Zacatlan de las Manzanas, Mexico’s Brigadoon

Zacatlan de las Manzanas

Zacatlan de las Manzanas

The Grand Marquis headed downhill. I was in the Sierra Norte Mountains, 2 hours east of Mexico City, looking for Zacatlán de las Manzanas, apple orchard country, and like the hunters in Brigadoon I was swallowed by fog with wispy fingers. It was late afternoon. My eyes strained to follow the misty road through the glowing silvery fog that filtered the sunlight. I couldn’t see the mountains, or the gorge, or the farms, or ranches, or orchards, or the pine forest, or the maguey cactus, all of which I discovered later.

In May, while in Puebla for Cinco de Mayo, I had been told about Zacatlán, and I was curious to visit this town built on the edge of a gorge and the indigenous people who lived in nearby villages.

What I found was Mexico’s Brigadoon. December fog shrouded the town and put halos around the street lamps. And with four nearby indigenous villages, where 80% of the people spoke Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, tending small farms, I truly entered a zone, a century apart, and a nature lover’s eco-tourist’s delight.

The area around Zacatlán is an eco-tourist’s delight: a combination of Lake Tahoe Forest, Yosemite Tuolumne Meadows and Bryce Canyon erosion sculptured stone monuments. Waterfalls tumble down the side of the Jilguero Gorge into a green-forested valley. Hiking, biking, camping, photography, thermal spas and holistic centers attract visitors.

Zacatlán is located in the saddle of the mountains at the edge of Jilguero (Finch) Gorge, a barrier that has forced development and growth away from the city center, leaving intact the architectural colonial heart of this town, founded in 1562, with a beautiful vista and nature walks.

The fog and I moved and pushed each other. I wore two sweaters, a long-sleeved shirt and a t-shirt.

I checked into Casa Grande Hotel. The receptionist greeted me with her turtleneck sweater pulled up to her nose. Here they dressed for outdoors, indoors. There was no heat in hotels, restaurants, shops, cafes or the Tourist Office where I met the director, Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo.

The secretary in the Tourist Office wore a bulky blue jacket and wool gloves while working at the computer. Mary Carmen explained, “Zacatlán has the Bank of Mexico, the Bank of Comer, the HSBC Bank and the Fog Bank.” Sweaters, jackets, and blankets are added or subtracted with the seasons and climate. “This is a healthy climate, it moisturizes the skin and it’s good for the lungs.”

Doors stood open to the shops and cafes off the plaza. In fact, patrons were enjoying coffee seated under green umbrellas in the pedestrian mall as if it were summer. They were dressed for the chill and had adapted to the climate.

Mary Carmen became my director, guide and benefactor. She penciled an outline where I could visit sites that an eco-tourist, hiker, biker, camper, or holistic devotee would enjoy. Her outline included San Miguel Tenango, a Náhuatl speaking town, in view a half-mile across the gorge, but a 34 minute, 7 mile drive, to the east. To the west, she suggested Piedras Encimadas, a valley of stone erosion-carved monuments, set among meadows and surrounded by pine forests. She mentioned hiking and the San Pedro Waterfalls where medicinal plants were gathered.

The next morning, I was up early, and alone in Zacatlán. Breakfast at 7 a.m. is not possible in Zacatlán and difficult to find before 9 a.m. I walked the Paseo de La Barranca, the scenic curve that follows the edge of the gorge. It was a beautiful sight with fog and sun and mist, and waterfalls tumbling into a green forest-carpeted valley.

Piedras Encimadas (Stacked Stones) is a blend of Lake Tahoe Forest, Yosemite Tuolumne Meadows, Bryce Canyon and a Rorschach Test.

The fog and I moved and pushed each other. I wore two sweaters, a long-sleeved shirt and a t-shirt. But I had already adjusted, extra sweater when up and about, extra blanket on my bed. The hardest adjustment I made was stepping on the tile floor in my hotel room in the morning. The freezing floor was as good a wakeup as a jolt of caffeine.

I was the first customer at Casa De La Abuela (Grandmother’s) restaurant. I ordered Huevos a la Mexicana (Mexican style scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes, peppers and onion) and asked the waitress directions for the nearest laundry. “It’s just 3 blocks away,” she said. “Two blocks down and take a left. It’s on the right.” I dropped off the dirty clothes, but choose to see a little more of the town, so I wandered up the hill, over a couple a blocks and then headed for the plaza.

I started to pass a building; OCMIZPAC caught my eye. I was curious. I stopped to read the words written in a half circle, like a rainbow, over this acronym. It stood for “Community Organization for Indigenous Teachers”. A man in a red jacket stepped out of the main door. I asked him about OCMIZPAC. He told me that inside Prof. Berrios was teaching a class, reading and writing in Náhuatl. There were 4 indigenous communities nearby, 2 different tribes, where Náhuatl was the preferred language.

He invited me in to meet Prof. José Bernardo Berrios Martinez. We interrupted the class. There were over 20 students in this class that was part of an effort to maintain and promote cultural identity.

Prof. Berrios gave the class some instructions and stepped outside. He was polite, serious, wore a gray jacket with a green collar, which accented the blue collar of his shirt. The jacket’s zipper was pulled up. He had two silver teeth and his hair was flecked with gray.

I said I was interested in the native culture and had been told that in May there would be a festival, the Kwaxochitl (Flower Coronation), with dances, traditional foods, art and crafts.

Prof. Berrios said he lived in San Miguel Tenango, one of the towns Mary Carmen mentioned. I told him I’d like to see the town, and the indigenous arts and crafts.

Prof. Berrios was direct, “When?” he asked. I said, “Tuesday, tomorrow morning.” He said, “I’ll meet you in San Miguel Tenango under the arches at the Municipal at 9 a.m.” I told him, “I’ll be there, 9 a.m.” He looked at me, perhaps wondering how I’d get there. He wasn’t so sure. “You’ll be there?” It was a question.

I told him, “If I’m not there at 9 a.m., I’m dead.” He smiled. I had a guide to San Miguel Tenango and to a people speaking a language that Cortes once heard.

It’s Monday, I’ve got places to see and an appointment for Tuesday. I head for Piedras Encimadas.

Piedras Encimadas

(Stacked Stones) is a blend of Lake Tahoe Forest, Yosemite Tuolumne Meadows, Bryce Canyon and a Rorschach Test. The wind-water eroded stones have taken on the shapes of grandpa, an Egyptian Sphinx, a seahorse, a frog, erotic lovers, and other shapes that may be seen by some, argued by others.

Meadows are set aside for campers. Rock climbers and rappelers test their skills, and one thrill, I found not by sight but located by the sound of wild cries coming from an aerial cable strung from rock crest to meadow floor. The adventurous had secured a rock climber’s safety clip to the cable and were taking a thrilling ride, dangling from the cable, whizzing out across and over the mountainside.

Tuesday, I got up at 7 a.m. and gave myself an hour and a half for what I was told would be a 40-minute drive to San Miguel Tenango. I arrived at the Municipal a half hour early. And of course having left before 8 a.m., I left without breakfast. So I took a short walk and found a café with raw wood plank tables and benches. I ordered coffee, scrambled eggs and tortillas. If you want a hot breakfast, always order corn tortillas, they come hot and stay hot. If your hot breakfast is placed on a cold plate, scoop it up, put it in the tortilla and you’ve a hot blanket around your meal.

I was a stranger in town. The lady, waitress-cook-cashier, was curious and asked why I was in San Miguel. I said, “I came to see Prof. Barrios.” She barked something in Náhuatl to a young boy and Prof. Barrios arrived at the cafe before I finished my coffee.

The artesananos (artisans) shop wasn’t opened yet. So, Prof. Barrios gave me a grand tour of San Miguel, the church, the municipal building, his home, and I met his family. He pointed out unusual decorative motifs on one of the ancient buildings now neglected and in decay.

As we were in front of the Municipal, a shepherdess drove her sheep past us. Two women were seated under the arches with a child. One was busy weaving a basket. She dressed in layers, a light blue blouse with a rose-pink sweater. She accented her clothes with a sheer white lace-like poncho that fell over her shoulders to her waist.

Women wore bright blue, red, yellow, green, and magenta yarns woven into the tresses of their hair. I asked about the symbolism. “The tresses hang over the hips, swing back and forth, and ward off evil spirits.” Younger women were wearing jeans with embroidered pockets. I mention this to Prof. Barrios and asked him if he thought those back pockets would ward off or attract spirits. He laughed.

Over the Municipal there were a number of names, one carved above each column. I asked about them. “This is the municipal authority. The names are the surrounding towns. Official business, judiciary for small disputes, is here.”

The towns were named in Náhuatl. I asked him to translate: Zoquitla: place of barren earth; Yehuala: surrounded by water; Xonoctla: place of tree bark; Apiazco; riverside; Cuctla: hill; Cuctenco: mountain river.

Back in the Grand Marquis, I passed Zacatlán, took the bypass road, up the hill, drove higher into the mountains to El Refugio, a holistic retreat, offering massage therapy, reflexology and a thermal spa. Two dogs greeted me and made my arrival known.

Raul Sanchez came out of a log cabin, “The dogs are good, they won’t bite,” he said. I got out of the Grand Marquis, introduced myself and mentioned that Mary Carmen had suggested his “campestre” as a place to visit.

Raul showed off the property. He pointed out a number of medicinal plants: mirto, jarilla, Santa Maria, manrubio, manzanilla, romero, ruda, hierba buena. Only the last could I translate, hierba buena, “good grass”. He pointed out the temazcal (from the Náhuatl: temaz meaning bath, cali meaning heat) that attracted holistic visitors and he explained the ritual.

The temazcal looked like an adobe igloo with two openings, oriented east to west. “It represents the womb,” Raul said. “And the four elements, air, water, earth and fire are part of the ritual purification rite for mind and body.” There was a bowl of water outside the small, knee level entrance. Copal incense was next to the water, and there was a circle for a fire to heat the stones that would be placed inside the temazcal. The participant would lie on the earth inside the temazcal, oriented, and would enter from east and exit west. In the center, hot porous stones would be placed, and on top of the red glowing stones, medicinal herbs. Both entry and exit would be closed, and the participant, once enclosed, would sweat and breathe the curative, purifying vapors.

Raul said they offered campsites and also three cabins. The cabin’s foundation and lower walls were adobe, but the upper wall and roof were reconstructed from log cabins that had fallen into disuse. Raul had re-cycled the once traditional log homes in these mountains, as if they were cabins from Kentucky.

Raul showed me the log cabins, all without electricity, all comfortable and at night, candle lit. Each cabin was identified with a symbol. There was Moon, Sun and Stars.

Friday, Mary Carmen arranged for a police pickup truck to take us to Cucuila. She had 5 passengers, one a tour guide who wanted to see Cucuila. Mary Carmen said she requested the pickup as the road was rough and we needed a high clearance vehicle. Fortunately, I got to sit in the cab with the police driver and Mary Carmen while the others sat in the truck bed. It was only 41 km., about 25 miles, but nearly a 2-hour rocking, twisting drive.

We were in the truck, hadn’t reached our turnoff, still on the highway that followed the edge of the Jilguero Gorge looking out over precipices when Mary Carmen hollered, “Stop. ” The police escort driver obeyed. “Here’s the swing I told you about,” she said. She asked the young adults in the pickup-bed if they wanted to take a ride. No takers. She hopped on the swing. She sat on a flat, perforated iron seat dangling from two yellow, plastic ropes. I looked up. A steel cable was strung between two tall pines at the edge of the gorge, and the ropes were connected to the cable. Mary Carmen attached a wrap-around safety belt.

“Give me a push,” she said, and some guy shoved her out over a 100-foot drop. I couldn’t breathe, and I was just taking a photo.

I tried to match her performance. My knees rebelled. It took an effort to get up on the swing. I sat on the iron seat and tried not to look down. I think I looked cool, but I couldn’t move a twitch. I got a shove and they just let me rock to and fro out over and back to earth.

The kids got the bug and they took some wild rides as the pusher gave the swing a twist and rider got a 360-degree view of near death.

Back in the truck, we turned off the highway and onto a dirt road. We jostled and swerved. It had been a while since the road was graded, and you could hike or drive at about the same speed. We were on a mountain road so tranquil that time did not seem to be an issue.

The police driver stopped so we could view the green forested valley, the terraced corn fields with dead, brown stalks striped of corn, and the patches of flowers along the road. I stepped out of the cab. There was a cold, light wind and a blue cloudless sky. I took pictures of flowers. In December, there were over a dozen species in bloom, from giant Ramo de Novia (Bride’s Bouquet, you only need one flower) to tiny mountain, alpine twig-like plants with dainty yellow globular flowers looking like little balloons on a stem.

I wondered, “How beautiful will it be in the spring when they have the Kwaxochitl Festival (Flower Coronation)?”

Cucuila was perched on the ridge of a mountain sierra range, more isolated and less populated than San Miguel Tenango. When we arrived workers were mixing cement and building a dorm for the mountain school children, most of whom were walking 1 to 2 hours a day just to get to school. The dorm would provide meals and beds for about 30 students who could spend the weekdays in Cucuila and the weekends at home.

I wanted to see indigenous crafts, but Cucuila was so remote that there was no artisans’ store. There was only one lady under an archway selling used clothes and her own embroidery. I bought a colorful small tablecloth with a flower motif.

We hiked to the top of the ridge. I thought of Machu Pichu jutting out in the Andes. I was told that the home and headquarters of General Barrios during the 1910 Revolution once stood on the mountaintop and even had a telephone. I wondered if Professor Barrios was related to this Mexican hero. But the family home had been demolished and when we reached the top, there was a basketball court and a primary school.

Mary Carmen arranged lunch for our group. The restaurant seemed made of adobe and scrap wood. We washed our hands in rainwater, helping each other use a dipper, taking the water from the barrel and slowly pouring the water over one another’s hands while each scrubbed.

By any objective measure, we were in mountain poverty, but there was no misery to be seen. The community lived a subsistence, agrarian life with terraced cornfields, bean fields, squash, sheep, pigs and chickens. This was a community, families were connected, a dorm was being built and on the wall of the restaurant with no name, there was an announcement:

Christmas Eve Dance
8 p.m. Music
Popular Prices
Held at the usual place


I would like to thank Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo, Zacatlan’s Director of Tourism, for her gracious hospitality.

About Dick Davis

Dick Davis has been a frequent traveler to Mexico since 1975. He’s taught businessmen and high school students. He has lived in San Luis Potosí, Querétaro and Dolores Hidalgo. He's traveled by bus, train and more recently by automobile. When he gets lost, it's an adventure

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