Monuments in the main square of Zacapoaxtla.

A peaceful town with big aspirations: Zacapoaxtla in Puebla, Mexico—Small Towns Series

Let me start this story by the end.

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It was dark already. I was in the passenger seat at 110km/h. Watching at the sky. Trying to process the last eleven hours of stimuli.

Leaving the city and coming back so soon is a shock for the system. Leaving the chaos, the insatiable traffic, the blinding lights of gigantic advertising, and, leaving the dense pollution to enter a realm of peace, fresh air, good coffee, and pure nature; is like an overdose of wellness the body can’t handle.
There, on the way back home, my mind was wondering: “Is this worth it?” “Is living in the city that necessary?” “Is traveling and returning to the city a thing I can do?” Because that day I confirmed what I suspect: life can be both challenging and inspiring in a big city or a small town, and opportunities have to be taken with hard work. Now the questions pondering in my head felt heavier. And at that moment on the road, I was dubious of many things.

A picture of the tianguis in Zacapoaxta.
A picture of the tianguis in Zacapoaxta

What I found, visiting Zacapoaxtla (OpenStreetMap | Google Maps), was a small town full of wonders. Nature everywhere. Pristine rivers with water purified by the mountain ranges. Cold air and intense sunlight. People peacefully make a living by selling their work and products in the “tianguis” (the local market). Smiling women making delicious tlacoyos. Coffee with the strength to wake up the dead. Beautiful architecture. Respect for nature. And the most remarkable: hard-working passionate people willing to take a chance on risky endeavors.

Margarita, a beautiful woman with rally-style driving, was kind enough to give us a tour of the region. My dear friend Gerardo, was there to make business, he invited me to this fast-short trip. And I took the chance to go there to observe, to filter what I saw with the eye of an ethnographer.

Kindness and gentleness are values that get lost in the noise and aggression of the speed of life in the city. Small towns are not immune to the collision of wills, but some of them feel pretty much peaceful. Zacapoaxtla is one of those towns. Perhaps the routine commanded by the sunlight makes people less harsh. Or maybe is the cold weather, it forces people to be warm. Or maybe, people there are so used to seeing beauty, that they behave more gently, more lovely. I don’t know. I can only talk about what I saw: smiling faces, respectful manners, and welcoming body language.

To be honest, there is just too much I want to talk about Zacapoaxtla. I want to talk about its history, its economy, its culture… But I suspect it might be an endless story. So I guess, the best I can do, is to talk about the things I experienced, and the things that took me to the premise of this story.

It’s so easy to fall into the narrative of progress that governments try tirelessly to implement in their cities. Maybe you’ve heard it: progress equals innovation, innovation equals modernity, modernity equals investment and investment means money – a ton of it. But in fact, the economy is mainly driven by family businesses.

In Zacapoaxtla, family is the core of the economy. Generations of wealthy and not-so-wealthy families sustain and have sustained the development of this town.

Some families have just enough. A few square meters to live, feed their animals, and harvest their vegetables. Nevertheless, they are in a better economic state than thousands who live in the city and have to squeeze every peso to maximize their solvency. But others, others are truly lucky, and they are the ones that probably will drive the economy of this small town in the future.

A bottle of 'Cenizo' aguardiente
A bottle of aguardiente of piloncillo made in Antigua Destilería Apulco.

Joaquin and Gaby are of those lucky. They are a couple. They are parents. And they are owners of “Antigua Destilería Apulco” (Instagram page), a very old, full of history distillery in Apulco (Google Maps), a small town next to Zacapoaxtla. They are passionate about aguardiente, a form of alcoholic drink made of fermented piloncillo (a product of sugar cane). I saw in them an entrepreneurial spirit. I saw an understanding of their product and comprehension of their ideal customer. Like many business owners in all of the world, they are facing constantly the challenges of selling a product that has many competitors. But if their business is surviving far away from the city markets, is because they are committed to building a great company.

When I talk to business owners like Joaquin and Gaby, I get grounded. I remember the reality of running a family business. A reality that sometimes involves little investment, long hours of work, a shared education of the children, and in many times: moments of despair. You have to have passion for the core of the business to overcome many of the challenges it will face. But passion is just the starting point.

In a place like Zacapoaxtla, a small town that depends on agriculture, it’s hard to imagine a business that can thrive and have the potential to grow at a national level. But what I saw in Antigua Destileria Apulco, was a focus on improving their products by innovation. Probably you think innovation is a technology matter. But it is a mindset that can be applied to any industry. 

One of the ways to innovate is by observing what your customer needs, and by experimenting with the resources you have access to. Joaquin and Gaby are looking for ways to add local ingredients to their products. By making this, their beverage acquires a particular taste, meaning it can only be made there, the formula could be copied, but some things like weather, water minerals, and altitude are hard to replicate. 

So if you visit their place and see how hard-working they are, and how enthusiasts are about what they do, you’ll probably see what I saw: a great potential.

To be honest, this is the 5th draft I made about this trip. But I’m not going to lie to you, I’m writing this to understand my relationship with cities. I’m questioning how cities are working; because the future of the city is the future of the planet. Yes! cities are the places where most consumption is happening, where most energy is being spent, and where more resources are being wasted. Small towns are in some sense, the antithesis of cities, and we, city lovers, tend to see small towns or “pueblos” (as we call them here in Mexico) as underdeveloped communities, when in fact, in a few years, the benefits of small towns, like silence, calmness, a starry night, abundant nature, and clean air and water, are those things we’ll aspire to taste in the city.

We are in this age of “innovation”. Every day there is a new gadget, a new invention, a new marvel ready to solve a huge problem or change our perception of the world. But the truth is: nothing can substitute hard work. The hard work of manufacturing a product, of listening to clients, of dealing with bureaucracy, of maintaining the machines of the XXI century lifestyle. 

In Zacapoaxtla, I saw hard-working people. No matter their conditions and resources, people are ready to tackle the challenges of everyday life. Thanks to Joaquin and Gaby I confirmed that inspiration and challenges are everywhere, of course, cities have their advantages and disadvantages, of course, pueblos like Zacapoaxtla have their pros and cons, so what matters, is the willingness to work hard in something you are passionate about.
I hope you have the opportunity to visit Zacapoaxtla. I hope you can drink their coffee, and eat their barbacoa and tacos de guisado. I hope you go to Apulco distillery and drink some aguardiente with Himalayan salt and pepper. But most of all, I hope you go there and talk to people, watch how they live, how hard they work and feel inspired by their way to make a living in a place so distant from the city, so beautiful and so calm.

More beautiful pictures taken by my friend

Tlacoyos made on the tianguis.
Roasting coffee.
‘Finca Tres Arroyos’ Home of ‘Antigua Destilería Apulco’.

Disclaimer: This is not an sponsored post.

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