Cuetzalan (Kwetz-ah-lahn), designated as a Pueblo Magico, is a mountain town in the Sierra Norte tropical rainforest, three and-a-half hours on the Via Rapido bus and 183 km from the city of Puebla and three hours from Veracruz on the Caribbean. The only months it doesn’t rain here are April and May.
It is a lush, green misty, mysterious wonderland. Orchids drape and cling to the sides of trees. Men in white shirts and pants, straw hats, leather thong sandals, sling palm woven bags across their shoulders. Women are either barefoot or wear ballerina slippers.
Stunning, intricate needlework blouses that depict the flowers and wildlife of the region cover them. Children scamper and adults pick their way carefully up and down the sawtooth stone steps that frame the steep, granite cobbled streets. The slippery stones remind me of climbing Palenque.
I’ve been wanting to make this pilgrimage trip for six years, ever since I heard about Cuetzalan from photographer friends Sam and and Tom Robbins. Their extraordinary black and white art photos of steep, cobblestone streets lined with near vertical steps were engraved in my memory.
I invited my sister Barbara, who lives in Santa Cruz, California to join me to explore this rich textile region of Mexico. On the day our Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat ended last Friday morning, I was on a four-hour bus to Puebla, where we met, spent the night, and then started out on this see-Mexico-by-bus journey together.
We arrived on Saturday afternoon in time for the extraordinary once a week Sunday market (tianguis). It was not difficult to spend the entire day roaming market stalls. The town square was obscured by covered stalls filled with handcrafts, fruit, vegetables, and meat.
In the afternoon, the Voladores (the flyers) climbed to the top of a 100 foot wood pole on the Zocalo in front the the church and spread their wings in flight, arms and legs twirling, outstretched, performing the pre-Hispanic ritual that guarantees renewal of life.
In addition to their needlework skill, Cuetzalan women also weave quechquemitls (kech-keh-mees). These are the wonderful over the head, one-piece “shawls” that were designed by Nahautl women and adopted by indigenous peoples throughout Mexico. There is the wool variety, first handwoven on the back-strap loom, then embellished with cross stitch floral patterns or with intricate running stitches that tell a story of the natural world. The women also weave quechquemitls using natural manta or synthetically colored cotton (not many are using natural dyes any more).
These can be embellished with commercially purchased fringes. Others are even lighter weight (remember, it’s humid here) and woven with white polyester interspersed with glittery threads that illuminate in the sunlight. The tips of these are embroidered with an intricate bird feet pattern on the two points of the quechquemitls. The women are shy but their traje (costume) is filled with exuberance and they are proud of their handwork.
Our Cuetzalan base for two nights was Hotel Taselotzin, Calle Yoloxochitl, S/N Barrio de Zacatipan, hoteltaselotzin.com.mx, phone (223) 331-0480. I did my research. Fulbright Scholars participants stay here. So do U.S. university study abroad programs based in Puebla. While we were there a group of Dartmouth College students were staying at the hotel and going out during the day to work with young people in rural communities. The hotel is operated by a women’s cooperative that supports artisans and educational programs. They have an excellent kitchen that prepares delicious food (order sopa de hongos — wild mushroom soup) at very reasonable prices and a lovely gift shop with high quality work. The location is not central, but it is quiet, lush and peaceful. Rooms have private baths.
Highlights of Cuetzalan:
- Of course! the Sunday market, a frenzy of activity. You need to know your textiles to pick out the higher quality pieces
- Casa de la Cultura, Calle Miguel Alvarado #18, tel. 233 105 2776
- Mercado de Artesanias, Calle Miguel Alvarado across from the Casa de la Cultura. Here you will find the better quality handwork.
- Francesca Rivera Perez has a stall in this market and her work is stunning. We splurged here!
- Breakfast at Cafe Epoc de Oro on the zocalo — great coffee; order chilaquiles with pollo in salsa verde.
- Return to the Zocalo on Monday morning where all is clean, quiet, beautiful to see the details of life. Have breakfast at El Portal: delicious!
- Yes, to those incredible seed and bean necklaces. The best ones are strung with beautiful, twisted macrame chord.
- Many of the traditional people, especially the older folks, turn their heads or walk away from the camera. Always ask before taking a photo that is up close and personal.
- Fog muted vistas offer photographers glorious opportunities to capture sense of place.
- Traditional practices of weaving with natural dyes and manta cloth are dying out with the older generation.
- There are evangelical Christians working in Cuetzalan. This is a very poor area and the promises of a better life are very appealing to some.