Saturday, May 29, 2010

Odyssey to Zacatlán de las Manzanas: Part 1

Parrochia de San Pedro y San Pablo, one of two large churches overlooking Zacatlán's El Centro plaza. The Parrochia was built in the period overlapping the 17th and 18th centuries. A couple of months ago, a fellow named Dick Davis left a message on the comments section of this blog expressing his appreciation of my various postings featuring Mexico's indigenous people. Dick offered to coordinate my visit to the small city of Zacatlán de las Manzanas for the Crown of Flowers Festival, or Ilhuitl Cuaxochitl as it is known by the Náhuatl-speaking indigenous people of the area. What made the offer irresistible was not just the promise of a colorful fiesta full of people in their native dress. Our hostess, Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo, was formerly the local tourism director. She was offering to put us up in her own home and act as our personal tour guide for an area reported to have spectacular scenery. My only responsibility would be to enjoy myself, take lots of photos, and write up the experience in this blog. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. Remarkably, the entire transaction with Dick to set all this up has taken place over the internet. While I have never met him or even spoken with him directly, I can't thank him enough for providing this opportunity.

Zacatlán sits on a rolling plateau that ends abruptly at the edge of a huge canyon. The city of Zacatlán has a bit less than 29,000 people, with a total of about 63,000 scattered in small villages and farms throughout the mountainous municipality (equivalent to a US county). Zacatlán is about a 1.5 hour drive northeast of Puebla, and about 2.5 hours from Mexico City. For a map, click here. From Lake Chapala, the total drive time is about 10.5 hours, which I broke into two half-day drives. Nearly all of the distance was on fast, smooth, toll roads called cuotas. The city is surrounded by large and very steep pine-clad mountains which drop down into deep, narrow canyons with rushing streams and cascading waterfalls. In the photo above, the line where the city appears to meet the mountains is actually the lip of a cliff falling into the vast Jilguero Gorge. In the course of my visit, I took over 1500 photos of the festival, the scenery, and fascinating local villages. After winnowing this number down to the few which best tell the story, I will have material for perhaps 9 more postings following this one. Fasten your blog-reading seat belts!

Zacatlán from the east, looking across the gorge. This telephoto shot gives you a sense of the abruptness with which the city ends at the lip of the Jilguero Gorge. "Jilguero" refers to the species of finch which abounds in the thick canyon forests. The gorge drops off precipitously for a couple of hundred more feet below what you can see in the photo. In the center of the photo are the steeples of the two churches that face onto the plaza. I took the photo that is previous to the one above from the slopes of the mountains you can see in the background. Zacatlán de las Manzanas got its Náhuatl name from the presence of grassy pastures ("zacate," a type of grass, and tlan "the place of"), and Spanish name from its reputation as apple-growing capital of Mexico (manzanas is Spanish for apples). The plateau on which the city rests is at 2010 meters (6594 feet) with a mean temperature of 18 degrees C. (64 F.). The area reminded me a lot of the Cascade foothills in Oregon, both in geography and cool moist climate.

Breakfast at Mary Carmen's home for the visiting dignitaries. I had invited my friend Christopher English (left, above), a well-known local artist, photographer, and writer who has been published in several local magazines. Christopher also has a fairly decent command of Spanish, a skill I am still developing. I have known Christopher as a fellow hiker for 3 years, and he turned out to be an excellent companion on the adventure. While traveling around Zacatlán, we were invariably introduced by our hostess as "visiting reporters from the United States," and treated by those we met as special dignitaries, as if we were from the New York Times or 60 Minutes. While this may have been the simplest way to describe us, at times we felt a little like imposters. Neither us us tends toward an inflated self-opinion. However, I suppose that since my blog is viewed by about 6,500 people from around the world each month (totaling 105,000 since I launched it 3 years ago), I qualify as an on-line magazine photojournalist, albeit unpaid and self-published. Christopher has been published in print magazines, so he slips under the qualification wire too. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo.

Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo, our hostess and guide. She was wonderful in both roles, even though her beloved father had died only a few days before our arrival. She constantly had to juggle the traditional mourning period activities with her commitments to us. We would have understood if she had simply cancelled, but that's not Mary Carmen's style. She is a person who appears happiest when she has half a dozen balls juggled in the air at once. She virtually buzzes with upbeat energy, and regularly left us exhausted and recuperating at her home at the end of a long day while she raced off to some other commitment. She also told us that being with us raised her spirits and kept her mind off her grief. Above, she is dressed in the traditional style of the indigenous women in the area. Under her lacy shawl, Mary Carmen wears a beautiful white blouse called a huipil, which is colorfully embroidered with plant and animal designs. The local Náhuatl name for the garment is Quexquemetl (pronounced Queshquemetl). She wore her hair in two braids, although they were considerably shorter than those usually worn by the indigenous women. You will learn more about Mary Carmen and her extensive family as this series unfolds.

Templo y ex-Convento Franciscano. This church and former monastery was founded by the Franciscan order in 1562 and the church was completed in 1567. It is the oldest church in the State of Puebla and the fourth oldest in the Americas. The Templo is considered a jewel of the Vice-regal style. I was not able to take any pictures inside, because every time I had an opportunity they were holding a Mass. According to written accounts, when it was under restoration, architects found murals with jaguars, snakes, bees and other animals sacred to the beliefs of the original indigenous people. Additionally there were murals of huts with straw roofs in the ancient style and both indigenous and Spanish people going about their daily activities. The church is considered unique in that it still carries on all of its traditional activities after 440 years.

Indigenous woman uses modern and traditional style carrying methods. Some of her burden she carries in the unfortunately-ubiquitous plastic bag, while the remainder she totes in a hand-made wicker basket held up by a tump-line across her forehead. The use of the tump-line goes back thousands of years. Her hair is held in two long braids down her back which are attached to colorfully embroidered strips of cloth called cintas ending in rainbow-hued fringes at the bottom.

A closer look at braid decoration. This young woman wears her hair braided in almost the identical style as the older woman in the previous photo. Out of view at the bottom are the colorful fringes that end the decoration. The cintas are black and embroidered in the design of cabbages. Also typical are the two large flowers entwined in her hair at the beginning of the braid. The designs vary both according to the taste of the person who did the embroidery, and the traditions of the village from which she came. The shoulders and neck of her huipil are also embroidered. The ankle-length skirt is made of black wool, and is held up by a black and white embroidered belt. The overall effect is elegant.

Palacio Municipal faces onto the Plaza de Armas where two days of festival dances occurred. This was constructed between 1876 and 1896, during the heyday of dictator Porfirio Diaz. The style is neoclassical, using gray cantera. The columns are Tuscan style.

A most unusual clock. In the center of the plaza are two clocks facing in opposite directions, but gently inclining to meet at their tops. Both are run by the same clock mechanism. One of the most unusual aspects of the clocks are that the faces of both clocks are flower gardens. Only the numbers and the clock arms are non-living.

Closeup of the clock face. The closer you look, the more beautiful the clock face becomes, with a wide variety of plants set in concentric circles. This clock was designed and constructed by Mary Carmen's father, the person who had died a week before. He was the second of three generations who founded and built and are still running an internationally-known clock business based in Zacatlán. This is the only double-faced garden clock in Mexico, and perhaps the world, where both clocks are run by the same mechanism. In another posting of this series, I will take you on a visit to the clock factory, and its very unusual display.

The game of balero looks easy, but isn't. While wandering through the plaza, I encountered this young man at a small table full of traditional hand-carved wooden toys. He cleverly caught my attention by casually flipping the solid wooden cylinder up in the air and catching it on the wooden nipple extending above the handle in his hand. This is the game of balero, or "bullet mold." The wooden cylinder is generally made of cedar, willow or poplar. The bottom of the cylinder end facing him has a small hole into which the nipple fits. He did it so easily and casually that he was able to persuade me to take a try. Needless to say, I failed abysmally, even after numerous attempts. Generally there are several players, and they bet on how many successful tosses they will have out of a given number of tries. The game is widely played in Latin America, and comes with a variety of different moves including "the double, the vertical, the mariquita, the stab, the Buenosairean, etc." My thanks to Mary Carmen for emailing me this information.

El Balcon restaurant lives up to its name. El Balcon, which means "the balcony," sits at the end of a narrow spur of land that extends out into the Jilguero Gorge. The restaurant is the building you can see just above center in in the photo. The black rectangular section running along its front is a cantilevered, glassed-in balcony with tinted windows. The result is a spectacular 180 degree view of the deep gorge separating El Balcon from Zacatlán on the opposite side.

The tinted-window dining area of El Balcon faces across the gorge toward Zacatlán. Our table was in the corner area you can see in the upper right of the photo. It you look closely, you can see the line of structures on top of the plateau across the Jilguero Gorge. Just below our window were a couple of large, unusually shaped rocks about which there is an indigenous legend. It seems a beautiful maiden fell in love with a young man forbidden to her. When they consumated their love, the gods sent a bolt of lightening, turning them to stone.

Christopher and I enjoy the view...and the food. Often a restaurant with a fabulous view will slack off when it comes to the quality of the food, thinking that the view is enough to draw patrons. Not so with El Balcon. They specialize in beef dishes, while also carrying fish and chicken and other entrees. Mary Carmen recommended the Res Azteca (Aztec Beef). I took her advice, while Christopher tried the filet mignon. Neither of us was disappointed. The beef was unbelievably tender and juicy. If I've had better, I can't remember when. The Res Azteca was covered with an edible black corn fungus called Huitlacoche, a great delicacy. Cheese was melted over the fungus. It sounds kind of odd, but it was delicious. If you visit El Balcon, I strongly recommend it. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo.

A view down the gorge, toward...more gorges and more mountains. In a later post you will see some of the villages we visited in the mountains in the far background, including a view of Zacatlán from near their summit. You can get down into these gorges, but the roads are winding, rough, and mostly unpaved. There are also trails down, but the hike back up would be daunting, although the indigenous people continue to use them after thousands of years.

Agapanthus, also known as "Lily of the Nile" is neither a lily nor from the Nile. We found this lovely cluster of Agapanthus africanus along the cliff edge near El Balcon. The local name is Agapanto, or Flores del Amor (Flowers of Love). It originated in South Africa, but is now cultivated throughout the warm areas of the world. It blooms in Spring and Summer, so we were definitely in the right season.

After lunch, I stepped out onto a rock outcropping to try a photo. I moved cautiously because the drop from the edge of the rock to the canyon bottom was a couple of hundred feet straight down. While I photographed the canyon, Mary Carmen shot one of me. Photo by Mary Carmen Olver Trejo.

The bottom of the canyon. Using my telephoto at extreme range, I captured this quiet pool, fed by a small waterfall which originates in the springs a little further up the canyons. This is the beginning of the roaring white water found further down the barranca. In a future posting of this series, we'll check out some of those huge waterfalls.

This concludes Part 1 of my multi-part series about our Oddyssey to Zacatlán. In Part 2, I will show the dancers of the wildly colorful Ilhuitl Cuaxochitl, or Crown of Flowers Festival. This is a fabulous area, definitely worth visiting again, whether or not the festival is happening at the time. Even with a guide, there was much we didn't have time to see over our 5 day visit. For an account of my friend Dick Davis' visit, click here. Anyone who would like to contact Mary Carmen for more information can email her at If you would like to leave a comment, please do so either by using the comments section below, or by emailing me directly. However, if you leave a question in the comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Both your photography and information are wonderful. We are looking at this area of the world to move to in the next few years and I have learned as much from your blog as any other source. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Jim, I am so happy to see you got this invitation as a VIP. You have provided so many vistas of Mexico selflessly. It is a form of applause and hope other opportunities arise as well. Ajijic resident and occassional hiking club participant. Bob and Sue Dietz

  3. Seeing your photos and reading your narratives keeps expanding my vision of what Mexico is. What a nice antidote to all the 'drug cartel' noise!
    - Dan O'B, recent Ajijic visitor

  4. Hi Jim

    I'm a friend of Dick Davis and a freelance writer who frequently travels w/ Dick to Mexico, including a wonderful romp through Oaxaca and Guanajuato late last year.

    Would it be possible to use some of your photos for these stories? Compensation is minimal, ranging between roughly $25 and $50 per photo, but more for a feature photo. I'd make sure that you are given professional credit and receive copies of any published stories.

    If interested, you can contact me at

    Thank you,
    Victor Walsh

  5. Hi Jim!
    I'm from Zacatlan, Puebla; I like the way that you describe my hometown, do you know the official name of Zacatlan is Zacatlán of General Ramón Márquez? Well, I hope you liked!

    See you later, it was good meet you!

  6. Than you. This is for me a real surprise for me. I live here in Estados Unidos, and you helped me remember my hometown Zacatlan, Puebla. Your pictures are so beautiful. God bless you. I will tell my family about this.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim