In this once thriving port of Tlacotalpan, fishing and tourism seem to be the main employment opportunities now. There appears to be a thriving underground economy.
It’s World Heritage status has rules to be followed. There are no plate glass windows in shops, or large signs, so it is hard to know where the businesses are operating. As we walk around town it seems like every third door we pass has some kind of shop in the front room. Windows are small and often covered with cloth mesh to keep bugs out but the doors stand open.
Most common are small shops selling some soda, a few chips, a few candy bars, maybe some toilet paper, or other sundries and not much else. Others contain electrical shops or tire repair businesses, all hidden behind house doors. Many houses contain two or three tables and a little sign identifying the place as a taco shop or cantina. At the door of one house we watched a man raking coals out of a brick oven and shoveling bread into it, a panaderia (bakery). Another was a furniture factory, a single room with a man sanding a rocking chair. It had a lovely wood frame with caned seat and back, completed ones stood against the wall.
Walking home from the Zocalo (town square) after dark, we could peer into houses and see those same rocking chairs lined up in front of the television set and whole families watching together.
One morning we wakened to the sound of a squealing pig. Our landlord tells us that the man two doors down has an abattoir in his back courtyard. It isn’t exactly legal but no one complains; just one pig every few days. A day or two later in another part of town we passed an open door and saw a partly dismembered pig in the courtyard behind the house.
Another morning we were wakened at 6:40 by LOUD music in front of the house next door. It is a custom to waken people on their birthday by serenading them. In some places a three piece band is customary, here it was a loud speaker mounted on a car.
The Town Crier, a beat up VW bug with a loud speaker mounted on it, crisscrosses the streets all day providing the news of the town as well as advertising.
Other than taxis there are few cars. Bicycle driven carriers are the common means of transporting goods. A two wheeled open box-like structure composed of steel pipes is mounted on the front of a bicycle. They were also widely used in Tecolutla.
All day we hear the calls of vendors coming down the street with something for sale. Each afternoon a boy riding a bicycle with a big flat basket attached to the front, rides down the street calling “pan”. For a few pesos we buy pastries for our breakfast. The pastries are nothing like the rich coffee cakes, muffins and sticky buns found in the US. They are barely sweetened making them the perfect breakfast food.
A Tlacotalpan version of the milkman comes by daily; his cart holds two large silver milk cans. Women come out of their houses holding pans or jars that he scoops milk into. Otherwise, the only milk we’ve seen comes in boxes stored on the grocery shelves.
Another common form of transportation is horseback. We hear the riders passing on the cobblestone streets. Ranchers in the outlying villages ride into town and we see many horses tethered in front of houses.
On two different evenings we had dinner at one of two upscale restaurants on the square. Suddenly a man rounded the corner, wearing protective gear and a gas mask, accompanied by a cloud of mist from a sprayer. A mosquito fighter, he passed the tables while the mist descended on the diners. People casually covered their drinks with their hands and spread napkins over their food until the mist had cleared. No one seemed to think twice about it.
This town is similar in many ways to Tecolutla, the small shops, the bicycle driven carriers, and little traffic, but very different too. Tecolutla is a beach town, a popular resort for Mexicans with most businesses catering to tourists. It seems like every fourth building is a hotel or restaurant.
Tlacotalpan has been preserved in time. It is charming and is a tourist destination but on a smaller scale. A few hotels, fewer restaurants and it felt to us like a funcioning small town.