Finding ‘Old Mexico’ in Pahuatlán de Valle
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.