Mexico Special Issue : Destination: Tlaxcala : Pretty in Pink : Bring your Spanish phrase book. This colorful capital may be near Mexico City, but it's off the tourist track.

Melinkoff is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

It's just a two-hour drive from Mexico City to this colonial town, rich in beauty and cultural heritage. There are museums here and dazzling churches; one of the prettiest zocalos in Mexico, and, 10 miles outside town, the ruins of Cacaxtla with its vibrant pre-Columbian murals.

So where are all the tourists? I decided to make this side trip from Mexico City on a hunch. Guidebooks gave passing mention to its appeal. But if it were that attractive, why wasn't it a magnet for sightseers as is Taxco, Toluca and Cuernavaca? After three days in Tlaxcala (tla-SKA-la), I have no idea why it's undiscovered--it's certainly not for lack of charm.

That pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming feeling began as I stepped out of a taxi into the clean, picturesque zocalo --the central Plaza de la Constitucion. I virtually had Tlaxcala to myself. No cheap serapes hanging in doorways, few postcards, fewer tourists. The only people here are Tlaxcaltecans and there are only about 40,000 of them.

This meant, of course, few English-speakers. Over the years, I have struggled with Spanish--high school, college, private lessons--with very limited success. By the time I figure out what people are saying and construct a reply, they're three sentences ahead. In Tlaxcala I managed ordering, hiring and inquiring but not a real conversation.

The center of town is a colonial treasure. Forget the somber stones of Morelia, the white-over-red of Merida--and everything eye-catching in Cuernavaca is behind high walls anyway. Tlaxcala has a delightful color scheme: sienna (burnt and raw), ochre, blood red and pink with six-inch painted borders around the windows (sometimes navy blue). Almost every building within five blocks of the plaza is painted in this palette.

The capital city of Tlaxcala state, the smallest in Mexico, the town is very accessible. My first-class bus ticket from Mexico City cost less than $5. At about 7,200 feet, it's temperate all year. The countryside is all rolling hills and pine trees.

Hernan Cortes preceded me here and he liked Tlaxcala too. His conquest of the New World went so well (from his point of view) because he took advantage of a blood feud between the Tlaxcaltecan empire and the Aztecs. He talked 60,000 Tlaxcaltecan warriors into helping him invade the Aztec capital, then rewarded them with tax exemptions and use of the honorific title "Don."

Over the centuries, Tlaxcaltecans settled down to more peaceful pursuits, such as ranching and textile production. With a sense of paradise floating in the air, Tlaxcala shouldn't be rushed. It takes two days to really savor and explore. This is a town with a strong working class, independent of the tourist trade. Since it's the state capital, there is government business to take care of. People seem busy here. Employed. Relaxed.

Most of colonial Tlaxcala is within an easy walk of the zocalo . The center of town is flat with wide sidewalks. The town heads uphill a few blocks from the zocalo . On one hillside, the 16th-Century former convent of San Francisco is beautiful in the late afternoon light. The wide, tree-shaded walkway at the top of stone stairs is popular with young lovers. The Tlaxcala Regional Museum is housed in the adjoining cloister.

Tlaxcala's bullring is reputed to be one of the oldest in Mexico. Looking down at it from the surrounding stone walls, it's quite picturesque, even with the back-of-the-head knowledge of what goes on there.

The zocalo is carefully landscaped with beds of purple iris and yellow lilies. There are plenty of wrought iron benches and a bandstand at the center. Like everything else in Tlaxcala, it fairly shines with civic pride. No litter. No garish signs (at least in the center of town, although a modern town is lapping at the edges).

The Government Palace, on the north side of the plaza, houses a series of murals by local artist Desiderio Hernandez Xochitiotzin. Similar in spirit to the Diego Rivera murals in the National Palace, they trace the history of the state in a highly realistic and detailed manner. The viewing benches are carved with words that even I could translate: "Exclusively for tourists." They were, of course, empty.

The Museum of Arts and Popular Culture, in a handsome building on the west side of town, features the crafts of Tlaxcala, often using working artisans in the displays, plus costumes from the local carnival.

A weaver explained her work to me in Spanish and I got cocky. Right off, I understood lana sucia --dirty wool. Then I got lost in the ensuing details. Fortunately, she pointed a lot so I caught the essence. I even strung together an entire sentence: "Quantas horas, cada una?" (So it didn't have a verb; sue me.) Loosely translated: "How long to make each one?" (Twelve weeks for some of the finer serapes.)

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Overlooking the city is the church of Ocatlan. It was built on the site of a 1541 apparition of the Virgin Mary, in the manner of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. All white and gold curlicues, the church is a dazzling example of Mexico's over-the-top-baroque approach to religious architecture.

There is one main hotel in town: the Hotel Posada San Francisco on the plaza (other choices: highway-type motels and a resort on the outskirts of the city). Opened in 1992 by Club Med as one of its Villas Archeologicas, it makes a stay in Tlaxcala very agreeable. One of six such villas in Mexico, it's run like a hotel rather than a Club Med resort. At Posada San Francisco, the public rooms are housed in the historic House of Stones that fronts the zocalo; the 62 guest rooms are in a new wing in the center of the block and unobtrusive to people on the street. If they'd just turn off the too-perky-by-half Muzak (Acker Bilk!), the place would be perfect.

One desk clerk spoke somewhat more English than I do Spanish. I managed to change to a second story room so I could keep the French doors open at night. "La ventana no abierto." (No verb, again, but it worked.) However we couldn't resolve my bill: I had prepaid by credit card, $80 a night. The lobby sign said 360 pesos (around $60 at the time). Because I was headed toward Advanced Spanish territory (past tense!), I saved my query for the Club Med office when I returned home. (They wouldn't budge, even in English.)

This is not a restaurant town. Across from the plaza, there are several casual, al fresco places under the arcade--great for sodas, coffee and beer but the food is so-so. I ordered the local soup, sopa tlaxcalteca in the arcade's El Jardin Plaza and was served a bowl of gruel. The next day, I ordered the same soup at La Trasquila, in my hotel, and it was a completely different: a clear broth laced with fresh cheese, squash blossoms and chiles.

La Trasquila has a menu that could keep a traveler with a Spanish/English dictionary happy for several days. Too bad it's located in a gringo-ized interior courtyard. It was dull and felt away from the action. Oh, for La Trasquila's food under the arcade!

Specializing in Mexican dishes, the food here rivals that in the trendy restaurants of Mexico City. Pork chops smothered in huitlacoche sauce was exquisite. Huitlacoche is a inky-blue corn fungus with caviar-like status in Mexico. The hotel also has a French dining room on the second floor, Piedras Negras , which seems even more removed from Tlaxcalan life. Great food but not the place for it. Duck pate, onion soup, roast pork with braised lettuce, turkey in tarragon sauce.

Cacaxtla is 10 miles from the zocalo and the best way there is by taxi. All en espan~ol , I managed to hire a cab for the round trip and got the driver to wait 1 1/2 hours (in hindsight, two hours would have been better) at the ruins--$15. Steep, but so is the drive up to the ruins.

The setting reminded me of the ruins at Monte Alban, outside of Oaxaca: great hilltop view of the valley and city below. But, without the broad central plaza of Monte Alban, Cacaxtla is smaller, more compact. Arriving at 10 a.m., I almost had the ruins to myself for an hour. One, count 'em, one, other visitor. As I left, a busload of well-dressed women (Mexico City types) arrived.

There's a 10-minute full-sun-at-high-altitude walk from the gate to the excavation (more hindsight: a sun hat). Luckily, the amenities at the gate are fine: a pleasant restaurant, angled to take advantage of the view, a small museum and snack shop.

Cacaxtla was part of the Olmeca-Xicalanca culture and was abandoned in 900. The site wasn't discovered until 1975 and quickly became a big deal in Mesoamerican archeology circles. Its murals are rivaled only by the nearly inaccessible ones at Bonampak by the Guatemalan border.

A metal roof spans the entire excavation--10,000 square feet--making it comfortable to explore. Visitors follow along planked walkways and many of the signs are in English. Cacaxtla is mostly stone and adobe, but the four murals are spectacular. Those reds, yellows and turquoises. Those blood battle scenes. Those serpents.

I had read that Santa Ana Chiautempan, three miles from Tlaxcala, was a crafts center, especially for weavings, so on my last day I hired a cab for a look. I imagined this to be a clever idea: keeping the crafts outside Tlaxcala rather than cluttering the plaza with them.

I told the driver I wanted to see the markets and the artisans (the word for "weaver" eluded me and lana sucia would not have worked). At least I think I told him that. He took me to two plazas and past uninteresting markets with very ordinary weavings for sale. Santa Ana was no quaint town but a bustling industrial area. I wonder: If my Spanish were better, would I have found that elusive quaint section?

But it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for Tlaxcala. Even with my present-tense-only, flat-as-Kansas Spanish, Tlaxcala held me in its thrall. I could have stayed on. Who needs verbs in such a splendid, undiscovered place?

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GUIDEBOOK: A la Tlaxcala

Getting there: Aeromexico, Delta, United and Mexicana fly nonstop from LAX to Mexico City; round-trip restricted coach fares begin at $385 including taxes. Tlaxcala is 80 miles east of Mexico City. First-class buses (ATAH company) leave Terminal TAPO every 30 minutes during the day. Tickets are approximately $5. Taxis can be found at a queue in the corner of the plaza and at the bus depot. They are not metered, so fares should be agreed upon before setting out. The short trip from the depot to the plaza is about $1.60.

Where to stay: Posada San Francisco (Plaza de la Constitucion 17; tel. 011-52-525-47077). Phone reservation rates start at $70 for a double (American breakfast included). The hotel is packed during numerous fiestas and fairs; otherwise, rooms seem to be available on short notice.

Where to eat: La Trasquila and Piedras Negras, both in Posada San Francisco. Lunch or dinner for two at La Trasquila: $10-$20. Dinner for two at Piedras Negras, $30-$40. Under the arcade on the east side of the plaza are five cafes (including El Jardin Plaza, Los Portales, Rincon Azteca) with great people-watching potential and so-so food. Best for leisurely coffee or sodas.

Museums are open Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is $1-$2. The churches are open every day. Cacaxtla is open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $2.30.

For more information: In Tlaxcala, information office at Juarez and Lardizabel streets, tel. 011-52-246-20027 or 246-25306.

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