The Long and Winding Road

I tried… I really did…

But during the IWC fundraising tour of the gulf coast and central valley of Mexico – from January 31st through February 11th – so much happened that I had to let the blog slip. Keeping up with 45 people, and savoring the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and the warmth of the journey took up all but my shut-eye time.

When I last posted, our group had just left Puebla. I remember that even by that point, most of us had lost track of what day it was and how many days we’d been away. But the scarcity of clean clothes and the glut of bulging shopping bags offered definite clues!

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Xalapa and Puebla

I am a bit behind with the blog – we’ve been on-the-go and having just too much fun to spend time inside the hotel composing posts. But this morning I am awake early.

Thanks to the handy-dandy kettle I brought along on this trip, I’ve got a cup of coffee to bring me fully awake. And since Jorge is still sleeping, I’ve lifted a chair into the bathroom and set the computer down on edge of the sink. Voila – I have a work place!

Driving between Veracruz and Puebla on Thursday, we had rain for the only time on our trip so far. Disappointingly, we couldn’t see the Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak. Yet by the time we arrived in Xalapa, the capital city of the state of Veracruz, the sun was trying to muscle its way through the clouds. As we stepped out of the bus, our feet landed on fallen maple leaves – not the Canadian maples I am used to – but maples nonetheless. That was a bit of nostalgia for me.

We spent a two hours at Xalapa’s Museum of Anthropology. It houses Mexico’s second most important repository of pre-Columbian pieces. It is a beautifully designed place, incorporating gardens, sculpture and other artifacts.

The history of the native peoples of the state of Veracruz is the primary focus. There are four main indigenous cultures in this part of the country. The Huastecs, Otomis, Totonacs and Olmecs .

The first major pre-Columbian civilization was the Olmec. The Olmecs lived in the Coatzacoalcos River region. The ceremonial center in Veracruz was San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. Other important Olmec settlements in the state include Tres Zapotes in Veracruz, and La Venta, located in present-day Tabasco. The culture reached its height about 2600 years ago, and many anthropologists consider the Olmec civilization to be the mother culture of the many Mesoamerican cultures that followed it. By 300 BC, it was eclipsed by other emerging civilizations.

Another important group was the Totonaco, who have survived to the present day. Their region, called Totonacapan, is centered between the Cazones River and the Papaloapan River in the north of the state. The Totonac group is well-known for the clay sculptures with smiling faces. When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the territory was still home to a population of about 250,000 people

The Huastecs lived in the far northern part of Veracruz and their territory extend into parts of Tamaulipas, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí,  Queretaro and Puebla. The language and agricultural techniques of these people and those of the Maya are similar. However, only a few buildings and ceramics remain from the early Huastec culture. This culture also reached its peak between 1200 and 1519, when it was conquered by the Spanish conquest.

During the 15th and very early 16th century, the Aztecs dominated much of the state. The Aztecs were interested in the area’s vegetation and crops such as cedar, fruit, cotton, cacao, corn, beans and vanilla.

I took many pictures at this museum, here are a few:

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Our luck with the weather changed while we were inside the museum and it steadily improved as we drove towards Puebla. The full name of this beautiful city is Puebla de los Angeles – the city of angels.

Puebla is also famous for its elegant cuisine. Dishes such as Mole, Chiles en Nogada and Chalupas are popular entrees, and Santa Clara cakes, pecan and pine nut fudge are just the beginning of a long list of deserts that are a point of pride.

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Founded in 1532, Puebla is one of the oldest Mexican cities. A pleasant climate and a strategic location soon made it the second most important city in Colonial Mexico.

The merchandise unloaded from ships arriving to the Americas from the Philippines was taken through Puebla enroute to Mexico City. The Puebla potters adopted the techniques they saw in ceramic vases, pottery and tiles from the Far East, creating the beautiful talavera that decorates facades in churches, big houses, fountains, patios and kitchens.

Three blocks from the main square of the city of Puebla is The Parian, the best place for buying traditional crafts from the State of Puebla.

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The oldest public library in the Americas, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana (Palafox Library) has a collection of over 40,000 books, the majority of them dating from before Mexico’s independence. It is extraordinary that the collection is conserved in its original location along with the original bookshelves.

One of the highlights of a visit to the former convent of Santa Rosa is the kitchen, where it is said that mole poblano was invented. The creative nuns combined a wide variety of ingredients to create the signature dish of Puebla: a rich sauce that is both spicy and sweet. It’s easy to imagine the nuns grinding the ingredients on a metate (grinding stone), and stirring up their aromatic concoction in large unglazed earthenware pots on the tiled stove.

puebla friday 07

The severe exterior of the Church of Santo Domingo gives no clue to the opulence within. Upon entering you’ll find that the church is a masterpiece of baroque architecture and decoration. The Capilla del Rosario (Rosary Chapel), on the south side of the church’s main altar, is the most magnificent aspect of this church’s interior.

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Another of the finest museums in Mexico, the Amparo Museum in Puebla, hosts temporary exhibitions and houses a large collection of Pre-Hispanic, colonial, modern, and contemporary Mexican art. The Amparo Museum is funded by the Amparo Foundation, a charitable organization which founded by Manuel Espinosa Yglesias in memory of his late wife Amparo. It opened its doors in February 1991.

The Amparo Museum is housed in two colonial buildings, one a mansion, the other a former hospital. These buildings have been brilliantly adapted to display the impressive collection that offers insight into the different cultures and periods of Mexico. The exhibits also show what was happening concurrently in the rest of the world. The museum is a pioneer in interactive multimedia.

Each piece in the museum collection is a major work of art.

Puebla also boasts many fine restaurants. Our group ate together at the Fonda de Santa Rosa. Many more excellent restaurants circle the Main Plaza, and a short distance away, is the El Sueño Boutique Hotel that serves a unique blend of Poblano and international cuisine.

More shots of Puebla:

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Baroque detail is seen all over Puebla. The complex  flavors, intricate designs, legends and stories – the winding streets, splashing fountains, lush gardens – the craft markets, artistic alleys, and the panorama of church domes convince visitors that Puebla is indeed a place that the angels could call home.


The state of Veracruz is located on the Gulf of Mexico. Elevation varies from sea level to the Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak at 5,636 m (18,490.8 ft) above sea level.

The difference in altitude makes for a wide climate range – from cold, snow-topped mountain peaks to warm wet tropical areas on the coast.

Veracruz played a pivotal role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Hernan Cortes and his expedition founded Villa Rica de la Vera  Cruz on May 18, 1519 – the first Spanish town in what is now, Mexico.

During the colonial era, Veracruz was the main port of entry for both Spanish settlers and African slaves. Many of the slaves escaped and formed bands that did everything they could to thwart the Crown.  Eventually the colonial government was forced to sign an amnesty pact that gave the Africans the right to form their own community. Called the San Lorenzo de Zerral proclamation, it was the first time slavery was abolished in the Americas.

All commodities and luxury goods were imported and exported from the port.

All this activity made the port a highly prized target for pirates – Dutch, English and French buccaneers like John Hawkins, Francis Drake and Nicholas van Horn all attacked and sacked the city.  Today, our group visited the fort of San Juan de Ulúa that was built to protect the city.

Today, Veracruz is known for its seafood. Many restaurants offer a wide variety of entrees such as Pescado a la Veruzana and Caldo de Mariscos.

The main square in Veracruz is surrounded by modern buildings, including the City Hall. The square is famous for the many cafes set around its perimeter.

The neighboring cathedral, La Parroquia, was built in the XVII Century. It features Baccarat crystal chandeliers, a gift from Emperor Maximilian I.

The Malecón (the boardwalk) is a must for people watching and taking in the ambiance of the city.

Our group visited  the fort of San Juan de Ulúa today, and afterwards we tried to have lunch at Boca del Rio, one of Veracruz’ three main beaches. However we could not get there because of traffic congestion caused by preparations in progress for the children’s Carnaval parade. Alas – it was all for naught – because the strong wind that blew in about 2 PM caused organizers to cancel the event.

I hope you’ll enjoy the slide show of our visit to the Fort of San Juan Ulúa.

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More Catemaco and Tlacotalpan…

This is Wednesday morning and I feel as though I have been run over by a truck. Yesterday, our group had such a exhilarating, enthralling, enchanting, but EXHAUSTING day! Today’s post won’t contain a lot of text. After all, pictures are worth thousands of words.

The day began so tranquil and easy in Catemaco. After a leisurely breakfast we waited for a boat ride around the lake

cat 2 George claire lori

cat 2 leannelinda lori

cat 2 gary lou barb craig

The boats arrived and we got on

Catemaco boats

Catemaco gettin on board

The trip was lovely and scenic

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catemaco monkey island

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We saw water birds

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And monkeys

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After such a pleasant start, our day reved up. We traveled to Tlacotalpan for the Fiesta of the Virgen de la Candelaria… It was exciting to see the festivities, but oh so hot! And so many people!

I love that kind of experience. The crowds of of people celebrate with such gusto. There’s a lot of everything. Fervent religious observance, folk ways, partying, dancing, shopping, drinking, eating, dancing… all rolled up together.

Tlac mañanitas for the VirgenTlac imagenstlacinside churchTlac virgenTlac still closer
Tlac standards 3Tlac standards 2Tlac still closerTlac La veracruzanaTlac baby JesusTlacboat loads of faithful

But I think some group members were pretty tuckered out at the end of the day.

Tlac waiting for procession

At 5:30 PM, we wearily climbed back on board the bus and drove another 2 hours to Veracruz, our home for the next two nights. But we found ourselves in the midst of the first day of Carnaval!

Our bus could not get downtown to where our hotel was located, so we filed out and hoofed it for 8  blocks to the lobby of our (thankfully) lovely hotel. People thought we were part of the parade! Settling into our nice rooms, a hot shower, a meal and an early night were the agenda for most of us.

This morning we are touring Veracruz (and I suspect) taking a siesta in the afternoon!

If this is Tuesday, this must be TLACOTALPAN

When I first moved to Yucatan, getting my tongue around Maya words like DZIBILCHALTUN and CHICXULUB was a major accomplishment. But after so many years living here I have learned to sound them out. However, place names in other Mexican indigenous languages are still a challenge.

It took me about three weeks to remember how to pronounce the name of today’s destination on our itinerary: TLACOTALPAN.

Originally the settlement was built on an island in the Papaloapan River. Later the island was joined to the mainland. Not much is known about the pre-Hispanic history of the area, but definitely it was part of the territory originally inhabited by the Totonacas.

Here are a few more facts:

  • In the 12th century, this group was displaced by the Toltecs
  • Pedro de Alvarado led an expedition up the Papaloapan River in 1518,
  • And in 1521, Hernan Cortes himself sent Gonzalo de Sandoval to search for gold.
  • After the Conquest in 1521, the first sugar cane mill in Mexico was established in the area in 1532.
  • Cattle ranching also came to the region in 1550 when the Spanish king granted Gaspar Rivadeneyra rights to keep livestock.
  • Early in the 17th century, Tlalcotalpan became a commercial center for surrounding haciendas, which led to growth in its Spanish population.
  • In the later part of the 17th, and in the 18th centuries, the region’s wealth and status as a port attracted English pirates and the city was burned down in 1667.
  • In 1714, the Papaloapan River flooded and forced the movement of the city to its current location. The town had suffered two more major fires, in 1788 and 1790. The last one prompted rebuilding with stone walls, tile roofs, and the establishment of open spaces with trees.
  • In the late 18th century, using stone brought from reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, a sanctuary was built to house a statue of the Virgin Mary that was brought by seamen to the town.

Tlacotalpan reached its height as a port city in the 19th century. French, German and Italian immigrants came to the area to plant and weave cotton, that was sold in English markets.

Tlacotalpan’s port grew substantially in the 1820s and this brought economic prosperity to the region. By 1855 it was home to a fleet of eighteen steamships and a large sailing ship which transported timber, tobacco, cotton, grain, sugar, brandy, leather, salted meat, crocodiles, heron feathers, furniture and soap. In 1825, Mexico’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria founded one of Mexico’s first nautical colleges in the city.

With the construction of the Ferrocarril del Istmo, a modern railroad in the first part of the 20th century, Tlacotalpan’s importance as a port waned, but in 1998, it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its history as a river port, its architecture and its traditions in poetry, music and dance.


In Mexico, it is often difficult to draw a line between religious, family and cultural traditions. Día de la Candelaria –  Candlemas, celebrated on February 2nd, is one such example. Throughout the country, people dress up figures of the Christ Child and take him to be blessed at the local church.

In Tlacotalpan, the Festival of Candlemas – Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria –  is a major fiesta with processions in the streets and on the river, flowers, music and dancing.

Today our group will tour Catemaco Lake and the monkey colonies found on one of its islands. Afterwards, we’ll drive through more of the lake region to Tlacotalpan, and join in the fiesta there. You’ll see the pictures here – mañana!

And on the topic of pictures, here’s a slide show of yesterday’s visit to La Venta Park in Villahermosa, Tabasco.

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