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Behind the Volcanos

Over the mountains from Mexico City are the lovely old colonial towns of Tlaxcala and Cholula, and the fabulous pre-Hispanic frescoes of Cacaxtla.

a mural in Caxactla by a staircase that leads to del Templo Rojo, image
Photo caption
Caxactla is known for it's frescoes, such as this mural in del Templo Rojo.

In late summer the central Mexican highlands are cool, green, and flush with flowers. It seemed a good season to refresh my love affair with Mexico, and check out the rumors I’d been hearing about the appeals of the Tlaxcala region.

It would be an exploration off the main tourist routes. I’d be alone, riding the first-class buses and taxis, staying at nice hotels, making do with my meager present-tense Spanish, accepting the unexpected. My main destination was the city of Tlaxcala, about 75 miles east of Mexico City and capital of the small state of the same name. And I wanted to spend a day poring over the curious, brilliant murals at the nearby ruins of Cacaxtla, as well as call on Cholula, with its great pyramid and 16th-century churches.

This is high country—above 7,000 feet—prosperous and storied. In 1519, Hernán Cortés came this way, marching up from his landing at Veracruz toward the halls of Moctezuma, spilling blood and destroying ceremonial centers, swelling his army with the powerful Tlaxcaltecas, who hated the Aztecs. After the Conquest, the grateful Spanish returned to build glorious cathedrals and cities, so that much seen here today dates from the mid-1500s.

So far, Tlaxcala hasn't been discovered by masses of tourists. "North Americans just go to the beach," says a local government official.

The hourly bus to Puebla left the Mexico City airport a tiempo, and crawled through cluttered streets. Passengers drew their curtains for the video movie, a grade-B American melee with a great many shots and groans. A stewardess brought peanuts and neon-orange drink. After a while, I peeked through my curtain: pine trees and fields of grass under a blue sky. When we crossed the high pass, wet snow was falling. We came down onto the high plains and pulled into CAPU, Puebla’s enormous bus station, in a gully-gurgling rain. Brightly uniformed teenage girls escorted passengers to the taxi stand.

Within half an hour, I was in my room in the Villa Arqueológica Cholula, one of those comfortable hacienda-style inns run by Club Med. Wrapped in a thick wool blanket against the mountain cold, I watched the hard rain shatter on the window. When it stopped, I walked through fields of lavender mums and climbed Tepanapa, said to be the largest pyramid ever built on the planet. It enjoyed its greatest splendor from the 4th to 6th centuries A.D., and was already in ruins when Cortés arrived—although he did destroy a Toltec temple on the summit. At the top I found the 17th-century pilgrimage church, Santuario de Los Remedios, and a sweeping view. Rainbows stitched the fleeing clouds. The day was ending; swallows swept the skies and church bells were bonging all over town.

Early next day I set a pattern for the week. After a big Mexican breakfast of pan dulce, eggs, and fruit, I went out to explore the churches, colonial monuments, museums, and parks. Each morning the skies were clear; to the west rose the snow-crowned volcanos, with grumbly old Popocatépetl belching clouds of smoke and ash.

By late afternoon when the pounding rains arrived—usually at 4 p.m.—I’d be in a sidewalk cafe in the plaza portales, listening to music, then return to my hotel for laps in the swimming pool. In the evening, after a dinner of tasty regional cuisine in the dining room, I’d settle into my favorite place—beside the fire, drinking manzanita tea, reading a passionate, convoluted novel of Latin American family life. (For me, it was Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits, but anything by Gabriel García Marqués would have served as well.)

The tranquility of Cholula today belies its past. In 1520 or so, it was here, below the ancient pyramid, that Cortés massacred 6,000 Cholulans when he discovered they planned an ambush. Portions of the ruins have been excavated, and you can prowl through musty tunnels and emerge to admire the faint frescoes and unusual diagonal stone staircases. The broad plaza—where grisly ceremonies occurred—now sleeps beneath daisies and bees.

But Cholula’s churches— and there are many—are still classics of 16th-century Spanish architecture. San Gabriel church was built in the mid-1500s. The vast interior of Capilla Real, on the plaza, dates from 1540 and feels like a mosque, with 49 Moorish domes, pigeons flapping through the sunbeams, people intoning prayers at the various chapels.

The most charming church in all Christendom is, to me, tiny 16th-century Santa Maria, in the nearby hamlet of Tonantzintla. Every square millimeter of its interior is carved with polychrome and gilded cherubs, fruit, flowers, and musical instruments, all treasures of naïf indigenous folk art. (To get there, I stood on a street corner screeching at passing bus drivers until one took me aboard.)

After a couple of days in Cholula, I hopped a taxi for Tlaxcala, and rode through the pretty countryside overlooked by snowy Popo, ringed with clouds and chuffing smoke. In Tlaxcala, I checked into the comfortable Posada San Francisco facing the zócalo.

Tlaxcala was founded in 1524 by the Franciscans. It was laid out in the style of a Spanish Renaissance city, with civic buildings, arcades, and churches facing a tree-shaded central plaza.

The Tlaxcaltecas are proud, industrious, and indifferent to foreign tourists—of which I saw only a handful. The streets and parks are spotless; the cultural scene is flourishing, with several interesting museums, music, art, and drama. Tlaxcala’s Palace of Culture has galleries with traveling art exhibits, and posters touting cultural events and festivals all over the state. (One afternoon I happened upon a delightful free performance of a 16th- century morality play, performed in Nahuatl in the courtyard of the cathedral.) There’s a traditional bull ring—Tlaxcala is known for its rural bull ranches and its autumn bullfight season. The Zahuapan River—with promenade—meanders through town, and through a sprawling botanical garden (where many lovers lay clasped in the grass). Near the river is the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions, with spirited folkway demonstrations, a crafts shop, and a café serving regional cuisine. (Cactus and squash-blossom soup, amaranth cakes.)

Inside the museum, docents in regional costumes led me from room to room, explaining everything in Spanish I couldn’t follow. There was a garden with temescal (sweat bath) and granary, a kitchen outfitted with big ceramic pots and metates, a fiesta room with dance masks and musical instruments, weavers working at clacking looms. But best was the animated gent who escorted me through the pulque wing, explaining how the liquor is made from cactus. He was so entertaining—and clearly appreciative of the product—that I gladly gave him the tip he so shamelessly solicited.

Tips: It’s easier to do this trip if you speak at least some Spanish. In summer, the afternoon rains are dependable—pack your umbrella. Take comfortable walking shoes for the uneven cobblestone streets and archaeological sites.

At the heart of Tlaxcala is its main plaza, one of the prettiest in all Mexico, with fountains playing beneath the old trees, yellow lilies blooming, and a wrought-iron bandstand. Sidewalk cafés fill the archways of the city hall on one side, and a live band plays on Saturday nights. Inside the Governor’s Palace on the north side of the plaza, the walls are covered with vivid murals depicting the history of Tlaxcala; they were painted by the artist Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin between 1957 and 1987.

On one hill is the 16th-century Franciscan cathedral, reached by a cobblestone path climbing under a dramatic archway of trees. The church, one of the oldest in Mexico, is particularly exquisite, with its cedar ceiling and baroque golden altar. Next door in the monastery cloisters is Tlaxcala’s regional museum, with exhibits of pre-Hispanic artifacts and colonial religious paintings.

On another hill is the Basilica of Ocotlán, a dazzling white wedding-cake confection filled with marvelous art, especially in the ornate "Virgin’s dressing room" behind the altar. Down a side street below Ocotlán is El Pocito, a precious painted chapel sheltering a sacred spring, where the faithful come to fill duck-shaped ceramic vessels with healing waters.

On Sundays a tour bus leaves the plaza for the nearby pre-Hispanic ruins at Cacaxtla, with their puzzling Mayan-style murals, hundreds of miles from Maya country. On the day I went, there were only eight passengers and one Spanish-speaking guide. We stopped for an hour to scramble over the newly discovered ruins of Xochitécatl, enjoying views of Popo and Izta, and La Malinche to the south. Then we climbed the hill to the Cacaxtla parking lot—a noisy carnival of souvenir vendors, food stands, and tour buses from Mexico City.

It was a quarter-mile walk to the main site, now sheltered by a huge protective roof. For a couple of hours we roamed the catwalks and wooden stairs laid over the dusty digs, and what we saw in the paintings brought to life all the empty stone ruins of ancient Mesoamerica. There were handsome warriors in fantastic feathers and ornaments, mysterious ceremonies, fanciful plants and mythical animals, folk legends, serpents, deities.

Next afternoon, I sat at a cafe in Tlaxcala’s portales, listening to the municipal band as it played wild and discordant marches in the clockwork rain. Then the music switched from Sousa to the national anthem.

Everything came to a halt, and all the people in the square, along the portales, turned to face the flag. They stood erect and solemn, in the bombarding rain, hands held perpendicular to their hearts in the Mexican salute, singing to the heavens. It was one of the most patriotic things I’d ever seen, on this ordinary afternoon in a small Mexican capital. I thought: Here are people who truly—truly—love their country.

This article was first published in July 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.