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
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
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.
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
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