Where the Caribbean invades Mexico

The first thing to know about Tlacotalpan is its summer heat. It’s a soppy heat that wraps itself around you and won’t let go. Even an hour before arrival, our car’s dashboard thermometer fibrillated between ninety and one-hundred degrees, before it finally stabilized at ninety-seven degrees, with humidity to match.

I complained about the heat and Stew hit me with one of his one-liners: “It’s no worse than Texas.” That’s true. In June, San Antonio’s midday temperatures casually go past one-hundred degrees and no one even notices.

But there is one significant difference. For all its swampy climate, Tlacotalpan is incomparably more beautiful than most any Texas hamlet of eight-thousand souls you’ve ever seen.

Out for a walk and a ride in downtown Tlacotalpan. 

At first glance this town almost looks contrived, too picturesque for day-to-day habitation. Its streets are immaculate, the houses painted in a palette of electric shades of greens, yellows and purples you don’t find in other landmark colonial towns in Mexico, such as San Miguel de Allende or Pátzquaro, where historical preservation fuddy-duddies allow just three or four shades of sober hues. The only two departures from Tlacotalpan’s hallucinogenic color scheme were the two churches on the town square, one painted white, the other a light rose.

Touching up the colors and roofs: Unlike San Miguel de Allende, with
its inward-looking houses, in Tlacotalpan most houses 
have front 

porches that passersby can use for shelter from the rain or sun. 

The town’s surroundings are different too, as a Caribbean island is different from inland Mexico. Alleés of stately palm trees line the roads and entrances to ranches; immense mango trees droop, as if exhausted from the weight of the fruit (roadside stands sell mangoes for practically nothing); colorful crotons, normally sold in pots elsewhere, here grow to be trees; flocks of blooming birds-of-paradise plants flutter in the wild; almond trees have leaves almost as big as frisbees. On some stretches of road, trees on opposite sides reach out to one another, as if embracing.

An alleé of palm trees on the approach
to a sugar cane hacienda.

In place of the ubiquitous fields of corn found in most of rural Mexico, the landscape around Tlacotalpan is covered with waves of sugar cane, as far as the eye can see, swaying rhythmically, in tune with the breeze. The cane we saw was only half the size it needs to be before the harvest at year’s end, during the dry season. This year’s harvest looks promising.

This could have been my grandmother’s old house in Cuba.

About forty minutes outside of Tlacotalpan we visited a sugar mill—an ingenio, the same word used in Cuba—its huge grinders, centrifuges and smokestacks eerily still until the end of the year, when, in a frenzy of activity called the zafra—the same word as in Cuba—it will rumble to life and devour every stick of cane within miles around, turning it into tons of sugar.

San Cristóbal sugar mill, awaiting the next sugar cane harvest.

Amazingly, harvesting technology hasn’t changed that much since I left Cuba fifty-five years ago. The cane is carried to the mill in metal carts pulled by tractors, instead of carretas pulled by oxen, but the core labor is the same: cutting and trimming each cane stalk using sweaty, machete-wielding human hands.

It’s grueling and dangerous work that, during the nineteen-sixties, overcame scores of idealistic, pasty gringo youths, with Ché Guevara tee-shirts, who went down to Cuba to express their solidarity with the revolution by participating in the zafra and instead, were laid low by heat strokes, sunburns or fingers sliced by the razor-like machetes.

Cane wagons wait for the sugar harvest to begin. 

The town around the Ingenio San Cristóbal, looked only slightly more modern than those I remember in Cuba. Shacks, empty buildings and abandoned cars laid prostrate around the huge mill with its five smokestacks, as if pleading for it to come life.
Tlacotalpan, too, was in the grip of el tiempo muerto, the “dead season.” The town awakens only five times a year, I was told by Alejandro, a shy, young university student moonlighting as a waiter in his family’s restaurant.

Tlacotalpan’s main square, populated mostly by palm trees. 

There’s La Fiesta de San Miguelito (St. Michael the Archangel) during four days at the end of September; New Year’s Day; La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria, the town’s patron saint, also for four days at the end of January; and then Holy Week with its religious processions.

The fifth event, as important as tourism for putting money in people’s pockets, is the zafra, at the beginning of the year, which summons all able-bodied men to do battle with the sugar cane, by then six or seven feet tall.

One of the two employees at the town’s
Recorder of Deeds office, which is equipped
with lots of cardboard file boxes
 and an ancient typewriter.  

We missed all of Tlacoalpan’s exciting moments. During our visit, its metabolism hovered only a notch above lethargic. The dead season lived up to its name. At eight, or nine, or ten o’clock in the morning the most activity on the street in front of the hotel might come from boat-tailed grackles quarreling on the ridge of its tile roof.

The only organized activities we witnessed were two funerals, one on each of the two days of our visit, wending their way into the main church.

According to Alejandro, whose family’s restaurant conveniently faced the central square, the first funeral, attended by a couple of hundred people, was for a seventy-nine-year-old woman, a grandee, a descendant from one of the town’s original settlers.

A most loyal companion: A dog attending
the funeral mass of its owner. 

The second funeral, the next day, was attended by only two dozen people who carried a smallish coffin for a twelve-year-old boy, who had died from whatever had kept him on a wheelchair most of his life.

The most notable mourner was a black dog, at the first funeral. It laid right in the middle of the nave during the entire service, undisturbed, doing battle with its fleas. When the mass ended, it matter of factly got up, shook, and led the funeral procession out of the church, across the square and down a side street. That mutt was loyal to its owner right to the very end.

Tlacotalpan’s longest dead season in fact began about a hundred years ago. Located at the confluence of two branches of the Papaloapan River, it was the point where agricultural goods, most notably bananas—”the green gold”—were transferred from river boats to ocean-going ships and out to the Gulf of Mexico. When railroads linked the interior with the more ample port of Veracruz, Tlacotalpan became largely irrelevant to commerce.

On the riverside: The far side of the Papaloapan River is muddy, while
the near side is bluish-green. 

The two branches remain a point of interest, though. On the far side from the riverside park, one river branch is muddy and brown, while the one closer to shore is greener and seemingly cleaner. The two different-colored streams continue to flow, side-by-side, their waters never merging until they reach the open sea.

Harmless as the rivers might appear, hell happens occasionally. In October 2010 when a hurricane deluged the state of Veracruz, the Papaloapan rose about ten feet and flooded the entire town. Undaunted, the locals cleaned up and bought more paint, and colorful Tlacoalpan was back in business for the tourist season around New Year’s.

Typical rocking chairs, made of cedar, help you relax
while the wicker keeps your butt and back cool. 

On the second day we had our farewell dinner in the terrace restaurant of the four-story Hotel Doña Lala, on the riverfront park. The temperature had dropped to ninety-one degrees but it felt much cooler because of a steady breeze.

We tried to prolong our pleasant dinner, but alas, the restaurant at the mostly empty hotel closed at five-thirty. It was time to go.


Parting shot: This Mexican driver, spotted on the way to  Tlacotalpan, 
apparently missed the controversy over the Confederate flag. Most 
likely he bought the rig in the U.S. and never heard of Robert E. Lee. 


3 thoughts on “Where the Caribbean invades Mexico

  1. The event at Candelaria is a BIG event, I've heard. Friends of mine flew in for it because it appears that the witchcraft and brujas or however you spell it are there for this event. Weird, but evidently interesting………they say. Tony Cohan talked about this town in one of his books on Mexico. Thanks for the photos. It looks sweet!


  2. Anonymous

    Great Post!!! I love the photos, and Stew's comment, “it's no worse than Texas,” gave me a good laugh.I've long wanted to go to Tlacotalpan, but would never venture to do so outside the November-February window. Twenty years in Boston have made me a bit of a shrinking violet when it comes to heat and humidity, though I did live for about three years in Houston, so I can theoretically survive it. Yet there are no air conditioned movie theaters in Tlacotalpan, I'll bet.You wrote nothing of the music. Isn't Tlacotalpan famous for it's uniquely Mex-Caribbean music? Saludos,Kim GDF, MéxicoWhere it's a cool 55° and raining.


  3. Candelaria is really a big deal they told us. The take the statue of the virgin from the main church and put it on a barge that heads a procession of small boats on the river. But for us, arriving at the peak of the dead season (what do we know), the place looked as pretty and lifeless as a postcard. Maybe next year; I understand Veracruz has a big carnival, somewhat similar to Mardi Gras.


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