Everything leading up to October 3 in Cuetzalan del Progreso is a preview for what’s to come. This is the day each year that the Voladores fly: Danza de Voladores.
There is a huge carnival in the church courtyard and troupes of costumed, masked revelers come in from the villages to dance, sing and raise some hoopla.
Handmade beeswax candles adorn the church altar in huge displays of tiered confection, just like wedding cakes. The colors dazzle.
On October 4, the queen of the festival is crowned. Cuetzalan is packed with people, a few extranjeros (foreigners), visitors from other parts of Mexico, and lots of locals who come in from mountain villages by colectivos (shared taxis) and camionetas (truck transport).
The town square becomes a puesto (open market stalls) with alleys of textiles, beaded necklaces made from local coffee beans and seed pods, roasted corn on a stick layered with mayonnaise and chili, carved wood masks, sizzling comals (griddles).
Hawkers, mostly the ancient ones, sell armadillo shell purses (yes, I bought one), gourd water jugs (I bought one, too), woven fiber bags (passed), wild mint (poleo) candies guaranteed to cure stomach ache (yes, though I didn’t have a stomach ache).
You can sidle up to a portable comedor (kitchen) to eat tacos, tamales, chicken with mole, squash blossom quesadillas. Thirsty? How about fresh fruit waters made with watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, oranges.
It’s hard to keep your money in your pocket!
The day before, Merry Foss took us to the famous candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava, whose family makes beeswax candles for church celebrations. He is a national treasure and won the Grand Prize in the 2016 National Folk Art Competition.
We hopped on a colectivo to get to his workshop outside of town. We saw the preparations for the October 3 church celebrations in the making, were awed by the size of the candles, the intricacy of the molds, the bees swarming around the opening to the clay pot hives that were tucked into the workshop corner.
Fresh, wild honey is sold all over Cuetzalan. Here’s what the hives look like. Different from the white boxes we see all over the U.S. I imagine that Puebla people use the resources that are easiest to make and keep for beehives.
There are multiple groups of Voladores flyers. Some of them are women, and why not. Courage and fortitude know no gender (as we move into the final days of the election in the United States of America).
They start flying at around 4 p.m. on October 3 and continue until after dark. At twilight, groups of dancers and costumed revelers come into the plaza, tooting horns, flutes, singing, beating drums. They go in and out of the church, dancing at the altar, seeking blessings.
In the naves, young men stopped to take a breath, take a drink, fix broken decorations, tie shoe laces, and give each other the Mexican handshake — first brushing open palms together, then giving each other a bump with the closed fist.
Meanwhile, outside, the next set of Voladores assembled ready to climb the pole. Humans in flight, spinning, ribbons fly in the wind, arms wide, feet wrapped around the rope, upside down, a several minute suspension.
There were not many foreign visitors here. Is it because people are afraid to come to Mexico. We took a 6-hour bus ride from Mexico City to get to Cuetzalan. A perfectly safe adventure. And, then a 4-hour bus ride from Cuetzalan to Puebla. Also, very safe. See what you are missing?
As night descended, Barbara and I left the church. There was a light drizzle that turned to a gentle rain. The scene was obscure, dramatic, filled with shadows of retreating people. This region is tropical, damp and lush. We don’t go anywhere without an umbrella!
How to Get There: From Mexico TAPO bus station, take the ADO bus to Cuetzalan del Progreso, Pueblo. Cost is about $20 USD. Trip length: 6 hours.
Where to Stay: Casa la Piedra, Cuetzalan del Progreso.
How to Return: From Cuetzalan buy a bus ticket at the new bus station in town on the Via line to Puebla CAPU. Cost is about $16 USD. Trip length: 4 hours.
How to Get From Puebla to Mexico City: Buy a bus ticket on Estrella Roja leaving Puebla every 30 minutes to the Mexico City airport, direct. Cost: About $16 USD. Trip length: 2.5 hours.
Where to Stay in Puebla: Hotel Casareyna is one of our favorites! They have a new addition and can accommodate many more guests. Sublime luxury. Try Bookingdotcom for bargain prices available.
Sunday Afternoon on the Last Aztec Lagoon: Xochimilco
We packed it in. After a Sunday morning at Casa Azul followed by seeing the largest private collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, we took an UBER (safe, easy, the only way to get around in Mexico City, despite USA negatives) to the Embarcadero de Nativitas in Xochimilco for a boat ride on the last Aztec canals in Mexico City.
Colorful fun. Fake flower crown vendors, Xochimilco.
Sunday is definitely the day to go. You get the full experience of what it is like to party on the trajineras — the flat bottom boat that can hold huge families,
How about some lively mariachi music? A Mexican tradition.
plus an entourage of mariachis playing guitars, trumpets, accordions and violins.
Sunday is the best day to be on the Xochimilco lagoons for people-watching.
It’s almost like riding a gondola in Venice, Italy. Maybe better. Much more colorful.
Dancing the afternoon away, Xochimilco
Sometimes families bring their own cook and the smell and smoke of grilling meats pervades the waterways. Sometimes families bring their own beer and the bottles pile up for the longer rides through the canals.
You can buy a pig en route, just transfer from their boat to yours.
It is festive, relaxing and the quintessential Mexican experience. Is it touristy? Yes. But, it’s also real because locals do this as part of birthdays, anniversaries, and any other excuse to have a celebration.
Expand the party and tie two boats together
Sometimes, you see two trajineras tethered together, so groups of forty or more can jump between boats, dance, sing and generally carouse. Children find their entertainment, too, relaxing in the sun, playing games, and dancing along with the adults. Just being together.
It’s a perfect way to enjoy the family, just 45 minutes from city center
The rate is fixed per boat: 350 pesos per hour. We went out for two hours and the next time, I think being out on a four-hour excursion would be better.
Doll island. Some say its haunted.
Then, we could get into the more remote areas where birds and flowers are more prevalent than people.
I had fresh roasted native corn on the cob. Valeria chose esquites.
Hungry? A small boat will pull up and entrepreneurial vendors will sell you grilled corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, chili and lime juice. Thirsty? Beer and soft drinks are delivered the same way.
How about a pulque? Fermented agave sap for Aztec power.
Want a souvenir? Buy a fake flower crown in any color of the rainbow. Need a pit stop? Clean facilities offer service for five pesos.
Buy a synthetic shawl or a plastic doll. Cheap fun.
On the return trip to the docking area, we had a traffic jam. Boats jammed up against each other, unable to move.
Moving the boat along. You can even buy plants from passing gondolas.
The gondoliers doing a ballet of pushing the long stick into the muck and against the next boat to jockey into a clear passageway.
Straining to move the boats on the last leg of our voyage.
Sometimes, they jumped boats to help each other out. Muscles straining, taut. Bodies at forty-five degree angles to the water.
The push-pull of getting out of the traffic jam.
I never heard a curse, only the sound of laughter and music from the party-goers, only too happy to spend extra time on the water as the boatmen sorted it out.
A jumble of color at the docking station.
Xochimilco is the last remaining vestige of what the lake region looked like during the Aztec period, pre-Conquest 1521.
Local emptying, then anchoring his launch.
This is how people got around from one island to the next. The people who live here still do. They are gardeners, growers of fruits and vegetables. It used to be that not too long ago the boats were covered in fresh flowers. Today, they are adorned with painted wood.
A remote waterway off-the-beaten path, like a jungle.
The next time you are in Mexico City, allow yourself at least a half-day to enjoy this respite from city life. Perhaps I’ll spend my next birthday here, hire a mariachi band and dance the afternoon away.
A serenade from shore on an island by the lagoon
For now, I’m at my other home in North Carolina, enjoying August heat and humidity, and the comfort of friends.
Norma Lupita, followed by Mexico Lindo. Porsupuesto.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexico City, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Aztecs, boats, gondolas, lagoon, lake, Mexico City, tourism, travel, Xochimilco