A culinary and cultural bounty awaits during a drive through Mexico’s diminutive central state.

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The stables and views at Hacienda Tenexac, in Mexico
From left: The stables of the 17th-century estate that is now Hacienda Tenexac, a bed-and-breakfast in Terrenate; a view of the Tlaxcala countryside from Hacienda Tenexac.
| Credit: Ana Lorenzana

Largely overlooked by both foreign and domestic visitors, Tlaxcala offers insights into Mexico's complex history that you won't find anywhere else. Located in the country's central plateau, or Altiplano, it's still mostly associated with one turbulent chapter: about 500 years ago, it was a highly organized city-state that allied with the Spanish in their attack on Tenochtitlán, center of the Aztec empire and the site of modern-day Mexico City

Today, Tlaxcala's fertile valleys are studded with pre-Hispanic ruins, Baroque churches, rural communities that continue to use ancient agricultural techniques, and haciendas once dedicated to the production of pulque, the fermented agave drink. 

This past September, I spent four days driving through most of the state, but any stretch of the trip can be isolated into a weekend break from Mexico City, which is about two hours away by car. You can also use any of the hotels as a base from which to make day trips to the other destinations.

View from inside a car to La Malinche volcano
La Malinche volcano, seen on a drive in Tlaxcala.
| Credit: Ana Lorenzana

Day 1: Tlaxcala City

Pick up a car in Mexico City and drive out over the foothills of Popocatépetl—one of the two great volcanoes in the capital's southeastern corner. Head toward Tlaxcala City, stopping en route to see the spectacular murals at Cacaxtla, an archaeological site with 1,000-year-old ruins. 

Before delving into Tlaxcala's historic center, dotted with buildings from the 16th to 19th centuries, stop for breakfast at the Modernist Mercado Emilio Sánchez Piedras (entrance on Avda. Alonso Escalona). Taste quesadillas sold from baskets in the second-to-last aisle and homemade moles and adobos scooped from big, enameled pots a few paces away. 

In the plaza behind the 18th-century Parroquia de San José (4 Calle 1 de Mayo), visit El Compa food cart for tacos de canasta, or "basket tacos," a specialty of the nearby village of San Vicente Xiloxochitla. Then try the Cacao Frank food cart, where Doña Francisca Romero serves delicious agua de barranca, a foam-topped drink of toasted and ground corn, cacao, fava beans, cinnamon, and anise. 

Once refreshed, walk over to the unesco-listed Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (entrance via Plaza Xochitencatl) to see its majestic Baroque altarpieces and carved wooden ceiling in the Spanish Mudejar style, which combines elements of Gothic and Islamic architectures. Farther uphill, the Basilica of Ocotlán (Privada del Norte), begun in 1670, is a high point of the Tlaxcalteca Baroque style. 

At the unassuming cantina Piensa en Mi, owners Rodrigo Cruz Cruz and Sharim Cortés Holten serve artisanal beer and a rotating selection of snacks, like pitch-perfect birria and chamorro (braised pork shank). End the day at Molino de los Reyes (doubles from $310), a charming eight-room hotel in an 18th-century wheat mill just outside of town.

Day 2: Tlaxcala City to Terrenate

After beginning the day with simple, satisfying artisanal breads from Molino's wood-burning oven, drive east to Contla, a village known for textiles that has been absorbed into the city's sprawl. 

Visit the workshop of fourth-generation weaver Ignacio Netzahualcoyotl. He and a small team of dyers and weavers craft contemporary rugs, shawls, and elaborate serapes using pedal looms. (Though usually associated with the northern city of Saltillo, serape weaving likely originated in Tlaxcala.) 

From Contla, drive southeast to Huamantla. The town's central plaza is an ideal spot to grab a quick snack of ice cream and mueganos, the wheat-and-cane-sugar fritters. 

Two photos, one showing the Baltazar family picking pumpkin flowers, and one showing a soup made from the picked ingredients
From left: Near the village of Ixtenco, members of the Baltazar family pick pumpkin flowers and corn; the harvested ingredients are used to make a traditional soup.
| Credit: Ana Lorenzana

Continue south to Ixtenco, a traditional Otomí community, for lunch in the humble kitchen of the Baltazar family, whose cooking has its roots in the milpa, a pre-Hispanic farming system built around the symbiotic relationship between corn, squash, and beans. (A visit can be prearranged with the help of culinary historian Irad Santacruz via direct message on Instagram at @irad_santacruz.) 

After lunch, drive north to the 17th-century Hacienda Tenexac (doubles from $135), in Terrenate, which is still inhabited by descendants of the family that bought the property in the late 1800s. Spend a peaceful night in one of four rustic cabins and drink in the pastoral calm of a distant century.

Two photos from Tlaxcala, Mexico. One shows a hammock and views at a hotel, and another shows a brick convent building from the 16th century
From left: A guest room at JapoNeza Retreat with views of the Atlangatepec lagoon and La Malinche volcano; Tlaxcala City, the state's capital, is home to a UNESCO-listed Franciscan convent and cathedral from the 16th century.
| Credit: Ana Lorenzana

Day 3: Terrenate to Atlangatepec

Following a nourishing breakfast prepared by Tenexac's charismatic steward, Paz Yano Bretón, join her for a tour of the residential quarters, which are crowded with eclectic furnishings and keepsakes accumulated over the past 200 years. Spend the rest of the morning relaxing on the grass or strolling the hacienda's sprawling, wildflower-dusted grounds before heading west to the industrial city of Apizaco for lunch at Evoka (entrées $10–$22). Chef Francisco Molina serves impeccable renditions of regional specialties—think heirloom-corn tostadas with whipped pulque butter or a delicate bean tamale nestled in a rich, oat-based mole—in an elegant, minimalist room endearingly out of sync with the spare concrete streetscape outside. 

A short drive north takes you into open fields abutting the highlands of the Sierra Madre Oriental that separates the Altiplano from the Gulf of Mexico. A winding dirt road leads to the two-year-old JapoNeza Retreat (doubles from $280), whose Japanese-influenced guest rooms open onto spectacular views of the Atlangatepec lagoon and the cone of La Malinche, a dormant volcano named for the guide and consort of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish military commander. 

Two photos from Mexico. One shows an outdoor soaking tub at a Japan-inspired retreat, and the other shows a plate of tacos on the hood of a red truck
From left: A tub with a view at JapoNeza Retreat; tacos de canasta at El Compa, a food cart near San Vicente Xiloxochitla.
| Credit: Ana Lorenzana

Day 4: Atlangatepec to Mexico City

Wake at dawn for a mild, 40-minute hike to the top of a hill behind the retreat. As the sun rises, marvel at the grandeur of Popocatépetl and its snowcapped twin, the dormant Iztaccíhuatl. After checking out, your next stop should be the town of Tlaxco for a breakfast of enpipianadas (tortillas stuffed with cheese and bathed in a pale-green pumpkin-seed sauce) at La Casona de Don Agustín (entrées $6–$18), which overlooks the tree-lined plaza. 

From Tlaxco, head west through the Llanos de Apan, an agricultural region split between Tlaxcala and the neighboring state of Hidalgo that was once the heart of a lucrative pulque industry. If you're curious to get a more in-depth understanding of the beverage, visit Hacienda Xochuca (by appointment), one of the few in the region that still produce it. 

Two photos, one showing a dish of mole and mushrooms, and another showing a chef sitting at a restaurant table
From left: Mushrooms with mole at the family-run restaurant Xoletongo, in Calpulupan; Francisco Molina, the chef at Evoka, a restaurant in Apizaco.
| Credit: Ana Lorenzana

Stop for lunch at Xoletongo (entrées $4–$20), a spartan, 60-seat dining room run by the family of chef Marcos Morales Muñoz. Its location on the edge of a dusty highway in the town of Calpulupan belies Morales's exquisite vegetable-forward tasting menu. On any given day, a feast might include crisp, ivory petals of delicate agave hearts or seared trumpet mushrooms with a subtly warming mole made from chicatanas (flying ants). 

Mexico City is only 90 minutes away by car—whether you head there or back toward the mountains for a few more days of quiet is up to you.