05.05.14 9:45 AM ET
The Road to Cinco de Mayo
There were no margaritas, no tequila, and much less mariachi music during the first Cinco de Mayo of 1862, when the Mexican Army defeated the French invading troops in the state of Puebla. The heroic Indians probably drank the green yolixpa, a local alcoholic drink that includes more than 20 native herbs, and they listened to sones to celebrate their victory against the powerful French.
Zacapoaxtla, the town where the infamous Cinco de Mayo battle took place, is now part of a tourist corridor in the northern mountains of Puebla. The roads around this area feature whimsical curves and narrow lanes along the Sierra Norte de Puebla. Potholes are common in the rainy region as well as a heavy fog that often hinders visibility. But visitors should drive slowly not just because of the dangers, but also because it is worth making several stops along the way between Zacapoaxtla and Cuetzalan to admire the landscape and taste the local food.
Two hours and 86 miles northeast of the colonial city of Puebla, there is Zacapoaxtla, a quiet town that serves as the commercial hub for this rural area. Any time of the day here is good to try tayoyos, an oval-shaped cake made of masa and stuffed with beans and avocado leaves. Local women sell them at the central market as they prepare them by the thousands every day. To fully enjoy the treat, order a café de la olla to go along with it, local toasted coffee prepared with raw sugar and served in a clay pot. This beverage will awaken every sense.
Next, stroll around the main square to admire the well preserved architecture of the town. Every roof includes long eaves to protect peasants from the frequent rains. At City Hall, admire long staircases and a wall painting remembering those who died at the Battle of Zacapoaxtla. For the adventurous, the area is surrounded by waterfalls, zip lines, and gorgeous mountainous scenery.
For lunch, try Aca-Apulco, a seafood restaurant that is next to the Apulco River. Here, chefs serve trout and seafood brought from the neighboring state of Veracruz.
A little farther down the road is the town of Xochitlán. At the market, pulque (another alcoholic beverage made from agave) only costs 10 pesos and is served in a reused soda plastic bottle. But to really act like a local, ask for a drink of yolixpa, a strong-flavored but sweet liqueur. To the east, discover the Grotto Santa Elena, an old aqueduct whose walls have withstood the test of time but have been helpless against the moss, mushrooms, orchids, and roots that attach to them. While its hours can be hit or miss, the Grotto, a little shop in the area, is a must-stop for peanut ice cream that sells for barely 3 pesos (around 20 cents).
After Xochitlán follow the path to Cuetzalan, but instead of going straight to the downtown area, take a detour to the ruins of Yohualichan, built by the ancient Totonaca civilization, which fluorished during the 15th century. These ruins are surrounded by a botanical garden, where everything from vanilla beans and coffee to orchids and passion fruits grow.
Finally we arrive at Cuetzalan, named a “magical village” in Mexico because of its picturesque cobbled and twisting streets that go up and down the hills. To get the best view of the main square, have lunch or dinner at Yoloxochitl. Dishes here are prepared with locally picked mushrooms, herbs, trout, and moles. For the undecided, the best option is the “cuetzalteca” dish, which offers smaller portions of the typical menu. While patience is a virtue at this restaurant, a guitar and violin duo entertain waiting guests with traditional sones from the region.
Finally, in the late afternoon before fog covers Cuetzalan, watch the performance of the voladores, a pre-hispanic ritual consisting of four men who launch themselves from 98-foot poles, attached by only a rope. A fifth man remains on top of the pole playing a flute. Inhabitants of this place are mostly indigenous people who wear traditional outfits and preserve their native Totonaca language.
After 5 p.m., the weather starts to chill as rain and fog roll in. That’s the signal to take a break over a few sips of coffee and a pastry in one of the many cafes of Cuetzalan. After a day in the area that gave rise to the infamous Cinco de Mayo victory, every traveler will understand why the French were defeated in these mysterious mountains.