As anyone who has gone off the beaten path in Mexico can tell you, the country is still filled with hidden gems…small towns which have preserved their identity and charm, which, of course, can include handcrafts.
I first heard of Naolinco, Veracruz at the annual doll fair in Amealco, Querétaro. In the town’s doll museum, I came across a couple of “dolls” (really figures) made of clay in a curious burnt orange and beige color combination. the use of small bits of clay to create patterns over the main piece reminded me of work cone in Atzompa, Oaxaca, but the style was unique.
There wasn’t much information about the figures, and the image got tucked somewhere in my head. Several years later, I found myself off to northern Veracruz for research purposes and remembered the town. Doing a little research, I found the area was known for this pottery and the making of shoes.
It is a good side trip from the city of Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz, off a small highway that leads north from the city. This region is not well known to foreigners, although that is slowly changing.
Veracruz in general has not attracted many tourists or retirees because it does not have the sunny climate that most of us associate with Mexico. The weather changes constantly because of cold fronts coming down from the United States and hitting the warm, moist air off the Gulf of Mexico. What the area lack in constant sunshine is made up for with greenery, lots and lots of greenery. It is the northmost tropical rainforest in Mexico.
Oh and they grow coffee here too, especially from Coatepec down towards Orizaba.
I researched Naolinco for handcrafts so I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in the town center. Simple, but definitely colonial-era facades surround the main square and many of the old streets. The subtle coloring of the buildings complemented the overcast day.
The town proper is known for leather, in particular the making of shoes. At one time, all the shoes sold here were made locally; today maybe 70% are. The shoes and the town’s charm make it a popular day trip for the region on weekends. On weekdays, it is quiet.
Most of the shoe places are on Rafael Lucio Street, just off the main square, with some one the highway that links the town with the outside world. The quality of the goods vary, like anywhere else, but despite my crazy feet, I was able to find a good pair of navy blue flats with good support.
Workshops are not on this street, but some can be found in the town proper and in the smaller communities around. People are friendly and the food here is good (better than in Xalapa IMHO), try the local moles.
One drawback to visiting Naolinco during the week is that the pottery that initially drew my attention is not readily found. It is not made in the town proper, but rather in San Miguel Aguasuelos, a tiny community about a half an hour or so out of town. It depends on the crowds that come on weekends to Naolinco to sell their wares on the street, so it is almost impossible to get it any other time. The community is small and not very inviting for the casual tourist.
Pottery here is done by women. A sculpture at the entrance of Aguasuelas declares it the “Tierra de alfareras” and many of the potters have generations of experience. Originally, the items that were made here were utilitarian, but this is disappearing because, like other handcrafts, it depends on the tourist market to survive. Instead, decorative pieces dominates, espeically female figures, crosses, picture frames, animals, etc.
The potters also sell to middlemen who send their work to other parts of Mexico, not notably Guanajuato, of course without noting who made the pieces or even where they come from.