Tlacotalpan, Veracruz: Pearl of the Papaloapan

Caribbean colonial architecture in bright pastel tones, people strolling or riding bicycles leisurely through the quiet streets, and cheerful Jarocho music on the boardwalk, Tlacotalpan feels like it’s frozen in time. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the town sits on the banks of the mighty Papaloapan River, one of the largest in Veracruz. Nicknamed the Pearl of the Papaloapan, it’s delightfully aesthetic, the vibrant colors and relaxed atmosphere, make time itself seem to slow down.

Tlacotalpan has a long and winding history. Originally settled by the Totonac peoples, the Toltecs invaded in the 12th century. The territory changed hands again in 1475, when the Aztecs took over, giving the region its current name, meaning “in the middle of the earth”. This strongly sought-after location ultimately fell into the hands of the Spanish by the 16th Century. Even today, government buildings and houses alike feel like time capsules. Some are actually museums and some have simply stayed the same – the same routine, the same customs, even the same furniture. Its feels a little like Havana, with its ’50s cars still used for everyday activities, as if we have rewound time and returned to a more relaxed age, as if we’re living in a memory. It’s a perfect place to stroll indefinitely, street by street, admiring the colors and breathing in the warm, humid air.

Zaragoza Square is an ideal starting point, filled with stunning marble sidewalks and two famous churches. Constructed over 200 years ago, the Virgen de la Candelaria is a site that calls to pilgrims annually for a festival in February. Its iconic coral vaulted ceiling and dome was brought from the port of Veracruz all those years ago. On the other side, the Church of San Cristobal is known for its antique English clock, dating back to 1886, and its carved wood altarpiece, one of the oldest known depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In the center, a gazebo is dedicated to famed Mexican songwriter, Agustin Lara. Agustín Lara, the Mexican composer known as El Flaco de Oro, was born in Tlacotalpan in 1900, and I’d venture to say his spirit lives on there today, appearing in recurring songs like “Amor de mis amores” (love of my loves), “Farolito”, and “María bonita”. Music is a mainstay of the community and certainly, El Flaco de Oro is never far from their lips.

Plaza Hidalgo and Plaza de Doña Martha are romantic meeting points with gardens and architecture from times past. Interestingly, the architecture of the region was constructed to prevent fires, as well as keeping the homes cool and dry with tall ceilings and wide open spaces, often with courtyards in the center. Plaza de Doña Martha is where the town was founded in the mid-sixteenth century and this is also where the annual festival of Candelaria is held, a meeting place for decimeros and jaraneros (two types of musicians). The nearby Salvador Ferrando Museum showcases regional artists and relics of the city’s daily life. Artisans line the area with booths of handicrafts and culinary delights.

Plaza Colon leads to the boardwalk which is lined with delicious restaurants that overlook the Papaloapan and its abundant bird life. Boat tours depart from this area, taking you deeper into the nature that surrounds Tlacotalpan. Venustiano Carranza, running parallel to the boardwalk, is a particularly beautiful street with the Nezahualcóyotl Theater, the “Agustín Lara” Cultural House, and the local market.

As many of Mexico’s finest locations, Tlacotalpan is known for its artesanal items and its gastronomy. Carved wooden pieces, like rocking chairs, are famous in the area and a variety of clothes made with fine lace, macrame, or different styles of fine-thread crochet. The clothing is quickly identifyable. Where we live, just a few hours away, we often find ourselves recognizing the signature style on the street. People are quick to say that it’s from Tlacotalpan, a popular vacation spot for getting away from the city for the afternoon or weekend. The designs are fantastic for hot, humid regions like southern Mexico because it breathes. Well, more than breathes … it’s kind of like wearing nothing at all.

If you haven’t eaten Veracruzan delicacies on the banks of the river, you simply haven’t experienced Tlacotalpan. Veracruz is internationally famous for its exquisite cuisine, often based around seafood, rice and spices. Sea bass stuffed with crab and shrimp, crab empanadas, “arroz a la tumbada” (a rice dish with seafood, cooked altogether. This Louisiana girl says, it’s kind of like Jambalaya or Paella), savory fish broth, shrimp, “tapado de juile / jolote” (a catfish stew), tostadas de tismiche (a pre-Hispanic dish using a crunchy tortilla base made with high-protein roe), and tamales de cazuela (tamales prepared in a casserole). For dessert, oranges stuffed with coconut and sweet baked bread with coffee are the commonly consumed treats, as well as the “toritos” that Veracruz is known for. Toritos refer to liqueur made from peanuts, jobo (a local fruit that we encountered in the rain forests of Los Tuxtlas), guanabana, coconut and other fruits.

Our experience of Tlacotalpan was incredibly relaxing. We walked up and down all of the streets and the boardwalk, ate way too much delicous food, and sat, people watching in the plazas and watching the river wildlife at play. We also rented bicycles (we tried a tandem and that was a hilarious disaster… ultimately opting for separate bikes to call our own) and rode to the edges of town to get the full picture. It was aesthetically stunning, in this incredibly slow and unwavering way, and we delighted in how everything slowed down around us.

How to get to Tlacotalpan

Tlacotalpan is located approximately 105 km southeast of the Port of Veracruz, following roads 180 and 175, 31 km after the town of Alvarado.
It is only 90 kilometers from the Port of Veracruz and 500 kilometers from Mexico City.

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