If you’re planning a trip to Mexico you should seriously consider putting the city of Puebla on your itinerary (the city and its state share the same name). It’s 100 km east of Mexico City, near the still-active snow-capped Popocatepetl volcano.
The first time I passed through Puebla it was incidental. I wanted to get from Mexico City to Oaxaca and the direct bus was sold out, so I had a two-hour stop in Puebla on the way. I took the opportunity to run like a mad women to a factory that makes this fabulous Talavera pottery and during this sprint I looked around, liked what I saw, and knew I must return for a closer look. And so I did, for seven days in February.
What’s so special about Puebla? Well, to start, it has one of the best kept zocalos (central squares) in all of Mexico, and that’s saying something because there are some great ones in this country. You can tell right away that it’s well-loved for it’s lush and green and crowded with families and kissing couples. Just sit under one of its many shade trees and contemplate life before walking across the street for a bite to eat or a cold beer, perhaps in one of the rooftop cafes. You can also catch the hop-on-hop-off bus from here for an overview of the city before heading out by foot.
Puebla has several claims to fame. It was the first Mexican city to be built from scratch by the Spanish (that was way back in 1531). About three centuries later (May 5, 1862), when the French army stopped by on its way to conquer Mexico City, the poorly equipped Mexican soldiers fended off the invasion, which was a miraculous achievement. The French eventually took over the place but that earlier victory became a symbol of Mexico’s struggle against foreign aggressors that is celebrated every year as Cinco de Mayo. Then in 1910, the Mexican Revolution started here, which turned into a decade-long civil war that involved the entire country. The history of Puebla can be found in street art, on huge billboards that dot the city.
Puebla is a UNESCO World Heritage site with 2,600 monuments within 400 city blocks, many well preserved. Now the Spanish did not build this city haphazardly. Just its layout in rectangular squares known as a Renaissance grid is considered to be exemplary and replicated in other colonial cities in the country. The zocalo is at the centre of the grid and streets identified as being north, south, east or west of the zocalo.
The Spanish were a rather religious group and built more than 70 churches here, several of which are quite spectacular. The main Cathedral, The Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Conception, borders the south side of the zocalo and took 300 years to complete; its towers are almost 70 meters high, said to be the highest of any church in North America. When I was there the Amparo Museum (considered to be one of the best archaeological museums in Mexico) had a temporary exhibition of many of the church’s treasures–most impressive!
In some ways though, Puebla is a “fusion city” where Spanish and indigenous talents have been blended, such as the Talavera tiles that decorate many of the buildings and the cuisine that includes mole poblano, chalupas, and chiles en nogada.
Puebla is a prosperous city, with a well-educated and cultured population. The Biblioteca Palafoxiana was the first library in the Americas and there seems to be a bookstore on every corner. There is a district, not far from the zocalo, that’s just for artists and a couple of blocks from there is the main theatre, not surprisingly one of the oldest in the Americas.
You’ll find the most delightful markets in the historic center and on the weekends several streets are closed and tables set up with vendors selling all sorts of interesting goods.
Just to top it off, the world’s largest pyramid is located in the Puebla suburb of Cholula. Really! It’s sort of weird because the pyramid is mostly under the ground and they can’t excavate it because there is a little church on top and the church is a protected monument as well as being a pilgrimage site. The pyramid dates from the 1st century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. Tunnels have been excavated and there are a couple of well-lit ones that visitors can walk through (it’s kind of spooky though). Visitors can see steps and walls that lead to one part of the pyramid and get a feeling of its magnitude.
That’s Puebla, a rather ‘perfect’ colonial city.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
Riding the buses 2014