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Shit Hot Or Shithole? Exploring Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos: Zacatlan

As the gateway to Puebla state’s verdant Sierra Norte, Zacatlan sure looks like it has a lot going for it at first glance. Heck, even the bus trip out there is quite the adventure. From Puebla city, the bus winds its way into the mountains, and the open plains and endless highways give way to pine forests and silent country roads. On arrival, the town centre is perfectly manicured, like something out of a fairy tale. Yet somehow, the place narrowly dodges the dreaded Disney syndrome – that sickness when a town becomes so gentrified it hurts.

Unlike my previous entries on Mexico’s pueblos magicos (magic towns), I have absolutely no snark for Zacatlan. It’s just too cool.

Zacatlan was anointed with the title of magic town in 2011 by Mexico’s tourism secretariat. If the magic town program was intended to select towns offering visitors a “magic” experience, then Zacatlan hits the nail square on the head. For one, this small mountain settlement has a fascinating history. It’s perhaps best known as the site of Latin America’s first clock factory, a fact the town still holds dear today. They even have a massive, double sided clock in the town square. It’s supposedly the world’s only double sided flower clock with hands that are moved by a single, complex internal mechanism. I’m not exactly a clock aficionado, but it’s certainly an impressive sight.

The town’s other big draw card is its ciders and fruit wines. The Sierra Norte has historically been a major fruit growing region, but a few generations ago locals found they had way too many apples and the like on their hands. Hence, they started experimenting with ciders and fruit wines; at least, that’s how one resident told the story.

Today, these tasty beverages are everywhere in Zacatlan. Throughout the town centre, tourist shops will lure visitors in with enough free samples to get a little tipsy. They won’t stop offering free samples until you either go through their entire selection, or pass out trying. However, the best place to stock up on grog has to be the Sidrera San Rafael. This small factory is one of the town’s main cider producers, and their stuff is second to none in the region. Their goods are sold all over town, and make it as far afield as some supermarkets in Puebla city. A 700 ml bottle of hand crafted apple cider will set you back less than US$3, while their equally good liqueurs and cremes cost around US$5 (the coffee liquor is highly recommended).

However, the best of Zacatlan is actually outside town, such as the Piedras Encimadas. This valley is full of intriguing basalt formations, and offers a few short and easy hikes.

It’s worth setting aside a solid half day at least to explore the entire valley. Camping is also possible for around MX$50 (US$2.80).

The piedras can be reached from a small bus/ camioneta terminal on Calle H. Galeana, near the intersection with Calle Ramon Corona. The trip takes about an hour.

On top of this, there’s a ton of other awesome stuff near town that I didn’t get around to. The Cascada de San Pedro, and slightly more distant Cascadas Tuliman are both apparently worth visits. Moreover, Zacatlan makes a fantastic base for exploring the more isolated corners of the Sierra Norte, including numerous small villages huddled in the mountains, and seemingly endless hiking opportunities.

So in short, Zacatlan is shit hot. The town gets a steady trickle of visitors from Puebla on weekends, but doesn’t see too many gringos. Given how awesome this place is, I’m not entirely sure why it isn’t overrun with foreign tourists. But, heck, I’m not about to complain. So if you’re in Puebla state, do yourself a favour and set aside a few days to check out Zacatlan and its surroundings. Or don’t, and let me keep this little jewel to myself.

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