Mexico's Perfect Mountain Town?

By Bart Beeson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 11, 2005

The tiny colonial town of Cuetzalan, nestled in the hills of Mexico's central state of Puebla, suggests this philosophical poser: Can you have an ideal tourist town if you don't have many tourists?

There's a Sunday market with everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to hand-made crafts and clothes. The town is small enough that it's easy to find your way around, and its 16,000 residents are friendly, often going out of their way to make sure you get where you want to go. It's only about 120 miles or so northeast of Mexico City, so it makes for a quick, tranquil getaway from the capital. And the surrounding area offers numerous waterfalls, swimming holes, extensive cave systems and ruins, all of which make for great exploring.

The only thing missing? Hordes of turistas.

Founded in 1547 by Franciscan friars, the town took its name from the quetzal, the colorful bird whose tail feathers the Aztecs used in religious ceremonies (and which, unfortunately, can no longer be seen in the area). In 2002, Cuetzalan (prounced kweh-TSA-lan) was included in the Mexican Ministry of Tourism's Magic Towns program, which was designed to promote tourism outside of such big beach resorts as Cancun and Acapulco and to encourage the preservation of local cultures and traditions. Other towns in the program include such better-known destinations as San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato state, San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, and Tequila, Jalisco.

Today, despite the added publicity, Cuetzalan remains a sleepy little place, undiscovered by most.

The town, made up of narrow cobblestone streets that wind by quaint houses with red-tiled roofs, is often enveloped in a moody fog, which varies from a thin veil to a dense shroud. Traffic is scarce -- the fact that several of the main streets abruptly become stairs can make driving tricky -- and the roads pedestrian-friendly (not that you'd need a car to explore the compact town center). But be prepared for some exercise, as Cuetzalan is built on a steep hill, with great views of the deep green hills in the surrounding countryside. That makes an after-dinner walk to some hotels more of a workout than a stroll.

Cuetzalan doesn't have any large resorts or fancy eateries (most meals, even in the nicer restaurants, cost under $10 a person). Still, there's a good variety of small family-run inns and cozy hotels. During my four-day stay, I checked into the hillside Hotel Taselotzin, which comprises cabanas and dormitories (with beds for about $8) set among garden paths. The hotel is one of the projects run by an organization of indigenous Nahua women. The profits go back to the women in the form of supply packages of food, blankets and fabric, which many use to make clothes for their family or to sell in the market held in the town center.

The Sunday market, in fact, is one of the prime reasons visitors choose a weekend to visit Cuetzalan. If your shopping list includes homemade wines, hand-woven shawls, locally grown coffee or perhaps a new machete, it's all there.

Shoppers wander among produce stands heaped with bright red tomatoes, mounds of dried peppers, a vast variety of fruit and more kinds of beans than you probably knew existed. Nahua women arrange buckets of freshly cut gladioluses and calla lilies, dressed in their traditional white embroidered blouses and white skirts with red sashes. Live river shrimp -- a local delicacy known as acamayas -- crawl over one another in plastic buckets, as if hoping for a reprieve.

Food stands offer tacos, quesadillas and fruit shakes, giving shoppers the energy they need for a few more purchases. The vendors are generally very friendly (few speak English, so some level of Spanish is helpful). One woman let me try several of her homemade wines, while another patiently explained what kinds of regional seeds and stones she had used to make her jewelry.

But I wasn't there for the shopping. Cuetzalan has long been known for its extensive cave system, and I was eager to check it out. I chose the Adventure Caves, about three miles outside of town, mainly because I found the name slightly more appealing than Bat's Nest Caves, which are farther away.

My guide was Pedro Martinez, who led me to the cave entrance, a gently descending path that disappeared into a black hole. After my eyes slowly adjusted to the murk, I was able to make out a large cavern that gradually narrowed at the far end. Martinez led me on a half-hour tour, past stalactites and stalagmites, using his flashlight to point out formations resembling such things as elephants, ice cream cones and castles. Though the path was slippery, the walk wasn't strenuous, and every few yards we'd stop to turn on a string of lights that illuminated our path.

Martinez, who was born and raised in the area, explored the caves as a child. "Coming to Cuetzalan and not visiting the caves," he told me, "is like going to Veracruz and not seeing the ocean."

The next town over from Cuetzalan is San Andres Tzicuilan, a hamlet that's home to a waterfall known as El Salto, or "the jump." The walk itself was beautiful: about two miles on a cobblestone road past cornfields, coffee bushes and the occasional roadside chicken foraging in the brush. After passing through the village, I picked my way down a steep path to the waterfall, which crashes down moss- and fern-covered rocks into an idyllic swimming hole. I'd been told this was one of the most visited waterfalls in the area, but on this sultry afternoon I had it all to myself.

Another day I took one of the local transports -- pickup trucks with two padded benches in the back -- to visit the ruins about six miles north of town. Yohualichan, meaning "house of the night," is thought to be a ceremonial site built by the Totonac Indians around 400 A.D. Set among grassy fields are several pyramids decorated along the base with rows of niches.

In addition to the pyramids, the site contains a tomb and a large ball court -- a rectangular field once used to play traditional indigenous ballgames. Walking along the length of the court, it was easy to imagine lines of spectators cheering on the competitors.

While it's easy to get to Yohualichan and El Salto on your own, other attractions around Cuetzalan are trickier to find. Local boys, many of them accredited as guides by the town tourism office, will take you to some of these lesser-known spots for a small fee, usually about $5.

Leobardo Lino Mendez, 15, approached me one afternoon and told me he could show me places I'd never discover on my own. He proved himself true to his word: After walking about a mile outside of town, he led me onto a narrow path meandering through towering cornstalks until we reached Las Maravillas ("the wonders"), two magnificent waterfalls cascading side by side over a rocky cliff.

Lino couldn't have been more friendly -- or knowledgeable, as he showed me edible plants, told me about some of the local legends and customs, let me in on a few of the "secret spots" he likes, and even warned me about the little dog that would come snap at my heels. It appeared, as if on cue, a few moments later.

Despite the warning, the pint-size pup caught me off guard. But by then I was used to being surprised.

Bart Beeson last wrote for Travel about the United Villages in Oaxaca, Mexico.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company