This article was featured in Mexicana’s magazine Vuelo.
Whether they’re aware of it or not, people have been practicing ecotourism in Cuetzalan for decades. This place is a well-kept secret among lovers of the great outdoors and good food. Best of all, a weekend is long enough to take it all in.
It might not be a regular occurrence, but there are days when our bodies cry out for exercise, fresh air and green as far as the eye can see. Nowadays it’s called ecotourism, but decades ago it was known simply as “town-hopping.” Cuetzalan has always attracted visitors, although the reasons for coming here have changed over time.
The town has embraced the ecotourism concept and adapted its infrastructure accordingly, beginning with guided visits to the caves that abound in the region, a network stretching hundreds of miles under the earth. There are routes for amateurs and experts alike, although you risk bumping into a British speleologist whose tourist visa ran out many moons ago. You can also try your hand at horse-riding or cross-country mountain-biking over steep hills (that become entertainingly slippery in the rainy season). The sheer force of Cuetzalan’s waterfalls— that eventually flow into underground rivers— makes you wonder where the line between ecotourism and mysticism is.
One stop from heaven
There are no airports or train stations in Cuetzalan. The only way to get here is to take a bus or drive the 108 miles separating it from Puebla de Los Ángeles. The 14 miles from Libres to Zaragoza take you along a new stretch of highway that quickly evaporates into a steep, winding road. The scenery is breathtaking after you pass Zacapoaxtla and Apulco and you’ll know you’re nearing Cuetzalan when you see sheer, almost vertical cliff walls and tree-like ferns popping up on either side of the narrow road. But don’t get any ideas about stopping to get a closer look, because there’s nowhere to park here. Alternatively, you can fly to the Port of Veracruz and drive the 180 miles to Cuetzalan.
Once you get here, your problems are at an end. While the term ecotourism may sound threatening if you have a sedentary lifestyle, Cuetzalan has a whole range of activities to keep you entertained and that don’t require much physical effort, like sampling great regional food and seeing how local products like coffee are made.
This is a chance to taste the ancestral dishes of the Totonacas, an indigenous group whose staple diet is comprised of corn, beans, vegetables, several varieties of pigweed and sauces spiced up with squash, sesame seeds and chilies, like the wild Chiltepín pepper. Their amazing pea tlacoyos cooked with avocado leaf support the theory that good food doesn’t have to be complicated.
A quick and convenient way to find out about all these activities is to head for a hotel specializing in ecotourism services, like Tosepan Titataniske, a cooperative that offers the complete deal, from learning how coffee, honey, pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, mamey and exotic flowers are produced to accommodation in cabins that fuse modern architecture with environmentally friendly amenities.
This cooperative is formed mostly by people of Náhuatl descent (or “Nautas” as they call themselves). Not only are they open and hospitable, but they are extremely proud of their roots and will be only too happy to fill you in on regional culture. 70 percent of Cuetzalan’s inhabitants speak both Spanish and Náhuatl.
At the end of the day, the best part of an ecotourism break is the way it revives the senses. You become more aware of the scenery; you notice how the sunlight reflects off the clouds and are almost blinded by so many colors. To complete this extra-sensory experience, visit a warehouse filled with sacks of fresh pepper for export. Who needs Chanel when you have Cuetzalan!
– Boris De Swan
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