The New York Times
February 8, 2004

Northeast of Mexico City, a Market Worth the Climb Into the Mountains


SATURDAY afternoons buzz with anticipation in Cuetzalan, a remote town in the Sierra Norte northeast of Mexico City. Vendors, many of them indigenous
Totonacs and Nahuas in white homespun garments, are beginning to set up stands for the vibrant Sunday market.

On the concrete terraces above the main church plaza a man sits trimming bunched onions. A young girl picks spines out of fresh cactus paddles (nopales). An ancient
woman has already spread her fragrant vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, allspice, coffee and nutmeg on a small table. And another woman slices slivers of seasoned pork
onto flour tortillas from a vertical gyro-style spit, adding onions and salsa for delicious soft tacos called tacos arabes. Two pesos buys me a savory tidbit before dinner.

But this activity is a mere tease.

Sunday morning, with three traveling companions, I climbed the steep, cobbled street leading from our hotel, the rustic but welcoming Casa de Piedra, to the market area.
We spent the night in Cuetzalan in December because the drive up winding roads from Puebla or on to the imposing pyramids of El Tajín to the north, our next destination,
takes close to four hours. Mexico City is a good five hours away.

Approaching the market, we were greeted by a phalanx of live turkeys and chickens held in check by handlers waiting for buyers. For two hours we wandered amid
dazzling piles of flawless produce: ripe plum tomatoes, golden guavas, shiny black beans, verdant tomatillos in papery husks, lively bunches of cilantro and mint, handsome
pineapples, tiny dried shrimp, mountains of scarlet, green, mahogany and black chilies.

There was an aisle of fresh flowers in big metal tubs, another of meat and poultry with hogs heads and chickens hanging, a few vendors selling fresh trout, and several
with honey. Sellers of liqueurs, a local specialty in a score of flavors like blackberry, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee and lime, offered tastes.

Despite such products, Cuetzalan's is not a local farmers' market. Many boxes read "Product of Mexico" and "California," indicating that the produce, some of which
seemed impossible to grow in this region of mountains and canyons, came from Baja California. But this didn't dull our appetites.

Our breakfast started with cups of mountain-grown coffee from one stand, with a quesadilla fresh from the griddle at another, and deliciously warm, thick corn tortillas
with buttery avocado slices inside. Then we bought excellent tangerines and finished with churros, long, fluted crullerlike treats.

Some local people ate roast corn on the cob on sticks, slathered with mayonnaise and dusted with chili powder and grated cheese, another filling, ubiquitous snack. Others
sat at cooking stalls, spooning up bowls of earthy menudo, a tripe stew.

Besides food, there was knitware, pottery, fossils, souvenirs, baskets and clothing in white homespun fabric. Vendors were not aggressive. We made a few purchases
and then, reluctantly, went on our way, bearing a few plastic bags and four big smiles.

The Cuetzalan market takes place each Sunday. From Puebla, half the four-hour drive is on good roads. La Casa de Piedra, (52-233) 331-00-30 or (52-222) 249-40-89,, charges $36.65 and up for a double room at 11.2 pesos to the dollar.