Tlacotalpan, Veracruz
The Pearl of the Papaloapan

Photographs and Text By John Todd, Jr.

Tlacotalpan is close to Veracruz, and for a long time I had overlooked it.

In 1988, I had driven through the town, and it looked like a backwater river town along the wide Papaloapan River. Surrounded by sugar cane fields, Tlacotalpan was like many of the other tropical river towns of Cosamoalapan and Otatitlán. Low houses with columns and red tile roofs. But, nothing to rave about.

In 1995, after a lot of promotion, the United Nations declared it a World Heritage Town. A lot of money was spent to clean the town up and Tlacotalpan seemed to have a new identity.

Then I began to hear reports about how beautiful the town had become, but I didn´t pay much attention. One Sunday I was invited along with some friends to visit Tlacotalpan and discovered I was wrong.

Tlacotalpan has become a beautiful little river town, like a small version of New Orleans, with a lot of friendly people. It also has a lot of interesting history I didn´t know about.

No Tourists
The day we were there I didn´t see any tourists and we had the whole town to ourselves. I guess ecotourists don´t support their own causes.

Yet, it is to my own selfish advantage. It is one of the towns where I want to go back and spend some more time. It´s kind of like having Taxco in your own backyard.

How to Get There
How to Get There
Tlacotalpan is a leisurely drive about an hour an a half south of Veracruz.

I had been invited along with the experts as part of the practical part of a tour guide course sponsored one of the Veracruz tour guide associations.

Each of the students had prepared a presentation on some aspect of the trip we were to take and it was interesting listening to them.

We left Veracruz around 9 AM, and had time to stop and sample some fresh juice one of the many pineapple stands just south of Paso del Toro.

Later we stopped in Alvarado to have a late brunch and to walk around looking at the shrimp boats.

Tlacotalpan Bypassed by History
Our student tour guide talked a lot about Tlacotalpan´s history. The town continues with its Aztec name, which means "between the waters".
Doña Lala
The Backroads to Mexico City
You can´t see it now, but it used to be an island between the San Juan and Papaloapan Rivers.

Later it became an important trading center for the sugar cane and cotton business from upriver.

Mexico City has always needed this lifeline to Europe and the rest of the world. Tlacotalpan became an alternate port to Mexico City during times of armed conflicts in Veracruz.

Business was good, and many people became wealthy in Tlacotalpan because they simply increased the price of imported goods.
Doña Lala
Three Color House
Feast or Famine
Tlacotalpan did well before the railroads, and was a major port.

The first railroad reached Veracruz in the 1870´s and the decline of Tlacotalpan began.

Next the rail lines were extended to Alvarado, and a branch line south from Tierra Blanca only reached Cosamoalapan.

When Porfirio Díaz made funds available to build a new seaport, in spite of Tlacotalpan´s influential supporter, the town was too far beyond reach.

Without a rail line, a new port was out of the question.
Doña Lolo
Hotel Doña Lala
Preservation and Restoration
The people of Tlacotalpan love their town.

They say the real culture of Veracruz comes from this area. The music of Veracruz comes from Tlacotalpan, they say.

These are not idle boastings.

Beyond the colored paint, you can see the culture in the architecture of the buildings.

The Hotel Doña Lala has been restored.

With the wrought iron railings, it looks like a tropical version of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
UNESCO World Heritage Town
United Nations World Heritage Town
It all changed in 1995 when Tlacotalpan was declared a World Heritage Town by the United Nations.

The government moved in, made a lot of city ordinances, and spent a lot of money on the town.

The People of Tlacotalpan love their town and pitched in to make their town a showcase of history and culture.

But, since there are so few foreign tourists who come to Veracruz, there are even less who come to Tlacotalpan.

If you take the bus, you have to first go to Alvarado and change buses. Although it is worth the trip, Tlacotalpan is still not an easy place for the average tourist to get to.
Gold House
The Streets of Tlacotalpan
Our tour bus pulled up on the main street and we got out to take a look around.

Next to the bus were a couple of local tour guides who were expecting us.

They knew all about the town and worked as a friendly team, anxious to show us the best of Tlacotalpan.

The streets were clean, and the freshly painted houses and businesses exuded friendliness. You could feel it in the air.

The day had gotten warmer and we found the shade of a palapa to listen to the tour guides tell the story of their town.
Coconut Ice Cream
Natural Coconut Ice Cream
Some of us bought a little cup of natural coconut ice cream with a little plastic spoon from one of the colorful mobile stands.

Our guides told us Tlacotalpan means "between the rivers" in Nahuatl, or the Aztec language.

This is because Tlacotalpan originally was an island between the San Juan and Papaloapan Rivers.

The 19th Century was prosperous along the river with many paddle wheeled river boats carrying sugar cane and cotton.

Tlacotalpan flourished when Veracruz was under siege. It was a safe harbor.

It was in Tlacotalpan that the music of Veracruz and the dances were first performed.
Street Scene
Towards Downtown
Rather than Veracruz, Tlacotalpan was the cultural center of the state, according to our guides.

Tlacotalpan is for Walking
It was a beautiful Sunday morning. Ideal for walking.

There was no traffic, and there were only a few townspeople out walking around.

It was very different from Taxco on a Sunday morning.

There were no crowds or traffic.
An Alley
Tlacotalpan is for Sitting, Too
Tlacotalpan was very calm that morning.

There were no bustling tourist shops.

Our guides took us a block over to see the restored theater in Tlacotalpan.

Tlacotalpan is a Cultural Center
After our coconut ice cream we walked over to the restored theater named after one of the Aztec Indian Chiefs conquered by Hernán Cortés.
Tiffany Glass Window
The Theater and Opera House
Our guides gave us a detailed explanation of the design and acoustics of the theater which was both spacious and intimate.

It was the center of cultural activity for the region. People would travel by boat just to attend performances at the theater.

I could imagine the works of opera or theater that were performed here, along with the créme de la créme of Tlacotalpan society and the nearby plantations in the 1890´s.

In the foyer was a magnificently restored Tiffany glass window.

We were respectfully quiet as we listened to our young guides and imagined what it must have been like.

The theater was a place of culture in this town, so far away from Paris, London, and Berlin.
Inside the Theater
The works performed here must have been appreciated by the people of Tlacotalpan who craved something intellectual in this remote tropical river town.

The Décima
The Décima is a 10 line poem popular in the Spanish speaking countries of the Caribbean. The décima also becomes the lyrics of popular music.

Our guide gave us a demonstration of a cute one, full of innuendo that left us in stitches.

Throughout the year there are music and art festivals in Tlacotalpan, especially the Día de la Candelaria around the first of February.
My Group
Mi Grupo
I used to travel like a backpacker and shied away from group travel. I thought you had to give up too much freedom. Now I enjoy being with others.

In Mexico people don´t think too much about age and look for other qualities in people.

When I started the trip, the only one I knew was Fernando Casillas, the bus driver from some previous trips as a tour guide on his bus.After about 10 minutes I began to get to know the others in the group and felt right at home.

On the way over to the plaza, we stopped again in the shade under a palapa for some more coconut ice cream in a small plastic cup.
City Hall Restored
La Plaza
After our coconut ice creams, we walked the 2 or 3 blocks up the street to the Plaza.

Our guide explained about the style of architecture.

The lines looked a lot like many of the other buildings in Veracruz and in the small towns built at the end of the 19th Century during the times of President Porfirio Díaz.

Sometimes in Mexico this style of architecture is confused erroneously with Art Deco which didn´t emerge until 1923 at the Paris Exposition.
The Plaza
The Plaza
While our guide was telling us about the City Hall, I turned around and noticed something unusual.

The plaza behind us had two churches.

Later our guide told us there was a church for the Indians, and the other was for everybody else.

The Indian church was not open the day we were there so we walked over to the other church.
Quiet Benches
Silent Streets
Adoración a la Virgen
La Virgen de Guadalupe
The day we were in Tlacotalpan was December 12, the Day of the Virgen of Guadalupe.

Throughout Mexico, December is a month of great religious celebration leading up to Christmas and New Year´s.

It is a happy time for churches which are festooned with saints, and the colors of the Mexican flag.

It starts on December 8 is the Virgen of Juquila, December 12, the Virgen de Guadalupe, and on December 15, the "posada parties" begin and are held every night until Christmas Eve.

There is not much time for work in December.
Pilgrimage Flag
The Less Fortunate
In Mexico, the very hopeless people come close to the church.

My padrino told me every church in Mexico to has an alcoholic or drug addict who looks like a dirty bundle of old clothes passed out next to the door, unable to enter.

These people are beyond help. They have no money and are not wanted in hospitals. The police won´t touch them either.

They feel unworthy of redemption for the many sins they have committed, and the people they have hurt over the years.
Colorful Wood Altar
Outside the Church
You see them outside the churches and they will not enter the church because they feel unclean.

Each silently waits outside the church on the sidewalk for a lonely death to come to relieve his physical and emotional suffering.

As we were getting ready to leave the church, next to the side door I noticed a man sitting on the floor arranging some platanos machos.

He was unable to walk, and it also looked like he had been born mentally handicapped.
The Less Fortunate Are Closest to God
"El Servicio"
I don´t take pictures of beggars in Mexico.

I think it is in bad taste.

But this man was illuminated by rays of sunlight, and I was moved.

Most of the members of our group left him a peso or two. I did, too.

It was a beautiful scene and it made me feel good.

The man looked me straight in the eye and said quietly, "Que Dios te Bendiga." May God Bless you.

One of the girls told me, "the less fortunate are those closest to God and intercede for us.

We need to help them as they do their own "servicio" to make us feel good when we help them."
The Virgen of Guadalupe
"Each of us is born with a talent given by God, and each of us has our own "servicio" to perform on earth.

The "servicio" of the beggar is to make us feel good."

The Statues
When I visit small towns I always try to visit the local church. It is where you see beautiful, emotionally moving statues.

They are always the result of a heartfelt request for a miracle of long ago, or of thanksgiving for a miracle granted, and I wonder what could have happened so long ago.

I also feel the presence of a higher being, and always try to leave a few coins in an alms box.

When I left the church, I felt better than when I went in.
Pozole on Sundays
Sunday Specials
Tlacotalpan has many interesting restaurants where it looks like the service is good.

The next time I come here it will be on a Sunday to sample the pozole at this little restaurant.

"We Hope You Return Soon"
Tlacotalpan is proud of its artistic traditions.

We were sitting on the park benches wrapping up the excursion and talking about what we´d seen in Tlacotalpan.

Two girls approached each of us to sell two small Xeroxed volumes of poetry written by their father.
An Autographed Original!
I always try to buy something when I visit these small towns and I hadn´t bought anything yet.

So I bought both little volumes for $20 pesos each, and asked one of the girls to autograph them as a souvenir to take home.

"What should I write?", asked one of the girls.

"Welcome to Tlacotalpan. We hope you return soon!", I replied.

I hope I will return soon, too.
Last View of Tlacotalpan Streets
Time to Go
We had had a full day and it was time to go back to Veracruz.

On the way back to the bus we took quick tours of several small museums which are now restored homes chocked full of interesting antiques from the past. They are not for sale.

These little museums were as interesting as any of the large museums in Veracruz.

I realized there was a lot I´d missed in Tlacotalpan and want to come back soon.

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