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Market Day in a Mountain Town

April 08, 2001|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Barbara Hansen is a writer in The Times' Food section

CUETZALAN, Mexico — On Sundays, the remote mountain town of Cuetzalan turns into a marketplace swarming with Nahua and Totonac Indians doing their weekly shopping alongside visitors hunting for hand-woven garments, pottery, spices, coffee, chiles and good things to eat.

I had wanted to see this town since reading about it in a Mexican novel and acquiring a Cuetzalan shawl elsewhere in Mexico. The trip became possible last September when I spent a few days in Puebla, which is the nearest major city.

My plan was to arrive in Cuetzalan on Saturday so I could be at the market early Sunday. I set out from Puebla on an early bus. The ride took 3 1/2 hours, interrupted by a parade in the town of Oriental. Taxis, mule carts, tractors, boys on horseback, pretty girls and endless bands of schoolchildren marched proudly across the highway in honor of Mexican Independence Day that weekend.

Despite the holiday, I had no trouble getting a room in Cuetzalan. Young boys meet the buses to tout hotels and carry luggage the short distance to the center of town.

Hotel Posada Cuetzalan was my first choice, on the recommendation of friends, but I hadn't made a reservation and it was full. I ended up in the Hotel Viky, with a spotless room and bath with plenty of hot water. The rooms surrounding mine were full of families on holiday. I could hear giggling children at play in the hallway.

Cuetzalan is tucked into a hillside in the northern mountains of the state of Puebla, on the side that sweeps down to the state of Veracruz and the Gulf of Mexico. Humid currents from the gulf produce the mists that often shroud the town's old buildings and moisten the cobblestone streets so that you have to walk carefully. The name of the town comes from the quetzal, a flamboyant bird regarded as sacred in ancient Mexico.

The bus ride from Puebla runs through gradually rising foothills. At Zaragoza, the bus leaves the main highway and turns toward Cuetzalan-the end of the road at an altitude of almost 3,000 feet.

Flowers bloomed profusely in the increasingly lush landscape when I was there; I identified red salvia and pink, yellow and white datura, as well as dried corn plants tied up like ghostly scarecrows.

The Spaniards came to Cuetzalan in 1547, 28 years after Hernando Cortes landed at Veracruz and set off on the conquest of Mexico.

The town's primary claim to the interest of outsiders is its proximity to Yohualichan, an archeological zone about five miles away. Yohualichan was a ceremonial center for the Totonac people between the years 200 and 650, and some of its excavated features are similar to the larger pyramids at El Tajin (see related story, L10).

Cuetzalan has about 45,000 inhabitants, 55% of them Indian, the rest mestizo. It is widely known for its weaving of huipils, the lacy white triangular garment that local Indian women wear over their blouses. It's also the heart of a coffee-growing region. Each October, the town celebrates both in a Feria del Cafe y el Huipil, timed to coincide with the Oct. 4 feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the town's patron saint. Last year's fair started Sept. 30, two weeks after I arrived, and continued through Oct. 8.

The Saturday of my visit, the main entertainment in the evening was a competition in the plaza for feria queen. The teenage finalists paraded in short dresses, then in regional costumes, each reciting Cuetzalan's history and attractions. Enthusiastic onlookers rooted for their favorites despite a downpour.

September is the rainy season, and rain fell throughout my weekend.

Thoroughly dampened, I went in search of a welcoming place for dinner and stumbled upon Restaurante Cuca. I watched Independence Day fireworks through the open windows as I ate nopales (cactus) salad and sincronizadas (ham and cheese quesadillas), washed down with agua de sandia, a fresh watermelon drink. A guitarist sang and bantered with other holiday visitors who filled the tables in the small room.

On Sunday, church bells rang early, but I awoke on my own, eager to get to the market. By 8 o'clock, the plaza was full of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, shoes and many other items, as well as the handmade garments that I had come for.

I noticed a crowd at a crude table covered with oilcloth and sacks of tortillas and sugar-sprinkled pan dulce (sweet bread). Behind the table, Maria Antonia, a tiny woman with gray braids streaming down her back, tended big pots of stew, coffee and a thick masa drink called champurrado. I joined the others ordering breakfast. Maria Antonia scooped out the rich, sweet coffee and strained it through a tiny sieve into a plastic-foam cup, which she handed to me.

I took my seat on a hard plank bench and helped myself to the feather-light sweet rolls.

The main dish was chilpozonte, meat in a red chile sauce that was liberally seasoned with fresh mint leaves. It was delicious, although the meat was chewy. This sturdy breakfast cost slightly more than a dollar and fortified me for hours of marketing.

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