120km (74 miles) E of Mexico City; 40km (25 miles) N of Puebla

Tlaxcala is the capital of Mexico's smallest state (also named Tlaxcala) and a Colonial-Era city that is much slower paced than Puebla. It's close enough to be visited in a day trip from Puebla, but I enjoy spending the night and getting to know the city at leisure. In some respects, life in Tlaxcala reminds me of an older Mexico with slower rhythms and life lived day by day. To understand Tlaxcala and its inhabitants, one must go back 500 years, to before the conquest, when the Tlaxcaltecan federation of city-states was the bitter rival of the Aztec Empire, and both were locked in a mortal struggle that the Tlaxcaltecans were losing. Along come the conquistadors. And Cortez, crafty Spaniard that he was, played on this enmity to enlist the Tlaxcaltecan warriors in his siege of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City. As a reward for being the first and foremost allies of the Spanish, the Tlaxcaltecan people received special rights and privileges and a certain level of independence.

To this day, 500 years after the fact, locals express a latent defensiveness for having befriended the invading forces and betrayed the New World. It surfaces frequently in conversations with visitors, sometimes surprisingly quickly. Serving to mitigate these feelings of guilt is the martyred figure of Xicoténcatl, a Tlaxcaltecan prince who rebelled against the Spanish and became a symbol of cultural resistance, much the same way as the Aztec prince Cuauhtémoc did. Another peculiarity that sets locals apart is that their worldview is still shaped by the ancient rivalry, so that they conceive of Tlaxcala and Mexico City as the two poles of a national axis, with both cities in possession of a set of complementary cultural figures arranged in pairings. Thus, as with Xicoténcatl and Cuauhtémoc, you have La Virgen de Ocotlán opposite La Virgen de Guadalupe, and so forth.

This fascinating history, local culture, and the relaxed pace of life here make for pleasant exploration. Tlaxcala retains its small-town atmosphere and overall low prices. Tip: It's best to visit Tlaxcala during the week because it has become a weekend getaway for city dwellers.