Cuetzalan - Pueblo Mágico

Cuetzalan floats above the clouds one moment and swims in fog the next. The town crowns the rain forest surrounding it high in the hills between the central Mexican State of Puebla and the Gulf Coast of Veracruz. The streets wind down the slope from the crest of the ridge to the zocalo or main square with the Church of St. Francis of Assisi as a focal point. The town itself is enchanting but not far away are incredible waterfalls, an archeological site and the emerald forest.

Church and Zocalo on Sunday, Market Day

Looking up at the Church from down the slope

The main shopping street shrouded in fog

View over Cuetzalan

You can see the fog sitting just beyond the edge of the town waiting to roll in. My guide, Eruviel, took me to this pasture to get a clear view over the town. I highly recommend his service. He is thoughtful, knowledgeable and patient. He grew up in the area and seems to know everyone. He doesn't send you on tour with someone else. He takes you out to the sites himself. Click on the photo to the left for the link to his website.

Cuetzalan, Puebla

Pueblo Mágico

Cuetzalan was one of the first towns to receive the designation of Pueblo Mágico. The Mexican Secretariat of Tourism created the program to identify and preserve towns of outstanding beauty, cultural & historical significance. There are only 32 such towns in all of Mexico despite there being hundreds of worthy candidates.

Market Day -Tianguis

Market Day is held on Sunday and sees the sleepy town wake up with a deep breath and the long exhale of buying and selling, eating and drinking, greeting friends and bartering for everything from produce to meat, arts and crafts, woven goods, clothing and even flavored liquors. I first visited Cuetzalan in 1994 as a student in Puebla. I returned 28 years later to find the town mostly unchanged. The Peña Los Jarritos where I once listened to local musicians strum guitar and serenade the audience with love songs is still there mostly unchanged except for the large screen TVs wheeled out for the World Cup. The woven huipiles (a wool poncho) are still exquisite and their sellers are still as insistent on getting the best return for their labor, as well they should be. The market fills the main square and flows down Calle Hidalgo all the way across town.

Tlayoyos, Memelas, Taquitos...

Delicious food around every corner

Mexico boasts one of the world's greatest cuisines with artistry and fresh produce combined into undeniable classics such as mole poblano and chiles en nogada, but often the humblest is the best. The simple tlayoyo is an oblong space ship of corn dough filled with a ground mixture of chichoro (wild garbanzo) with avocado leaves, fried and topped only with salsa. A plate of four of these was the start and end of each glorious day.

Yohualichan. - Totonac Archaeological Site

Just six miles outside of Cuetzalan is Yohualichan, a Totonac site perched on the upper lip of the valley. It is not as massive as Teotihuacan or some of the other major sites but it is worth an hour or so to see the niches in the architecture and to marvel, once again, at the sophisticated civilization, one among many, that thrived in Mexico before the conquest. When you make it back to Cuetzalan listen to see who speaks Nahau or Totonac and realize the people who built these temples, their ancestors are still nearby, some farming in much the same way their ancestors did but communicating, like much of the rest of world, via cellphone in the digital age. It isn't hard to guess which is more permanent, our consumption economy or the stones of these temples which were laid down around 400 A.D.

Portraits of the Pueblo Mágico

The People of Cuetzalan

One of the biggest reasons I came to Cuetzalan was to take portraits during market day. I'm not a street photographer and I find it challenging to walk up to someone and ask to take their photo. The tactic of surreptitiously taking someone's portrait without express permission is technically legal but to me, unethical. I draw a distinction between a photo of a market scene, for example, with many people, in it and a portrait of a single person. In the former the market is the subject and the people are part of this theme. In the second example a single person is the subject and it is their image that is being used. In this situation I make sure to get permission. This is where it gets interesting. Some people, mostly those who had shops in town, said yes outright or asked where I am going to use the images before saying yes. A few of the people who set up stalls in the market said yes but most hesitated to respond. I realized I represent a potential customer they don't want to say no to but are also busy working their stall. The majority of the photos here are the result of a transaction where I either purchased an item from them or paid them outright for their modeling service. None of these photos were taken without permission. NOTE - I did not get everyone's name and I regret not doing so. Many times as part of the conversation I introduced myself and asked their name but I did not write it down and I have a terrible memory for names I only hear once. I will do better next time.

Outside of Cuetzalan

Cascada Las Golondrinas (Waterfall of the Swallows)

River in the Rainforest

The wonders of the Cloud Rainforest

Waterfalls abound in the steep canyons outside Cuetzalan and they are not too difficult to access. Las Brisas is large and dramatic even when the locals consider it to be the "dry" season. You can swim at the base of the falls. There are hikes to other falls as well such as the three sisters and the Golondrina. It is possible to find them without a guide but it was much easier with one. Each of these landscape photos is available for purchase by clicking on the photo.

Cascada Las Brisas (Waterfall of the Breezes)

Cascada III

Getting to Cuetzalan

Cuetzalan can be reached by bus from Mexico City or Puebla. The buses from Puebla take about four hours on the ADO or VIA bus services. These are plush, modern buses and are definitely the most relaxing way to travel. I rented a car. They only had a manual transmission so I drove mountain roads, in fog, with giant potholes, passing large trucks, while shifting gears for the first time since 1998. It was actually fun. The white knuckle, do or die kind of fun. But once I arrived in town the one lane roads and slick cobblestones convinced me to ride with my guide, Eruviel (bien chido!) and I'm glad I did.

Staying in Cuetzalan

Cuetzalan is full of hotels. After the local coffee farms were decimated by frost in the late seventies the region's economy was severely depressed and domestic and foreign tourism revived the town. I stayed in the Hotel Casa de Piedra. It is extremely central and has an excellent breakfast. There are lots of other options to suit every budget but you are not going to find a Four Season's here, thankfully.