Vacation !

27 June 2017

Vacation:   Sierra Norte de Puebla

The four of us are taking a vacation! That’s me, Linda, the CPAP, and Mini, Linda’s new toaster-sized oxygen concentrator and mobility-provider.

We’ve come to the Sierra Norte de Puebla, geographically an impossibly tangled place of mountains and gorges and volcanoes and no quick way to get to any village that can be seen from the village you are currently lost in. We’ve based ourselves in two so-called Pueblos Mágicos, small-ish towns that have qualified for a special designation as tourist-worthy. Some of the original ones included Taxco, Real de Catorce, Real del Monte, Pátzcuaro, Tequisquiapan and Tlacotalpan. These, each a colonial gem with a strong visual impact, and lots of interesting things to see and do, should be near the top of your list of must-sees when you come to Mexico.

For this vacation our base towns are Cuetzalan (stress on the 1st a) and Tlautlauquitepec (stress on the last e; try saying it 3 times fast). Now there are 111 towns with the Mágico designation and the criteria for inclusion seem not to be quite so persnickety, or perhaps just not so rigorously enforced. Still Tlautlauquitepec was nice, with a pretty zócalo (central plaza) and a sprawling and colorful market. The town straddles a loma, or ridge, between two deep arroyos thick with vegetation. My two-hour morning hike gave me a real workout. We found a restaurant on the plaza that served mollejas (sweetbreads) sizzled in garlic and a variety of not-so-spicy chiles. Yum. We were the only tourists in the village. The Tlautlauquitepec Tourist Office logbook indicated two others the previous week.


Cuetzalan is better known (and easier to pronounce). Narrow cobbled streets, many of which suddenly become steps; time-worn gray stone buildings.  But also lots of up and down and no flat (not so good for Linda at the moment). Cuetzalan sits high on the Atlantic slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental range, at just under a thousand meters, with pines just above it and lots of jungle just below. Nearby is a Tajín-inspired archaeological site, several waterfalls, a botanical garden, and a butterfly preserve. The region is heavily ethnic, Totonac and Nahua speaking, and most of the women and many of the men still wear traditional dress: simple white blouses and t

rousers for the men; embroidered huipiles, voluminous skirts, and lace overdrapes for the women.


After a few hours of exploring the city, we wandered off looking at local sites. That takes some doing. The roads are all signed, but intermittently, and while the villages are legion, many are not on the map, and neither are the roads that allegedly link them, and you have to brake hard or stop entirely in order to read their multisyllable ‘tl’-, ‘x’-, and  and ‘z’-filled names: Tlanehuatancingo and Taxcipéhuatl, Atlequizayán and Cuauhtapanaloyan, Ozelonacaxtla and Yancuitlápam. All these less than 20 kilometers from Cuetzalan. One of my favorite poems by the all-but-forgotten Morris Bishop springs to mind:

There is magic in the atlas; how the names allure my eyes!
Ah, to be in Hiddi Birra, where the Jam-jam Mountains rise!
Or Kasongo on the Kongo, where Kibombo gleams afar!
Or in Kilwa Kisiwami, looking north to Zanzibar!

Oh, this life is dull and dreary; I would journey far away
To Jalalabad and Lhasa, to Kabul and Mandalay!
Ah, the Runn of Cutch! Rajpipla! and that dim and ancient land
Where the caravans come shuffling into silken Samarkand!

(There’s a lad in old Rajpipla with an atlas in his clutch,
And his dreaming eyes are gazing far beyond the Runn of Cutch,
And mysterious music lures him, and he murmurs soft and low,
“Cincinnati! Cincinnati! Buffalo, ah, Buffalo!

“Ah, to be in that far city, blooming like a tropic rose,
Where by golden Allegheny the Monongahela flows;
How sweet the limpid syllables that stir my heart to joy,
As I whisper, ‘Ah, Chicago! Fair Chicago, Illinois!’”)

[Note from editor Linda: David entered this entire poem in the blog from memory; thus no bibliography. Literary references in this family are often the entire work.]


Tempting though all those cacophonic ‘tl’- and ‘x’-places were, limits of time and stamina dictated that we pick just two. Well, three. The first winner was Yolahuichán, a half hour east of Cuezalan on a good road, which is what the existing corckscrew, heavily potholed, and in some places washed out current road will one day be. We turned off this main road onto what we were led to believe would be a terracería, an improved dirt track, but instead it was polished flagstone with hard veins of some sort of volcanic churt running through it every whichaway. 500 meters from town the road was blocked for

construction and an eight-year-old directed us to a work-around, over a steep hill, and by a Jehova’s Witness Kingdom Hall with all of the signage exclusively in Nahuátl. The ruins —built by the Toltecs, subsequently occupied by the Chichimecs, the Aztecs, and the Spaniards— are extensive , well kept, and slumping with age.


The second and third winners were waterfalls, which abound in the rugged landscape. At many of them the force of the falling water has carved out deep swimming holes which appear to be one of Cuetzalan’s major attractions, at least for families with kids.



Since our hotel in Cuetzalan claimed to have not registered our reservation, and could accommodate us for only two of the three nights we had planned, we decided to head back to Oaxaca a little early, even though

the 24th was –in addition to brother John’s saints day—our anniversary, which we were in a fashion celebrating. But as we wound up the mountain road from Cuetzalan we happened by the Aldea San Francisco de Asís which we had read was a kind of eco-jungle park with cabins and a restaurant. We stopped for a look, were shown a splendiferous bamboo cabin, rampant vegetation, and more hummingbirds than we had seen since Monteverde, twenty years previous in Costa Rica.

We settled in under the threatening sky, Linda to knit and nap and watch birds from our picture window and balcony me to tread the trails and try to get a look at all the critters that were making those strange-to-my-ears calls high in the trees. In-between rainstorms that turned the giant ferns and epiphyte-clad trees into towering drip machines, I strolled the trails, soaked my tennies and socks, and eventually did get a peak at a cou

ple of birds that were new to me, including a showy little screecher called a black-headed nightingale-thrush. Thickly-veined leaves the size of elephant ears. Lava, jagged in little pinnacles, layered in flat shelves, smooth masses with knobby incrustations, most of them collecting rain pools and hosting varieties of water lilies and cress. Flowers in every hue in sizes from pinhead to basketball.


And another reason to hurry back is the proprietor, a well-read, eco-minded, expansive utopian named José María Simón Ruiz ( who was bursting with ideas about architecture, hydroponics, technology, politics, running a hotel, you-name-it. He identified his profession as todólogo, that is, de todo un poco [an Everything-er, a little bit of everything].  He and I talked for hours, while the hummingbirds buzzed and swooped around his two feeders. [Non-birders skip the next paragraph.]



The hummingbirds I could identify were the violet saberwing, the wedge-tailed saberwing, the magnificent, the long-billed star-throat, the amethyst mountain gem, Ganivet’s esmerald, and the azure-crowned., blue-crowned, and violet-crowned hummingbirds. I spotted couple of nifty wrens, too, a gray-breasted wood-wren and a sedge wren. Alas, I heard many, many calls that I could not identify and never got to glimpse the makers of. I need a guide with taxonomic ears.


One last note. And the way to and fro we passed the little town of Aljojuco, and noticed that a decorated entry arch led to a road that climbed to a pretty church. OK, then, five minutes to check out the church. We drove up the hill, parked, walked around to the front terrace and . . . who’d have believed it? At the edge of the terrace yawned a 500-meter deep (1500 feet!) broad circular hole, the caldera of an extinct volcano, with a blue lake at the bottom. I leaned forward against the guardrail for a view straight down, but immediately stepped back a psychologically safe distance. Vertigo. Queasy stomach, sweaty palms, pounding heart, the whole nine yards. I did creep close enough again, though, to snap this picture. Next time we wander through these parts we will budget two or three hours for the CRV to tiptoe through the hairpin turns down to the bottom of the crater so we can explore lake shore.



D & L



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