Blog 19 Coatepec Veracruz

    Coátepec, Veracruz                                                   3 March 2013


            Travelers, and especially travelers with gypsy genes, know that plans must be written in pencil.  Our original plan for this Mexican sojourn was one month in the Yucatán because we love jungles and Mayan ruins. Check. Then one month in the rental Casita in San Pablo Etla, the exurb of Oaxaca, because we like Oaxaca and think we might want to spend even more time there. Check. Then one month in Coátepec or Xico, near Xalapa in Veracruz, to see if we like that area better.


            We moved from Zirahuén, in Michoacán, where we’ve been wintering for several recent years, because -- what with Linda's Raynauds and pulmonary hypertension--  the village, despite its beautiful lake and pine-clad mountains, at 2500 meters (a little over 8,000 feet) was too high and too cold for Linda’s comfort. San Pablo Etla, at 1700 meters (a little higher than Denver), we thought would have more and warmer air. And it did. And we found some good friends right away. And though the Adele’s Casita was tiny, Karen and Tammy’s house, El Huajal, was spacious and light and had a huge garden in back and was available. So we stayed a second month in Oaxaca, signed on for four months next year, and cut the Xico-Coátepec visit to five days, with a week-long ramble through the Mixteca as a prolog.

      Coátepec, after all, is on the Atlantic slope at only 1200 meters (under 4,000 feet). It is reputed to be green, rambunctiously verdant, arty, and close to Veracruz’s cosmopolitan state capital, the university town Xalapa. Also, as one of Mexico’s “pueblos mágicos,” (designating picturesque villages of—the designators hope—tourist interest), it has a large number of good restaurants, artesanía shops, and a rich musical culture. Debbie Mounts runs what on the web looks like a gorgeous eco-lodge, just outside of town, which we contracted for five nights. The much revised plan: hiking and birding at dawn and dusk for me, and exploring the splendors of Coátepec and Xico, it’s much smaller cousin, during the warmer hours of the day.


          Here’s what we missed: Coátepec and Xico sit halfway up the Volcán Perote, one of Mexico’s highest volcanic massifs. Coátepec is so  green because the moisture-laden breezes that blow in from the Gulf of Mexico find it tiresome to haul all of that moisture over the mountains.

It is much more convenient to dump it all before skipping across to Mexico’s high central valleys. The sky was clear when we got to Coátepec, but by the time we had unloaded the suitcases into Debbie’s casita, it had gone grey and begun to drizzle. Next morning there was no sky, no view across the valley from Debbie’s balcony, just a steady light misty rain called locally chimichimi. After a few hours the chimichimi turned to downipouri, the cobble streets turned to rocky archipelagoes in a srain-pocked sea, and the unpaved roads softened into quagmire. Coátepec/Xico are so green because they’re in a cloud forest.


            And it was cold. Bone-chilling. We put on all our warmest clothes and Linda huddled on the couch under a blanket, knitting new warm clothing as fast as she was able.


            Maybe, we thought, Thursday’s sluicing was just an aberration. And the cold was a one-timer. Then we began to notice things. The electric blanket on the bed. The electric heater up against one wall. The mildew on most of the walls of the houses all up and down the street. The wide eaves on all of the buildings around the plaza. The fact that most of the locals were going about their business clad in boots and slickers and carrying umbrellas, just as if this weather were completely normal.


            Well, OK. Pencils out for a new plan. The abarrotes (neighborhood grocery store-let) on the corner has canned sopa de crema de elote soup (Campbell’s Cream of Corn, in good Mexican), and Bimbo brand whole wheat bread. Our Casita has a good internet connection. So a blanket-wrapped, soup-sustained work day was in order, and in fact, appreciated. 


            We woke up Friday to find that the weather had turned for the worse. In the street, half of Thursday’s island cobbles were now under water. The view from our windows was monochromatic. Linda finished the fish-net sweater and started on a knitted dress. I chipped away at another piece of my book project, which seems like it might go on forever anyway, so then what’s another day?


            I want to make clear that we are NOT complaining. Debbie’s Casita is lovely: a kitchen/living room downstairs, and a loft upstairs. The whole east wall is glass, looking out on a jewel of a small valley with sheep and cows and goats and a couple of bulls, a dog and a red-hatted farmer, to make us smile when we look up from our projects. We are in the Casita, Debbie explained when she got back from Chiapas, because at the moment it is too wet and cold and muddy for us to go out to the eco-lodge at which we would currently be the only residents, and for which she would have engage and pay a full staff.


Debbie was in Chiapas buying textiles for her shop a block from the parque (the Coátepec term for a xócalo or central plaza). She came to Mexico 25 years ago on a project involving migrant workers, liked what she found, and except for a 3-year stint college teaching in the States, has lived here ever since even, in fact, becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen. Before moving to Coátepec, for a while she ran a shoe-store in San Miguel de Allende (too many American ex-pats); and then a store in in downtown Oaxaca (too dry; too big; too many tourists). She’s been a gracious hostess, and we are looking forward to going out tonight to dinner / concert with her and a couple of her friends.


Saturday, which is today, dawned grey but clear. I took a two hour hike shortly after dawn, found El Retoño, the eco-lodge, folded deep in a narrow valley in the midst of dense forest (ideal for cold, damp, mildew), and some interesting birds, including four species of woodpecker. Can’t recall ever seeing that many in one day. The hillsides all around these two towns are all planted in coffee, often amid banana trees, with both crops shaded by an upper story of mixed hardwoods of a variety of types. Some of the coffee bushes bear ripe red berries, some have tiny green berries, and some are covered with frilly white buds. Many, in fact, show red, green, and frilly all on the same bush!


By late morning I had returned to the Casita, scraped the mud

from my shoes, made a pot of Coátepec’s fabulous coffee, sliced into my bowl of yogurt and granola a juicy ataulfo mango (our favorite of the 4 or 5 types for sale in every market), sat down to breakfast and blinked. My coffee cup was throwing a shadow. A ray of sun had turned the valley to emerald. Cattle egrets had settled in by the two bulls, hoping they would stomp up a tasty bug or two. In the pine tree by Debbie’s balcony a yellow Wilson’s warbler, his black cap making him look like he was on his way to some arboreal synagogue, twittered gaily away. Linda and I, smiling just as broadly as the sheep and the cows and the egrets, jumped into the car for day of exploring hills and valleys, coffee plantations and waterfalls.


We will probably never call this place home —too cold, too wet, even if we CAN breathe the air— but one day out of three, so far, it is a gorgeous place to visit.