Monday, May 14, 2012

Tlacotalpan - The Pride of Papaloapan

Tlacotalpan has a lot more going for it than its tongue-twisting name. This beautifully restored Spanish colonial settlement on the Rio Papaloapan (River of Butterflies) in the state of Veracruz is not only one of the most attractive towns in Mexico, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a thriving cultural center.

Tlacotalpan has been inhabited since pre-Columbian times, and its name means something like "between the waters" or "divided earth" in Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs. Not surprisingly, Spanish conquistadors vanquished this area during the l6th century and established a river port at strategically located Tlacotalpan.

The community grew into an important trading center for cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, and other exotic tropical products. By the mid 1800's, Tlacotalpan boasted an opera house, a municipal palace, and a number of other substantial buildings. However, the arrival of the railway to Veracruz in the late 19th century spelled the beginning of the end for Tlacotalpan's prosperity as goods from the interior could now be more easily shipped to the coast by rail than by water.

Tlacotalpan settled in for a long siesta during the early part of the 20th century and didn't really awaken until 1998 when it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List. Funds were subsequently made available for restoration, and the locals literally went to town fixing up decaying houses and churches. Today, it seems as if every building in Tlacotalpan sports a brightly painted facade and neoclassical style colonnades and porticos.

This region has a lot going on culturally as well. It is the home of Son Jarocho, a spicy blend of Spanish, indigenous, and African rhythms that has become the traditional music of Veracruz. During the annual Candelaria or Candlemas celebrations  in early February, Jaranero musicians and visitors from all over Mexico converge on Tlacotalpan for a three-day festival of music, religious processions, and other events marking the advent of spring.

Tlacotalpan is also the birthplace of Agustín Lara (1897-1970), one of Mexico's most beloved singers and composers. Lara's house has been turned into a museum commemorating his life and work. In addition, the town's cultural center, which hosts exhibits along with dance and music rehearsals, has been named after Tlacotalpan's most illustrious native son.

The town of Tlacotalpan lies about 90 minutes (110 km) south by car or bus from the city of Veracruz. The best hotels in town are the comfortable Hotel Reforma near the main plaza and the more upscale and atmospheric Posada Doña Lala, also situated in the historical center of town.

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Tlacotalpan, Veracruz - Images by John Mitchell

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