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Warming up to Puebla

overcast 20 °C

Some places grab you the minute you arrive - Oaxaca was like that. Puebla was the city we almost missed, and we might not have even considered it but for the fact that our friends Joy and Oscar are staying here for five weeks, and we wanted to visit them. Before our research for the trip, Puebla struck us as being a large industrial city (which it is - over 1.5 million people), with not a whole lot for tourists to see and do. We knew there would be a major cathedral and zocalo.

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It took further reading as well as enthusiastic responses from fellow travellers to convince us to stay for a full week. We drove into Puebla without getting lost, which we took as a good sign. We had booked a room at the Hotel del Capitan de Puebla - and the outside looked as unassuming as do many Mexican exteriors, but the hotel is charming - 8 rooms spread out on two floors. Our room is lovely - bright, 20-foot ceilings, recently renovated, and spotlessly clean.

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Once we had parked our car and unpacked, we headed out to explore a bit. Our hotel is about a 15-minute walk to the centre, and a couple of streets away from a bit of a 'hood. We were told to walk down the street for two blocks and turn onto a pedestrian walkway that would take us straight to the zocalo. As we walked along, I didn't feel nervous, but I didn't feel comfortable either. So much traffic, so much noise, so many people - we had traded the calm and beauty of Oaxaca for a big, full-on city, and it was a bit of culture shock. We turned the corner to the pedestrian-only walkway, and stepped into a Mexican sideshow - carnies, colour, smells and noise.

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There are not a lot of foreign tourists in Puebla this time of year, and we felt quite conspicuous. Music blared from all corners, food odours mixed with sewer gas and men's cologne, and small packs of young men moved through the crowds. It felt very jarring, and my heart was sinking. My first impressions were quite conflicted. Stephen maintained a "wait-and-see" approach, and he was right. Puebla is a city that you need to work at. We walked around the zocalo, which is every Mexican city's "third place." We saw some reassuring sights - beautiful old buildings, fountains, respectable people sitting on benches and strolling about, enjoying the early evening.

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And then we stopped to have a bite to eat at Las Ranas - billed as being "a local institution that is cheap, cheerful, and worth the wait". Their specialty is el pastor ( marinated pork slowly cooked on the rotisserie), but with a poblano twist - served as tacos arabe (or Arabic) - this meat is piled onto warm pitas, instead of tortillas. So delicious. By the time we had walked back to our hotel, I was feeling much better, although very COLD. Puebla is at high altitude and winter months have chilly evenings - a coat would not be unwelcome. Most days do not get above 20 degrees. There are very few foreign tourists here - many wait for the warmer months.

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We needn't have worried about having enough to do - Puebla has a very large centro historico, with dozens of churches, museums and hundreds of buildings that are covered in the local Talavera tile, embellished with decorative brick and carved ornamentation and in many cases, high wooden windows and small wrought-iron balconies - sometimes all on the same building. The words baroque and rococo come to mind.

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We met up with Joy and Oscar the next day, taking in a broad and varied range of Puebla experiences - religion, music and art. First up, the Templo de Santo Domingo, with the Rosario, built in the mid-late 17th century, and literally every square inch covered in gilt. It's beyond. As Joy observed, if even one church was stripped of its gold and that wealth redistributed, how many poor Mexicans would then have enough to eat?

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We popped in to an airy glass-covered galleria to listen to a free afternoon concert. Like dutiful gringos, we showed up a half hour early for a 2:00 performance, and were the only audience for at least a half-hour after they began.

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Back in the zocalo, we watched a telenovela being filmed. A young actor and actress emoted at a cafe table, while the crew attempted to control pedestrian traffic through the set. At one point, this man came over to encourage young Mexicans to become extras, but they were all too shy. We started to talk to him, and he told us he is an actor and crew for this television production company, out of Mexico City. He too, has lived in the U.S. and would like to return.

Our new friend, Abraham

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On to see World Press 15, showing incredible examples of award-winning international photojournalism.

I've added the artist's descriptions of the photos - they depict such suffering and degradation that it's hard to look at them. Most of the photos in the exhibition have very difficult subject matter - refugees, war, animal abuse, drug and alcohol abuse - these are the hardest, and most dangerous photos to obtain.

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The next day, we drove out to Cholula, a magical small town that is almost a suburb of Puebla. Cholula has a pyramid, underground tunnels and 39 churches to visit, but it is also an excellent spot to see the twin volcanoes, the active and currently spewing Popocatepetl (known as Popo), and his sleeping woman, Iztaccihuatl (dormant, and snow-covered). While Popo is always active and smoking, he has been more annoyed than usual lately, and the airport at Puebla was closed for a few hours on Friday this week due to the ash. Therefore, we were quite pleased to have decent views of the volcanoes on the day we went.

Popo

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Iztaccihuatl

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To grab these photos, we climbed up to the top of the Tepanapa pyramid - the widest pyramid ever built. This is not immediately obvious, as it is more like a gigantic hill than a pyramid. You wind yourself climbing the steep steps; worth it for the view and access to the photogenic church.

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The next part of this adventure was to climb back down and visit the small museum, then walk through 800 metres of tunnels that were just narrow and short enough to make us all happy to see daylight again.

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Cholula provides an interesting contrast between the ancient and modern life. It has a young university population, and is a town that is easy to walk around - colourful and full of shops, cafes and restaurants.

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We stopped for lunch in the square, and chatted with our English-speaking server - he had spent 10 years in San Francisco, illegally, and then, as he said, "I did a stupid thing." He came home to see his family, and now cannot safely return to the U.S. If he flies, he could be caught and put in jail. If he crosses the border by bus, the cartels might catch him and force him to work for them. He mourns what is going on in his country - a very common and heartbreaking story.

We spoke with another Mexican man in Cholula - the beautifully-named Celestino. We met up with him as we were leaving the pyramid, and he was so interested in hearing about our travels, and impressions.

It is frustrating to be so limited in our encounters with Mexicans. We try very hard with our Spanish, but unless our new friends speak English, our conversations can only go so far. All the more reason to keep practising this language.

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Yesterday, we took a double-decker tourist bus to get an overview of the city. Puebla's downtown core is very walkable - on a grid and easy to navigate, if somewhat unimaginatively named. North and south streets are numerical, intersected by east and west, also numerical. Sitting on the top deck of the bus for an hour and 20 minutes was extremely enjoyable, informative and entertaining, and gave us a great overview of the city. Just before our departure time, a large street protest was making its way down Reforma Avenue - our intended starting point. Undaunted, our driver backed up the bus for a full block, and with the help of his assistant on the street, executed a perfect 3-point turn, then headed down another street, with overhead wires and street lamps mere inches above us.

Colourful walls and flowerpots

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A typical old building - variation of hundreds found in Puebla's centre.

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Not every centro building is restored and scrubbed up. There are a large number of buildings that are derelict - often with nothing but the facades showing to the street - the interior has been gutted. No idea if there is a plan (or money) to save these historic treasures.

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Our bus headed up a hill to the Parque Pereferico - a gorgeous park that runs along the top of Puebla, and houses a regional museum, a cable car, and a planetarium, all in acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, with stunning view of the city and volcanoes.

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We finished our tour with a drive along the stately Juarez Avenue, home to fountains, palm trees, mansions,
snazzy restaurants, and, of course - churches.

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So, after a few days here, have our impressions changed? Absolutely! There are still lots of Puebla stories to
share - more to come in a couple of days.

Posted by millerburr 20:06 Archived in Mexico

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Comments

Stunning! Absolutely a feast for the eyes. Thanks for Iincluding me on your fabulous trip. I am enjoying the ride!

by Belinda

Love your insights, your photos, and your dedication to exploring Mexico, the wonderful, the humorous, and the less than perfect!

by Marilyn Horn

Really enjoying your adventure tales & Happy Anniversary have a great day & many more

by Maureen & John

Thanks for sharing Ginny, love your stories and pictures.

by Ann

A city of contracts! I love your observations! Carol

by Carol Martin

Nice to see the four of you together:) Continuing to live vicariously through you guys this winter. Great photos and tales. Salud!

by Sue

Gorgeous shots of such rich architecture! And World Press 15, wow. xo

by Alexandra

It just goes to show that our first impressions can sometimes be misleading. Glad to hear you were pleasantly surprised by Puebla. Looking forward to hearing and seeing more of this fascinating city.

by Heather Scott

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