The closest thing to a Mexican alpine village
Tucked away somewhere in the pine-clad mountains in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a 2-hour drive from Guadalajara and not too far from Lake Chapala, is the pueblo mágico called Mazamitla. It's probably the closest thing Mexico has to an alpine village... I say "alpine" and not "Swiss" because it lacks the squeaky-clean, orderly Swissness. In other words, it still has its Mexican feel to it. But with its stone streets and houses with red-tiled roofs and wooden balconies, many lined with geraniums in pots, it has a real mountain town feel to it. Its altitude (2200 m - (7200 ft) and cool climate help reinforce that sensation.
We first stumbled across Mazamitla three years ago when we went to pay a visit on Christmas Eve to some friends who had moved there more than a decade earlier. This year we decided to repeat the experience, attracted by the thought of escaping from the concrete and traffic of the big city and spending Christmas among the pine trees, warmed by a real log fire. Due to the prolonged rainy season this year, the whole area was even greener than usual. Three years ago, it was quite a different story. Driving to the town from Zamora, we looked expectantly for the sight of what we had read was Mexico's little Switzerland. "Switerland? This looks more like Africa!", Cristina commented. And it did look rather yellow and dry. That is until we were almost in sight of Mazamitla. Then the Sierra del Tigre, the local mountains, appeared clad in pine trees and wooden cabañas or log cabins began to peep out from the greenery. This year, we were not disappointed and spent a relaxing 3 days there.
As this was our second visit and we were staying in the same hotel, we breezed up to what I think is the town's only traffic light and patiently waited for our turn for the green light. After our daily battles to get anywhere in Mexico City without spending half the day at red lights and stuck in traffic, this was a willing wait. We were in no hurry, we were on holiday. A few pick-ups ambled down the street, and an old man of 103 and a long white beard crossed the street at a pace that was consistent with his age. The fresh air and outdoor life must stretch the life expectancy here. We remembered the way to avoid the "busy" town centre and took a small stone-clad road which led up the mountainside.... we fondly call it the Periférico in honour of DF's congested ring road. We met two other cars and a man and his donkey.
After settling into the rustic hotel and re-acquainting ourselves with the view from the balcony, we sauntered down the hilly street straight into the central square of Mazamitla. Lined by small two--storey buildings with red and white walls, chunky roof tiles and wooden balconies, it seemed sleepy enough even though there was a wedding event going on at the church. A shiny red pick-up with a wedding bouquet on the front waited to take the newly-wed couple off. At least 70% of the vehicles here seem to be either ancient or massive pick-ups so I suppose it was a natural choice. When it rained the following day and turned the nearby mountain tracks into sticky red trails, we understood why these vehicles were so necessary. But today was clear and sunny and surprisingly warm. Our thick jumpers were relegated to our waists.
The church is rather intriguing and certainly not the usual stone colonial-style building we have become accustomed to in Mexico. Freshly painted white with red trim, it conjures up vague images of a Chinese pagoda which seems to have mistakenly turned up in a Mexican dream. The bells rang and the bridal party emerged, one or two of the ladies tottering on heels that were totally out-of-keeping with this hilly town.
It doesn't take long before you notice lots of references to venado (deer) and arrows. The name Mazamitla in the Náhuatl language can mean any of a number of variations on the same theme: "the place where deer-hunting arrows are made". I'm sure that in earlier times, the surrounding forests were teeming with deer just waiting to be hunted. And wood... lots of it. It is obviously one of the main raw materials here... wooden balconies, wooden furniture, wooden souvenirs, wooden cabañas, wooden doors.... I was surprised to see that the benches in the main square were made of iron.
Perhaps the busiest place in this town was the small indoor market area a couple of streets away from the central plaza. Apart from that, small shops had their tiny interiors crammed full of just about everything, including the locally-made sweets such as cajeta de nuez, a kind of caramel with nuts in it and rompope, a sweet eggnog-like liquor which must do wonders in this cool climate. No-one was frantically buzzing around doing late shopping for Christmas presents. In fact, I was beginning to wonder whether Christmas had come and gone in this town, or if they only celebrated Los Reyes on the 6th of January. Except for a couple of piñatas, a few strings of lights and one or two paper lanterns, you wouldn't have guessed it was the 21st of December.
Early the next morning though, when I slipped into town before everyone else was up, I was relieved to find that the plaza was being hosed down by a group of four people, outnumbered by the pigeons by 200:1, while a familiar sound was being piped into the crisp morning air. It was the Spanish Christmas carol, Los Peces en el Rio. "Aha", I thought to myself, "they've remembered it's Christmas after all!" My hasty conclusion came to an abrupt end when the next song began. It was "Fame" ("I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly.."). Actually, the local Moustache Contest seemed to have made a greater dent in the calendar than Navidad. I think I saw who won the competition but didn't want to ask him if I could take his photo. The notoriety might have disturbed his peaceful existence. But when he wasn't looking, I snapped a shot from behind... his moustache was still more than visible from this angle.
That first evening, we set off for the restaurant La Troje, its walls literally covered in photographs and posters, in search of some real food after a meagre sandwich for lunch on our journey here. When we arrived, it was just closing. "So early?" we chorused. We were directed across the road to the pizza place, a small rustic cabaña. It was cold and dark outside but as we opened the door, we were greeted by wooden walls, simple wooden tables and chairs on a gravel floor and a brick oven from where the smell of freshly-baked pizzas wafted. It all looked warm and inviting. No luxuries here but pure mountain refuge style. Our stomachs asked for home-made burgers and salad and baked potatoes and even a small pizza. The owner of the restaurant, a Belgian man, was a survivor. He had started off selling clothes but when times were hard, changed to selling crêpes out of a trailer. At our comments about the delicious pizza, he replied, "Well, I'd never made a pizza before but one day I thought, hey, I'm going to start making pizzas too!"
The Christmas feeling arrived in Mazamitla on Christmas Eve, after a very heavy early morning rainstorm: The outdoor market began to set up in the centre and large tents of plastic sheet were pulled over the stands. As we made our way among the stalls, mingling with a growing number of locals who had appeared from somewhere, I knew what presents the people of Mazamitla would be getting. For the children, there were colourful plastic balls and toys, for the adults woolly jumpers and hats. And maybe a few bottles of rompope. Yes, now Christmas really had come.
I hadn't imagined a wet Christmas Eve but fortunately the weather cleared up by the afternoon and when we set off in search of our friends' restaurant, lost among pine trees, we found a roaring fire and an international group around the table. Several courses later, with one of the little dogs clearly delighting in the warmest place in the house right in front of the chimney, we were ready to make our way back to the hotel, light our own fire and hang Marc's stocking up by the chimney. Who knows? Father Christmas must surely be able to find this place... he would feel at home here in this Alpine village!