Close to Mexico City, the pueblo magico of Cuetzalan serves as a great weekend break for those with an appetite for adventure and a desire for a more authentic Mexican experience
Having spent some time in Mexico and travelled extensively throughout, I decided that I would rope in a friend to help show me something a little more “authentic”, away from the comfort and shade of Mexico’s larger and more cosmopolitan towns and cities.
I had heard that Cuetzalan as a pueblo magico would fulfil my criteria. Its whitewashed colonial architecture, matched with a distinct pre-hispanic charm (where nahuatl, the primary language of the Aztec people is still widely spoken), made for an exciting and challenging mix. Having donned my poncho and sombrero, I set off across the flat Mexican countryside, just outside the city of Puebla, towards the mountains in the distance.
As the sun began to fall we started our ascent up in to the mountains, where Cuetzalan perches above the valleys below. A farmer struggling to herd his cattle was grateful for some help, as before long our progress was reduced to a pedestrian pace and we were cutting our way through thick fog.
Night had well and truly settled as we crept in to town and searched out our hotel: the rustic La Casa de Piedra, full of character and history, where a king-size bedroom will set you back a mere 690 pesos (or £35) a night. La Casa de Piedra is one of the more upmarket options in Cuetzalan but prices throughout the town are far from astronomical, so it may be worth paying the extra to really enjoy your stay.
It wasn’t long before we had worked up a bit of a thirst and set out in search of Yolixpa (a local drink), which, according to legend, helps induce a state of euphoria for all who consume it. I felt as if I was exploring the set of a detective thriller as the mist crept around an illuminated clocktower and we were embraced by a chilling cold. Smoke arose from the stalls of "poncho-ed" street vendors selling fresh corn, whose rich aroma stretched to even the darkest corners of the square. One of the few places showing any sign of life was a cantina where Mexicans young and old joined to drink their way through a Friday night.
At the very front of the bar lay a bottle glistening green in the flattering low light; in Yolixpa we had met our match. We were poured a couple of glasses for about 25p each, before taking a table and putting a couple of classic ranchera numbers on the jukebox. We had settled down for a truly "Cuetzalan" night as the drink flowed freely and our spirits soured to the emphatic accompaniment of love-lost Pancho Villas; a great way to kick off our quest for the real México.
Our weekend wasn’t limited to cantinas and encounters with our new-found friend Yolixpa, however. We soon discovered that Cuetzalan offers a wealth of sights and activities, where you might first consider visiting the ruins of Yohualichan. Unlike other historic sites in México, you won't find yourself distracted from the majesty and mysticism of the ancient surroundings by people trying to sell you things you don't necessarily want or need. Superbly conserved, the ruins sit high above the lush forest below and are enveloped by a close heat which only adds to the atmosphere. A small village has developed around the ruins, where the way of life of the largely nahuatl-speaking population has seemingly changed little since the Totonac people settled there centuries before. Yohualichan is only about 15 minutes from Cuetzalan’s centre, so you can pass as much or as little time there as you deem fit, without it affecting the rest of your day.
If nature is more your thing, however, you may be interested in visiting las brisas (nearby waterfalls), where it is recommended to rent a guide in order to make the most of your trip. You have to have something of the adventurer to you in order to brave the deceptively cold water, but it’s pleasant enough just to explore the area with its numerous falls and impressive viewpoints.
One of the greatest pleasures I experienced during the weekend was my flirtation with Cuetzalan’s back to basics cuisine. Whilst I’m sure that you might be able to find more glamorous restaurants and eateries within the town, it is great fun to just wander through Cuetzalan’s winding alleyways, from kitchen to kitchen, being invited in to sample the food on offer. It’s all Mexican fare, but for those looking for a meal with a bit of character and zero carbon footprint, this is the perfect experience. Eating out in Cuetzalan can be a personal and inviting practice, as you get to know your chef while knocking back a cold beer.
After dinner you might indulge in a spot of ancient Mexican ritual. Sat around a giant wooden pole, the sky a rich blue, you can treat yourself to a performance by the local voladores, who practise a Mexican art dating back to pre-hispanic times, in which four men representing the indigenous elements simulate flying by rotating around a central pole to which they are tied. Their shadows dance across the face of the church as their souls abandon their bodies in search of an ancient culture and history, which seems vastly detached from the "western" idea of religion and ritual. It's an incredible experience and one that for me represents Cuetzalan's greatest asset: its preservation of Mexican custom and history.
Beyond being a place of incredible beauty, Cuetzalan is imbued with the friendly and inviting atmosphere so characteristic of the Mexican people. Cuetzalan doesn’t experience the hordes of tourists that swarm through similar destinations such as San Miguel de Allende and this, for me, weighed up with the variety of sights and activities on offer, makes it a very attractive prospect for those seeking a more authentic experience. Cuetzalan strikes a great balance between “off the beaten track” and tourist accessibility that makes it a perfect destination for any individual looking to stray briefly from the tourist trap.