YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Mexico Special Issue : Destination: Tlaxcala : Pretty in Pink : Bring your Spanish phrase book. This colorful capital may be near Mexico City, but it's off the tourist track.

October 15, 1995|ELLEN MELINKOFF | Melinkoff is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

TLAXCALA, Mexico — It's just a two-hour drive from Mexico City to this colonial town, rich in beauty and cultural heritage. There are museums here and dazzling churches; one of the prettiest zocalos in Mexico, and, 10 miles outside town, the ruins of Cacaxtla with its vibrant pre-Columbian murals.

So where are all the tourists? I decided to make this side trip from Mexico City on a hunch. Guidebooks gave passing mention to its appeal. But if it were that attractive, why wasn't it a magnet for sightseers as is Taxco, Toluca and Cuernavaca? After three days in Tlaxcala (tla-SKA-la), I have no idea why it's undiscovered--it's certainly not for lack of charm.

That pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming feeling began as I stepped out of a taxi into the clean, picturesque zocalo --the central Plaza de la Constitucion. I virtually had Tlaxcala to myself. No cheap serapes hanging in doorways, few postcards, fewer tourists. The only people here are Tlaxcaltecans and there are only about 40,000 of them.

This meant, of course, few English-speakers. Over the years, I have struggled with Spanish--high school, college, private lessons--with very limited success. By the time I figure out what people are saying and construct a reply, they're three sentences ahead. In Tlaxcala I managed ordering, hiring and inquiring but not a real conversation.

The center of town is a colonial treasure. Forget the somber stones of Morelia, the white-over-red of Merida--and everything eye-catching in Cuernavaca is behind high walls anyway. Tlaxcala has a delightful color scheme: sienna (burnt and raw), ochre, blood red and pink with six-inch painted borders around the windows (sometimes navy blue). Almost every building within five blocks of the plaza is painted in this palette.

The capital city of Tlaxcala state, the smallest in Mexico, the town is very accessible. My first-class bus ticket from Mexico City cost less than $5. At about 7,200 feet, it's temperate all year. The countryside is all rolling hills and pine trees.

Hernan Cortes preceded me here and he liked Tlaxcala too. His conquest of the New World went so well (from his point of view) because he took advantage of a blood feud between the Tlaxcaltecan empire and the Aztecs. He talked 60,000 Tlaxcaltecan warriors into helping him invade the Aztec capital, then rewarded them with tax exemptions and use of the honorific title "Don."

Over the centuries, Tlaxcaltecans settled down to more peaceful pursuits, such as ranching and textile production. With a sense of paradise floating in the air, Tlaxcala shouldn't be rushed. It takes two days to really savor and explore. This is a town with a strong working class, independent of the tourist trade. Since it's the state capital, there is government business to take care of. People seem busy here. Employed. Relaxed.

Most of colonial Tlaxcala is within an easy walk of the zocalo . The center of town is flat with wide sidewalks. The town heads uphill a few blocks from the zocalo . On one hillside, the 16th-Century former convent of San Francisco is beautiful in the late afternoon light. The wide, tree-shaded walkway at the top of stone stairs is popular with young lovers. The Tlaxcala Regional Museum is housed in the adjoining cloister.

Tlaxcala's bullring is reputed to be one of the oldest in Mexico. Looking down at it from the surrounding stone walls, it's quite picturesque, even with the back-of-the-head knowledge of what goes on there.

The zocalo is carefully landscaped with beds of purple iris and yellow lilies. There are plenty of wrought iron benches and a bandstand at the center. Like everything else in Tlaxcala, it fairly shines with civic pride. No litter. No garish signs (at least in the center of town, although a modern town is lapping at the edges).

The Government Palace, on the north side of the plaza, houses a series of murals by local artist Desiderio Hernandez Xochitiotzin. Similar in spirit to the Diego Rivera murals in the National Palace, they trace the history of the state in a highly realistic and detailed manner. The viewing benches are carved with words that even I could translate: "Exclusively for tourists." They were, of course, empty.

The Museum of Arts and Popular Culture, in a handsome building on the west side of town, features the crafts of Tlaxcala, often using working artisans in the displays, plus costumes from the local carnival.

A weaver explained her work to me in Spanish and I got cocky. Right off, I understood lana sucia --dirty wool. Then I got lost in the ensuing details. Fortunately, she pointed a lot so I caught the essence. I even strung together an entire sentence: "Quantas horas, cada una?" (So it didn't have a verb; sue me.) Loosely translated: "How long to make each one?" (Twelve weeks for some of the finer serapes.)


Los Angeles Times Articles