Destination Mexico

Magical Trails in Puebla’s Sierra Norte

Zacatlán and Chignahuapan are the kind of towns people visit to hark back to a simpler time. They are steeped in an air of graciousness that has disappeared from the city, and arts and customs forgotten in other places are encouraged and enjoyed.

By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

Every country has those towns that people visit to hark back to a simpler time, places that are steeped in that air of neighborly cordiality that has disappeared from the big city and where arts and customs forgotten in other places are encouraged and enjoyed. Some of these places can be toured on day trips, but others require an overnight stay; either way, a visit will recharge the batteries of anyone weary of the hustle and bustle of our anonymous everyday lives. Tucked away in northern Puebla (México) are two towns that are justly considered magical: Zacatlán and Chignahuapan.

Panorama de las Américas visited both towns to experience their magic firsthand. The historic heart of Zacatlán was built on the highest part of Barranca de los Jilgueros (Goldfinch Canyon). The guides tell us that the first settlers came here fleeing plague in the original town of Zacatlán, on the other side of the canyon, around 1560.

Before going to Zacatlán we stopped at a tourist attraction located in the same gorge as Barranca de los Jilgueros: the Tulimán waterfalls. The three waterfalls tumble down for nearly a thousand feet, evoking a natural altar in a Gothic church. The age-old trunks form the columns, the branches the ribs, and the tree canopy a vast green cupola. There could be no better sanctuary for paying tribute to nature, and hundreds of tourists come here to do just that. They flock to the Tulimán Eco-Park to hike, climb some of the huge pine trees, or feel the rush of ziplining, among other activities.

The therapeutic effects of wind, dew, and tree sap that welcome us to Tulimán comprise an energizing appetizer before the main course of Zacatlán. A dance group has taken over the town square for a festival and some of the spectators seek shelter from the noonday sun under the arcades of the Town Hall, which is graced with a neo-Classical façade despite dating from 1876 to 1896. The square is surrounded by the kind of buildings typical of any city founded by the Spanish.

The ancient Franciscan convent stands off to one side on the southern edge of the plaza, as if fearing that its sober architecture is out of place among its more elaborately-styled neighbors. The actual style is less important than the great age of the structure, the first stones of which were laid in 1562 (8 and 12 years before the cathedrals of Mexico City and Puebla, respectively). The pure lines of the building embody the humility and simplicity stamped on it by Franciscan architects. Nearby are the monks’ cloisters, which since 1991 have served as the home of the Zacatlán Cultural Center, a complex that includes the town’s principal museum, a library, and fine arts classrooms and workshops.

Across the way and less austere than St. Francis, there is the Church of Peter and Paul, Zacatlán’s main church, built between 1670 and 1740. The lavish, extravagant, and slightly rough indigenous Baroque style is evident in the façade and continues through the large central nave, which is flanked by columns adorned with floral motifs and gold leaf. But Zacatlán has much more than Colonial architecture to offer. The town’s full name, “Zacatlán of the Apples” is fitting, since the surrounding areas grow thick with apple and other fruit trees that flourish in the dry, temperate climate. Variations in altitude also allow for tropical fruits such as passion fruit, mango, and tamarind. They are eaten in myriad jellies, compotes, jams, and other sweet treats, but the fruits are mainly destined for making the hard cider sold in Puebla and nearby towns.

In search of another new experience, we dropped in at the Bodega Delicia, one of the oldest in Zacatlán (1928). Tourists can visit this winery on Calle Galeana to see how artisan hard cider is made, after which they can sample the beverage, along with wines and liqueurs. A panoply of traditional Mexican breads can likewise be found in Zacatlán. Try the La Fama de Zacatlán (1911) bakery on Calle Cabrera: grab a tray and tongs and choose from dozens of varieties, including the famed pan de queso (cheese puff/turnover) and other delicacies with evocative names like pillow, mince, Morelos lady, dead man, donkey, corn quesadilla, witch, cakey bread, Japanese lady, worm, stab-wound, and Maria, to name just a few.

These establishments are among the best known, but they are far from the only ones in town. Turn your trip to Zacatlán into a gastronomic tour and discover all the different kinds of food and drink the town affords. This will keep you busy until evening, when you can enjoy a nighttime show that is quite unusual, even for a country as diverse as México: the robotics show put on by the Centenario Watch Company (1918) on Calle del Nigromante. The factory also has a museum dedicated to the human fascination with measuring and capturing time, and innumerable time-related artifacts.

The Robotics Show ―started in 2010 to mark Mexico’s bicentennial― is presented on Saturday and Sunday at noon and 2 p.m. At 9 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, there is a light and sound version. Delight in the robots, clad in regional Mexican dress, as they appear on the balconies of the watch factory and dance to traditional Mexican songs.

The evening show rounds out our visit to Zacatlán. The following morning we head to Chignahuapan, the last stop on our tour through Puebla’s Sierra Norte. In towns like these, it seems natural to begin with the Catholic churches, since they are often the oldest buildings in town. However, one of the most significant structures in Chignahuapan is very modern, but nonetheless impressive. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is reputed to house the largest statue of the mother of Jesus in the world. The enormous work, standing nearly forty feet tall, brings to mind the statues of Greco-Roman gods. At the feet of the Virgin are a serpent and a half-moon, images borrowed by Christians from the goddesses Juno and Diana, respectively, during the dawn of Christianity.

But the town certainly has its share of ancient churches, such as Santiago Apóstol (Apostle James) on the main square. The saint gallops across the upper façade, while below him a legion of chubby-cheeked cherubs hold up a tangle of wreaths, rosettes, and drapery worked in mortar by indigenous artisans during the 16th century. While Chignahuapan is a good place to taste wonderful traditional food such as Three Kings bread, the town is renowned throughout México for its production of Christmas tree ornaments.

Boutique Navideña (Christmas Boutique) demonstrates the production process: glass is blown into the desired shape (spheres, fruits, mushrooms, acorns, etc.) and injected with silver nitrate to create a mirrored effect, give the glass a silky feel, and protect against scratches. Then color is added and decorative details affixed by hand. It can seem like Christmas year-round in Chignahuapan, since the 420 artisan workshops and six factories take a break only during the first two weeks of January. Local authorities estimate the annual production at more than 75 million ornaments.

Like other “magical towns,” Chignahuapan sponsors numerous cultural festivals, but it also boasts the added attraction of festivals on the shore of the lake that gives the town its name. For the ancient Mesoamerican peoples, lakes and grottos were imbued with great spiritual power, since they were considered bridges to another world. If you are fortunate enough to be here on the Day of the Dead, be sure not to miss the festival of the offerings, held on a stage in the middle of the lake and ending with the audience floating thousands of mini rafts in memory of their loved ones.

On non-festival days, the lake unfurls a tranquil vista at dusk, when the sun paints the surface of the water in silver and lavender and birds bid the day farewell as they seek refuge among the reeds along the shore. We likewise bid farewell to a week of discovery spent following the trails and touring the magical towns of Puebla’s Sierra Norte.