Every Day Is Christmas in Chignahuapan
A 19th-century Mudejar kiosk sits at the center of an otherwise traditional town square. One Catholic church celebrates a petrified mushroom that bears a sacred image of the Crucifixion, while another is anchored by an enormous plaster virgin. And the main drag — well, it looks as if someone threw up Christmas all over it. Welcome to Chignahuapan, an enigmatic little city about a 90-minute drive from the capital in Puebla’s northern mountains.
First inhabited by Chichimecs and later the Aztecs, Chignahuapan (pronounced “chig-na-WA-pon”) officially became a municipality in 1874, when Spanish missionaries began to settle in the area and built its first church, says a local tourism and commerce website. Since then, residents have erected more places of worship and earned a reputation for making artisanal goods (red earthenware pots, bovine-wool blankets, hand-carved wood) and mutton dishes, from pit-roasted barbacoa to mixiote bundles wrapped in maguey leaves. Their talents, coupled with the proximity of Lake Almoloya and thermal baths, have turned Chignahuapan into a popular day trip or weekend escape for urban dwellers from Puebla and Mexico City.
Between August and December, visitors flock to Chignahuapan to buy locally produced blown glass. Each year, more than 200 workshops turn out some 70 million Christmas-tree ornaments in every shape, size, and color imaginable. The lion’s share of these esferas navideñas are packed, distributed, and sold throughout Mexico, but the best selection and prices can be found by visiting the stores on Romero Vargas Street (also called 2 Sur behind the municipal building), just a block from the zócalo. Need a set of spiral ornaments in rainbow hues, a decorative centerpiece for the dinner table, or a pair of dainty snowman earrings to match that holiday sweater? No problem!
La Feria del Árbol y La Esfera
For the past 16 years, Chignahuapan has celebrated its seasonal craft with an annual tree and ornament festival. The 2011 event continues this week with all sorts of events, including: a fishing tournament (Oct. 30, 7 a.m., at Lake Chignahuapan), fireworks (Oct. 30, 10 p.m., at the Explanada Municipal), mariachis (Oct. 31, 8:30 p.m., Teatro del Pueblo), and a festival of light and life for Day of the Dead (Nov. 1, 6 p.m., at the Teatro de la Laguna). For the complete program, click here and then on “Programa” and the different ornaments.
Art and Architecture, Relgious Symbols, a Waterfall, and More
Shopping aside, Chignahuapan offers a few other sites well worth seeing. A short walk to the main square rewards visitors with a wonderfully diverse mix of art and architecture. to The municipal building features a beautiful (and brand-new) mural depicting the area’s heritage and history in its entryway. Next door, the Parish of St. James the Apostle boasts a gorgeous facade, which blends Baroque and indigenous styles of the late 16th century. Across the street, an open, elevated Mudejar kiosk, built in 1871 to house public performances, demands attention with a Muslim-Spanish design that’s reminiscent of old-world bull-fighting rings in Madrid and Barcelona.
Back on the main drag, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a rather nondescript building on the outside, houses a towering virgin on its main altar inside. When Mass isn’t being celebrated, visitors are welcome climb a small set of stairs and lay their hands at her feet for a blessing; a small donation is requested. Just a short drive away, following the street signs toward the thermal baths, the Sanctuary of Our Lord of the Fungus pays homage to a petrified mushroom that, according to local lore, was miraculously found in 1880 and contains various images, including Christ on the cross. Señor Honguito is preserved under glass in the church’s nave for public viewing, except during Mass (Sundays at 9:30am).
Lovers of the outdoors may also want to visit the waterfall at Quetzalapan. The falls used to generate power for much of the region — in fact, according to the eco-park’s website, Chignahuapan was the first city in the area to have electricity, because people in the area built their own hydroelectric plant in 1930. It stayed in business until 1980, when it succumbed to competition. The site now operates as a recreational area, offering picnic areas with barbecue pits, secure camping facilities, and activities such as zip lines and archery.
Original post updated on Oct. 29, 2011.