Going Off the Beaten Path in La Mixteca of Puebla
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)