Another article I recently wrote for LatinWorld.com!
A trip to central Mexico would not be complete with a trek to Puebla. It is a refreshing change from the hustle of Mexico City and offers the colonial tradition so many of us associate with Mexico. Originally founded in 1531 by Spanish settlers as “Ciudad de los Ángeles” it has grown into Mexico’s fifth largest city.
The highway from Mexico City to Puebla is beautiful. Almost immediately you escape the smog and cement of D.F. and are greeted by tall trees on grass filled hills. The air is clean and as you wind up and down the highway you will see incredible vistas. You climb down from Mexico City to a valley of sorts, and then ascend once more to Puebla. Farms and agricultural communities line the way. Sheep graze freely along the road and donkeys are tethered to strategically “mow the grass.” Approximately three-quarters the way there, if you pay attention, you will spot a tiny blue shrine to the Guadalupe that looks like a doll’s castle nestle in a rock on the roadside.
It lies 125 km (78 miles) southeast of Mexico City and is easily accessible by bus. You have several options but most prices are in the $104 range. Tickets and information can be purchased via Ticket bus (www.ticketbus.com.mx) downtown D.F. It is a two-hour trip, but if you leave during rush hour or on a Friday afternoon expect major traffic delays in both Mexico City and Puebla. If you chose to drive yourself be advised there are several tollbooths. At the final toll entering Puebla you may be enticed into buying traditional candy from the region, either compote (sweet potato) mixed with sugar and different fruit flavors, or the sickening sweet borrachos (drunk man) gummy type candies.
Don’t be dismayed when you first approach Puebla. At first glance it appears to simply be another large city. The real charm lies in the downtown district. Make your way to the zócolo and spend your time here. The square is quite impressive. The cathedral itself hosts the highest towers in Mexico and is nothing less than grand. It takes the entire block south of the zócalo and appears on Mexico’s 500 pesos bill. The interior is awesome. A huge gold gilded organ dominates the center and elaborately decorated side chapels and frescoes add to the impressiveness. A local told me it is believed that the plans for this chapel were accidently switched with the cathedral in Mexico City; and thus Puebla ended up with the cathedral originally intended for D.F.
Directly oposite the cathedral lies the municipal governmental building and several restaurants and coffee shops. Statues and a modern art piece complete the square. Puebla’s industry was originally pottery, glass, and textile. The influx of Chinese imports has changed this and now tourism (and the Volkswagen plant which is said to employee 60% of the city) is the main industry. The government keeps the downtown area quite clean and it is extremely tourist friendly. Many of the signs are bilingual and there are directions on every corner to local museums and sights.
There are many museums and I visited a few by simply following signs. The best is said to be Museo Amparo (www.museoamparao.com), which is housed in a colonial building of the 16-17the century and stocked with pre-Hispanic artifacts. Puebla also hosts an orchestra. If you happen to be there on a Sunday after noon ask any local where you can find the “orquesta local”. They usually play around 6pm for the public and are often in a converted hospital right off the zócalo.
Lodging is very easy to find. You can simply walk around the square and ask to see rooms and price lists. Ask about breakfast or “desayuno” as several hotels offer a wonderful complimentary morning meal.
You cannot mention that you will be going to Puebla without being told about the food. It is known for specialty regional dishes and deserts. Be sure to try the mole and Chilies en Nogada. A wonderful restaurant featuring traditional Puebla cuisine is Fonda de Santa Clara (fondadesantaclara.com). I had the Chiles en Nogada, which is ground beef stuffed in chili and topped with a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. It is a delicious mixture of sweet and spice and the crunch of pomegranate adds refreshing burst of flavor. My companion went for the mole, sampling the green, red, and chocolate varies. Be warned that mole is often too heavy to be eaten as an evening meal and often upsets the consumer’s stomach. It can be extremely rich and as my companion can attest, you may want to opt for it at lunch. Another common Puebla food is crickets, or “chapulines”, with chili, salt, and lime. You may see these critters a top a salad or sauce, and they can be readily purchased from street side vendors. They are said to be very high in protein and a perfect snack. I found them to be crunchy and slightly earthy, but in my opinion, just about anything is edible with chili and lime.
Once a city of its own, but now practically Puebla itself, Cholula is the home to the widest pyramid ever built, the Pirámide Tepanapa. It is completely covered by grass and if you did not know it was a pyramid you would think it just a large hill. Actually, legend has it that the Spanish did not realize what it was and built their church right on top. According to local lore it is debatable whether the Spanish knew what they were doing or not, it is thought that building a church on the site of a such a ceremonial ground was the Spanish way to stop indigenous practice and enforce Catholicism. Whatever the case it is definitely worth a trip. The church is constructed of beautiful bright orange domes and white accents like icing dripping down the sides. Masses are still routinely held and you can look out onto the entire city of Cholula while listening to the sermon being sung in Latin.
You can purchase handmade chocolate, crickets, nuts, and trinkets on the ascent and descent and a small market has been established at the hill’s base. Directly across from the textile and jewelry vendors is a food market. If you happen to find the bright orange tent with several like colored barrels underneath labeled “helado” stop in and try some of this delicious ice cream. My personal favorite is from the fruit of guanábana. A family of four women also has their business under this tent, making quesadillas, huaraches, and sopes. They are delicious and the women are quite friendly. I recommend the “flor de casaba” which is the flower of pumpkin and chicharrón. If you’re feeling especially brave you can sample the corn fungus, or huitlachoce quesadillas.
Although it is still a large city, the tile and colonial architecture of downtown Puebla takes you back; it is such a historical village. It’s well worth a visit and remember you really must try the postries.