Friday, June 21, 2024

The city you’ve never heard of that deserves a visit

“Tlaxcala?’ a fellow expat asked me. “It’s in Puebla, right?” 

No, actually. Tlaxcala is a state, the smallest in Mexico, Puebla’s neighbor. Tlaxcala is also the name of this tiny state’s capital city.

Tlaxcala historic center
Mexico’s smallest state still has a lot to offer visitors. (Wikimedia Commons)

But my friend’s ignorance is common. The eponymous capital attracts so few tourists, domestic or international, that its official self-effacing motto is, Tlaxcala: ¡Sí! Existe! (Yes, it exists!) 

My husband and I might never have visited the city were it not for a friend who regularly hikes up nearby La Malinche, Mexico’s fifth highest peak, to train for even higher peaks in the Himalayas and the Andes. The volcano is a nontechnical climb that anyone in reasonable shape should be able to do, so as veteran hikers and backpackers, Barry and I were game.

A few minutes from the trailhead, we met a mom from Puebla and her two adult children on the path. 

“Are you going to the top?” she asked us. 

La Malinche, Tlaxcala
Summiting La Malinche is a tough climb that promises a panoramic view of Tlaxcala and neighbouring states – if you can make it to the top. (Barry Evans)

Well, duh, I thought. When have we ever not summited? 

But I didn’t want to be rude, and, besides, I don’t know how to express “duh” in Spanish, so I simply said, “Yes, we are.” 

Barry and I hiked along a shady, gently rising forest path for a couple of hours. It wasn’t too steep, though I could tell by my labored breathing that we were already at 11,000 feet. Then we reached an open area where we could see the nearby peak of Orizaba, and up ahead, a scramble of boulders. It was hard going, so we took a break at the start of the boulders. I carried on a few paces and rounded a bend to see how the trail looked. Rocky, uneven and steep.

We sat there in silence, neither of us wanting to be the first to say it. We were at 14,000’, with only another 400’ to climb, probably a half hour, but I was no longer enjoying myself. Plus the downhill was still to come, which I was already dreading. My only motivation for reaching the top was sheer ego. Not exactly the best reason.

Finally Barry said, “I guess my lungs at 81 are not what they were at 41.” So with a sense of mixed relief and regret, we agreed to turn around and head back to Tlaxcala. ¡Así es! And of course we would run into the Puebla mom and had to admit we hadn’t reached the top.

Tlaxcala
While not a UNESCO World Heritage site, the easy charm of Tlaxcala is hard to ignore. (Tlaxcalita)

But the visit to Tlaxcala was not wasted. Because despite the city’s “There’s nothing there” reputation, we found plenty to keep us engaged.

Tlaxcala is not a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is nearby Puebla’s cuadro histórico (historical quarter), nor is it a pueblo mágico. But that’s exactly why we liked it. Its lack of stand-out features turn into a strength. The town isn’t crowded with tourists or cars; in fact, the traffic feels like how most cities felt thirty years ago. Here are eight things we liked about it.

  1. The central square. Plaza de Constitución is shady and spacious, the perfect place to sit on a bench and people-watch. Visiting from semi-desert Guanajuato, the number of shade trees made me very happy.
  1. The Cathedral, with a cobbled roof and large bell tower, was built in 1524 and is one of the first Catholic monuments on the American continent. 
  1. Weather. Because of Tlaxcala’s higher elevation (7,300’), it’s cooler than most cities in central Mexico.  
  2. Accessible churches. Although I’m not especially religious, I love old, ornate, musty churches. I watch the women sweeping the tile floors and the people here and there sitting on pews praying. I find simply being in the presence of faith, even if it is not my own, deeply moving. Unlike in Guanajuato, where many of the churches are closed except during Mass, in Tlaxcala, the churches remain open. 
  3. Topography: Tlaxcala has both flat streets and hills. A couple of times we climbed the very pretty, gently hilly tree-lined street just off the Plaza to one of Mexico’s oldest monasteries, the Ex Convento Franciscano de la Asunción, built around 1540, whose main nave of the church has a beautiful Moorish-style wooden ceiling.
  1. The Market. This bustling weekend tianguis is known for selling sarapes, woven in the villages of the state.  
  2. Nearby Ruins. We visited Cacaxtla, sheltered under a huge metal roof, with its well preserved pre-Columbian frescoes of jaguar and eagle warriors in battle. Nearby Xochitecatl, built between 1000 and 800 BCE, has a wide pyramid and circular pyramid. At one time you could walk the mile-long paved path that connected the two ruins. Unfortunately, the path is no longer open because about eight years ago a visitor who was walking it had a heat stroke.
  3. Tizatlán Botanical Garden This enormous botanical garden is divided into seven sections that include subaquatic vegetation and a sub-humid temperate climate. I especially loved the moist, misty greenhouse. As we strolled along a winding concrete path with benches, the whole place to ourselves, I felt a bit stoned and like my eyes were dilated. 
The quiet and pleasant gardens make walking around Tlaxcala a pleasure. (Barry Evans)

We stayed right on the plaza, at the Hotel San Francisco, the best hotel I’ve stayed in for years, thanks to its enormous pool, not one of those tiny tadpole pools most hotels offer. With a generous buffet breakfast included, it was about $70/night for two of us

The city is an easy two-hour bus ride on ATAH bus from Mexico City’s TAPA bus station.

Tlaxcala isn’t dramatic, but for a relaxed, unhurried few days, it’s the perfect destination. And while I’ve accepted the fact that La Malinche is not a peak I’ll ever claim, I’ll go back to Tlaxcala in a heartbeat.

Louisa Rogers and her husband Barry Evans divide their lives between Guanajuato and Eureka, on California’s North Coast. Louisa writes articles and essays about expat life, Mexico, travel, physical and psychological health, retirement and spirituality. Her recent articles are on her website, https://authory.com/LouisaRogers

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