Allied to Cortés in his struggle against the Aztecs, as well as with colonial Spain in the War of Independence, Tlaxcala, the capital of a tiny state of the same name, has become a byword for treachery. Because of its alliance with Cortés, the town suffered a very different fate from that of nearby Cholula, which aligned itself with the Aztecs, and in the long run this has led to an even more total disappearance of its ancient culture. The Spaniards founded a colonial town here – now restored and very beautiful in much of its original colonial glory, but whether because of its traitorous reputation or simply its isolation, development in Tlaxcala has been limited.
The town lies 131km west of Mexico City and 30km north of Puebla in the middle of a fertile, prosperous-looking upland plain surrounded by rather bare mountains. It’s an exceptionally pretty and much rehabilitated colonial town, comfortable enough but also fairly dull. Most of the interest lies very close to the zócalo, with its central bandstand, where the terracotta and ochre tones of the buildings lend the city its tag of “Ciudad Roja”, the Red City. Its appearance, slow pace and proximity to the nation’s capital have drawn a small expat community, though the latter’s impact on daily life is minimal.
The entire north side of the zócalo is taken up by the Palacio de Gobierno, whose patterned brick facade is broken by ornate windows and doorways. The building incorporates parts of a much earlier structure, erected soon after the Conquest, and inside boasts a series of brilliantly coloured murals by a local, Desiderio Hernandez Xochitiotzin, that took nearly fifty years to complete. The panels depict the history of the Tlaxcalan people from their migration from the north to their alliance with Cortés. The two most spectacular are one on the stairs depicting the Spanish Conquest and another at the bottom showing the Great Market.
To the west of the Palacio de Gobierno, and dominating a small square off the side of the zócalo, stands the tiled facade of the Parroquia de San José. It’s an attractive building, but except for two fonts beside the door depicting Camaxtli, the Tlaxcalan god of hunting and war, the inside is a disappointment. Note the seventeenth-century painting beside the altar that depicts the baptism of a Tlaxcalan chief, as overseen by Cortés and his mistress, La Malinche.
At the opposite corner of the zócalo, the smaller Plaza Xicohténcatl holds the Museo de la Memoria, a modern museum devoted to the cultural history of the region. Its imaginative displays (some interactive) – illustrating pre-Hispanic tianguis (markets), Franciscan life under the Spaniards and the ruling hierarchy in Tlaxcala before and after Cortés – make up for the fact that it’s light on artefacts.
At the southeastern corner of Plaza Xicohténcatl, a broad, tree-lined path leads up to a triple set of arches. Beyond them, an open area overlooking the city’s pretty nineteenth-century bullring is flanked on one side by the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, started in 1537. Wrapped around the convent’s cloister, the Museo Regional de Tlaxcala (daily 10am–6pm; M$37) covers local life from prehistoric times to the present day – an unexceptional collection but well displayed in a series of whitewashed rooms. The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción next door is also relatively plain, though it has a beautiful vaulted wooden ceiling decorated in Mudéjar style, the design elements harking back to the Moorish style then common in southern Spain. The Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492, and though their influence continued for some decades, this is only apparent in Mexican churches started immediately after the Conquest. One large chapel, more richly decorated than the rest, contains the font in which Xicohténcatl and other Tlaxcalan leaders were baptized in the presence of Cortés in 1520. Opposite, the lower walls of another chapel bear traces of ancient frescoes.