to experience it, to touch it, to smell it and see it. When someone reads my book, whether a novice or a seasoned birdwatcher, I hope that they get the urge to visit some of these places and experience them for themselves. The places and birds that I describe in this book are so spectacular, so beautiful, and so unique, that anyone lucky enough to see them will have no choice but to fall head over heels for them.
To download the free book, which includes maps and other helpful information, click here.
Text by Rebecca Smith Hurd / Photographs by Ana Hernández Balzac (homepage) and Jajean Rose-Burney
Sunday, November 25th, 2012
The Otomí community of San Pablito has been making papel amate for centuries. Residents of the village, located in a fairly remote region of Puebla’s northwestern mountains, believe that this traditional paper has mystical powers. Their shamans make dolls, or dahi, from it to represent and control spiritual forces, as well as to conduct healings, cleansings, and other ritual ceremonies to protect people. San Pablito is one of the few places in Mexico that continued to make amate paper after the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, and thus its craftspeople have turned the trade to an art. Today their finished works, which often feature intricately woven fibers and detailed paintings, are highly sought-after by connoisseurs of Mexican folk art and artisanal wares.
Amate comes from the Nahuatl word amatl, which means “paper,” and it was used by the Aztecs to record the culture’s codices and to decorate shrines, sacred places, and burial sites. The paper is produced from the bark of several trees — wild fig (a ficus), nettle, and mulberry — as well as an aquatic plant (which we suspect is a type of water lily, but the specifics got lost in translation). The different species allow craftspeople to produce varying shades of white and brown papers.
During our visit to San Pablito, members of the Santos Rojas family explained the materials they use, walked us through how to prepare the bark, and then taught us how to make our own amate paper. After squeezing the excess water out of a giant ball of processed bark, we pulled strands of the fibrous white material and laid them in a crosshatch pattern across our own individual squares of plywood. (See photos below.)
We pounded this pulp flat with a pumice-like volcanic stone until it formed a solid sheet. We then squared the edges, tore off any excess bark, and smoothed the paper with the oily side of an orange peel. With stencils and other tools, we added imprints and strips of darker bark (and pounded it into the white background) to achieve the textures and figures of our choosing. After about 24 hours of drying, we had our own finished papel amate designs! —Rebecca Smith Hurd
San Pablito is located about 7 miles from Pahuatlán (when reached via back roads). We recommend that you go with a local Spanish-speaking guide, such as those provided by the tourism office in Pahuatlán. We paid 30 pesos per person for our two-hour tour, and an additional 10 pesos each for the paper workshop. If you need an English-speaking guide, contact Carlos Rivero Tours (and tell him All About Puebla sent you); he can arrange excursions from the Puebla capital.
Sunday, November 11th, 2012
Driving along the Arco Norte reminds me of California. The highway, which cuts across Tlaxcala, Estado de Mexico, and Hidalgo so that traffic headed northwest from Puebla can bypass Mexico City, could easily be mistaken for Interstate 5. Miles and miles of open road are flanked by golden fields of dry grass, perhaps wheat or hay, that stretch toward greener mountains at their distant edges. Wildflowers add splashes of color in the foreground. Soil-tilling farmers and grazing livestock occasionally add to the scenery, but they quickly disappear as we whip by at 75 mph.
If it weren’t for the abundance of prickly pear and an absence of In-N-Out Burgers, I might—just might—forget where I am for a moment. But I don’t want to. It’s absolutely gorgeous here. However, as we veer off the Arco Norte and head east, past Tulancingo, onto Route 106 in Puebla’s northern sierra, I try to stop thinking about the road, which gets quite narrow and windy. My focus shifts to our destination, Pahuatlán de Valle.
Pahuatlán was founded in 1532 by Augustinian monks who built a monastery on a steep mountainside near both Nahua and Otomí communities. Until earlier this year, when the Mexico Tourism Board added Pahuatlán to its “pueblo mágico” program, the only reason most outsiders visited the region was to buy artisanal paper made from amate bark. In fact, the primary purpose of our weekend trip is to take our friend Sandra, an artist who works with textiles, to buy papel amate in nearby San Pablito. The Pahuatlán area is also known for thick-skinned avocados (“place of the fruit trees” in Nahuatl), small coffee plantations, and a 100-foot-long suspension bridge, which enables foot traffic between the towns of Pahuatlán and Xolotla.
About 3 1/2 hours after leaving the state capital, we pull up in front of Hotel San Carlos, our home away from home for the next 36 hours. It’s a multilevel, Colonial-style building with a restaurant, a swimming pool, lots of stairs and a lookout tower that guests can climb to enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding area. What the hotel lacks in luxury, it makes up for in folkloric flair: Lamps, headboards, and artwork in our rooms are made of amate paper. That said, we didn’t come all this way to hole up in our hotel. We head out to find lunch and explore the town square (a couple of blocks away from the hotel).
“I feel like I’m back in 1950s Mexico,” says Sandra, an avid traveler who now lives in Puebla.
Pahuatlán greets us with the sights, sounds, and smells of a bustling small town. Vendors line the sidewalks of the main drag—a dusty cobblestone street—selling snacks and amate paper, beaded jewelry, embroidered blouses, pottery, and more. The zócalo is a hub of activity and a work in progress, we suspect thanks to new federal tourism funds. A group of young men plays basketball in the recently revitalized square’s concrete surface. A newly inaugurated gazebo is surrounded by shade trees and shrubbery that spells out “Pahuatlán: Pueblo Mágico.” A historic home’s facade is propped up by wood beams where the street is torn up for laying infrastructure. A series of Day of the Dead altars lines the front of the municipal building, where the public clock chimes to a different tune, such as “Que Chula Es Puebla,” every three hours. Many local señores carry machetes at their hips, lending an air of authenticity and scene of danger to the scene.
After fortifying ourselves with a hearty comida at Fonda Güina (Hidalgo #5), which makes lovely cecina (salt-cured beef) and itacates (corn cakes stuffed with garbanzo beans), we set about exploring the rest of the area. Here are a few highlights:
Amate Paper Workshop
At the top of our must-do list was a trip to the Otomí community of San Pablito to learn about amate paper. My friends Scott and Maru, who along with my hubby completed our party of five, had arranged for a guide from the tourism office to give us a tour. Armando, a local college student, hopped into our van and led us on a 25-minute drive to a workshop run by the Santos Rojas family. Three generations of artisans explained the materials and walked us through the process—and then, to our surprise, taught us how to make our own (for 10 pesos each). We also had an opportunity to admire and purchase their beautiful wares, from bookmarks to wall hangings.
(To read more about our experience, check out this post about San Pablito.)
Nature Hike (with Coffee and Pan Dulce)
The tourism office also offers walking tours in Pahuatlán, so on Sunday morning we met Armando in the zócalo for guided visits to a local bakery, a coffee producer, and the suspension bridge. First stop: Panadería M&J (Calle Vicente Guerrero), which turns out some 1,000 pieces of sweet rolls a day. Its specialties, baked in a wood-fired brick oven, include cigar-shaped puros, cookie-ringed bisnagas, and buttery, sugar-coated buches. We purchased one of each and two conchas to pair with the coffee at Casa Hernández (Camino Barrio Unido) a short, hilly stroll away. Casa Hernández cultivates, picks, hulls, separates, sun-dries, and roasts its own beans in small batches to make two products: 100% natural and coffee with 30% sugar. Much of the work is done entirely by manual labor.
Next up: Armando takes us on adventurous hike to the Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla suspension bridge and Pahuatiltla River. We head down a steep residential road and onto a dirt trail that runs through the forest. We’re soon surrounded by trees, grass, wildflowers, butterflies. We start to understand why someone might want to carry a machete in these parts, for practical purposes. Along the way, Armando points out the hanging birds’ nests and poisonous plants, which he asks us kindly not to touch. We stop to take pictures of the suspension bridge below in the distance. The pedestrian river crossing was built in the 1950s, and it looks as if it hasn’t been repaired since: The steel cables appear a bit rusty and a half dozen wooden planks are missing, several—but not all—of which have been replaced by young tree trunks. During Easter Week, people bungee-jump off the bridge, Armando notes. It’s a 200-foot drop to the river below.
I am not afraid of heights, yet my heart is racing. I decide that if I die, at least I will plunge to my death doing something interesting. So, I grab my husband’s hand, take a deep breath, and go for it. We survive. When we get down to the river, we are surrounded by more butterflies and the sounds of rushing water. We take a break before heading back the way we came, a strenuous 45 minutes uphill. But we all make it back to town, safe and sound. We pay Armando 60 pesos each for his trouble.
Happy Hour at Café Pahuatlán
It is surprisingly difficult to find a drinking establishment open at 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday. We wander around a bit before stumbling upon Café Pahuatlán on Calle 5 de Mayo. Run by a couple from Querétaro who recently inherited the property, the bar-café occupies the partially renovated stables of an old mansion. It pairs old-world kitsch with new-world chic. We order beers and tequila shots and Scott inquires about snacks. “Te voy a traer algo que te va a encantar” (“I’ll bring you something you’ve going to love.”), the owner informs us, and a while later reappears carrying a platter of chicken tenders sautéed with chile peppers.
We order another round of drinks, and the owner returns to pitch us his special Red Bull-esque coffee drink, which involves some sort of beans with a “bellybutton.” (Thanks, but maybe not with tequila…) Next, he presents us with a strange green gourd that looks like a certain lady part, or a Klingon. He breaks another one open and offers us his Nahuatl dictionary. Turns out, this tlalayotli is a wild squash whose tiny seeds can be toasted and eaten. Interesting. But we’re hungry. It’s now 8:30 p.m., the bar is packed, and its staff a bit overwhelmed by the rush. So, we ask for the check and walk back to our hotel for quesadillas and a nightcap.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd
Pahuatlán is located about 125 miles north of the Puebla capital. It’s easiest to reach via toll road by car. If you go by bus, plan to spend the whole day traveling. Atah offers service from CAPU to Tulancingo; Estrella Blanca will take you the rest of the way. Guided tours (in Spanish) are available through the tourism office for 30 pesos per person.
Tags: amate paper, Pahuatlán de Valle, Puebla, pueblo mágico, San Pablito, Sierra Norte, suspension bridge, weekend trip
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Monday, October 22nd, 2012
It took me five years of living in Puebla to visit Tehuacán, but when I finally did this past weekend, I savored every moment of it. Literally. I spent most of my time there eating: Tacos de cabeza. Mole de caderas y espinazos. Candied fig, squash, and tejocotes (Mexican hawthorn fruit). Muéganos from El Águila Real. All of these culinary treats are local specialties, the first two of which are based on goat meat from the annual slaughter.
Yes, slaughter. Every autumn since the 17th century, when Spanish settlers introduced livestock to Mexico, shepherds have driven goats from the coasts of Oaxaca and Guerrero to the Tehuacán Valley of Puebla, where they’re sacrificed in a ritual ceremony and then eaten. During the migration, the animals feed only on wild grasses and salt (to retain liquids, because they don’t drink any water), notes Enrique Aquino in a column for SDNoticias.com, a national news site. As a result, their flesh—unlike that of farm-raised animals—is very lean and flavorful.
“For more than 300 years, landowners and ranchers paid the servants [and butchers] of the killings with the bones of the goats, the hips and the spines,” Aquino writes. “With these bones they made a broth with tomato and chile, to which they added other seasonal ingredients like ejotes ayocotes (runner beans) and huajes (wild tamarind seeds), resulting in el mole de caderas (goat hip stew).”
An estimated 4,500 to 8,000 goats were sacrificed this year at Hacienda La Carlota, the owners of which have participated in El Ritual Cultural y Festival Étnico del Mole de Caderas, also known as “La Matanza,” for four generations. Much of their meat will be consumed in Tehuacán by residents and visitors between now and Nov. 15, which marks the end of the 2012 season. The annual celebration, which since 1784 has taken place on the third Thursday of October, includes prayers and folkloric dances and brings together people from across the Mixteca. It is recognized by both the state and federal governments as part of Puebla’s cultural heritage. Although previous festivals tended to be a bit gory, as one might imagine, the knife used to kill the first goat has been replaced with an air gun, to avoid what members of the Humane Society dubbed “a vicious and bloody spectacle.”
Food lovers should note that the wildly popular mole de caderas isn’t the only dish made with the organic carne de chivo. At least two dozen delicacies can be had, based on pretty much every edible part of the animal. These include ubre a la plancha (grilled utter with garlic and milk), riñones encebollados (kidney with onions), and other bits prepared in mojo de ajo (oil, garlic, and spices).
All of these dishes are offered at Mi Lupita (5 Sur #307), where Doña Lupita and her family have cooked up goaty goodness since 1956. In fact, her version of mole de caderas is so popular that the restaurant opened a second location last October on the city’s main square. It’s there, at La Casona de Mi Lupita, that my husband and I tucked into a plateful of tacos de cabeza (five head meat and brain tacos) and a piping-hot bowl of mole de caderas y espinazos with ejotes acoyotes.
“This was worth the drive from Puebla,” declares my Poblano other half, tucking a napkin into his white shirt and licking his fingers. “This is the best mole I’ve ever eaten.”
It is not, however, food for reluctant carnivores or the faint of heart: Enjoying this dish to its fullest requires using your hands and teeth to pick and suck the flesh off cracked goat vertebrae and broken leg bones. If that sounds appealing to you, it’s totally worth the trip and the 300 to 400 peso price per (very generous) serving.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd
Tehuacán is located 82 miles southeast of the Puebla capital. ADO operates regular bus service from CAPU to its station a few blocks from the main square in Tehuacán for about 100 pesos. By car, it’s about a 90-minute drive via toll roads (about 200 pesos round-trip) en route to Oaxaca.
Wednesday, August 29th, 2012
It all started hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of years ago in Cholula, as a means to pay homage to the serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Then Spanish settlers arrived—and turned the Cholullans’ sacred day into a virgin’s feast day (Sept. 8), in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the ancient and colonial beliefs have fused into a single, glorious celebration.
For the past six decades, San Pedro Cholula has commemorated the occasion with a nearly three-week annual fair that fêtes the region’s trade and cultural heritage, from pre-Hispanic practices to modern-day customs. This year, the 62nd Feria de Cholula kicks off Aug. 30, with a massive inaugural dance and the crowning of a festival queen in the town’s main square. Other special events include everything from a traditional trueque—at which some 3,000 vendors are expected to trade goods—on Sept. 8 to a re-enactment of Hidalgo’s cry for independence on Sept. 15. Expect to find live entertainment, street food, sales of artisanal wares, and carnival rides, too.
“Come with your family to enjoy the most colorful and folkloric traditions of San Pedro Cholula. Music, dance, and gastronomy envelope the city for a party that’s full of magic and happiness,” officials say. “It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”
All performances and ceremonies at the Feria de Cholula are free and open to the public.
Officials expect 100,000 visitors between Aug. 30 and Sept. 16. New this year: A 4,000-square-meter dome has been erected in the main square to shelter fair attendees and its 500 vendors and artisans from the elements, rain or shine. In addition, in response to the protests of animal activists, no bullfights or cockfights will be held.
To coincide with the fair, the tunnels that allow people to pass through the Great Pyramid are scheduled to reopen after nearly three years of restoration work; admission will remain free for the duration of the festival.
Schedule of Events
Here’s an overview of the fair’s various events and performances, all of which are free and open to the public.
Lantern Procession, Convento de San Gabriel, 2 Norte #4, Colonia Centro, 10 p.m
Trueque, Plaza de la Concordia (main square), Calle Morelos at Calle Miguel Aleman, starting at 8 a.m.
Quema de Panzón, Iglesia de los Remedios, atop the Great Pyramid, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur, 1 p.m.
Los Terricolas and comedian Jhonatan Casanova, Teatro de la Ciudad, Recinto Ferial Xelhua, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur (the plaza that’s on the exit side of the pyramid), 6 p.m.
Cry of Independence (“El Grito”), Plaza de la Concordia (main square), Calle Morelos at Calle Miguel Aleman, starting at 8 p.m.
Independence Day Parade, downtown San Pedro Cholula, Calle Morelos at Calle Miguel Aleman, starting at 10 a.m.
Yaguarú and Banda los Angeles, Teatro de la Ciudad, Recinto Ferial Xelhua, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur (the plaza that’s on the exit side of the pyramid), 6 p.m.
Many taxis and intercity buses offer regular service between Puebla and Cholula, as does the Tranvía. It’s about a 30-minute ride, depending on traffic. After you arrive, you may find this tourist map helpful.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd
Tags: el grito, Feria de Cholula 2012, Independence Day, parade, Quema de Panzón, San Pedro Cholula, trueque
Posted in Do, Explore, Featured | Comments Off on Cholula Town Fair Mixes Old and New Traditions
Saturday, June 23rd, 2012
The Spanish influence in San Pedro Cholula isn’t always quite as evident as it is in the nearby Colonial city of Puebla. Despite an abundance of Catholic churches, including one that crowns the world’s largest pre-Hispanic pyramid, the town maintains its older, distinctly indigenous vibe. However, just a few blocks from the archaeological site, inside a nondescript industrial building, the Castillo-Blanca family is working to preserve a centuries-old tradition from Asturias, Spain, and make it a bona fide Mexican one.
For three generations, its Copa de Oro distillery has produced sidra, or hard cider, from apples cultivated in the state of Puebla. The business began in 1936, when Ramón Blanca Amador started fermenting the regional red fruit into an aguardiente de manzana. He called the drink sidra actiopa, a nod to the Nahautl words atl (water) and teopa (temple) and a suggestion that his liquor was nothing short of divine. Today Copa de Oro produces several varieties of sidra gasificada, or carbonated hard cider, plus non-alcoholic sparkling cider, cider “coolers,” vinegar, applesauce, and more. The company turns out three grades of cider—Palencia, Copa de Oro, and Renetta—which are differentiated by their labels and the amount of time each cider is aged in an oak barrel (up to one, two, or three years, respectively).
Unlike many wines, hard cider doesn’t improve with age: After about two years, it’s properties change and it evolves into vinegar.
“The national palate is sweet,” sales director Mario García Roche explains to me after a tour of the factory. To cater to that taste, most of Copa de Oro’s ciders are on the sugary side, with one important exception: Renetta Reserva Especial, which the company produced for its 75th anniversary last year. “It’s the only cider made in Mexico that’s semi-dry,” García Roche boasts.
His bragging is justified. The Renetta is, in a word, exquisite. “Wow! It’s the best cider I’ve ever had,” my husband declares after taking a sip of the ice-cold bubbly. Like many Poblanos, he’s accustomed to drinking the sweeter stuff, and mostly at family dinners around Christmastime or New Year’s. It’s said that hard cider became popular in Mexico as a festive yet less expensive alternative to Champagne and sparkling wines like Cava. And, comparatively, it’s a bargain. At 101 pesos (about US $7) per bottle, the Renetta semi-seco is Copa de Oro’s priciest product.
Copa de Oro is looking for ways to broaden cider’s national appeal by developing new products, such as cider “coolers” in single-serving bottles that come in different flavors and include rum, García Roche says. But its core product remains its amber and rosé ciders (the latter of which is 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile). In 2012, the company expects to produce some 800,000 cases of cider, he notes, all of which is made from 100 percent fruit that’s cultivated in Puebla. Most of that will be consumed nationally, but Copa de Oro is working to export more products to the U.S., Colombia, Cuba, and Spain.
The “crush” typically begins in July and lasts for about six months, as tons of apples — of the winter banana, perón, ripio, or panochera variety — arrive from orchards, most of which are located on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano or near the Puebla-Veracruz state line in Santa María Coatepec and San Salvador El Seco, García Roche explains. After the apples arrive, they are washed and pressed into juice, which is then fermented, filtered, pasteurized, carbonated, and bottled. Copa de Oro can process up to 30,000 bottles per day (5,000 cases) when operating at full capacity, García Roche says.
Copa de Oro plans to kick off the 2012 season with a “blessing of the apples” and a parade on Saturday, July 21, from 10 to 11 a.m., García Roche says. The route starts and ends at the distillery (3 Sur #904, Col. Centro), passing through downtown San Pedro Cholula. A tasting and cider pairing will follow at Copa de Oro, which also operates a tasting room and “living museum” called La Barrica. The public is invited; expect to pay about 120 pesos per person for the food and drink.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd
Free tours of the distillery (in Spanish only) are offered year-round, by reservation only, to groups of 10 people or more. Call +52 (222) 247-1989 for more information.
Monday, November 14th, 2011
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.