Puebla

State of Puebla, south of Mexico City, Mexico


The city of angels, as they call Puebla, has over a hundred churches, prestigious universities, the oldest public library in the Americas, and views of the surrounding mountains. So how come we didn't like it?


Volcano Popocatépetl makes the background of the city:  edition.cnn.com .

Volcano Popocatépetl makes the background of the city: edition.cnn.com.

 

Usually it's the other way around. For example, Lonely Planet says 'You won't find much in Tizimín' (north of Valladolid in Yucatán) and our older copy dismissed it as a 'dusty little town', but I liked it. No one has a kind word to say for Tuxtla Gutiérrez (capital of Chiapas) but I will never forget the relaxed buzz of its central square. But Puebla...

The angels liked Puebla. According to legend, angels laid rope across the empty land to indicate where the city’s principal streets and buildings should be constructed.

Students also like Puebla. It's where international students go to study on an Erasmus exchange programme. As it happens, our son's friend Harry came from England here for a six-month exchange. He took Latin American literature modules at the oldest university in Puebla, the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. He loved browsing the town centre, the market, Barrio de Artista (the artisan's quarter), particularly on warm summer nights, or just sitting in a rooftop café and chatting in Spanish with his fellow students from all over Europe. When he visited us in Playa del Carmen (before our own Puebla visit), he sang the city's praises. For him, it was a buzzing and embracing place.

 
Harry in Puebla.

Harry in Puebla.

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Germans like Puebla too; there is a strong German community here (2,500 Germans out of 2 million inhabitants). They are attracted by the largest employer in the city, the Volkswagen factory. We heard some German around us in the restaurant, as it happens.

History likes Puebla too. Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza (to give it its full name) holds a special place in Mexico’s history. In 1862, the ill-equipped Mexican army of General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the French on May 5, aka Cinco de Mayo. By the way, while this event is celebrated widely among the Mexican-American population in the United States, it is not celebrated much in Mexico (here they celebrate in September, on Independence Day).

 
Battle of Puebla:  en.wikipedia.org . Right:  britannica.com .

Battle of Puebla: en.wikipedia.org. Right: britannica.com.

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So why didn't we like it? It’s not the city itself, which is pretty. I suppose anything had to be a comedown after treading the snows of Popocatépetl and being wined and dined at the nearby Hacienda San Andrés {blog link} just before we came here. And Puebla was the last in a long and tiring string of exciting destinations, but its orderly grid of city streets seemed a bit dead after the excitement of our time in the highlands. Maybe I'm a mountain girl.

Cholula. Photo by Pedro Lastra:  unsplash.com .

Cholula. Photo by Pedro Lastra: unsplash.com.

And maybe part of the trouble is that I'm a pre-Conquest girl too. Puebla was founded by the Spanish in 1530 as a new settlement; there are no pre-Columbian ruins beneath its tidy streets (see a drawing of the city below left: en.wikisource.org.)

And we did not make it to Cholula, an ancient site 12km out of Puebla (also named 'city of churches'), which has the largest (but not the tallest) pyramid in Mesoamerica. And although it's on the direct route from Hernán Cortéz' landing in Mexico in Veracruz to the capital, where he was to defeat Monteczuma and grab 'New Spain' for his emperor, Puebla wasn't there then. I'm happiest when I can feel the ghosts of the past thronging around me, trying to communicate the details of their lives, and in Puebla, there were no ghosts.

 
Battle of Puebla. Both images:  en.wikipedia.org .
Battle of Puebla, 1862:  britannica.com .
 

We tried. We visited the Alley of the Frogs (Callejon de los Sapos); picturesque, but the street market was not fully in operation. We went to the cathedral (closed). We admittedly did not attempt all the churches. Puebla is supposed to have over a hundred, but I'm afraid that's about 99 too many for me. We did glimpse many of them as there is no square and no corner from where you will not see a church, and that was sufficient for us on that day. We did admittedly admire the façades of the buildings with their glazed, colourful, hand-painted talavera tiles. And plenty of talavera shops in the pedestrian street too as they were all open, unlike anything else.

 
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Talavera ceramics:  i.pinimg.com .

Talavera ceramics: i.pinimg.com.

 

Everybody will tell you that Puebla has the reputation of being one of the most conservative and religious cities of the country. Well, I felt that and I am not sure how the students and the Germans cope with that. Eventually, after a lot of fruitless tramping, we decided it was time to eat. For Christmas dinner we went to the zócalo full of colonial buildings with 'portales' (arcades). All squares in Mexico have rather extravagant Christmas decorations and Puebla was no exception. We felt as if we were in Disneyland. Try to spot my husband between the lights in the photo. Impossible. The lights were overwhelming. Still, it was fun watching the families with children enjoying themselves. That is what Mexicans do well. They love their zócalos; they just meet there and chat, sitting on the park benches.

 
My husband Rhod lost amidst the Christmas lights in the park.

My husband Rhod lost amidst the Christmas lights in the park.

 

We eventually found a seat outside a busy restaurant next to the Royalty Hotel, where we could enjoy the buzz and watch the passers-by. We ordered two of Puebla's many specialities: mole poblano and chiles en nogada (a personal favourite!) Plus an expensive and celebratory bottle of wine. The wine came. It was wonderful. We sipped and talked about our experiences (mainly experiences from before Puebla, I have to admit). The food didn't come. We made noises. They were very busy. Perhaps 20 minutes. We sipped our wine. 30 minutes passed. We tried again. This time it appeared that our order had disappeared from the collective memory. To cut a very long story short, three hours passed. Midnight came and went. The food never appeared. But it was a good bottle of wine, and we nursed it through our hunger.

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There's a very simple solution of course. Never go anywhere on Christmas Day (or even worse, Boxing Day in Britain). The lights may still be on, and it may still feel like the festive season, but everything will be closed, nobody's heart will be in it (including your own) and if there are ghosts, you won't feel them. I recommend Puebla: but 364 days of the year.

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Actually, I will to go back to Puebla and I have a good reason for it. First of all, we have not explored their famous Talavera tiles. And Puebla has many shops and workshops, full of the colourful maiolica tiles. Secondly, locals told us that the founders of Puebla City built a network of underground tunnels, perhaps for mysterious religious ceremonies? Now that would be of interest to me!

The Puebla tunnel:  mexiconewsnetwork.com .

The Puebla tunnel: mexiconewsnetwork.com.

It was long considered to be a legend but recent investigation unravelled the secrets of the 'hidden roads' that were used by privileged segments of society during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Catholic churches and monasteries would have communicated with each other through that network. That is certainly worth coming back for one day!

 

How to get there:

Puebla City is located 113km south-east of Mexico City and 320km north of Oaxaca. Just 7km (4 miles) away is Cholula.

The bus station is located 4km (2.5 miles) north of the Zócalo. There is a regular service to and from Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Oaxaca City and Veracruz City.

Hermanos Serdán International, aka Puebla International (PBC), is located 22km (14 miles) west of town.

 
 
 

Mix & Match:

I combined Puebla with a visit to the volcano, Popocatépetl National Park. We stayed in the hacienda at the foot of it, Hacienda San Andrés.