By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
As a tourist destination, Iguala, the little town in the northeastern corner of the Mexican coastal state of Guerrero, gets a bad rap.
Irreparably linked to the 2014 disappearance of 43 rural teachers’ college students who were allegedly disappeared by government forces in the nearby town of Ayotzinapa after they had commandeered a bus to travel to Mexico City to participate in a protest march, Iguala has borne the brunt of a lot of bad press and mostly unjustified associations with drug cartels and violence.
The still-unresolved case of Ayotzinapa has, for the last eight years, been a constant bone of contention for virtually every political party in Mexico, thus keeping the blurry history of that tragic event continuously in the press and the minds of the Mexican people.
Exactly what happened on that unfortunate day in September 2014 may never be known, but one version of the story is that then-Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez (allegedly at the prodding of his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa) ordered the detention of the students and then turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, which proceeded to torture and kill them.
In recent months, alternative scenarios have been presented, and the truth no doubt lies somewhere in between.
But as the good folks of Iguala are quick to point out, Iguala is more than 200 kilometers away from Ayotzinapa — 205 kilometers, to be exact — and neither the students nor the bus in question were in any way associated with their town, nor did the tragic assumed murders of the victims actually take place there.
Nonetheless, Iguala — or Iguala de la Independencia, as it is formally known — has forever been linked to the incident and has, consequently, paid the toll of that association in spades when it comes to bringing in tourists.
Enter stage right, Iguala Mayor David Gama Pérez, an opposition politician who took office late last year and who has a new vision for his sprawling and heavily congested municipality of 130,000 people: turn Iguala into a tourist destination.
The idea is not as unlikely as it may seem.
Iguala, currently a hodgepodge of tiny shops and unmatched houses cluttered around each other with far too many cars for its ultra-narrow but extremely clean streets, was not always a little forgotten village.
In fact, it was once a booming commercial hub. During colonial times, a halfway point between the major port city of Acapulco and the current national capital of Mexico City, Iguala de la Independencia was one of the most important trading centers in New Spain.
So important was the city in those bygone days that then-Mexican President Porfirio Díaz made a special trip to Iguala to inaugurate its still-standing railroad station back in 1898.
Díaz’s plan was to connect the Pacific port of Acapulco to the Gulf of Mexico port of Veracruz, thus making a coast-to-coast transport system that would spur both trade and international communication. Unfortunately, that railway was never completed and the train system never went beyond Iguala in the state of Guerrero.
The last train out of Iguala departed in 1997, when the region’s rail service was officially canceled, but there are still some tracks between Guerrero and Mexico City that once linked Iguala to the Morelos capital of Cuernavaca and the Federal District.
Today, the Iguala train station, named after Porfirio Diaz himself, is an open-air museum that can be visited free of charge year-round.
Iguala also has an impressive history.
It was here that Mexico’s famous Plan de Iguala, which became the blueprint for the nation’s Magna Carta of independence from Spain, was written.
Here, too, the tri-colored banner that would become the official flag of Mexico was designed and crafted. And, as any Igualateco will tell you, Iguala is the only city mentioned in the Mexican National Anthem.
It is on the basis of all this extraordinary history that Mayor Gama Pérez is betting on transforming his town into a tourist hub. But that isn’t an easy prospect.
The Ayotzinapa case has certainly stained the image of Iguala, associating it with drug trafficking, which is rampant across the state of Guerrero (with a semi-permanent U.S. State Department Level 4 Do-Not-Travel to advisory).
And while the town was still a significant commercial center up until about the 1940s or 1950s. when it was overshadowed by the glitz of Acapulco and the political pull of the Guerrero capital of Chilpancingo, the final blow to its fading prosperity came with the rerouting of the Autopista del Sol highway that links Mexico City to Acapulco in 1993.
Prior to then, the trip would take about seven hours, and most people driving would stop for lunch, or at least a breather on the trek, in the quaint little town of Iguala. But when Iguala was zoned out of the highway path, the town began to decay.
Add to all this the fact that Gama Pérez is from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in a state that is dominated by the leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who has made no secret of his delight in squeezing any opposition government financially so that it cannot succeed, and it is evident that the Iguala mayor has his work cut out for him.
But, inexplicably, Gama Pérez has managed to work a few miracles, and somehow convinced the federal government to fork up a whopping 800 million pesos to reconstruct and renovate the town’s municipal palace (which has suffered several incidents of burnings and other acts of destruction over the years) and the adjacent main plaza Zócalo, along with several key major monuments to the heroic Plan de Iguala drafters and other local heroes.
With an additional 50 million pesos allocated from his local budget, Gama Pérez went straight to work, and the massive construction project is now well underway behind wind-torn sheets of dark plastic that occupy most of Iguala’s downtown.
The new municipal palace and plaza are due to open on Dec. 17, and given Gama Pérez’s headstrong determination and unprecedented ability to work magic, there is a good probability that the project will actually be inaugurated on that date, and, unlike some federal projects that are inaugurated even if they aren’t operable, will even be completed.
From what I could see through the torn strips of black plastic that currently surround the project when I was in Iguala on a recent fam trip, the new structures will be breathtakingly beautiful, as will the gardens surrounding them.
Gama Pérez is also banking on the town’s gastronomic history to bring in tourist dollars.
Iguala, best known for its flagship green pozole (a heavy stew of pork belly, hominy and chili peppers, topped with sliced radishes and lettuce) and tangy tamarind water, has a tasty variety of culinary treats, and under the banner of “Iguala es in-Iguala-able” (“Iguala is un-equal-able”), the town has launched an all-out campaign to promote its local cuisine.
And while the food of Iguala may not be as exquisite as that of Puebla, with is lush, multilayered moles and sauces, or as versatile as that of Oaxaca, what it does have is strong traditional roots. It is precisely this simple, back-to-nature element that makes Iguala cuisine unique and delicious.
Inspired by their mayor and the promise of a new chance at prosperity, the Igualatecos have turned back the clock and have adopted traditional cooking techniques, ingredients and recipes to make their food as authentically “Mexicano” as humanely possible.
Here in, then, is the biggest hope for Iguala’s fledgling tourist industry. And while the town is essentially devoid of any great colonial architecture or major tourist attractions, there is still a lot to see and eat in Iguala.
The best day to arrive in Iguala is on a Thursday, mainly because that is the day that the entire town eats, sleeps and breathes pozole. Virtually everyone in Iguala celebrates Jueves de Pozole (Pozole Thursdays). Starting shortly after noon, most stores close up and private homes are converted into one-day-only pop-up restaurants offering their own unique interpretations of the famous dish, both to eat on premises or for takeout.
Why Thursdays? No one in the town really seems to know, but the practice is probably linked to the fact that until 1966, most Catholics (and Iguala is a very Catholic town) didn’t eat meat on Fridays, so a hardy meal of pork and hominy stew was a welcome repast the day before.
As you enter the town through the tight, winding, bumpy, single-lane road that leads to the city center on any early Thursday afternoon (Iguala is about a three-hour drive from Mexico City), you will see women with huge empty pots headed to their favorite make-shift pozole bistros for the Iguala equivalent of Uber Eats.
The aromatic scent of the hominy and pork broth, mingled with freshly ground cumin and oregano, fills the air and is a strong incentive to join the march to pozole heaven, but don’t stop yet for lunch.
Instead, head straight to the aforementioned Porfirio Díaz Railroad Museum, where, if you are lucky, like we were, you will be welcomed by a cool glass of freshly made tamarind water (tamarind is the official fruit of Iguala, and the entire town is surrounded by rings of tamarind trees) and a local dance troupe performing traditional Guerrero folklore ballet.
The museum is small, mainly composed of five rusting train cars, two sky blue cars at the front, two burnt red ones in the middle and a lone eroding yellow caboose at the back.
There are also bits of torn tickets and other documents, as well as rusted nails and other remnants of the past that pay homage to both the town’s and the railway’s long lost glory.
You can climb on the corroded cars, which are a great place for selfies, sit on the wooden benches where passengers used to await their trains, or watch the scores of local uniformed school kids who have turned the museum into their own private playground before heading out for that long-anticipated bowl of pozole.
The best pozole in town — at least according to local gastronomic connoisseurs — is to be found in Linaloe, a third-generation pozole eatery that boasts a cumin-heavy green pozole, an open-air patio and a live music show every Thursday afternoon.
Iguala’s pozole is usually green because it includes a generous helping of ground pumpkin seeds that also give it its unique flavor: richly toasty and nutty.
The head chef and proprietor at Linaloe, Francisco Javier García Román, is almost always on hand to give a quick lesson in pozole history and cooking, and will even invite you into his kitchen to witness the entire production process. (This, by the way, is not for the faint of stomach since García Román will proudly display his pots of pork tongues and pork eyeballs that are added to the broth. Fortunately, the meat is the last ingredient added to the pozole, so you can, if you wish, opt instead for a chicken, beef or even vegetarian pozole.)
There is an Iguala tradition that before you taste the pozole, you must create a “bed” of mezcal in your stomach to prevent the heavy food from giving you indigestion. Just how effective this “medical” practice is in assuring gastronomic health is debatable, but most locals swear by it, and everyone at Linaloe is offered a tray of locally produced fruit-based mezcal to whet their appetite.
To be sure, the mezcal will continue to flow throughout the meal, which can also include pork tacos, extra-thick tamales and every conceivable variety of pozole that García Román can come up with.
After lunch, you will probably be ready for a siesta and a chance to wash off the highway dust, so head to your hotel for check-in and a nice hot shower. (Iguala is about 2,500 feet above sea level and is surrounded by a ring of Sierra Madre mountains, so the temperature can vary drastically throughout the day, from sticky sweltering hot to seriously chilly, especially during Mexico’s June-to-September rainy season).
We stayed at the Rinconada, an eclectic boutique hotel with nice gardens and a mishmash décor of old, rusty bicycles, decrepit sewing machines, pocket-sized foto-novelas from the 1940s and just about anything else the owners might have found in their grandparents’ attics. The rooms are spacious, the staff is friendly and attentive, and the grounds are definitely worth exploring.
But if you are without a car, you might prefer to stay in the Real 1900 Hotel, which is closer to the city center, but doesn’t have the dilettantish charm of the Rinconada Hotel Boutique.
After recovering from lunch and the procession of mezcals (or perhaps egged on by them), take an evening stroll through the city’s downtown maze of shops and food stands, where you will get a true taste of authentic Mexican cuisine, from hand-patted tortillas to local craft beers to fresh cow and goat cheeses to super-fat “gorditas” stuffed with string cheese, sausage and pork belly and grilled on an open coal fire.
If you have the strength and volition, head up the mountainside to the town’s famed flagstaff and oversized flag, which were once the tallest in the nation until two other towns decided to top it. The view of the town from here is gorgeous and the surrounding mountains frame it like a crown.
You might also want to take in a local show of folklore music and dance.
Iguala is so ancient that no one in the town — including the official town historian — knows when it was founded.
It existed in pre-Columbian times and was originally inhabited in the 14th century by the Cuitlateco culture, which was later overpowered by the Nahuatls. Today, about 15 percent of the town’s population is Nahuatl, although more than half of its inhabitants have indigenous roots.
There are various groups that offer performances of Guerrero’s celebrated Tecuanes (Jaguar) Dance, and while their renditions may be a bit on the amateur side, what they lack in professionalism they make up for with commitment.
Day Two of your Iguala adventure should start downtown, exploring the bustling streets of the city and making a pitstop at the local gold market.
Oddly enough, while Iguala never was the site of a single gold mine, because of its history as a commercial hub, it also evolved into a goldsmith center.
Even today, the town is recognized for its gifted gold craftmanship and jewelers from across the country come to Iguala to buy their wares.
There is an entire enclosed market of gold stores two blocks from the Zócalo and your can find just about any type of gold jewelry you are looking for there at bargain prices.
Where we stopped, at the Joyerá Orovel, the owners displayed a broad selection of different rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings and pendants in diverse designs, including an entire display tray of solid-gold bullets, rifles, Uzis and Saint Death charms, intermingled with the usual saint charms, obviously catering to the state’s bling-obsessed narco riche.
Hopefully, by the time you visit Iguala, the new municipal palace and plaza will be open and you can stroll around the tamarind tree-lined gardens and admire the statues.
But even if you go before then, you can still stop by the stately Mexican Museum of the Flag (remember, Iguala is where the flag was forged) and learn a little history of the nation’s emblemic standard.
And while Iguala may be too small to have ever rated a cathedral, it does have a lovely 18th century pink and gray church dedicated to the town ‘s patron saint, Saint Francis of Assisi.
Two days is probably long enough to get a good feel of Iguala, but before heading back to Mexico City, take a short detour to La Compañia Distillery, the local mezcal producer.
La Compañia is about 20 minutes out of town through a thicket of lush green forests that some locals claim (without any evidence) was the inspiration behind Gabriel García Marquez’s masterpiece “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
At the distillery, the owner, Rubén Velázquez, will gladly give you a courtesy tour of the agave farm and distilling machinery, and then invite you up for a tasting of his finest aged mezcals, along with a buffet of fresh cheeses, fried pork skins and grilled chicken wings.
You can also purchase bottles of both fruited and natural mezcal.
But don’t stay too long or drink too much mezcal, or you will be unfit for the highway, and will have to head back to Iguala instead of Mexico City.
Then, again, an additional night in Iguala could reveal even more interesting secrets of this underrated town, and while it may not be Jueves de Pozole any more, even on a Friday or Saturday, you can still manage to find some restaurants selling Iguala’s trademark dish.
And with a hardy bowl of green pozole in your stomach (hopefully not very lined with that “bed” of mezcal), you will have plenty of energy and strength to make it back to the capital.