Pearl of Papaloapan

This Mayan city is a must for its authentic festivals

By: Barbara Kastelein

Although it has been a World Heritage Site since 1998, Tlactotalpan (pronounced tlah-coh-tal-pan), located on the banks of the Papaloapan River in the state of Veracruz , is still off the beaten track. This makes it very attractive for foreign travelers who are looking for a dash of authentic Mexico.

Like Cuetzalan in the state of Puebla, Tlactotalpan is one of those beautiful colonial towns that Mexicans cherish as a part of their national heritage, yet remains a fairly well-kept secret internationally. Although it is only a two-hour drive from the port of Veracruz, which is served by planes, Tlactotalpan feels more isolated than it actually is. The town’s appeal lies in its old-world ambiance magnified by its warm, humid atmosphere, and mystified by the resonant watery echoes of piping songbirds. Although it is hard to imagine any influence from technology in such a setting, Tlactotalpan is firmly in the modern age, with at least three friendly well-stocked Internet cafes in town.

The main visual attraction is Tlacotalpan’s traditional architecture multicolored houses with red tiles and beautiful wrought-iron fittings, all fringed by shady rounded porches. The small population of 16,000 inhabitants favors traveling by bicycle or occasionally on horses, and everything is on a walking scale. Tlactotalpan is also one of those places where women can feel safe traveling at night alone.

Another draw for visitors is the Papaloapan, a voluminous river that stretches about 620 miles. Restaurants perched on its banks offer soothing views, with boats laden quaintly with cattle. Sometimes, even horses can be seen swimming home to the ranch. Visitors can spend a day on the river, hiring a boat and guide, who will take them fishing and riding along some of the tributaries to see the nearby farming communities.

Culturally, the town’s history and musical tradition are its mainstays. Originally, Tlactotalpan was inhabited by the Totonac people, but was subjugated by the Aztecs in the 15th century, when it was given its name, which means “divided earth” in the Nahuatl language. This refers to its wide, fertile territory divided by the waters of the Papaloapan (“the River of the Butterflies”).

The dictator, Porfirio Diaz, adopted the city at the end of the 19th century until the arrival of the railroad, which finally broke the monopoly of river transportation. The town then reverted to fishing and adopted a more laid-back rhythm of life, which can be seen today.

Tlactotalpan blasts out of its customary somnolence at the beginning of every February for a riotous fiesta that celebrates La Candelaria and the Virgin of Purification, the town’s patroness. Activities kick off on Jan. 31 with a colorful equestrian procession at 4 p.m., featuring hundreds of men, women and children some only two years of age on horseback and in traditional costume. This is followed by El Dia del Toro (The Day of the Bull) on Feb. 1, when piragua (rowboat) races across the Papaloapan River are held in the early morning. Around midday, winners gain the right to ferry six swimming bulls over the river, which are then let loose for a couple of hours on the colonial city’s streets. Dressing in red is a must, and locals may try their hand at a few swirls with a cape, encouraging the animals who, being oxen rather than fighting bulls, are peaceful by nature to charge.

On the last day, Feb. 2, which is Dia de la Candelaria, the statue of the Virgin, bedecked with peach-colored roses, is taken from the church, carried to a festooned boat and paraded up and down the river, with hundreds of little boats stuffed with onlookers accompanying her, singing and throwing flowers. (Visitors can join in for about $5 per head.)

Another feature of this of this festival is the week-long Encuentro de Jaraneros (Jaranero Encounter). At least 70 different groups playing regional folk music on jaranas (diminutive guitars) congregate in Tlactotalpan to play traditional songs around the clock. The musicians arrive from remote villages and big cities throughout the country, along with some who return from working in the United States to attend. Naturally, dancing is also a part of the festivities, with the staccato steps of the huapango dance paced out upon on a wooden platform called a tarima, to a percussive beat.

The music, which involves ad-libbing and accompanies the “fandango” dance, is a part of the heart and soul of Tlactotalpan and of the famous Son Jarocho tradition. Mexico’s famous songwriter, Agustin Lara used to emphasize that he was born here, as though to underline his own musical heritage. Many of the town’s international guests are musicologists and folk musicians drawn by this unique attraction.

Typical visitors are middle-aged U.S. and Canadian couples opting for tours that include Veracruz and sometimes, the state capital of Jalapa.

Whoever they are, and however they find themselves there, visitors to Tlactotalpan will discover plenty of off-the-beaten-path, authentic folk culture to be had.

The Details

Tlactotalpan is about 265 miles from Mexico City or a little over five hours by car. Buses leave from the TAPO bus station in Mexico City, taking about seven to eight hours ($35). Also, from Veracruz’s Central de Autobuses (CAVE) there are regular buses from 6 a.m.-9 p.m., costing around $6 and taking approximately two hours.

Direccion de Turismo Municipal
288-884-2151, ext. 114

Veracruz State Tourism Office
800-712-6666, ext. 3

Hotel & Suites Posada

Hotel Reforma on Zocalo

Lindo Romero (father and son team)
Cost: About $85